Winter Tough Guy

You don’t have to be mad to take part in Tough Guy, but… ok, you do have to be mad

Click on pics for hig res



“It’s the most hideous thing I’ve ever done,” says Jo Houchell, 32, a veteran of 2004’s Tough Guy. She reckoned once was enough, so this year she’s watching as her husband Ollie and 5,000 others plunge into icy water, run though fire, wade though hip-deep mud and climb a vast, vertiginous assault course, all after a five-mile cross-country run.And they're off 1

The squeamish should look away now. For the rest, welcome to Tough Guy, Winter 2005.

Mr Mouse 2“The Killing Fields”, as the obstacle section is known, is essentially an open-air torture chamber. It’s more physically demanding than anything the army’s got (according to competitor Martin Compton of the Royal Engineers) and yet thousands pay £45 for the privilege twice a year. The brains behind it is 67-year-old Billy Wilson, known as Mr Mouse (right). He’s not your everyday character. “When I married Celia we decided that we wanted to live in the world of children, so we became Mr and Mrs Mouse,” he explains from behind a moustache that a Boer War general would be proud of.

The Mouses set up a sanctuary for old horses just outside Wolverhampton. It swiftly became a haven for elderly donkeys, dogs and pigeons. In 1986, to fund their Peter Pan-esque retirement menagerie, as well as their charity work with disadvantaged children, Mr Mouse created the Tough Guy course in their fields. It’s grown every year to become the monster it is today.

Ollie 1Before the start, thick-skulled military types strut about oozing bravado, but they’re a minority. Most people with race numbers marker-penned on to their foreheads look like they should know better. Ollie Houchell, Jo’s husband, is a 33-year-old chartered architect (left, later that day): “It’s a great day out and it keeps you in check,” he says, smearing himself with Deep Heat as Jo looks on, shaking her head. Bram and Gavin Fischer are a father and son team from Chepstow. It’s 18-year-old Gavin’s first time and he can hardly wait to be off. Bram, 51, has done it before. “It’s a challenge,” he says, grimly eyeing the Killing Fields like a general surveying a superior foe.

More than 10 per cent of the competitors are women. First-timer Natalie Haughton, a 24-year-old student nurse (right), is particularly dreading the water tunnel. She hops nervously from foot to foot: Nalalie 1“Six months ago it sounded like a good idea,” she says.

The brave entrants are marshalled into a pen like lycra-clad POWs. High above them on a steep bank, a man dressed as Genghis Kahn charges about on a horse shouting “Yohimbe!” – the Tough Guy battle cry (to find what it means you have to complete the course). Then they’re off.

The 5,000 slide and tumble down the bank, then off through the fluorescent clouds of a dozen smoke bombs. It looks like a cross between the London Marathon and a riot.

After just a mile, Ollie Houchell keels over, a searing pain ripping through his right leg. He lies in agony as runners stream past. Meanwhile civil servant Rhys Peters, 24 (left)Tough Guy 2005 326a, has stormed through the pack to reach the Killing Fields in the lead. Despite coming ninth in the summer event, after a recent snowboarding injury he had decided to wrap up warm and plod around with his mates near the back. Instead he “got the blood in his nostrils” and sprinted off through the field.

Up, over and through the assault course he goes, bounding across burning straw, leaping ditches, crawling and wading through tyres and mud. Then it’s the water tunnel. He plunges into a small lake and wades, gasping, chest and face red with cold (below). There are three obstacles, each meaning a couple of seconds fully submerged. In January, in Staffordshire. Peters explained afterwards how it felt: “I could feel my body screaming: ‘Just get out! Get out! When it came to ducking my head under I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing, but a voice was telling me to just keep going.”Tough Guy 2005 291

Soon the Killing Fields swarm with thousands of mud-covered people. They teem across vast wood and rope contraptions, pound though fire and battle through water: a horde of filthy, panting faces, wracked with pain.Tough Guy 2005 272

Peters finishes in one hour, 12 minutes and 13 seconds. The rest follow over the next four hours. Most are in pain. A lot are shivering uncontrollably. Almost all of them say they enjoyed it.

Emma02Cambridge MA student Emma Pooley, 22, (right) was the first woman at one hour, 22 minutes and 47 seconds. She reckons a woman will win it one day. Considering she’d run in the Southern Cross Country Championships the day before, and it was her first Tough Guy, she’s got every chance of proving herself right next year. “I’m quite a fan of mud,” she reveals. Another factor in her favour.

Ollie Houchell staggers up in three hours, 14 minutes and 54 seconds, met by a very proud Jo. He’s “bruised to hell and back” from dragging his useless right leg over the obstacle course. The pain early in the race was his quad muscle tearing – he’ll be on crutches for a while. But he finished. Bram and Gavin Fischer have stuck together, and make it in three hours, 45 minutes and 32 seconds.

Tough Guy 2005 131The mud-soaked finishers, lips blue and eye-sockets purple with cold, are quietly proud after pushing themselves so hard.

It’s inspirational stuff and both the photographer for this article and its writer resolve to come back to Tough Guy next year – as competitors.

Postscript 21/09/07

I did go back to the Killing Fields, but only to stay as a guest of Mr Mouse, to take his fifty dogs for a walk and write about it in the Telegraph. Doing the Winter Tough Guy seems like a great idea until you actually think about it.


Copyright The Financial Times Ltd, photos Paul Graville and Angus Watson

Tough Guy 2005 073