At seven o’clock on a chilly January morning, Durham students gathered to prepare themselves for Tough Guy, one of the most grueling and intense competitions ever to tempt the minds of the insane.
At 11am the starting cannon sounded and the 4,359 competitors ran off into a nightmarish course of ice and electricity.
Jake Bartholomew, a second year student at Josephine Butler college and Tough Guy participant, told Palatinate: “I can’t really stress how cold it was.”
Sitting in Cafe Nero, Bartholomew’s eyes take on a haunted look as he recalls: “Just so cold. You had to wade through unbroken ice sheets.
“They were breaking them up right in front of you as you went along.”
The majority of the runners who didn’t make it to the end of the course were pulled out by officials because of the cold.
Hypothermia was a real concern for organizers and support staff, and at the end of the course the competitors who made it through were treated to hot showers, jelly babies, and hot beverages.
Mathilde Puls, a University College fresher, told Palatinate: “most people couldn’t even hold their hot chocolate they were shaking so much.”
Chris Lowans, a second year physics student at Butler, told Palatinate: “after about two hours I felt like death.”
“And for three hours after the race was over I was still shivering.”
One of the main factors contributing to the extraordinary cold was the inclusion of a waist-deep, 160-meter water trench which had frozen over the previous night.
Emily Field-Lucas, a Master’s student in Evolutionary Medicine who won the women’s’ race last year, presented the ice lake one of the most difficult parts.
“I found it a lot harder this year,” Field-Lucas told Palatinate. Despite coming in second this year, Field-Lucas is very happy with the result.
“I googled the woman who beat me and found out that she was some pro ultra-sportsman. So, yeah, she can have that.”
Along with the cold, competitors had to face barbed wire, mud, tunnels, and live electric wires to reach the finish.
All of these obstacles were rough, but the electric shocks – part of the aptly named ‘torture chamber’ – stand out in the minds of competitors.
Georgie Lund, an MSc student in Conflict Prevention, Sustainable Peace and Security who was interviewed with Field-Lucas, nodded solemnly when talking about the torture chamber.
“You go into this tunnel,” Lund said, miming a crawl, “and up ahead you can hear grown men crying.”
“Every profanity you’ve ever heard,” agreed Field-Lucas.
Chris Lowans shares in the torture chamber hatred: “I remember being honestly confused for a second.
“I thought that somebody had actually punched me in the face. I mean, you’re just thrown back basically.”
But for all the pain and anguish competitors went through, most agreed that they would do it again.
“I’m of two minds,” said Lowans. “After the race I just felt stupid for having put myself through all that. But now, I wonder what might happen next year when I can train harder.
“Though,” he admitted, “there’s really no such thing as being prepared for Tough Guy.”
All runners interviewed wholeheartedly agreed that most of the battle was mental.
“You can run and train a bit before,” said Bartholomew, “and it is cold and physically demanding at first. But after you’re halfway through it’s just all mental.”
When competitors finally crossed the finish line they were given medals and handed to their various support teams who were universally considered to be the real heroes.
“If it wasn’t for the support team I would still be out there shivering,” said Lowans.
In the end, the newly-made Tough Guys made their way back home, bruised, battered, but proud.
According to Georgie Lund, “sure it may have been horrific, but it’s just so cool to say you’ve done it.”
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Photographs: Krystina Warrington & Malcolm Evans