The Original (and Evil) Tough Guy Race

Long before Tough Mudder, there was this soul-crushing contest

The obstacle racing boom is just now peaking, with tens of thousands of average Joes and Janes annually signing themselves up for a few hours of torture in cross-country runs punctuated by a long series of obstacles that usually involve mud, freezing-cold water, barbed wire, cargo nets, walls, fire and the like. These are the Tough Mudders, Muddy Buddies, Spartan Races and Warrior Dashes of the world. Obstacle racing is big business and, if you're in the right mindset, a relatively cheap and quasi-safe test of participants' endurance and pain tolerance.

What most people don't realize, though is that the sport was christened as far back as 1987 by a British guy who goes by the name of "Mr. Mouse." Billy Wilson was a well-known race organizer and promoter when he, apparently, grew bored of the monotony of straightforward running races. Sadist that he was, he came up with the Tough Guy, an 8- or 9-mile race run in the sub-zero temperatures of January on his West Midlands horse farm. It features, on average, 25 obstacles and is every bit as punishing as you can imagine. According to a local newspaper, the 2009 edition resulted in competitors suffering a broken neck, a broken pelvis and a broken pubic bone, among more than a dozen fractures. Oh, and 600 of the 5,000 runners—including the eventual winner—became hypothermic. It is, according to many, the world's most grueling obstacle race.

Jim Cople writes in a 2007 story in ESPN:

Billy Wilson, aka Mr. Mouse (don't ask), started the Tough Guy 22 years ago as a way to spice up cross country runs. Rather than a simple run through the local fields, Wilson added an ever-increasing number of paramilitary obstacles to a course designed to test the competitors' limits of endurance and pain. "In the first three years," he says, "I thought, 'Wow, I'm gonna face a judge that says, "You sent 365 men to their death."'

Well, not yet, though not for lack of trying. Among the hazards Wilson and his friends cooked up:

•  The Fiery Holes: A series of ditches filled with chest- to neck-deep, bone-chilling, muddy water. In between is a small island with burning bales of hay you must run through. "By that point you're usually so cold that you just stand in the fire to warm up," [Anthony] Capone says.

•  The Viet Cong Tunnels: A series of used sewer pipes that snake underground for 20 yards. Some are barely wide enough to fit in, let alone crawl through. And according to rumor, one has a dead end. "If you have any fear of dark, smelly, confined places," course marshal Paul Skone says, "this will address it."

•  The Tiger: You climb up a 30-foot net, climb back down, climb up another one, then climb back down. Easy. Except in between you race through a 20-yard stretch of "jelly fish" electric tapes, some of which are electrified. "They're set to a charge that will stop a bull," Skone says.

•  The Underwater Tunnel: Already bordering on hypothermia, you wade 30 yards through frigid, neck-deep water, then swim underwater beneath a bridge, popping up for oxygen twice if necessary (it is). "Evil. That's the only word for it," Skone says.

Crazy? Yes, but also intriguing (the next one is Jan. 27, if you want to sign up). Anyway, here's a great new video profile by The Good Line, complete with carnage and Mr. Mouse himself waxing poetic all the while about the nature of suffering and pushing one's self beyond the limits. It's poetry, indeed, particularly when Mouse nonchalantly pulls out a full-sized hairbrush and runs it through his bushy drill sergeant's mustache (1:06). Now that's tough.