Toughest is the fastest rising brand of obstacle races in Europe, there’s no doubt about it. From the UK, we’ve already been jetting off to Malmö to train at the Toughest LAB (chat about that to follow), getting into a little bit of Euro-tourism on their runs in Copenhagen, Oslo etc., and we’ve been very lucky to play host to the first non-Scandi Toughest race in Pippingford Park.
To quickly recap – Toughest prioritise obstacle competency, technique and tactics over the rather more British OCR concept of mud and endurance. Their Euro mainland races appear clinical and, if anything, clean, emphasising the need for upper body and most of all, grip strength.
As far as obstacle completion goes, you can opt to take a faster (harder/more technical lane) to make up time, you can complete the obstacle and an additional crawl, or you can take a penalty run or carry. To ‘fail’ an obstacle at Toughest is not to lose a band, or get disqualified. No arguments, no concerns over skipped burpees, you do your extra jog and you get on with it. It seems complicated, but it is in fact quite beautiful in its simplicity, and it doesn’t make you feel demeaned or less of a racer for being unable to do something on the day. That said, the obstacles are largely attainable, particularly if you have sensibly focussed on grip strength and holding your bodyweight. That’s not to say I did everything perfectly, but I certainly didn’t leave feeling deflated as I have from recent races and training sessions.
Toughest was hosted at Pippingford Park, which is just the most breath taking, versatile and interesting venue I’ve ever attended. The fact that so many races can put on events there, and they all seem different is testament to the unparalleled terrain available. And when used properly, the running doesn’t make me want to chop my own legs off, which is really saying something.
Parking is always a bit sketchy in marshy/field venues, but it was very well spaced and organised, and set up so that cars didn’t have to poach the land to exit – there was a designated exit on a downhill, and it worked so well despite a massive attendance and quite spongey ground. This sort of business always puts you in a good headspace, and the mood was only buoyed when the event village came into sight. Organised like a ski resort restaurant, and complete with designated stores, food kiosks and team tents, the area was very well designed – the course also fed into it at several points, allowing for spectators to safely observe and encourage racers all day long. The ground was definitely hit hard by the end of the day, but it was probably the best event village (spacious yet social) I’ve ever seen. The MC wasn’t obnoxious either, which always makes me happy. A big screen counted down to wave times, which continued long into the day at 5 minute intervals, to stagger starts and avoid bottlenecking at obstacles (essential since the first obstacle was single digit metres into the race).
Regarding registration, Toughest take precisely zero shit on that front. All you have to do is know your race number and sign the waivers. Then you’re numbered, tagged, and ready to go. I think something that was quite unsettling for the UK OCR lot was that wave times were allocated, and like it or lump it, you ran at your designated time. This could have been potentially disastrous for me, as I had to go to work after the race, but I was fortunate to be in an earlier wave. I always feel desperately sorry at the idea of having to go off onto a colder, more poached and less populated course at the tail end of the day, but a few of the Mudstacle lot ran a very late wave and still had a good time, so perhaps my worries were unfounded.
After a thankfully unceremonious start (because I am far too British to really get into this running around hi-fiving each other and holding hands during warm ups), we were straight into a cargo net, which, in a most undignified way, I fell down. I felt a lot of pressure from my cohort, as there were some seriously strong girls who had obviously been imported for the purpose of looking scary and dominating at obstacles. Sadly, we did enter into a bit of a log jam as some faltered on the swing traverse, leaving those of us behind them just hanging there (literally) waiting for something to happen. I ended up traversing backwards to allow the stuck girls ahead a bit more swing, but felt really happy about my grip strength. The first obstacle to stump and disappoint was a wall traverse. It had broken on one side, and it was quite busy on the other sections. My head got the better of me, and I opted for a penalty run rather than to stand around, get cold and probably fail it anyway. I don’t even mind, really. Most of the other ‘big’ obstacles I completed (with surprise, if I’m honest), and I couldn’t stop my little internal celebration over striking the balance between fun and competence.
The only other major ‘disappointment’ on course was the closure of the slide, but if I’m wholly honest, it didn’t look safe enough to cater to almost 4000 runners, and I applaud the decision of the organisers to get it shut down at the first hint of bother. An early waver had grasped at the tarp covering and ripped it. And frankly, if it couldn’t handle the wear and tear of less than ten people going over it, with varying and bizarre trajectories off the edge, it shouldn’t be in a race, so as sad as I was to miss out on the experience, and to run the penalty uphill slog, I am totally okay with it having been shut for safety reasons.
Other, brilliant obstacles such as the monkey bars, rigs, rings, ring traverses, rope climb, hoist and Irish table etc. were really well constructed, and I felt fantastic to conquer things that I would previously have failed or simply balked at. Several over-unders and random walls were dotted around the beautiful forest trails so as not to make us feel that we were on a ‘run’. Even the Dragon’s Back, a previously pretty simple obstacle for me seemed really daunting on the day, which is a testament to the atmosphere the organisers had created. It was decidedly less sturdy than the version built at the OCRWC, and I am not ashamed to say that I needed some encouragement from pals on the ground to put on my big girl pants and leap it. It’s such a good obstacle, exercising the mind more than the body, in fact – if there was a race full of these brain-jarring types of obstacles, I’d be all over it.
I didn’t wear a GPS watch to run Toughest. I’m glad, as my pace would have depressed me, and it’s not, thankfully, a runner’s race. I also got a bone splitting headache at KM5 and spent the final half of the race dividing my time between marvelling at how much I was enjoying myself, and trying not to throw up from the pain in my head. I eventually managed to scout an ambulance and get them to feed me pain relief, but the damage had already been done, and my vision started to flicker on and off, which was utterly horrifying. I get a lot of headaches, and this one was absolutely metabolic in origin and largely my fault, although I think there ought to have been one more water stop on the course.
Finally getting into the event village for the last time, I was pretty relieved, but also totally unable to lower my head, so my priority was to get some water and salt into my system to stop myself passing out. I did take a break from cursing myself and my constant string of ailments to really take in what I had achieved with the help of innovative obstacle building, great LAB coaching, and a good deal of work on my grip. Toughest delivered an unforgettable and stand-out race, and I’m desperate to do more, particularly on their home turf where they are more used to staging races, and can do it ‘their way’.
The UK OCR scene needed a shake up; we needed to see how other international brands could keep racing fresh and fair. Some of our local organisations, I feel, have lost sight of that, and I think it’s vitally important to challenge the best athletes whilst including the newbies and fun runners – that’s very difficult to do on one course over one day, but Toughest managed it.
I knew, however, I absolutely knew that a lot of UK runners would hate it. I thought there’d be a furore over the lack of control over wave times, the more clinical nature of the obstacles, the technical requirements, and the decision not to give out free race shirts. True to form, there’s been a lot of chat about this, and a rather damning criticism that Toughest ‘created hype’ and didn’t deliver to our high expectations. You know what? There were disappointing elements to the race. I don’t deny it. But I also don’t believe that Toughest created that hype; we did. We knew what it could be, because we’d seen it in action over in Europe. We’d seen their athletes, travelled to the lab, watched their timeline fill with hopeful anticipation that Toughest London would be something special – we built up our expectations all on our own. Toughest were just there. Being themselves, presenting their obstacles and saying, ‘Can’t wait to see you’. The fact remains that despite them being a very well established race brand, temporary race builds are harder to manage than average – some of our UK brands do this magnificently (JD springs immediately to mind), but for this merging of a brave new concept in a traditional setting, things will undoubtedly come unstuck – thankfully not terminally though.
- Salomon Speedcross 3 (all I can wear right now because of my stupid sesamoid bones, but perfect support and grippy on rope).
- ByMoxy R:OCR sleeves and leggings (unslippable – best OCR stuff for spring/summer).
- Inov8 Merino baselayer (Spot on).
- Mudstacle wrags and tech vest (Obvs).
I can only speak of my personal race experience, but if you trust my judgement at all, you’ll sign up for Toughest. They aren’t here to conform, they’re here to make you feel something out of the ordinary. Toughest race was the culmination of a totally shitty phase of depression for me, and it’s helped me reassess and value my strengths, so I can truthfully say that it was a positive experience. It just goes to show that you really can Beat Your Obstacle, no matter what form it takes.