The Sunday morning training sessions of the St Albans OCR Training Group (With Coffee & Cake) run by Tony Leary had been leading towards his running of Tough Guy 2017, and I knew a few of the group were going along to support him in his race. While we were driving back from a freezing cold trail running session (which you can read about here) I had wondered aloud if it was still possible to get a spectator’s ticket, only to be told that Tony still had one available, so I immediately added myself to the support team as this was billed as being the final Tough Guy and I did not want to have missed it completely.
I would be travelling up with Tony and Rebecca Cohen, while Kirsten Whitehouse was taking a car with Daniel Spears and Glenn Coleman (who were both running), and Matt Stewart was giving a lift to his friend Keith (who was also running). I also knew there was going to be a team running from Tactical Training & Events, although I was not sure who was going to be in their team. So as I packed my bag on the Sunday morning I was looking forward to a good day out with the chance to meet a lot of friends. I was going prepared for whatever the weather and the ground conditions might bring, essentially wearing the same gear I use for my mountain hiking, and taking a hat, gloves and a fleece in my bag, together with a banana wrap and a vegetable super wrap from the nutrition part of the excellent Lean Machine Project from Bootcamp Revolution, some Tribe bars, a litre of water, and a flask of peppermint tea. As usual on Sunday mornings recently, I was late leaving the house, and I needed to get to Tony’s for 0645 in about half the time Google Maps estimated it should take me, so I ran down. I got close and had to check my phone to confirm the location on Google Maps, and then, just as I was sure I had spotted Tony’s car, I saw he was phoning me through Facebook. I was running at this point, so I could not answer my phone, and I continued down the middle of the road towards his car, my blue Mountain Equipment Fitzroy jacket open and flapping about me, as he phoned me again. I got into the car, seeing Rebecca was already there and apologised for being late and for not answering my phone. Tony said it was fine, that Rebecca had only just arrived herself, and that he had guessed why I was not answering my phone when he saw someone running down the street looking like the Batman and Robin scene from Only Fools And Horses. I replied that I really needed to work on my physique if I resembled David Jason, and our journey began.
The M1 could hardly have been better and the drive up seemed to take no time at all. We were passed by Kirsten at one point, although she was going so fast she did not notice us, and we presumed that was Matt following hard behind her. Tony decided he would stop at the first services on the M6, but no matter who Rebecca tried to contact in Kirsten’s car, no-one was answering their phones, and the opportunity was missed. Fortunately, we caught up with Kirsten, and she noticed us this time, so we followed her, although Tony did not recognise the route she was taking, and once we had come off the motorways we pulled into the McDonald’s at Fallings Park for a pitstop, being very careful on the icy, slippery surface of the car park as we walked from the cars.
Just a quick stop
It was good to meet Glenn for the first time, and it turned out that it had not been Matt following Kirsten up the motorway. There was some talk about suitable clothing between Tony, Daniel and Glenn, but they all seemed reasonably relaxed at this point. We did not stay long, just long enough for Daniel to eat his pancakes with maple syrup, and so very soon we were driving on again and not before long we began to see signs for Tough Guy. We came to a stop at a junction which bent round to the right to reach a roundabout, and Tony expressed concern that we were already queuing this far out. We turned left at the roundabout and Rebecca began looking for an alternative route, because we were clearly stuck in a traffic jam filled with cars all going to Tough Guy. Kirsten pulled to another halt just ahead of a junction which Rebecca identified gave us a possible escape route, so Tony signalled that Kirsten should follow us and we turned right up a hill, with Kirsten reversing and then following behind us. It was definitely a stroke of luck, and we reckoned this detour saved us at least 40 minutes. We came out at a junction where we turned right, before turning left into the final road leading to the Tough Guy car parks. We had tickets for the red car park, so were able to turn off ahead of the main queue of cars, and just had a short delay while waiting for the cadets to push their minibus out of the mud. That should have rung some warning bells… We parked on some flat grass at the bottom of a slope, and there was much more discussion of clothing choices from the runners. Personally, I got my gloves from my bag and stowed them in my jacket pocket. The air temperature was not freezing cold, but it was cold enough.
Discussing clothing options
We walked up to the top of the hill through the gloomy mist and the runners followed the signs to registration. The rest of us stood in an increasingly busy open space, which was becoming less open by the second, and especially so when a horse drawn cart pulling a cannon came up the hill.
The famous Mr Mouse
This was carrying Mr Mouse and it was the first time I had seen him. He truly is a colourful character. Tony had set Rebecca the challenge of taking a selfie with Mr Mouse, and the cart being stopped here provided an ideal opportunity for Kirsten to take that photo for her. I took one of my own, of course. The crowds were heaving at this point, and you certainly got a flavour of the international aspect to this event, as I very easily spotted runners from Germany, Finland, Sweden, Croatia by what they were wearing. There was a rumour going round that the start time was delayed, although this was hard to verify, but in any event, we made our way down from the village to the slopes by the side of the start, and Tony went off for a little warm up.
The very much larger than life Coach Tony Campbell
We spotted Tony Campbell, although he was not hard to spot, dressed as he was as part of the Ghost Squad, and then Tony (Leary) was back in his Team Phoenix vest (although he appeared to have changed his name to Alan…).
First race in Team Phoenix colours for…Alan
Tony, Glenn and Daniel left whatever kit they had finally decided they did not need with us, and went off to their starting points, while we took up a position on the hill, side on to the mass of runners at the bottom of the slopes. I could see Tony was chatting with Lee Jackson (and it turns out they ran together to start with).
Tony and Lee discussing tactics, probably
Kirsten and Rebecca decided we would get a better view of the start from a different location, so we moved from the top of the slope to a gap further down towards the car parking area, where I was able to gain some height by standing on a pile of tyres. I have to be honest, I could not hear what was going on and could not really see very clearly, either, but this was as good as it was going to get. Matt had been stuck in the traffic but now he arrived and found us just before they sent off the guys carrying crosses.
As if just doing Tough Guy was not hard enough already
I heard them being told to get a move on because the runners would soon be chasing them down. There were suddenly smoke flares of different colours being let off, completely obscuring my view of the start, although now I could hear the Ghost Squad really getting into it. Peering through the smoke, there now seemed to be a mass of people at the bottom of the slope, and some of them were holding more smoke flares, then there was a cannon blast, a bugle sounded, and then they were off, a stampede of around 4000 runners charging down the opening straight.
And they’re off !!!
I could not see who was at the front in the mass of people running through the clouds of smoke, but as the crowd of people slowed to a walk it was easier to see individuals, and I spotted Graham Grover from TTE.
This went on for a good few minutes, the stream of people seemed to be never ending, and there were still pockets of runners coming through as I went up the starting slope to take some photos of the Ghost Squad.
The Ghost Squad
You can see more of my photographs from the start here.
Myself, Kirsten, Rebecca and Matt walked up to the village to use the toilets before heading off on to the course, and got chatting with Tony Campbell, who advised us to get going now if we wanted to get to the Tiger before the runners arrived. This was the point where we had agreed to meet Tony so he could get his neoprene hat, and in case he needed extra energy gels.
The Killing Fields
It was an easy walk across to start with, going through the top of the village, past the donkeys, and following the track along the top, being able to look down on a lot of the Killing Fields, and across to the slalom hill repeats, the weather remaining fine with the rain holding off.
However, once we got down there the ground became a muddy mess, with very deep, sticky mud in places, and the going was much harder. I was glad I was wearing my Aku Pilgrim tabbing boots ! We crossed over the bridge and took up a position below the Tiger, until I heard someone on top of the obstacle shouting down “Is there a Kirsten down there ?” I pointed to…Kirsten. We were told that someone wanted to see her, so we crossed over the part of the course that ran from the end of the Tiger and carried on to the other side of the obstacle.
I think he spotted me…
It had been Tony Campbell calling for Kirsten, because he had set himself up at the foot of the obstacle, to encourage the runners as they came towards it (although he must have climbed it with his flag at some point because I have seen a photograph of him at the top as Jonathan Albon is going over). I carried on from there to the far end of the barrier tape, which turned out to be a great vantage point for this part of the course. I saw the runners coming past me to Tiger, then coming back again through the water, and then finally coming back over the slope behind me before they continued round and headed off in the opposite direction. Tony had told us he wanted to know his position in the field, and as I had been able to get into position before Jonathan Albon flew past (and you can read about his race here), I was able to count all the runners as they came through.
Jonathan Albon looking comfortable
Jonathan went on to win by some margin, and it was interesting to see that James Appleton made up a couple of places in the Killing Fields to come second, getting ahead of what had looked like a very good race between the guys who eventually came third and fourth. I kept a count until I saw Tony appear at the end of the field. As he came towards me I shouted that he was in 30th and he continued on his way. Not unlike most of the 29 who had passed me before him, he looked like he was feeling it but was still pushing on.
Looking strong !
I kept a look out at everything going on around me through this section, which meant I then saw Tony come back towards me through the water before heading off again,
Through the water
and then come back towards me again, going over the wooden hurdle at the top of the slope alongside Markus Ertelt (who eventually finished in 23rd place). I waited to see if I could spot any of the other runners I knew, but when nobody else came through I decided to move on to a different part of the course to spot Tony again.
Real racing going on
I walked back through the mud, checked in with Kirsten at the bottom of the Tiger (who agreed with my count that Tony had been in 30th position as he passed us), then crossed the course between waves of runners, went over the bridge, and positioned myself on the top of a muddy slope where I could see the rope traverse over a lake. I got there in time to see Jonathan Albon come across, and then saw that James Appleton was in second. He chose the line nearest to us, so we all got a very good view of his technique.
James Appleton showing them how to do it
One of the marshalls had gone into the water, which certainly gave us a good indication of just how deep it was, and I am sure the one person we saw fall in with a splash probably wished that he had not ! I had been joined by Rebecca and we saw Tony arrive at the obstacle and climb up on to the platform, before moving out on to the rope. He was wobbling as he moved away from the platform, and I have to say his movements looked tired.
He’s not going to recover from that position…
He did not get very far before he was leaning back and trying to pull himself upright again, going horizontal and struggling against the ropes until he finally lost his footing and lowered down into the water while continuing to hold on to the top rope. He began to pull himself along that rope with his hands while doing backstroke in the water, eventually reaching the other side, where he climbed up the bank, went over the barrier and was off again. We crossed over to the other side of track, climbing up another muddy bank so that we could see the next part of the course.
Out of the tunnel
From here we could see the runners as they came down the slope and into the water with wooden barriers, before they then went through concrete tunnels half-filled with water. We saw Tony come through this section and he definitely looked like he was feeling it. My concern at this time was that a number of people had been shouting his name (and it was a number of people, and loud shouting, to the extent that I wondered out loud how many Tonys were in the race) but he did not show any response to that. Clearly, he was in the zone, he was wearing a neoprene hat over his ears, but even so I would have expected some response. He walked through the stretch of water the other side of the tunnels, and from there climbed up on to a scaffolding platform with wooden planks and rope netting to walk along. He was taking it very carefully, and especially as he came back down off the other side of the platform, which then took him up another slope and away from us.
Rebecca and I decided to follow him up the next stretch and from there to the finish. We caught up with him at a turning in the course where it came back over the track, and Rebecca asked if he wanted an energy gel. There was no real response from Tony, and I was not convinced he recognised us as he pushed on, but he was still in control of his body and moving well enough considering what he had been through to get to here.
Almost there now
We caught up with him again as he pulled his way up the final slope with little problem, and from there it was downhill to the finish line, crossing it in a time of 2 hours 6 minutes and 34 seconds, in 27th place, to the announcer’s words, “looking very tired” and “finishing well there”. He had picked up 3 places over the Killing Fields. He looked in trouble as he paused with the timekeepers, and we headed round the side to meet him on the other side of the medal collection area. As he moved through the timekeepers I heard the announcer immediately calling for a blanket for him, which was reassuring, and as he came out into the village with a blanket round his shoulders someone was trying to persuade him to go into the warm room they had set aside. Tony explained that he was in the VIP changing area anyway, and that he had a towel and change of clothing there, and we finally convinced the guy that taking Tony to the VIP changing area was the best bet. We quickly got him inside and put a dryrobe around him. What a brilliant piece of kit they are. While Rebecca was going through Tony’s bag to find his towel and clothing, I asked him if he was ok with peppermint tea, and when he nodded his approval I poured him a cup from my flask. I had to hold the cup and feed it to him because he could not hold the cup himself. He was shaking and shivering, getting the occasional cramp in his legs, unable to use his hands, but on the plus side, he clearly recognised us and was able to communicate with us. He dried off and got changed into compression pants, a variety of layers on top, a hat, and was gradually warming up as I continued to feed him the peppermint tea. As it turned out, Tony does not like peppermint tea, but he said this was the best peppermint tea he had ever tasted. Slowly but surely the recovery was taking place, and through the process, while our attention was very much on him, we were very careful to keep his medal somewhere safe.
All done and fully recovered…until the pain hits the next day, of course
You can see more of my photographs from the course here.
By the time I first saw Glenn Coleman after his race he looked in a better state than Tony had after his race. He had finished in the top 100, in 2 hours 29 minutes and 41 seconds, and was quite happy with that. He did not fancy any peppermint tea, but did ask if anyone had any spare clothing because Kirsten had his bag and we had not found her yet. I told him I had a fleece he could use and Tony and I got him into the VIP changing area so he could use the showers, dry off with Tony’s towel and get some coffee inside him. However, once he heard that the showers were cold he decided he did not need to go through that again, and just dried off with the towel ! Kirsten soon arrived with his bag and he was able to get himself sorted in quick time.
Very well earned medals
We went into the shed next to the finish line to wait for Daniel to come in, and the next thing I knew Richard East was saying hello. I knew Richard from Regiment Fitness bootcamps originally, and knew that he was here with Tactical Training Events. He looked in a bad way and explained that he had been looking for the rest of TTE for about an hour and did not have any warm clothes or money because they were locked in a car which he could not access until he found the others. He wondered if I would be able to phone TTE to see if they could then phone someone who was here. I know how tough Richard is, so I knew if he was in this state it must be serious. I immediately got some peppermint tea into him, and Kirsten got a dryrobe around him, and then I phoned Natalie Welch through Facebook, which is a brilliant innovation. It turned out they had been looking for him as long as he had been looking for them, and in no time at all they found us in the shed and were able to get him to his dry kit. To be honest, the peppermint tea and the dryrobe had had an instant good effect, which was good to see !
Daniel Spears came in at 3 hours 18 minutes and 20 seconds, and I have to say looked as fresh as when he had set off !
Barely looking like he’s even been in a race…
Now everyone was getting some hot food inside them, feeling like it was time to make a move to get home, and as we were getting ready to walk down to the car parking Matt’s friend also finished. Everyone said goodbye to everyone else, and packed up everything into the cars. I got a plastic bag to stick my feet in so that my muddy boots were kept out of contact with Tony’s car, and then he reversed out of his parking space. Unfortunately, the car would not travel forward after that, with the wheels spinning on the ground, so Rebecca and I got out to give it a push, and with some help from Daniel and Glenn [Edit : turns out it was Kirsten and Glenn, while Daniel was “lazing” in the car] we got to the firmer ground of the track and were able to drive up the hill to the track leading us out of Tough Guy, and from there to the M6, a quick stop at services, the M1 and home, with big thanks to Tony for doing all that driving. It had been a great day out. I hope this is not the last Tough Guy, because I would like to experience it as a competitor, but if it is then it had certainly been an excellent experience anyway !