Tough Love: London gets a taste of Toughest

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.

The Course

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.

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Jane Maylor managed to multitask – Shout encouragement, take a picture and be adorable all at the same time. Enjoy my gazelle leap right here.

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.

The Drama

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.

The Kit

  • 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).
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I successfully avoided vomiting on my friends, what about you?

The Verdict

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.

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DNDNF; My hardest NUTS challenge to date

From the local press to your Facebook news feed, you’d have had to still have your head buried in a pile of woodchip in the nutcracker loop to have not noticed that a LOT of people did not finish at NUTS last weekend.

I was so nervous about the event that I cut a section out of the neck of my neoprene because I felt like I was choking every time I thought about the race. Only now, whilst on a train, can I order my thoughts about the race. I have spent the whole week feeling as though I’ve been wearing a phantom wetsuit: the invisible neoprene tight against my throat.

Now I’ve written about NUTS enough times for you to understand the nature of the course; it’s tough, rustic, relentless, largely wood based and doesn’t really open up for a good run. This suits me fine, as I can’t stand running for long periods, and I’m actually fairly terrible at it. The near constant occurrence of obstacles suits me; so this is why I chose to use the course as an attempt to qualify for this year’s OCR World Championships in Canada.

Three laps of winter NUTS was the challenge I set myself. After three in summer, I knew that I have the legs to do four, but with winter being such a different animal, I decided to use the distance as a stepping stone into the four I’ll do at a later date. Looking at the weather forecasts and listening to the OCRA drama unfold, I’m really pleased that I stuck with the three laps.

It was cold. It wasn’t the coldest, but it was cold, windy, rainy, snowy and generally unforgiving. When my mum and I arrived (happy Mother’s Day, Mum, come watch me narrowly avoid hypothermia and cry a bit), I could tell that she was more nervous than me. This was compounded by my friend Aaron turning up in the Mudstacle tent looking like an anaemic yeti, shaking from head to toe having returned from his first lap. His lips were chapped and cut, and he repeated, ‘I don’t know what’s happening’ about four times, as several of us dived on him, taking off his clothes and swapping them for dry things and DryRobes to help him recover. Aaron was not the poster child for reassuring my mother that I was not going to die.

Leaving my terrified mum and predictably nonchalant dog with my kit in the team tent, I didn’t really feel terribly focussed on the task at hand (just get through it, finish in the top ten, go home).

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HI MUM, SORRY ABOUT MOTHER’S DAY.

As is usual, my nervousness turned to nausea within about 2km. The first lap felt like an embarrassingly slow slug. I naively thought I was making good time when I had reached the 4k mark, for some reason forgetting that the final few km of the race comprise of repeated insults to your physical state, but, let’s face it, I was not making good time at all. Really happy to have completed some obstacles that I previously struggled with under race conditions, I still felt strong, and had plenty of energy left to go for my second lap. I nipped into transition for a cup of tea (because I actively fantasise about tea in every race), a bite of banana, and to reassure mum that I was not dead yet. My second lap, which really ought to have been stronger now that I knew what was ahead, was pretty much where I lost my mind. But Ami, didn’t you go mad at NUTS on your third lap, last year? Yes, yes I did.

Whenever I am on the NUTS course, I find myself questioning whether I’m actually having a good time. Most sections begin with my internal monologue saying, ‘I hate this section’, and yet, as soon as the races are finished, I’m the first person to say, ‘Oh the course is GREAT, you’ll LOVE it, there’s something for everyone.’

I cannot explain the feeling of despair that descends upon me when I’m plodding through the muddy hills of Dorking, but I can assure you that I end up in a pretty dark place. That said, the course really is excellent; it challenges everyone from the expert to the newcomer, and it often makes my race much more fun when I have to navigate through the various hen parties, work ‘team building’ outings and woefully underprepared, plimsoll wearing masses in the middle lap. I also love that you’ll sometimes have a chance to see the best of the best whip past you whilst you’re slugging away on your first or second lap; it’s great at bringing everyone together, regardless of their different reasons for being there. In short, my second lap should have been more fun than it was, but I developed a headache by the time I hit the nutcracker loop, and I really thought that my race was over. Pain seared through my skull in a Harry Potter-esque fashion every time I lowered my head, bent down, or leaned on anything. I ignored it. Just when it had gotten to the point where every footstep jarred my brain, I hit a water station and drank basically all of it. In my delirium, I called the water marshal an ‘Angel Man’, and proceeded to do the most laborious and ungraceful jaunt across the new ‘Full Monty’ obstacle. (That really is a cheeky little bastard of an obstacle, you know. It is ruinous for almost every part of your body, and becomes just as much of a mental feat as a physical one by the end).

Coming out of the wooded section, I had almost decided to pull out of the race. My pace was slowing, and I could not get my head around the idea of putting myself through the whole thing again. I cursed myself for not training enough, for not eating properly this week, and for basically everything I could think of. I knew of the 75% DNF rate from 2 laps on the day before. I also knew that a Sunday race is a whole different one to that on the previous day, as the course is churned up beyond recognition. I was getting tired, stupid and emotional, and my head was about to explode. I felt destroyed as I watched other runners start to skirt the water sections because they were so brain-crushingly cold, but still I flopped through each ditch like a lost salmon. Hamburger Hill loomed, and whilst it seemed so close to home, I knew that just that section was a huge challenge in itself. I hugged my tyre like it was a life vest as I humourlessly trudged up and down that horrible, horrible hill, pausing only to have a little tantrum when I got completely stuck in the cargo net. Face down; fully stretched out on the ground, like a toddler in a supermarket, I flailed underneath the sopping wet ropes that pinned me to the mud. I had had enough of this.

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Whole lotta NOPE on my face here. [Picture Karl Webb]

The marshals, each as lovely and encouraging as the last, assured me that there wasn’t long to go, but there was: there was a whole other lap, and I couldn’t see the sense in putting myself through it. I smiled my fakest, most pained smile, and sat contemplating my life at the top of the slide, just as I herd a disembodied voice shout my name. It was Pete: fearless leader and all round good chap. He was awaiting the arrival of Andy Parry at the slide, and he had sweet tea in his hand.

I shot down the slide. The tea was mine.

As soon as the tea hit my throat, I was beyond elated. I was going to get through this lap. I was going to beg, steal, borrow or murder someone to get my hands on some painkillers, and I was going to get changed and revaluate my stance on being a big baby.

Maybe not the latter. I started to cry as I hit the transition area. Lovely, friendly people, and also a small clutch of amazing runners who had, for various reasons, pulled out of the race themselves surrounded me. “You don’t have to do this.” They said. I cried and snotted whilst my mum pulled off my gloves, and several people snuggled me whilst I tried to extricate myself from my soaking baselayers. “I don’t want to, but I do.” The DNF rate was so high, I knew there would be no shame in dropping out (well, there’s no shame anyway), but I was worried about my qualification status for OCRWC, so for that reason alone, I donned yet more neoprene, told my mum that I really didn’t want to do it, supped some tea, got some ibuprofen from an absolute HERO, told everyone I didn’t want to do it, then started my last lap.

I felt physically sick to the point at which I started to look for suitable bushes behind which to vom. Then came Andy Parry.

Andy was being filmed by Mudstacle TV throughout his 4 lap challenge. This was to be his final lap, and he was looking very strong considering. But, being the stand up sort of guy that he is, he told me that he was sticking with me. ‘I feel so sick,’ I mumbled, ‘That’s not good’, he affirmed.

No, it wasn’t. I worried about holding Andy up, but felt reassured that he didn’t want to slog out his last lap alone, so I trundled along as best I could. I think we cheered each other a bit – the course can be pretty miserable when you’re alone, and with the wind picking up, it looked pretty desolate out there. A lot of people in my three lap race had jumped the gun by 90 minutes, which I think was desperately unfair, as it cheated the 2pm cutoff point, but whatever – it did mean that the course was practically deserted and devoid of atmosphere in the afternoon. Nevertheless, it was brilliant to have Andy by my side, and when the ibuprofen kicked in, I literally felt my headache melt away. I was back in the game.

Our last lap can only really be described as a ‘bimble.’ I didn’t allow myself the fantasy of having qualified, simply because I knew my times were atrocious, and no reassurance could convince me otherwise. It was very cold, and Andy was starting to freeze up towards the end; but he stuck by me when he was strong and I was sick and miserable, so there was no way that I was going to leave him. I honestly thought that the final water section would do him in. The wind made for an unforgiving environment when you left the water, and the lake was so earth shatteringly freezing that my brain hurts to think of it. I get involuntary shudders when I think about how a simple obstacle like the floating donuts is transformed into a means of torture when the water is cold and the wind is picking up around you. Alas, we both made it through, and leaving Andy to his heroic last hundred metres, I crossed the finish line pretty happily considering my previous crisis of confidence. I was so touched and happy to see that a whole bunch of people (who could have gone home already) were still there to cheer for those of us still on the course. Hearing your name from the sidelines when you’re feeling low really makes all the difference, and I can’t thank the likes of Ginger and Becky enough for screeching at me.

I didn’t look for my time or result until long afterwards, when Ginger brought it up on her phone. I honestly had felt a little dejected about the whole thing, but it just goes to show that you shouldn’t make assumptions, because you never really know what’s going on until the whole race has played out.

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Thanks to Rosanna Kuit for a rare photograph of me looking happy.

Because, GUESS WHO’S GOING TO CANADA?

 

(Me).

 

And GUESS WHO’S SIGNING UP TO NUTS AGAIN?

 

(Also me).

I came, I saw, I am: Tough Guy

Mark Twain gets it. He said, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.”

I can apply this very apt quote to many things in my life, for example, I want to *have seen* certain classic horror movies, but I don’t want to watch them. This quote applies itself beautifully to another classic: Tough Guy, The Original. It is a race we want to *have done*, but the actual process of completing it? Not so much. Continue reading

On losing my mojo

For approximately 3k in any race, I pretty much want to die, stop running, give up OCR, take up knitting, or start creating a basic shelter in surrounding woodland in which I can hibernate. In short, it takes me a while to warm up. By about 4k, I start to feel positive about the fact that I’m getting into the swing of it, finding a sensible pace and not overtly negative about my life choices. By the end of the race, I’ve forgotten what my stupid brain was whining about and I’ve got my game face on for a sprint finish. Continue reading

#WhyIRace

5 reasons #WhyIRace

To make peace with my thighs
My legs have always been a bit of a ‘thing’ for me.  To my eye, they’re disproportionately large, fat, wobbly and just.. they’re just a problem, okay?  With OCR, they go from being a source of shame and self-consciousness, to strong, dependable means of getting me up, over and across obstacles.  And I kinda dig that.

To get my arse out of bed
Having CFS does mess with my head a bit. I’m usually a productive, motivated person, and having something that limits me is really, really depressing.  At least knowing I have an event coming up, I don’t want the money and effort to go to waste, so I get up and train.  Some days I really just can’t, but I am buoyed by the fact that I’m trying as hard as I can.

To get fit
I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel EPIC to have conquered some of the courses that I have been on this year.  It feels fantastic to log those miles and feel myself getting fitter, faster and stronger.

It makes me feel proud of myself
Some days it’s pretty difficult to feel positive about yourself, no matter how much you may have achieved.  When the people around you are constantly encouraging you, and bigging you up (as the OCR community frequently do, even if you’re rubbish), a little bit does rub off and you begin to believe in yourself again. And that’s pretty nice.

To meet other people who get it
Honestly, I was of the opinion that I didn’t really need more friends, but after finding a whole new family in the form of my team, and other OCR nerds, I’ve realised that my life definitely needed enriching.  Now my support system consists of my team, my friends, my co-racers and people I haven’t even met in real life yet – but we all share a common interest, and the dickhead:lovely person ratio is alarmingly low amongst OCR types.  Now if that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.

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