Did Nearly Freeze...
Did Not Finish...
Did Not Fail.
Yes, I was yelling out Beefcake.
I was convinced that I looked like Mel Gibson in Bravehart, ready for battle. I probably looked and sounded more like Rocky yelling out to Adrian.
I sat in the warming hut that lay in the middle of the Killing Fields, calling out Beefcake as the medic beside me looked on with confusion. Drunk tank meets 19th century infirmary, a place where the shivering and slurring bodies, many close to drifting out of consciousness, sat next to coal stoves. We were stripped down and then bundled up in torn quilts, emergency blankets and any other dry fabrics laying around. Most attempts to drink warm tea or hot chocolate resulted in a 90 to 10 hit ratio, dry fabric to mouth.
My mind was perfectly functioning, so I thought, and I was "ready" to go back out into the Killing Fields. My friend and German Race Marshall, Chris (AKA Beefcake), knew it was not going to be my day.
My morning started off like any other race day. I slept surprisingly well, ate my usual pre-race breakfast, rolled out, completed my breathing exercises and made sure I was plenty hydrated. An 11am-ish start meant that I would not have to worry about jet-lag, being that I normally wake up around 4:30am to train at home. In fact, it was the perfect time to start the race.
I spent weeks testing out different gear, jumping into frozen bodies of water, usually accompanied by burpees. (If you didn't already see it on Instagram, enjoy!) The weather was great in comparison, with the exception of a constant wind, something that was common. In fact, it was a few degrees colder in NY most days when I was out playing in the water. My kit composed of two thin long-sleeved shirts, a 3mm neoprene vest, compression tights over a pair of nylons, sport socks, 3mm neoprene gloves, a fleece hat and a swim cap tucked in my sports bra in case I wanted extra warmth.
I held off going outside until the very last moment because I wanted to stay warm. Walking out to the start line with Rise of the Sufferfests'writer/director, Scott Keneally, was surreal. It was like I was cast in a motion picture – Gladiator to be specific – and I was stepping out into the Coliseum.
DNF sign #1: Comfortably warm at the start.
I was too caught up in the excitement to take notice that I was not even the slightest bit cold. Bad move. Tough Guy begins with an anything-but-leisurely country run. It's the longest section of the race in terms of distance, but by far nothing as intense as the Killing Fields that follow. There's a bit of slaloming up and down uneven terrain, crawling under nets, jumping over/under logs and through some water.
DNF sign #2: Overheating on the run.
I hit the first slalom feeling off, but the thought of being submerged in near-frozen water ahead calmed me. I threw off my hat, which was still secured to my pony tail so I could use it later, but it didn't do much to bring my temperature down. I was a little nauseous and lightheaded, so I grabbed some water at the next aid station and kept on running.
I entered the Killing Fields, relieved that the run was over and was looking forward to the fun that was about to start. The cliché “shit's about to get real” is an accurate description of what lied ahead. The Killing Fields are a series of 21 obstacles (K1-K21), built from nothing more than wood and rope, some of which you will find frayed, broken and tied back together. By the time you enter them you are already soaked to your waist and numb. I couldn't feel anything below my knees, but I was used to the feeling from training and wasn't bothered by it.
DNF sign #3: Stumbling around like I drank a handle of moonshine. (Note: I have never tried this, but I imagine this is what it would feel like.)
My memory is a little hazy after K2 - Gallipoli, a 200 meter run through water and cement-like mud. I went from overheating to completely freezing in a moment.. Shortly after this photo was taken, I put on my swim cap for extra warmth.
I recall climbing up the Behemoth (K4), a large structure with 3 rope sections to traverse at the top. I stumbled across the first platform to the first traverse, threw my legs up and stopped. In a split second, I forgot how to traverse a rope, but managed to drag myself across.
I got off the first rope and the excitement around me began to muffle. I made my way across two more traverses with the encouragement of the race marshalls around me, who were probably watching out for my own safety rather than to see if I executed the obstacle according to protocol, and I jumped into another cold, muddy pool of water.
DNF sign #4: Wanting to take a nap.
Having lost all sense of time, I can guess that it was maybe 10 minutes until I reached the dreaded underwater tunnels. You may be familiar with them by now, thanks to this footage from Rise of the Sufferfests of my friend and fellow badass, James Appleton, who came in 3rd place after developing hypothermia. Don't doubt his ability to come out on top; James won Tough Guy THREE times.
I was shaking too much for my own good at this point and all I really wanted to do was curl up by some shrubbery and take a nap in the sun. Part of me knew this feeling was a bad sign, but being the stubborn person I am, I simply told myself over and over,“Keep on moving forward. One step. One step. Let's go.” I entered the water and ducked under a separate log with surprising ease. Any cold water submersion had been a weakness of mine in the past, but I didn't even flinch here. I was so relieved.
(L) The first log is just past the K11 sign. Enter from the hill on the right. (R) Scott Keneally at the Underwater Tunnels.
In a split second, time just kind of stopped. I recall being quite confused and I tried to get out of the water where I entered. I probably looked like death at this point because two male racers immediately grabbed my arms, turned me around and we moved across the water to the main underwater tunnels. They said we would to go through them together.
They went on, but I did not. I only remember being pushed and pulled out of the water right next to them. This is when the medics led me into the warming hut.
Stage 2 hypothermia.
There was no going back out at that point. I exited the course while I was in a spot in top 5 women. I cried, begging Beefcake to let me go back out. He told me that he would not only tackle me and drag me off the course, but he would DQ me if he saw me out there. He knew it was too dangerous for me to continue. Everybody knew that... except me. Another racer who was in the hut, shared that he went back out a previous year after being pulled off the course and ended up in the hospital with organ failure.
What seemed like 20 minutes was more like 90 minutes. I couldn't sit there anymore. As I walked back to the main house, passing racers still on the course, I felt like a failure.
So, how did this happen?
This is why Tough Guy is so damn tough. You can prep your heart out, test your clothes, jump in all the cold water you desire, but you can never simulate race day. Tough Guy is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall race, especially if you are vying for one of the top spots. Everybody has different needs and you should only focus on what works for you and only you. There's a good chance that you will find me half dressed next year.
Mr. Mouse created a race in the rawest and purest form. He has a desire to challenge people to better themselves. He nails it with this event. He is a legendary person, yet approachable and tells it like it is. Zero BS. His first words to me were not a hello, but "Are those teeth fake?” They partially are... great observation!
That being said, there are no secrets, surprises or gear lists. You can walk the course the day prior and memorize every little detail. You can be a veteran of the race, or even a previous champion, and still run into trouble. Last year's overall champion, Charles Franzke, was pulled off of the course this year, after falling into water from another rope traverse, only to wake up after being rescued.
Welcome to Tough Guy.
Will I do it again? Oh, hell yea.
Besides the fact that I am dying to cross that finish line, I left Wolverhampton with one of the most positive and memorable experiences of my life. There is so much more to Tough Guy than just a race. You become part of history and discover an unparalleled energy. It doesn't matter if you carry Mr. Mouse's surname “Wilson” or not, you will quickly be considered family.
Every person I met added to my experience, whether they were racing, working, volunteering or spectating. Regarding the elite athletes, you would never guess how badass they are until seeing them in action because of their modesty and willingness to help. James Appleton gave me a detailed course tour the day before the race. During the race, shortly after exchanging high fives, I got a boost up a muddy hill by 2nd place female and two-time Tough Guy champion, Friederike “Iki” Feil. Apparently overall champion Jon Albon stopped to fix a fence while racing, and let's not forget, help his friend James fight off hypothermia after the race. I'm sure all of these athletes want to win, but they are genuinely happy to see their friends succeed.
That moment of feeling like a failure was wiped away quickly because of the above, and so much more.
Congratulations to the winners, all of the finishers and to anybody brave enough to toe the starting line!
Tough Guy is well worth the trip. Don't even worry about a medal. I will guarantee you that you walk away with something much more priceless.
Stay warm and rock on...