OLVERHAMPTON, England — Midway through the Tyre Torture, a seemingly endless obstacle of countless tires haphazardly and dangerously spread over a hundred yards of calf-deep mud, a tired, shivering runner coated with layers of filth pauses for a moment and turns back to the competitors behind him. With equal notes of exhaustion and exasperation, he says, "This seems a little unnecessary, doesn't it?"

Well, yeah. Of course it does. Unnecessary is the entire point of the Tough Guy competition, a semi-annual 8-mile race through mud, manure, water, fire, more mud, barbed wire, nets, electrical charges, still more mud, smoke grenades, sewer pipes, ice, even more mud, ropes, cables, tires — did I mention mud? — on a horse farm in England's West Midlands. To get an idea of what Tough Guy is all about, just drive up to the farmhouse where a large canvas banner depicting Jesus Christ's removal from the cross decorates a barn. Written next to Jesus: "The Original Tough Guy." To get a better idea, imagine the sort of marathon obstacle course the meanest drill sergeant in the Marines would design if ordered to send an undisciplined mob of gay, flag-burning, smart-ass college boys through an afternoon of agony.

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It's called Fiery Holes because after you leap the fire, there's a pit of icy water waiting.

But to fully appreciate Tough Guy, you need to run it. And not in July when they hold a summer version and temperatures are in the pleasant 70s and swimming through the Underwater Tunnel is nothing more than a refreshing dip in the pool. You need to run it in January, when the weather can be so cold the first competitors occasionally scrape some flesh off their legs as they break through the ice on the water hazards. You need to run the opening 6-mile cross country portion, haul your body up and down, up and down, up and down the hillside Slalom, climb over and into and out of the 7-foot-high cement containers of knee-deep horse manure in the Elephant Graveyard, wade, crawl, slip and slide through the series of waist-deep trenches of mud that make up the Ghurka Grand National, climb the nets to the top of 30-foot twin pyramids in the Tiger and dash through its tentacles of stinging electric tape.

And then you need to pause briefly at the water stop, and look ahead to the remaining 22 obstacles spread over two miles of the Killing Fields. Where the course now gets tough.

Just don't pause too long because hypothermia is setting in and you don't want to spend any longer on the course than necessary or fall any farther behind the other nearly 5,000 competitors.

That's right. Five thousand runners. And there's no prize money. Hell, the entry fees range from $100 to $500. There's not even a free T-shirt. All the competitors get for their money and agony is the satisfaction that they have the right stuff to call themselves Tough Guys.

If they survive, that is.

A lethal Mr. Mouse trap
Like so many colossally stupid endeavors, running the Tough Guy seems like a good idea over a couple of pints in a London pub two nights before the race. As Reed Costello tells me, "Drunk is the best time to fill out the race application."

That's not quite accurate. Drunk is the only time to fill out the race application, which includes a disclaimer that the race "will no doubt take me to and perhaps beyond my endurance level" and a space to list my religion — "For last rites before burning."

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Should have known after they asked us to list our religion for "last rites" that there would be death warrants to sign.

Costello is a 36-year-old firefighter in Willingboro, N.J., a former smoke jumper who parachuted into mountainous woods to fight forest fires and an ex-Marine who was in the recon forces behind the lines before the Gulf War. In other words, he is one very fit, very tough dude. He actually enjoys the Tough Guy race — "It's like taxes. You have to pay your Tough Guy taxes every year" — and he runs it every winter with his friends, Anthony Capone, a 37-year-old co-owner of the highly rated Brooklyn restaurant Alma, and Adam Sprehe, a 25-year-old worker at a nonprofit organization for at-risk youth in New Jersey. And this year they somehow convinced me that to accurately cover the competition, I needed to run it myself. "You just need to get in the right mind-set — that you're going to be cold and tired for a short time but after that victory is yours," Costello insisted in an e-mail. "P.S. They added yet another water obstacle to the course — Viagra Falls."

I begin to question the wisdom of my decision when I arrive at the course the day before the competition. No, that's not right. I first question the decision when I sober up and wake with a hangover and the beginning of a cold. I seriously question the decision when I arrive at the course outside the city of Wolverhampton and am greeted by the stench of the dozens of old dogs lying about the farmhouse office and the sound of someone hollering, "Laurie, I can't find the death warrants!"

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:

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Tires, cement and even iced-over water are all hazards for bare flesh.

•  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," 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.

Claustrophobia-inducing sewage pipes? An underwater swim in freezing water? Electric fencing? Running through fire? Could they possibly come up with more ludicrous, more dangerous obstacles?

"One year," Costello tells me, "Mr. Mouse shot live ammo over the heads of people crawling under the barbed wire."

That would certainly explain the death warrants.

"The limits are actually set by the runners themselves," Skone says while describing the course. "Most of the people who design the course are actual competitors. We'll run the course and people will say, 'How was it?' 'Oh, that wasn't so bad. Maybe we can make that section tougher.' And we listen to feedback from other runners. Each year we hear people say, 'We hated that section of the course,' or 'We hated that obstacle' or 'That section was just too tough.' And we'll say, 'Right. Let's see if we can extend that section and make it even tougher.'

"It's about being physically strong, of course — if you haven't been training, you won't make it around the course, and that's just a fact. But there's also the mental aspect, which is just as important, maybe more so. If you've had the proper training and you can conquer that distance between your ears, you'll make it."

Yes, but how does one properly train for such an extreme, patently ridiculous competition? It's not as if there are a lot of cargo nets around to climb, though the official Tough Guy Web site suggests this: "Whilst the Missus isn't looking, tie all the bed sheets together. Fix one end securely to a handy radiator then lower yourself out of a (second) floor window to the ground. Before you are caught climb back up the sheets."

As for the cold, Skone says he and his friends prepare by going for mid-winter runs after spraying themselves with a garden hose.

A deceptively gentle day
We wake to a relatively pleasant morning with some sun breaks, a bit of a breeze and an expected high of around 45. I've never been so happy for global warming.

This is the secret of Tough Guy. For all the mud, the running, the nets, the sewage, the mud, the fire, the heights, the mud, the mud and the mud, Tough Guy comes down mostly to the weather. If the temperature is in the mid-30s or the wind is blowing or it's raining (or worse, all three), then you will be in for a very unpleasant day indeed. If, however, the temperature cracks the 40s and there is no rain, it is manageable. The key is staying dry as long as possible.

"We've changed the course a bit this year," Skone says. "We've moved up the water hazards. They're going to get wet a lot earlier."

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If you're going to slog through mud and crawl under barbed wire, of course you need a costume.

The red-brick farmhouse, a fixer-upper with potential, is a two-hour train ride north of London, about 20 to 30 minutes outside of Birmingham. We took a taxi along a back road to avoid the traffic jam of competitors parking in a pasture, arriving two hours before the scheduled 11-ish start. The farm is already packed with thousands of competitors, including several dozen German soldiers who camped out the night before on the course. While they carbo-load German style with breakfast beers, elsewhere family and friends offer helpful last-minute words of encouragement to other runners. "What's the difference between Tough Guy and getting married?" asks Jeremy Lamb, whose son, James, is running. "Tough Guy is over after a few hours."

There are men in their 60s and girls in their teens and a lot of guys in their 20s and 30s (at 45, I'm one of the older runners). There are welders, soldiers, firefighters, copy editors, cooks, plumbers, programmers, students and teachers. A rough estimate indicates at least 20 percent of the entrants are women. The majority of us are wearing long-sleeve running shirts, running pants or tights, gloves and wool caps while others wear just T-shirts and shorts. And, most puzzling, some are wearing costumes. This year's theme is "Irish Tiger," so there are several runners, Costello included, wearing orange face paint and striped clothing. There also is someone dressed as Superman, a woman dressed as Catwoman, several guys in thong underwear, several more wearing dresses, one man in a monk's cloak and, so help me, a woman dressed as a fairy godmother, complete with wings and tutu.

"At the end of it, you think you're tough because you finished it and survived," Capone says. "And then you look around and you see that there's a guy who finished it ahead of you in his underwear. And then you look around some more and you see that there's a guy who did it while carrying a 30-pound ironing board. You'll see people in wedding dresses and aluminum foil."

All runners must check in at the Death Pit, where we have our entry numbers written across our foreheads with a felt pen and sign our required death warrants. "I confirm that if I should die on the Tough Guy route 2007, that it is my own bloody fault for coming," the warrant reads. "No claim can be made by me or my estate for loss or injury suffered by my failure." There also is a box to check if, in case of death, I want to be buried on the course.

I also note that there are several ambulances parked on the sprawling farm; this is not particularly reassuring.

As the clock approaches 11, everyone crowds toward the starting line. Runners are sorted by experience and speed. The faster your time one year, the closer you get to the front the next (you can also pay your way to the front with a $150 "donation"). I'm packed in with the rest of the first-timers, so far back we can't see the start. Then a cannon fires, smoke grenades shoot onto the course and thousands of howling competitors race ahead through the orange and purple haze. It's a little like the big battle scene in "Braveheart," only in addition to guys in kilts and clan colors, there are guys in thongs and blue body paint.

Wait. No. That's not body paint. They're just cold.

"I was pissed in a pub and got talked into it," a thonged man named Chris explains through chattering teeth. "And then none of us had the sense to back out."

Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images
This guy has great form. Remember, when you run the Tough Guy, keep your mouth tightly closed in the water.

A scary encounter with a "reptile"
Costello has advised me to tie my shoelaces as tight as possible so my shoes don't come off in the mud — "Don't worry about cutting off your circulation, your feet will be numb from the cold anyway" — and also to pace myself so the adrenaline rush doesn't prompt me to go out too fast and then tire too early. Going too fast really isn't a problem. There are so many runners on the course that the biggest problem is having to slow down because of the backup at various turns, jumps and narrow passages.

The initial run through the pastures and woods surrounding the farm actually is rather pleasant. I'm even able to avoid the horse manure in the Elephant Graveyard by climbing around the side walls. At one point, the sun breaks out and I begin to sweat from the warmth.

All that changes once we get to the Ghurka Grand National, the series of trenches that sends us tumbling again and again into mud up to our waists. As I wade through one of these pools of mud, I feel something graze my hip and, out of the corner of my eye, I see the green, scaly snout of an alligator swimming through the mud. What the hell? Why didn't Costello warn me about alligators? No, wait a minute. Mr. Mouse might fire live ammo over runners, but he draws the line at planting alligators in the mud pits. (Probably because he hasn't thought of it.) On closer inspection, I see that it is simply another runner carrying a 6-foot blow-up alligator. Really. I'm not kidding. There is a guy carrying a blow-up alligator. A blow-up alligator! Competing in the Tough Guy is ludicrously challenging enough, but could it be any more difficult than also carrying a 6-foot alligator while running 6 miles, climbing nets, wading through mud and crawling under barbed wire?

"A couple years ago," according to Costello, "the theme was Jesus Warriors and guys were wearing robes and carrying crosses."

I shake my head and plod on. When I have trouble crawling up the slippery slope of the opposite side, a man in a blue cocktail dress extends his right hand and pulls me from the mud, while his left hand clutches a purse slung over his shoulder.

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Nearly 5,000 men and women raced, joking, pushing and pulling one another along. Still, queues are killer if you're soaked.

Then the race turns unpleasant.

It's not the 30-foot-high nets we must climb at the Tiger or the electric wires that are provoking anguished screams from the runners ahead of us. It's the waiting. The lineup is several hundred runners deep, and I end up queuing 30 minutes for my turn. The sun goes behind the clouds, the temperature falls, the wind picks up, and we're just standing there getting colder with every passing minute. I look behind me and see a couple of runners wearing bibs that identify them as "Front Runners," the speedy veterans who start the race at the front of the pack. Can it be? Is it possible that I have already been lapped before I have even reached the Killing Fields?

More to the point, is it possible that anyone would run the Tough Guy course twice?

I finally get my turn to climb the Tiger and enter the Killing Fields, where I spend the rest of the race climbing nets, scaling walls, running through fire, crossing rope bridges hand over hand, squeezing through sewer pipes, crawling under barbed wire, and, of course, swimming through the dreaded, hideous Underwater Tunnel.

How to describe the horror of the Underwater Tunnel? First, you wade through freezing, neck-deep water, ducking under the occasional log until you reach the log bridge. Then you shiver as you wait for your turn. When mine comes, I take a deep breath, duck under the water and fight my way to the first air hole. I've been wet up to my neck for well over an hour, but submerging my head in the cold water brings an exponential increase to the misery. All I want to do is get back above water. But the guy in front of me is in full-out panic. I'm dying here and the guy in front of me won't get out of the way! I'm cursing him and fighting to get past when a course marshal pulls the panicky guy through the air hole and lets him go on without getting back in the water. Well. If he can do it, I sure as hell can do it, too. After all, I almost drowned waiting for him (or at least, I felt like I was drowning). So I scramble out of the air hole as well and scamper to land.

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The air holes are supposed to be a break; instead, you shiver as you wait your turn to go through.

Did I cheat? Perhaps. But I feel justified. I'm 45, for crying out loud. And I didn't want to run this stupid course in the first place.

The rest of the Killing Fields is a long, hard slog through more mud and cold water. We're cold, and we're miserable. I pass dozens of toned, fit, attractive women who are wearing wet, clinging T-shirts and coated with a layer of mud that accentuates their every curve and muscle. I don't pay attention. I'm too cold and tired. I pass a young woman who is shivering against a net. She looks so miserable I try to make her smile by asking, "How did you get so muddy?" It's no use. She just looks at me with the thousand-mile stare of a Vietnam vet. She's gone. As are the many runners rolling on the ground and clutching their legs in pain from cramps or broken bones. As I pass, I am reminded of the journal entry the legendary Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote as he and his expedition froze to death at the South Pole:

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."

Actually, I'm reminded of no such thing. How could I be? All I can think about is finishing this ordeal and getting to the promised hot showers in the barn. How much longer is it? How many more bloody obstacles are there? And it's not even the obstacles that are so bad — well, the Arctic Plunge off a 12-foot-plank into a lake is no pleasure — it's the endless mud pits we have to fight through between the obstacles. We plunge into one, wade through it, climb out the other side and almost immediately find ourselves running into another one. This goes on and on and on and on and on and on, until finally I scream, "ENOUGH ALREADY!!! I GET THE #$&%ING POINT ABOUT THE MUD!"

And then it continues on and we plod ahead into more mud.

And always, somehow, I am behind the two guys in the thongs, most unfortunately when I am directly below them while climbing a net. "How's the view?" one asks.

At long last, we come to the final obstacle, the newly added Viagra Falls. To get there, we wade 30 yards in neck-deep water before climbing up the muddy hill and sliding down a slick tarp into icy water as course marshals use fire hoses to spray us. The hoses and subsequent dunking aren't the worst part, though. No. After all we'd been through, the added wading to reach the slide just seems cruel.

Cruel and, well, unnecessary.

But Viagra Falls is the final obstacle, and soon I'm sprinting across the finish line with a time of 3 hours, 43 minutes and 3 seconds — more than 2½ hours behind Vito Graffagnino's winning time of 1:12:35. I'm 3,573rd overall, but hey, at least I finish. More than a thousand runners do not. And 50 go to the infirmary with hypothermia and broken bones, including one guy who had to quit after suffering an open fracture of his ankle when he fell off a net.


One last question: Are these people nuts?
You're probably asking one question right now: Why the hell would anyone, let alone 5,000 people, subject themselves to such an ordeal? It's the same question I asked repeatedly before, during and after the competition. There generally were two answers. One is the aforementioned "It seemed like a good idea when I was drunk."

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
They ran out of 2007 medals and started handing out ones from previous years to the lucky finishers.

The other reason goes somewhat deeper.

"There's not enough challenges in life anymore, are there?" Skone says. "And it reassures your faith in humanity. You see it on the course. You'll see strangers helping each other. Everyone is out for themselves in the real world, but when you see people pulling people up out of the mud and encouraging strangers to go on, you think maybe there is some hope for humanity."

Well, that might be part of it. There aren't many challenges left. Antarctica and the North Pole have not only been conquered, they're melting. So many people climb Everest each year they have to send expeditions to clean up the garbage. And I did see people helping each other on the course. But if the runners really wanted a challenge or to help people, they would be better off trying to solve the homeless problem with Habitat for Humanity than slithering under the barbed wire of the Stalag Escape.

I think there is another, simpler reason people run the Tough Guy: It's fun.

Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images
No matter how you feel running it, in the end, the Tough Guy is worth, gulp, racing again.

Yes. I can't believe I'm actually writing this, but it's true. As God is my witness, I had fun running the Tough Guy. All kids love crawling in the mud, climbing up and over things, and playing war games. And that's what the Tough Guy essentially is, a big, muddy war game. And as crazy as it sounds, I not only enjoyed climbing over the ropes and crawling under the barbed wire and vaulting the fences, I even feel guilty about not going all the way through the Underwater Tunnel.

I also feel a sense of accomplishment, as unnecessary as that accomplishment was. In fact, I went from a vow that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, do this stupid thing again — to wanting to run it another time. Although, I would make sure to better close my mouth in the muck so that I don't accidentally swallow the same parasite that left me rushing to the bathroom the next night with diarrhea so powerful I feared I had cholera.

For now, however, I simply wear my finisher's medal with deep pride in being a made man, an official Tough Guy. All finishers receive these medals at the end of the course, but by the time I cross the line they are out. So I receive an old medal from 2002. After all the mud and cold I've endured, it's touchingly appropriate.

It depicts a man bending over and mooning me.

By the way, entry forms for 2008 are now available at the Tough Guy Web site. Just be sure to update your tetanus vaccination first.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Avenue. In addition to "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," his new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.

Courtesy of Tough Guy

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