Mud races and obstacle courses - A ‘Tough Guy' challenge story

There was an eerie stillness of nerves and anticipation as smoke bellowed across the field below. Then, with an ear shattering Boom! the cannon fired. The cries of hundreds of combatants in the air as we stormed downhill toward the enemy ahead. Was I on an 18th century battlefield? No, I was in Wolverhampton on a cold January morning and this was Tough Guy 2016!

The quest began 6 months before on a somewhat warmer summers morning. A ‘fun challenge’ I’d thought, running a mud race with a group of like-minded guys. A quick google search led me to the ‘Tough Guy’ website. I glanced briefly over the material, sent invite messages to friends, gathered responses and made a booking for a small team of us in double quick time. 

It was only a few weeks later when cheerfully introducing our challenge to a mate over pint that the alarm bells were raised. His response was coupled with a very concerned face of sudden concern.

‘Oh mate, I did that 2 years ago…utterly brutal, never again’ 

At home that night, my research hat was now on. The event covered 15 km sprinkled with all manner of fearsome looking obstacles, it wasn’t going to be a turn-up and ‘wing-it’ type deal. Turns out I'd committed us to one of the toughest mud race events on the circuit. An initial response of anxiety was cooled by a deep breath and realisation that the event wasn’t tomorrow. We had time on our side but we needed a plan!

Getting through the event required fitness to cover the 15km distance and strength to get over and under the many obstacles. To match the objective I quickly designed a number of hybrid gym sessions combining sharp bursts of cardio with sets of body weight strength training. I then diary locked them across the next 3 months for personal accountability.

Second, I organised some group training sessions with the other men. Bouldering (indoor climbing with no ropes) was sociable and going to prove to be decent training for the obstacle sections. I coordinated a Saturday morning session for us at a the ‘The Arch Climbing wall’ centre in South London -  www.archclimbingwall.com

Getting outdoors was important too, so for the second session, we met in a local park to run through some circuits. Not quite as much fun, especially when I found out the hard way a bar I attempted to use for pull ups still had ice on it from the night before! 

At the start of the new year, we had a cold weather blast where for a few days in a row it dropped below zero degrees centigrade. Fear of the cold kicked in along with a noted a Tough Guy statistic:

‘A third of those who start…fail to finish.’

Anxiety returned.

The response was an Amazon purchasing frenzy. In coming days some neoprene gloves, a vest pair of socks and a hat arrived at my door and I purchased proper trail running trainers. A pair of running tights, long sleeve compression top and breathable sports t-shirt were quickly added to complete my new wardrobe.  As I began to train in my new outfit. I was amazed at just how well the neoprene gloves and socks responded to the wintry conditions. All good news, although I did now look slightly like a running deep sea diver :-)

With the last few training sessions under the belt, me and fellow ‘Team TG’ members Darren and Ray were our way to Wolverhampton. We’d decided to drive up the evening before and stay overnight in a hotel which proved a great idea. We weren’t going to be confronted with any sudden travel problems and the choice left us free to relax on the eve and morning before. Our long-suffering partners were also going to be coming along with us, their support both welcome and highly valued.

After a huge breakfast, on route to the site I remember experiencing

‘Conflicting feelings of fear and confidence’

A glance at the weather forecast helped cool anxiety. It was cold and going to rain first thing, but we weren’t going to be experiencing any sub-zero temperatures. 

Arriving on site the setup was rustic with wooden huts, and a huge barn. An initial walk past a St Johns ambulance vehicle was a chilling reminder of the realities of the situation. There might be pain, there could be blood! There were to be 4500 competitors with a further army of supporters and course organisers taking on-site numbers up to nearing 10000. The place had a festival-like feel, a hum of anticipation and buzz in the air. Here’s a ‘live’ video I shot at the scene that captures the emotion:

We were to be starting near the back which meant we got to stand with our nerves a little longer. Shuffling towards the start line felt like moving toward going over the top (except of course without the guns) a truly mental experience - anticipation, anxiousness, and endorphins all firing at once. A flavor of what it must have been like to go into battle. I say a flavor, as I do remember sharing a joke with a gentleman dressed as a woman with a short skirt and long pink pig tails - I’d spent my outfit money on weather combating lycra, he’d clearly chosen to focus more on 'the look'. 

A few minutes later after a slow trudge up the hill we were there, the start line. Things all suddenly happened rather quickly - after a countdown, the cannon fired and we were off. After a bum slide down a grassless hill, we were up and into a light jog, the cheer of supporters helping us on our way. After all of the build-up, it felt good to finally be underway. 

*Note - If you missed it there is a video of the start of the race taken by one of our partners at the beginning of the article.

The first half of the course is a country run with obstacles spread out including a lot of over and under cargo nets. The first really challenging section required us to run up and down a 50m hill, brutal on the legs. At one stage we were jogging behind a crazed 40 something-year-old gentleman who’d decided to complete the course wearing very little clothing but carrying a trumpet. Every now and again he would play a few notes and get people laughing or shouting along with him.

Shortly after followed a volume of waist high ponds we were required to go through, working both legs and arms hard. The repetitive nature of this task made it brutal, not even lycra can protect you from an ice cold soaking

There were some small touching moments here as strangers became teammates for but a moment, working together to help one another in and out of the water.’

10 minutes after this section we experienced one of the scarier moments. A man slipped and went head first over one of the wall obstacles in front. Thankfully he turned in the air just before hitting the floor, avoiding serious injury.  With all of what was going on, I was glad to be in a group. We looked out for each other, took turns to lead and waited for one another where required to stay together.

The second half of the course is where the majority of the building work focus had gone. A back to back maze of obstacles to challenge both body and mind. Nerves were back in the air as we approached. We were going to be pushed hard, but had a bonus in the form of regular support from our partners and the rest of the crowd. 

One of the obstacles was a shuttle run through some hanging electrical wiring. When legging it through I took one for the team - a 'zap' on the shoulder scaring the living crap out of me and making others laugh. A more dramatic section of the course concerned a run and then jump over a flaming fire pit. Personnel thankfully on hand with fire extinguishers should someone fall a little short on their leap. 

Then there were the lake sections. Here I felt for my team member Darren. Wearing contact lenses,  he’d been carrying some goggles around his wrist the whole way for this very section, however, climbing into the water, on removing them they snapped?! We looked at him, he stared back for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and kept moving forward, we soldiered on.

One of the toughest parts of the course concerned a bottleneck of people waiting to climb down some ropes. The delay meant we were standing with time to think (and get cold). Our minds drifting away from the present and into the fear of challenges ahead.

We kept moving as I tried to mentally block out the sight of a number of people dealing with St johns ambulance personnel in the background. One girl had dropped out with what appeared to be a foot injury, another man was wrapped in tin-foil towelling, shivering, clearly struggling with Hyperthermia. Our sluggish jogging now slower than walking pace, we made it to the final lake with the finish line in sight up on a small hill the other side. Time for one more moment of drama, the rope was snapping up between our legs as up as we pulled ourselves up the last hill! One miscalculation here and we might've fallen at the last stand due a fatal hit to the nether regions! 

Thankfully we all managed to survived this last challenge, fears fading replaced with relief as we each hauled over the finish line. We’d made it through as a team, knackered, dirty, cold but gifted by with a warm sense of achievement. 

Moving back into the main organisational area a different kind of madness ensued. Caked in mud we grabbed our gear and were ushered into a crazy communal shower barn. Indeed, getting clean in such conditions and into fresh clothes was quite the challenge itself.

Back in the car and finally warming up I did a quick health check. A bruised knee from a slip on one of the climbing obstacles, some cuts on the other leg from a crawling section, all in all I’d made it through pretty unscathed. Looking out of the window I remember beginning to space out, I'd sleep well that evening and indeed for the next few nights…

Clive Maxheath - Men’s Personal Development Coach

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As an addition to this article here’s advice from my experience for those considering one of these types of challenges:

  • Do your homework before making the commitment. Although on the surface it may look like fun and games many of these events are serious undertakings with risks associated. If there are any health doubts i’d recommend speaking to a medical professional before signing up.
  • Get booked up well in advance in order to give you time to plan, train and manage logistics. Also ticket prices are sometimes cheaper if booked earlier :-)
  • Carry out research and invest in some appropriate gear for the challenge ahead. (Or take an off piste approach run it in your underwear as i noted a few entrants did!) 
  • Recruit others to do it with you. The camaraderie and support of doing it as a group really helps and you’ll have the experience to share together for the rest of your lives.
  • Fear around these events is completely natural. Being organised, well trained and leaning on the support of others is what will counterbalance and get you over the line:

‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’

Here are links to four of the most popular mud races as well as a related community website.

  1. Tough Guy (Last race in 2017) - http://www.toughguy.co.uk
  2. Tough Mudder - https://toughmudder.co.uk
  3. Spartan Race - www.spartanrace.uk
  4. Nuclear Races - http://nuclear-races.co.uk

Community website ‘The Muddy Race’ hosts online community, related information and has details concerning a huge number of related events all in one place. 

 Link - https://www.muddyrace.co.uk


As well as being a Tough Guy 2016 race completer I am a Men's Personal Development Coach - details of my services are contained on the other pages of this website. If you want to find our more and start a conversation, click on the button below to be taken direct to my contact page:

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