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Is it Healthy to be a Tough Guy?

Tough Guy race, winter edition, Jan 2013.

On the last Sunday in January, I ran in the Tough Guy winter race, which was a cold, muddy race on a farm near Birmingham. I have run a few off-road events before, so the mud and the ‘puddles’ were nothing new to me, but Tough Guy has a well-earned reputation for being the hardest event of the genre, worldwide, and it deserves that reputation, it is a tough challenge and many fail to complete the whole course. Of the 5000 crazy men and women who entered the race, only 4500 started, and only 3500 finished.

I enjoyed it, for the most part, as much as anyone can enjoy the cold water. I guess we rarely truly enjoy these things at the time, but I do feel very pleased and proud with myself afterwards! But there was one bit that was an extremely unwelcome surprise.

The torture chamber

I didn’t like the obstacle they called ‘the torture chamber’, that was nasty, but the rest of the race was easy enough, just very cold. The torture chamber involved sliding down a wet muddy bank into the dark unknown of a hidden underground chamber. We slid down and landed in muddy water in pitch dark, the ceiling is low, so you have to crawl through the unknown in the dark on your hands and knees, water up to your hips (in all fours kneeling position) and mud everywhere, crawling on stones and mud, and the water is smelly and likely full of rat piss and runners piss. There are logs on wires hanging from the ceiling, loads of them, to simulate pushing through dense jungle roots, and there are screams everywhere.

The chamber smells, is full of drifting smoke from outside, people screaming, obstacles in your way, mud, stones, poles, and among the hanging logs, live electric wires are dangling everywhere. They really hurt, big time. I got one right in my face, it ‘bit me’ on my top lip (which was still swollen two days later) and it really hurt. I hadn’t been expecting it, so my reaction was shock, I shouted “F**k” really loud, as I thought someone had just punched me hard in the face, and it made me instantly angry, I was up for a fight in the dark, I was disoriented, I pulled back, confused and momentarily unsure of where I was or what I was doing. For a long time, perhaps 3 or 4 or 5 full seconds, I genuinely couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing. I had just returned from 2.5 weeks in India on a business trip, and I had only been home 3 or 4 days, and my mind was trying to recall, in the dark, where I was…India, a hotel, on a trip? That was a very strange feeling indeed.

Then as I pulled back from the first ‘sting’, another ‘bit me’ on the butt, then 2 more, on my thigh and my back. I was shouting “F**k this shit, f**k off that hurt, f**k I’m outta here” loud and angry as I realised what was hitting me, and I just surged forward through people, wires, logs, mud and filth til I was clear of the “electric eels” as the organisers call them. The way out of the torture chamber was to find drainage pipe openings in the dark, called the ‘Viet Cong tunnels’, they were about man-sized, and we had to crawl uphill up these pipes (my crocodile push ups training made this easy for me but the guy in front of me struggled like mad), several of them, until we found day light at the top and emerged splashing into another wet muddy puddle. On reflection, the obstacle was pretty cool fun, except that electric shock stuff, the whole thing had people screaming like crazy in this dark cold wet underground pit, it was just very disorienting, I was glad to be out.

Icy cold water

The cold water pools are sufferable depending on depth. Up to about heart-height is just about OK, but once your lungs, shoulders and head go under that water, it’s brutal. There are huge chunks of ice floating everywhere, the cold gives you a nasty brain freeze, instant intense painful headache. I gained a new understanding of how those people died when the Titanic sunk. 20 minutes in that water and you would lose all control. At one point we had to march through a pool full of ice which went for about 100 meters (see the picture), from knee-deep at the start, to almost armpit deep at the furthest point, then you turn round and walk back. It takes maybe 3 or 4 minutes in total, and by the last 25%, it was as though I knew my legs were there, logically I knew I was walking, and I knew that I was controlling them, making them walk, I logically knew my brain was controlling the muscles, but I could not feel anything from my hips down, they were just numb stumps, I couldn’t feel the ground at all. If you fell over, you wouldn’t feel yourself trip, you wouldn’t have control to stop yourself plunging under. Nasty cold.

Trippin’ on endorphins

So Tough Guy was pretty tough, but it’s important to remember that the whole event only lasts 2 or 3 or 4 hours then it’s all over. I have done much harder things…cycling John O’Groats to Land’s End was much harder, that pain went on for 9 long days! That bike ride may not have been so intense, but most of these escapades are tests of your mind, not your body. The test is to see how long you can block out that little voice saying “screw this, just quit, go put your feet up like a normal person, just stop, no one is MAKING you do this, you are free to quit” and ignore it and keep going. Your body makes endorphins, natural painkillers, for about 3 hours, then they run out. When marathon runners talk about hitting the wall, often it’s a combination of their blood sugar running low, and the endorphin supply drying up. If a woman giving birth goes beyond 3 hours in the latter stages of labour, they usually step up the level of pain relief, as they know that her endorphin production stops at 3 hours.

So a 2 to 4 hour event (a marathon, or Tough Guy) is within the range of most people, because your body can block out a lot of the pain for the first 3 hours or so. After that, is the real test, the mind control test. Can you ignore the voice in your head, can you keep going when you don’t have to? 3 or 4 hours on Tough Guy is horribly cold, but otherwise OK.

Endurance events are harder

9 Days cycling 12 hours per day in the rain was much harder, you spend hours every day just ignoring the little voice, as it reasons and rationalizes with you, trying to talk you into quitting. Same story running a 10 or 11 hour ultra-marathon…as you reach every check point the voice says “just quit here” and you have to ignore the voice, and the aches, the pain, the tiredness, and keep going, because you know that if you quit, you will HATE yourself for months to come, but if you finish…victory and pride lasts forever.

The John O’Groats to Land’s End bike ride was 963 miles, we covered and average of 110 miles per day, the shortest day was about 90 miles (over the Lake District hills), and the longest was 133 down to Glasgow on our 3rd day, when it rained almost all day. That was a long slog over the Highlands in what should have been stunning scenery. No single day of that bike ride was as hard as running the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges (mountain ultra-marathon in France) and no single hour was as intense as freezing in that water on Tough Guy….but the cumulative effect of 9 days, up at 05:30 every morning in a wet tent, to put on wet clothes, ass lube at that time of day, pee in a portaloo in a field, scoff some fried crap and get cycling by 06:30…for 10 to 12 hours every day…9 days was gruelling. days 7, 8 and 9…I had muscle knots in my buttocks, neck, traps, sore hands, some saddle soreness, tired quads…those last 3 days were sheer mental grind, the body wants to give up, the sense of humour is gone, all you have left is mental strength. That was hard graft.

But is it healthy?

I have really enjoyed the endurance events I have completed over the last 3 or 4 years. However, I think I might be done with the races and endurance tests now. I have been there, done that, and ticked the boxes. Over the last 3 years I have run 10 marathons, 2 ultra-marathons, cycled the LEJOG (Land’s End John O’Groats) bike ride, I ran a sub 3:15 marathon in my 40s, I’ve run a 42-minute (42:01 to be precise) 10k, now I’ve done Tough Guy winter challenge too. I’ve run a 90-minute half marathon, I’ve completed 1014 good form wide-grip push-ups in an hour, I’ve done 1600 push-ups in a day, I came first (in my age group, 9th overall) in the Exmoor marathon, I’ve walked the 92 mile Ridgeway path in 3 days and I’ve done it all while running a publishing company, in a nasty recession, and while being the best father I can be to 3 young kids, and I am an ex 20-year fat smoker!!

So to sum that up, I have done enough of this stuff to prove to myself that I am pretty fit and pretty tough and pretty determined! But I have suffered a number of injuries over the same 3 or 4 years, I trashed my knee and that required surgery, I broke my back which was extremely painful and had me off exercise for several weeks, I have fractured bones in both legs, I damaged a disc in my back and suffered muscle spasms in my lower spine which meant I couldn’t even stand up straight for 3 weeks, and I have suffered a number of lesser pulls, tears and sprains, so I think that to keep pursuing endless endurance goals now runs contrary to my broader long-term objectives.

Long term health goals

Over-riding the whole of MND, the stated purpose of why I developed MotherNaturesDiet as a way of living healthily, is to find “the best way to live for achieving supreme good health”. I then define said supreme good health by a number of factors, which are:

My definition of supreme good health is:

  • Free from pain, disease, immobility and any obvious illness
  • Abundant vibrant energy
  • Resisting the signs of premature aging – youthful looks and energy levels
  • A good level of basic fitness, strength and flexibility
  • A balance of moderate physical ability across a range of functions
  • Attractiveness – clear skin, not too fat, not too thin, bright healthy looks, a fit sexy body
  • Natural virile healthy sexual function and high libido
  • Longevity – I want to live a long, healthy life, free from disease and disability
  • Age well – maintaining excellent levels of physical and mental ability well into my old age

Clearly, if I go on beasting myself through endless endurance events, driven by some macho desire to show off and score one-up’s over my mates (and it seems most people I do these things with are 5 or 10 or 15 years younger than me!) then the net result…a broken, battered, damaged body, is not congruent with my greater goals. Also, I am not stupid, I know these broken bones and damaged joints will cause considerable problems later in life…arthritis, immobility, restricted flexibility, constant joint pain, etc.

Time to calm down and think about the longer term

So I think I have reached a point now, where I am smart enough to say “I’ve done it, proved it, I’m way fitter than 99% of the general population, that’s enough, now stop before I damage myself for good and then spend 40 years from age 60 to 100 regretting it.” I plan to live til I am 108, and I want my body upright and functioning til well over 100. I plan to spent my old age (70 and above) hiking the Munro’s of Scotland, walking the Lake District, exploring the Alps, the Canadian Rockies, and more. I do not want to find myself 75 and a cripple in a wheelchair. Athletes are supremely fit, but studies show that in fact many of them suffer a remarkably short life expectancy despite their fitness. One major study last year showed life expectancy of elite athletes (all those hailed gold medal winners) to be just 68!!! I want 40 more years than that!!!!

So over the next few years, I might still like to run a few more mountain marathons because I really enjoy them, but they will be run with respect for my body, using a barefoot running style, and not thrashing myself to achieve a certain time, but just enjoying the scenery and the camaraderie. I have changed, dare I say matured, and I have new goals now, much longer term plans to consider.

Chasing these goals is like anything…you can never really win. Us men, with all our testosterone, we are so competitive…we keep trying to beat everyone, but there will always be someone faster, stronger, better, younger…no one can stay on top for ever. It’s better to get over the competitive thing and just enjoy running (and other sports) for what it is. That’s what I like about the off-road marathons and especially mountain marathons, they serve my love of the outdoors, of mountains, of hills, of natural open spaces. I have run 2 marathons alone on Brecon Beacons, just because I enjoy the space. On both occasions, I ran 27 miles, mostly in rain, completely alone, up and down over the highest peaks in South Wales…it takes an immense amount of motivation to do that, you have to love the thing itself, for the sheer joy of running.

In the long-term, I want to achieve more balance between keeping fit and looking after my own body, treating it with a bit more respect. Many athletes are in great shape, in the younger years, but pay a price later in life. I was overweight for 20 years, I smoked for 18 years, and now I have ‘suddenly’ started pushing my body harder than most people do in a lifetime. I don’t want to reach my 60’s or 70’s and regret this time. Going forward, I intend to train in ways that are kinder to my body. No more injuries, no more extreme events.

My MND goals are long-term goals, I want this body of mine in good functioning order for the next 60 years! I need to start looking after it!

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