Name - Toughest London
Date - 23rd April 2016
Course Length - 8km and 40 obstacles
Approximate cost - Staggered pricing from £65 to £95 in the last month before the race
Location - Pippingford Park, London
Website - http://www.toughest.se/en/events/london/
What is Toughest London?
Toughest is a brand of obstacle course races which originated in the Nordics. Toughest holds races of 8km long packed with obstacles across Sweden, Denmark and Norway and more recently, held their first race in London.
The races are more than your average Tough Mudder, with unique obstacles and penalty rounds, there is something for all fitness levels to enjoy. They also host their own specific training lab where you can go and polish off your obstacle course racing skills before a big race.
They even hosted the very first obstacle course in the Arctic circle: Toughest Ice.
Pre Race - Training
My weekly routine consisted of:
- 2 Strength days (pull ups, dips, handstand push ups, deadlifts, pistol squats and muscle up training, 5 sets, 7 reps for each)
- 2 HIIT days (40 second sprints, 50 second rest x 7)
- 1 Yoga
Working out on this 5 day weekly routine was excellent preparation for a course whereby I'd need both cardiovascular capacity and upper body strength.
Through following this style of training for about 3 months, I'd made great progress in strength, muscle gain and even fat loss on a weekly basis. They key was around nutrient timing, whereby my highest calorie days were on strength workout days, sufficient carbs to fuel my HIIT, with lower calorie / lower carbohydrate days on rest days and yoga days.
I'd managed to reduce my bodyweight by only a couple of KG, whilst simultaneously upping the speed of my sprints and increasing the volume of my strength workouts by over 20% (i.e. moving from 25 pull ups to 31 and bodyweight dips to 4kg weighted dips each session).
To supplement my training, I also took advantage of the set of monkey bars at my gym, completing "laps" on the monkey bar before each HIIT session. This was excellent for both my grip and hand strength and after a couple of months I was able to fly across the monkey bars with no difficulty.
This continual training of the hands had also built up a tough layer of skin on my palms. These callouses became thick and acted like a natural pair of gloves - this was however until they ripped during one training session, leaving nothing but bloody hand prints on the bar.
Pre Race - Hand Care
It was 13 days till race day and the tough hands I'd spend weeks building up were now as fresh and delicate as a baby's hands. I needed to recover quick, whilst also ensuring I didn't lose training progress.
Having your callouses rip apart from your hands is not a pleasant experience. Many regard it as a sign of an extreme workout, but in reality, it's simply a sign of poor hand care.
Any individual who works with a bar as part of their regular routine should take great care of their hands, whether you're a rower, power-lifter, cross-fitter or indeed an obstacle course racer.
They key to effective hand recovery is of course rest and ensuring the area is not rubbed and disturbed earlier. You can of course stop training whilst your hands heal but for me this was not an option.
My solution was therefore to cover my hands with athletic tape each time I went to go and work on the bars. Progress was much slower but I'd gone from 5 laps of the local monkey bars, to only managing 1.5 laps with ripped hands.
As race day came, I went for a combination of hand protection strategies, including wrapping my hands with black athletic tape and then wearing gloves on top.
Race Day - 8K and 40 Obstacles
With an obstacle race you need not only challenging obstacles, but to create an atmosphere where people push themselves and hold a sense of camaraderie. Not only this, but you need to have impeccable organisation, including how many individuals to start at the same time, the amount of "lanes" within an obstacle (i.e. how many ropes will you have for people to climb?) and also good placement of obstacles to help any family and friends enjoy the day too.
Toughest London has it all. Any box that could have been ticked was done so in terms of the race itself.
Having arrived about 11:30am to Pippingford Park, I headed off to wrap up my hands, put on my gloves and drop my bag off.
I also consumed a home-made mix of coconut oil, coffee, creatine and baking soda as a little pre-race booster.
Ready to go, the music was pumping. And with the sun beating down and a couple of beers in hands, you would think you were at a festival, complete with stalls and areas to explore.
Having skipped through the obligatory pre-race safety briefing and a useful explanation of the penalty rounds and fast lanes, the race began.
Here's where Toughest London really earned their brownie points.
Not only did they have all your typical obstacles such as monkey bars, carrying wood, crawling and of course, a big ramp at the end. They also had various areas where there was "fast lanes" which featured more difficult versions of your typical obstacles.
For those who find standard monkey bars a little easy, there was the opportunity for a flying monkey where participants could take on the more difficult version and potentially secure a better time.
For those who are able to climb a rope like a navy seal up to a helicopter, there was the notorious "ninja-warrior" inspired salmon ladder to try.
The choice of obstacle difficulty and the addition of penalty runs (e.g. running up a nearby hill and down again - not something you want to be doing when your 5k and 20 obstacles down...), it made an event for all levels of fitness to enjoy.
Race Day - The Course
We made our way through some fairly slippery areas, up and down, almost dancing the course for fear of falling over (despite some impressive moves, lots of people did indeed fall over).
For an idea of the terrain of the course - check of the video below:
There were several walls to complete during the course, with the first being during the first kilometer of the course. Not overly difficult as a man that's over 6 ft (or cm), simply grab the top, swing over your legs and your away.
After some minor obstacles, including an easy log carry, I was faced with traverse walls. Three sections to complete straight after the other. The first having a number of climbing holds available on a slanted wall and the second being a horizontal pole to maneuver across.
The third section was a slightly slanted wall with string-like holds to use, with nothing else. Losing my grip coming off the horizontal pole I unfortunately slipped off the obstacle and frustratingly ran to the penalty marker.
Next up was an "Irish table", a horizontal piece of wood held abouut 5 ft (1.5M) off the floor. The trick here was to have a big vertical jump whilst throwing your body over the obstacle, bringing the legs around is fairly easy once your stomach is on the obstacle.
After wading through what can only be described as a swamp. I came to one of Toughest's signature obstacles - Dragon's back.
More of a mind game than anything else, all you need to do is jump across to the next platform whilst simultaneously grabbing a pole above it. Though when you're not completely confident in where you'll land, it's easy to over and underestimate the jump if this one is new to you.
Right before me was a fairly young girl who I imagine hadn't come across this type of obstacle before, who didn't jump far enough and slid down to group beneath her with a thud.
Following the Dragon's back were every 7 year old's favorite, the monkey bars! I was quite surprised when I saw the monkey bars, as they were almost completely horizontal. Usually within obstacle course racing monkey bars are places with the first half sloping upwards and the second half sloping downwards.
With the difficulties I'd had with my hands in training, I was fairly grateful for the straight horizontal set of monkey bars and completed them without difficulty.
It was at this point, maybe 2.5k down, that I met another lone wolf on the course, John, who I completed the rest of the course with. He was a personal trainer who was also in the middle of training for a half iron man, very impressive!
We headed along the side of a river with excitement as we saw the next obstacle, a 3m+ slide that launches you into the river. Sadly, this obstacle wasn't available on the day as it was broken.
How it was broken, however, was a mystery to me. It wasn't as if some older boys had been playing on the slide before us and left it unusable from what I could see. Nevertheless, we jogged onward.
Spending the majority of my past few weeks in an office starting at a spreadsheet, it was easy to forget the natural beauty that England has. The approach to the next obstacle was breathtaking, either due to the beautiful landscape or the fact that we'd continued to run up a significant hill!
"The sternum checker" faced us next. Famous for its ability to knock the wind out of your chest. The obstacle requires you to jump from one log, up and over another higher log in front of you.
The alternative to this obstacle was a long penalty run uphill so we'd threw ourselves over the obstacle without too much hesitation. This obstacle proved slightly tricky for a couple of people as they didn't jump far enough to land their stomach on the highest log, resulting in them swinging underneath and ultimately falling off.
The key is to jump as high as possible, as if you're aiming to jump over the log entirely - to ensure you have enough of your body over the highest log to swing your lower body around.
Admiring the scenery, we came up to the second obstacle of the course which wasn't accessible - "pull a stone". This obstacle was required individuals to pull on a rope to lift a kettle-bell on the other side.
Requiring nothing more than brute strength, we were ready to face the challenge. Sadly the wind on the day led to the obstacle being deemed "unsafe". I'm not quite sure why the organizers didn't implement a wind-breaker of some sort or at least some sort of 1.5 M wall, there was enough of them on the course!
The platinum rig was a combination of ropes and rings at different heights placed in a line with a target bell to ring at the end. With 5km down and a range of upper body obstacles already completed, our biceps and grip had already begun to tire.
As with climbing the key was to keep at least half of your body stable at any one time. First clutching the initial rings with my now glove-less hands, I then wrapped my legs around the next rope to keep myself stable.
With my legs securely wrapped around the rope, I transferred my grip from the rings to the rope to the small set of monkey bars in the middle of the platinum rig.
Swinging through the 6 or so bars the final third of the rig had rings at foot and hand level with a single rope to finish.
Poking my leg through the lowest ring, I hung to the cables for dear life, as if falling would lead to certain death (in reality I was probably suspended no more than 50cm from the floor!).
Transferring legs and arms between different heights of rings almost led me into an unplanned split in midair as each leg was on different unstable rings. After I'd gained stability, I stretched my leg forward to wrap around the final rope.
I now had my entire body-weight suspended in the air as I clung to a single rope. Fortunately it was a strong rope, otherwise supporting an 85kg man would have been fairly difficult!
The final target bell was almost within touching distance at the end of the obstacle, I knew that if I could hear the bell ring I'd be able to recover my aching arms and count the obstacle as a success.
Swinging forward, I stretched out and hit the bell. Pumped with adrenaline I slid off the role and rejoined John to carry on the course!
Next up was the dip walk - being someone who pumps through 35 weighted dips a week, this felt like home territory, if I wasn't thinking about the other obstacles that were in front of us I would have been almost tempted to freestyle some plyometric dips for fun!
The map suggested we'd be facing a traverse climb next, however after a bag carry and another wall to hop over, we faced a set of stable rings to slide across. This was probably one of the most fun obstacles on the day (as the launching slide wasn't available)!
Rings in hand, we threw ourselves along a horizontal pole, with momentum taking us sliding to the end, allowing us to continue over some minor obstacles before our next challenge.
I'd never successfully mastered the technique of rope climbing myself (for some reason the daily life of a management consultant doesn't give you many opportunities to practice). I had however given myself a quick "rope climbing 101" course via YouTube on the way to the event.
Quickly I realized that all a rope climb requires is a strong grip or "clamp" with your lower legs. Snaking my right leg around the rope and clutching it with my left foot, I was able to maneuver up the rope without much difficulty.
John mastered the technique soon after and once we'd rang the bells at the top of the rope, we worked our way downwards with the end of the course feeling closer than ever. Note - don't slide down too quickly or you're likely to burn off your top layer of skin if any of your body is touching the rope on the way down! #RopeBurnIsntFun.
With a somewhat broken and fatigued body, we were faced with a river crossing towards the 7k mark. Icy water made its way up our bodies as we droned forward.
Now chest deep in frozen water, our muscles began to somewhat ease, just what the doctor ordered for an exhausted body - despite being pretty painful!
It was good to wash all the mud off which I'd been carrying around for a kilometer or two. We jogged fairly quickly to our next obstacle, mostly to try and stay warm! We then faced the rings.
Having lost much of my arm strength by this point, I tried to adopt a crab-like approach to the rings. I'd made it roughly half way before losing momentum and spiraling in the wrong direction - by this point I was happy to accept a penalty run to save my torn biceps.
The feeling of being clean didn't last long, before we knew it we were climbing up, over and through thick mud-land. covering us head to toe in mud in shades of orange, yellow and brown.
In the final kilometer of the race, the only thing that was between us and our last obstacle was a vertical peg board. My form by this point was anything less than efficient or graceful...
Fueled by adrenaline alone and whilst clutching onto the highest pegs I could reach, I clambered my lower body onto the lowest peg before pushing myself upwards and over the penultimate obstacle of the race.
There was one final, daunting and incredibly challenging barrier standing between myself, john, a cup of tea and a rest - the ramp.
This was by far the most challenging obstacle of the day for a number of reasons. First was exhaustion, having completed over 30 different obstacles by this point, it hadn't left my body with much real fuel left.
Second was the mud. Trying to sprint on a slippery and muddy surface can make it feel you're running on ice and isn't particularly helpful for building speed without falling over and adding another layer of mud onto your body.
Thirdly was unfortunately my choice in shoes. (Yes this is a reason, though it sounds like an excuse!). As this was the last mud run / obstacle course I'd be completing for a number of weeks (or so I thought), I decided to just go ahead and use my normal running trainers.
Whilst your normal running trainers may be fantastic for your typical 10k on a Saturday, they definitely aren't the footwear of choice for a very muddy obstacle race. If you'r'e taking part in a muddy obstacle race and want a great time, it's worth investing in some obstacle racing footwear!
When your feet sink into the mud beneath you, it can make you feel like you're running on marshmallows. As you can imagine, running on marshmallows is not the first thing you think of when you want to build speed!
On his second sprint, John leaped up and was able to throw his body up and over the edge of the ramp to victory. Being the awesome guy that he is, he then delayed rest to help others over the final hurdle.
Three more times this happened, with each time my body feeling weaker and weaker, such that the thought of calling it a day crossed my mind. That was until my fourth run, where at the top of the ramp my arm met John's as he pulled me just high enough to swing my left ankle over the edge in order to get myself over the obstacle. Thanks John - couldn't have done it without you!
Euphoric, I stood atop the obstacle and observed the stunning views of the English countryside before then offering my limbs to help more people beat the obstacle.
It was finally done.
Exhausted, cold, muddy, wet, fatigued, cut and bruised, but with the biggest grin on my face, we grabbed a finisher photo for our partnership before collecting bags and trying to warm ourselves up!
The sun had just started beaming down on the course as we finished as we grabbed a victory burger whilst savoring the atmosphere before leaving.
A difficult race, but so worthwhile!
Post Race - Goodies
On the day, the post-race euphoria was enough to keep me happy. The sun was shining, the race was completed and I'd even made a new friend on the way!
Though, as souvenirs it's always good to have something to remember the day by. Otherwise you're likely to find your memory struggling to piece together the events of the day after a few years.
Upon finishing the race we gladly collected our medals, had a much needed drink of water and then had a finisher photo in front of the final obstacle. Nice touch.
Though that was it, I was a little surprised at the lack of goody bags available. This was definitely a marketing opportunity missed to try to give samples to a few thousands of healthy people.
We had a stroll around the park for a few more minutes, grabbing a burger and watching the other racers complete their obstacles. There wasn't much more to see after that so we called it a day and made our way homes, proudly wearing our victory medals.
Where Toughest London really delivered is through their intelligent use of penalty lanes, difficulty and volume of obstacles. To cram in over 30 obstacles into and 8k course makes the day much more exciting (and exhausting!).
Toughest London also avoided the mistakes which lots of other race organisers miss. One of the main factors was effective staggered starts for everyone. A small group was released onto the course every 10 minutes.
This ensured a steady but consistent flow of people, making sure you don't feel isolated in the wilderness whilst also keeping queuing down to a minimum (I expect the longest I queued for an obstacle was maybe 3/4 minutes).
Compare this to other races where your wait for an obstacle could easily be in excess of 20 minutes and you begin to appreciate the planning that went into the event.
It was a truly great course, and one that I would personally recommend. However, there were a couple of areas that Toughest London need to reflect on if they are to visit London again.
First - blocked off obstacles. One of the biggest attractions to completing a race of this type is the variety of obstacles you can face. There were 2 obstacles which were blocked off during the course, the water slide and the rope pull.
The water slide is fairly iconic and was an obstacle many people were looking forward to, though for some reason it was blocked off. I'm not quite sure how the water slide wasn't safe on the day (it's simply a slide after all!) but I feel there could have been better planning to ensure the obstacle was safe and ready for all to enjoy.
The rope pull was sat on the top of a hill, in the middle of the English countryside... Anyone with a couple of brain cells would realise that you'll be exposed to some wind in this area. This was indeed the reason that it was blocked off as it was "too windy".
There's going to be some wind whatever day it is, so surely if you have an obstacle which can't face some windy weather, don't put it on top of a hill in the middle of the countryside? Alternatively, it would have been quite easy to put a windbreaker nearby, particularly as there was so many walls to climb throughout the course!
The second area where Toughest London need to do some thinking is around race photos. Throughout the course there was a huge range of photographers snapping away as you find yourself in a number of hilarious / challenging positions. Covered in mud, crawling on your belly or hanging from a bar above - there were plenty of pictures taken through the day.
Myself and many others on the event page on Facebook were really surprised to see that despite roughly 4,000 people taking part in the event, there was only 196 pictures of the race on Toughest London's Facebook page.
This means at best, they've released pictures of maybe 10% of participants. with 90% having no pictures of them made available from the day.
With a fairly unhappy set of comments on Facebook, here's Toughest London's reply:
This is how we normally work with photographers and we have used the same social media strategy for all ours races. But we appreciate the feedback and will review it for next event!
In my opinion, this was not good enough. There were thousands of pictures taken from the day which have not been released and potentially deleted. Their attitude to posting photos gives the impression they are more focused on trying to show off the day rather than caring about individuals experiences.
It would be very similar if you went to a friends house party, had a great time then realised you weren't in any of the pictures the next day, only to be told by the host "Sorry, you weren't hot enough to be pictured" or "The pictures you were in didn't make my house look as good as I'd like".
To be, this is a terrible attitude to have from a race organizer and was my biggest disappointment from the day and from Toughest as a company and brand. I'd also sent over an email to ask where the other thousands of photos are, I'd be quite happy to pay for copies too - sadly, Toughest did not reply...
Apart from Toughest London's poor customer service and communication, the day itself was great fun, really well organised and challenging for all levels. I'd recommend the race, particularly if the price doesn't go much higher just make sure you have your own photographer if you want a series of pictures on the day!
There's a fan-made video below, and a few photos from the rest of the day so you can get a taste of the day without being distracted by expertly edited video marketing.
Any of your friends thinking of doing an obstacle race?
Or maybe just curious to see what the fuss is about?
Then why not share this post on Facebook? :)