Support our mission
The Tough Guy events are just as fun for spectators, most of whom have friends or family running the course.
The Tough Guy events are just as fun for spectators, most of whom have friends or family running the course. (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

Willy Mouse has been running the Tough Guy challenge at his rural property west of Birmingham for about 20 years now.

But in a throwing down of the gauntlet, he said Americans shouldn’t try this extreme challenge.

“Don’t bother to come,” Mouse said. “You can’t compare to the English.”

Regardless of nationality, the Tough Guy course is an extreme experience for anyone. It will leave you sweaty, muddy, messy and maybe even broken.

Billed as the “original survival ordeal” on, the event’s Web site, Tough Guy is a twice-yearly event where participants run, climb, swim and push their personal limits to the brink of sanity.

Along an approximately six-mile course, participants run up and down hills, climb massive 40-foot-high wooden A-frames, run through burning bales of hay and navigate their way through a host of other obstacles.

During the summer events, such as the one held last month, contestants run the course twice. Thankfully, at the January event, it’s one lap around with less emphasis on the water areas.

“It’s about people coming here to test themselves on the toughest, most arduous course in the world,” Mouse said. “It’s a test of mental and physical endurance.”

And while about 2,500 entrants last month braved the pains of the course — costing between 50 and 150 pounds depending on when you enter — fun seemed to be the order of the day.

There were the legions of face-painted competitive teams, but there was also the guy in the Batman costume, two friends wearing three-piece suits and countless contestants hauling along blow-up dolls.

“It attracts mainly military types, armed forces on the ground, police and fire service, things like that,” Mouse said. “Then you have the physical fitness clubs, people who achieve things, and people who have too much money and want to learn about real life.”

There’s also a definite primal-carnival feel to the competition. As bagpipes and drums filled the air, families, friends and well-wishers watched contestants go by at various points, and concession stands kept those not brave enough to test the Tough Guy with plenty of things to eat and drink.

Before the first crop of racers set off, signaled by the Raiders of the Lost Fart team setting off a ceremonial cannon, Mark Tritton and other contestants stood locked in stockades at the top of a hill, their penalty for registering in the wrong tent.

Tritton didn’t seem bothered by the Tough Guy tradition, adding that it’s his third year running the course.

“I should know better,” said Tritton, a bricklayer during the day.

But regardless of the course’s foreboding appearance, it’s actually quite safe when participants follow the rules and don’t do stupid things such as jump off the obstacles, said Rob Woollen, a contestant since 2001 who’s known as “The Finger.”

“The first time I did it I broke my finger,” Woollen said to explain his nickname’s origin.

While Woollen didn’t do last week’s course — he had a triathlon the following weekend — he helps get the course ready before each event.

Participants have to sign disclaimers regarding any injuries, and injuries do occur, he said.

“You do get broken legs,” he said. “One guy dislocated his knee while posing for a photo.”

Woollen said some Royal Marines used the course as an unofficial training camp, and the more hardcore enthusiasts make up their own incentives.

For Woollen, running through “The Tiger,” a course segment that includes a run through a section of electrified wires flanked by two 40-foot climbs, wasn’t enough.

“Last year, you had to bite the wire,” he said. “It was on medium and it knocked me out.”

Despite the hardcore nature of Tough Guy, people of all shapes and sizes turned out, with nothing in common except wanting to push themselves.

Justin Gardner, an electrician who stopped during the second lap because a friend got a concussion, said he enjoyed his first year at Tough Guy.

“It’s just fun, something out of the ordinary,” he said. “But I don’t like the running.”

He wasn’t expecting the electrified cords, either.

“Not very nice at all,” Gardner said. “I didn’t think it was a nice surprise.”

See slideshow for more images.


stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up