Obstacle challenge shows who the tough guys are

A competitor dressed as a Storm Trooper in the 2011 Tough Guy Challenge © Getty Images

Thousands of people have just faced barbed wire, muddy swamps, live electrical cables and underwater tunnels in the 25th Tough Guy Challenge. Were they being brave – or foolish?

As you stumble forward, the mud seems endless. Smoke and fog obscure everything, but you hear people moaning in pain. Suddenly, you are in a tunnel. Surrounded by water and bodies, you can barely see or breathe. All you can do is edge your way toward a chink of daylight...

Are you in a war zone, or torture chamber? No. This is Tough Guy: the most challenging obstacle course known to man.

Competitors in this ‘most dangerous event in the world’ must wriggle under barbed wire, plunge through ice-cold, muddy water, and run across flaming haystacks. On ‘The Tiger’, they will face towering climbing nets, with no safety rope and a few live electric cables popped in for good measure. After all that, leaping 20 feet into an ice-covered pool probably comes as a pleasant relief.

The trials of Tough Guy are so risky that all runners sign a ‘death warrant‘, accepting responsibility should they meet their maker. So far, the eight mile course has been the real end of the road for just two participants. Broken bones, hypothermia and head injuries, however, are common.

For most people, the race probably seems like hell on earth. That does not stop up to 5,000 eager competitors lining up at the start line every year. Many even add spice to the gruelling race by wearing nothing but thongs or fairy outfits.

What is behind this collective insanity? Tough Guy is the brainchild of Billy Wilson, an ex-soldier, cyclist and marathon runner otherwise known as ‘Mr Mouse’. He charges participants upwards of £100 to run the course, with all proceeds going to a local horse sanctuary and homeless shelter.

Tough Guy is one of many sporting events to truly push participants to the limit. America’s You May Die Death Race, which incorporates 24 hours of physical and mental challenges, has a failure rate of 90%. And although competitors in the Iron Man triathlon do at least avoid mud, a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bicycle race and a marathon means the event is no easy ride.

The tough get going

For some, these gruelling courses are nothing to aspire to. Physical strength, they say, doesn’t make us better people. Nor does putting our bodies through unnecessary, pointless suffering. These runners aren’t tough, say critics, they are stupid.

Nothing could be further from the truth, participants would argue. The Tough Guy Challenge requires awe-inspiring determination and courage. On the gruelling course, participants help and support each other. Taking on extraordinary, and often deeply miserable, extremes is more about mental endurance, discipline and humour than brute strength.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to be tough, or sensitive?
  2. How can we best equip ourselves to deal with physical hardship?


  1. Design a training regime to prepare you to take on the Tough Guy challenge. How do you think you can prepare yourself for such a gruelling experience?
  2. Design your own super-challenging obstacle course. Think carefully about what you can incorporate to stretch your participants to the very limit.

Some People Say...

“Suffering unnecessarily is just dumb.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m pretty sure this isn’t for me...
Not everyone is keen to undergo such gruelling challenges as Tough Guy. But obstacle races like this are actually growing in popularity, as people look for more challenging and exciting ways to test their fitness. Many of these – like the Spartan Race in America – boast of being designed by ‘insane’ athletes, who have worked to design the most extreme challenges it is possible to undertake.
So what would training for that sort of event entail?
For Tough Guy, participants have to be at least 16 years of age, and the benchmark for fitness is the ability to run at the pace of a twelve minute mile for ten miles. That’s pretty fit. Some participants train by going on ten mile runs in the iciest winter, after hosing themselves with water.

Word Watch

Death Warrant
In the Tough Guy race, all participants have to sign this. In many ways, it’s a comic feature of the race. But it also states that everyone takes part at their own risk, and that the organisers of the race are not liable for the accidents or injuries that happen on the course.
Hypothermia means having an abnormally low body temperature. Most functions of the human body require a temperature of around 35°C. Below this temperature, the body struggles to maintain certain functions, resulting in shivering, confusion, difficulties in co-ordination and, ultimately, heart failure and death.
A long distance run, officially of 26 miles and 385 yards. Now a sporting event held in cities all over the world, the marathon originally commemorated the fabled run of Pheidippides, an ancient Greek messenger who ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens.
Otherwise known as stamina, this refers to people’s ability to keep going in an activity. Often it refers to strength or cardiovascular endurance in sport, but it can be used about mental tasks as well.


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