Tough pluck and lunacy

4,000 fanatics put life and limb on the line in the cross-country race from hell
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The Independent Online

Soaked through Goose-pimpled. Ice forming on your eyebrows. And that's just from being a spectator at Tough Guy. What sort of state you must be in actually from running in the event is well-nigh unimaginable.

Soaked through Goose-pimpled. Ice forming on your eyebrows. And that's just from being a spectator at Tough Guy. What sort of state you must be in actually from running in the event is well-nigh unimaginable.

Tough Guy is the cross-country race from hell. Imagine slogging your way through nine miles of mud-clogged, manure-heaped, waterlogged farmland in the bitterest winter weather, clad in nothing more than a singlet and shorts and wearing the false moustache without which the organiser will not let you start.

Then just when you think life couldn't get any worse, the real event begins - an assault course consisting of obstacles of such grisly non-negotiability that all around are St John ambulances with 100 staff on hand to ferry convulsively shivering participants into the warm, and 30 fully kitted-out subaqua divers in case you don't come up after immersion in the icy depths of the notorious underwater tunnel.

Think hanging from electrically- charged ropes, think belly-marching under 20 feet of barbed wire, think point-to-pointing over ditches mined with smoking straw bales. Think two or three hours out there. The winter event may be over for another year, but Summer Tough Guy on29 July is beckoning the superfit, the intrepid and the simply loony. Entrants are being advised to train by diving into bunches of nettles. "Twice as tough!" roars the organiser, Billy Wilson, delightedly.

The winter event took place on a fog-shrouded Sunday morning which saw several hundred treated for hypothermia. Even the fastest and fittest came through covered in mud and gore, led by Geraint Florida James, who scorched through in just over one hour and 20 minutes. One of his closest followers celebrated his deliverance by throwing up in a bucket thoughtfully placed at the finish line. Nevertheless, the first woman home, Christine Howard, pronounced the experience "Wonderful!" as soon as she was capable of speech.

Before they start, competitors must sign a form that reads: "I confirm that if I should die on Tough Guy, that it is my own bloody fault for coming. I understand that all safety measures are guaranteed and that I should have personal insurance to cover my ineptitude." This is not a joke. Even with new safety measures in place, broken legs are not unknown. Last year, a competitor was felled by a heart attack. He had an existing, undiscovered heart condition, and though para-medics were able to offer instant treatment with a defibrillator, he could not be saved.

Billy Wilson is a South Stafford-shire farmer from an army background, and his modus operandi suggests he is a hybrid of a sadistic sergeant major and St Francis of Assisi. His sporting credentials and quirky sense of humour can be gauged by the fact that he ran the inaugural London Marathon in a highly respectable time while dressed as a pantomime horse.

Horses, not to mention donkeys, play a significant part in the story of Tough Guy, because Wilson's farm is also the headquarters of The Mr Mouse Home For Unfortunates, a sanctuary for the equine underclass that is sustained by the exorbitant Tough Guy entry fees (from £30 two months prior to the event to £250 if you enter on the day). "The horse," says Wilson, "is the worst abused creature in the country." Though Tough Guy competitors must run it a close second.

Wilson created Tough Guy back in 1983, as an alternative to road races. "The first was just a run through the bracken and woods, but people seemed to like it and came back for more, so we started to build a course that would frighten them off, but that didn't stop 'em, so we put the price up and they still kept coming.

"Four years ago the Health and Safety people came in. I could see myself standing before a judge who was saying, 'You killed 700 people'. So I spent a quarter-of-a-million pounds to make it as safe as a trip to Disneyland."

Hardly. But despite the rigours, Tough Guy is extraordinarily popular, regularly attracting a 4,000-plus entry, many of whom return year after year. For some, the fun begins the night before with a sleepover in one of the barns adjoining the course. "You've got a hundred people drinking till two or three in the morning," says Jackson Griffith, a 29-year-old who works in media marketing and who this year was among the leading finishers in two hours 10 minutes.

"The attitude is, 'Let's get drunk', because you're going to get beaten up anyway. The marshals aren't there to help you, they're there to make sure you suffer enough, and they come round at five in the morning banging on tins. You get about three hours' sleep, but it doesn't matter because for the 12 hours after that you'll be full of adrenaline anyway."

It was Griffith's third Tough Guy on the trot. "This year was the scariest because it was the coldest. The underwater tunnel is always the hardest part for most people. It takes you longer to recover from that than the other obstacles. When you come out the other side you feel that you are going to pass out. You have to force your body to keep moving because if you don't you will get hypothermia. Second worst are the high-wire crossings - 30 to 40 feet up - one over straw bales and one over a lake."

Once would be enough for some, and never would be enough for the majority, but, says Griffith: "You just keep going back. It's the atmosphere, and the people around you. They're the best. The London Marathon tends to be more serious, glum, worried. People come to the start of Tough Guy knowing they're going to get beat up but they don't really care. It's scary but almost flippant. It doesn't matter how good you are, it's a great leveller, you still have it hard.

"Billy Wilson's aim was to recreate the trenches of World War One, and it's a day when you try tounderstand what people went through. It's the respect thing. We do have it easy these days, and Tough Guy is humbling."