Race apart becomes theatre of the absurd

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Sick of our soaraway scorcher of a summer? Tired of tanning? Had it up to here with humidity? Channel 4 had the antidote on Monday night: Short Stories: Tough Going was the tale of Britain's most gruelling cross- country race, in which 2,000 souls who get their kicks from embrocation rather than Ambre Solaire tackled five miles of mud and murderous obstacles in the sub-zero conditions of late January. Just watching it gave you goose pimples.

The documentary opened with a sweeping slow-mo panorama of the competitors setting off, accompanied by some sub-Vangelis synth stuff. But there the resemblances to Chariots of Fire ended. For one thing, the competitors wore a rag-bag of track-suits, gloves and hats instead of photogenically floppy shorts, and for another, they kept tripping up over the camera. The expressions on the faces of the stumbling runners suggested that the event was quite challenging enough without some pillock with a Steadicam getting in the way.

The race is the brainchild of Billy Wilson, a bristly-moustached former soldier who declared that for him it represents "a personal way of finding a path out of the wicked world". For the competitors, the route away from the wicked world leads directly into an evil swamp, but that is all part of the life-affirming experience of the Tough Going race, in which suffering equals satisfaction.

"I can't believe people who do this," Wilson marvelled. "Some of the things we make them do... they're like lemmings, they really are. I knew four or five years ago that if we built a great pit or a mountain or whatever they would go over the edge of it, one after the other." The camera cut to a group of "runners" struggling thigh-deep through a slew of primordial slime. "The harder we push 'em, they more they love it," Wilson observed, struggling unsuccessfully to restrain a note of relish. "The more they come back."

Who were these perennial masochists, these fridge-addicts, these once- a-year near-death- experience junkies? Not musclebound SAS refuseniks or whipcord-thin ultrarunners, as one might have expected, but otherwise normal human beings prepared to go to unusual lengths to lose weight after Christmas.

Take Eddie and Kate Hircock, the parents of two young children. Eddie works nights at Tesco; Kate days at Boots. They sleep in the same bed but rarely at the same time. Eddie went in for Tough Going because someone at the gym told him he had the right build for it. Kate went in for it because anything Eddie can do, she can do. "I'm a bit of a feminist on the side," she said, apologetically. "I can't help it." The explanation was unnecessary: no one would enter a race like this simply to spend more time with their spouse.

Ann Ward was another unlikely athlete, a Mrs Merton lookalike whose contented smile as she lugged her children to school concealed an adventurous streak. "We all need things in our lives to stop it being flat," she reckoned. Tough Going was anything but flat: there were mountainous haystacks, steep mudslides vertiginous ropewalks and - a particular challenge for the bespectacled Ward, a self-declared claustrophobic - dank and dark tunnels: "That's the thing that keeps me awake at nights," she admitted.

Having practised at home in a cloth-lined tunnel noticeably shorter, lighter and dryer than the real thing, Ward had a strategy. "I just have to keep telling myself what I'm doing," she reckoned, and plunged into the depths, chanting her mantra: "Crawl, crawl, crawl, crawl." At any moment one expected to see her shoot backwards out of the hole muttering "Run away, run away, run away..." but she was made of plucky stuff and emerged blinking at the other end to yell: "Right. I can do anything now."

The exhilaration of conquered fear was coursing through Ward's veins, and she tried to explain the feeling. "Pain and pleasure together equals thrill," she said. "I can't knit, but I can do this." Sacher von Masoch could hardly have put it better.

Meanwhile the Hircocks were enduring the last of Billy Wilson's challenges, an underwater swim in a deep, muddy and very chilly river. "The body is warm through running," Wilson noted, "but the temperature of the water is below freezing. And what happens is that the heat of the body rushes to the head, and the head explodes in an almighty one-bang headache." One can't help feeling that Wilson's old regiment must have inspired this section of the course - he is a former Coldstream Guard, and no doubt a future Bond-movie villain.

The husband-and-wife team, Tesco-trained and tough as old Boots, survived the worst that Billy Blofeld could throw at them. "Thank God it's over," Kate Hircock exclaimed, looking as if she had just been dug from a landslide. "What about next year, Ed?" Ed, no doubt dreaming of his next night-shift, was too tuckered out to respond, but somewhere in the background there was the sound of lips being licked as the master course builder envisioned even tougher going for 1998. Flaming hoops? Piranha ponds? Land mines? Go on, Billy - you know they'll love it.