I am crouching beside the Torture Tunnels. Groans escape the entrance hole, punctuated by shouts of pain. A wave of panic washes over me, but I've come this far; I can't give up now. I take a deep breath and drop down into the muddy gap. As I start to drag myself through a narrow concrete pipe, in the pitch-black, a woman screams: she's just been caught by an electric wire, invisible in the darkness.
This is Nettle Warrior, the summer version of Tough Guy, an endurance event in Perton, Staffordshire. Like the original, which takes place in January, Nettle Warrior involves a gruelling cross-country run and assault course. Unlike Tough Guy, competitors don't have to deal with sub-zero temperatures. To compensate, they go twice around the assault course instead of once, spend more time submerged in muddy water, and tackle 7ft stinging nettles. Suffice to say, it's no walk in the park.
The organisers conjure an aura of terror in the build-up: the race is billed as the "most dangerous test of mental and physical pain, fear and endurance" in the world. We had to sign death warrants before competing, were inundated with warnings about hypothermia, tetanus and 'flesh rippers', and were emailed tales of past participants' terrible injuries. The scare tactics worked: I was petrified.
The macho nature of the event is also hyped up. Officials wrote our race numbers on our foreheads in marker pen. On successful completion of the race, Tough Guys are permitted to shout "Yohimbé", which apparently translates as "My dick's bigger than yours". Women are vastly outnumbered by men, and tend to be accompanied by solicitous male partners.
However, as many readers pointed out when I wrote about my training regime, Tough Guy/Nettle Warrior is not really terrifying at all (provided, as tomlozethwaite put it, "you don't mind heights, fire, water, mud or confined spaces. Or barbed wire. Or nettles"), nor is it an ultra-serious test of fitness. The first clue to this was the gang of guys dressed as Smurfs. And the women dressed as fairies. And the man wearing nothing but a thong … It is a challenging test of endurance, though, and above all it is a lot of fun.
In the moments before the cannon fired to start the race, I was overcome with a kind of grim resignation. The start is staggered, and as a 'wetneck' (first-timer), I was at the back of the pack. When I finally crossed the starting line, I half-ran, half-slid down the steep slope and set off through what resembled a minefield (they were actually flares, but created a convincingly smoky warzone effect).
As a very reluctant jogger I had dreaded the cross-country run more than anything else, so I was probably one the few competitors to actively welcome the pits filled with muddy water that greeted us almost immediately. Anything to break up the run. When I emerged, soaking wet and caked in filth, and ran on feeling twice as heavy as usual, I did rethink my enthusiasm somewhat. But with more than 2,500 runners the trail ahead quickly filled up, and soon there were more bottlenecks than clear runs, allowing plenty of chances for a breather.
This quickly emerged as a theme: get wet and muddy; queue for a bit; run when you get the chance. Luckily, the weather was kind - overcast but warm. In January, it must be a different story. As previous competitors had warned me, it's nearly impossible to get ahead of the pack and finish in a fast time unless you start near the front. For most, though, the challenge is merely to complete the event, not to try to win it. As the founder, Billy Wilson (aka Mr Mouse), said on Sunday: "It's not a race, it's an event - it's for people to come and challenge the Tough Guy course. Everybody here is a winner."
The slaloms, a punishing series of hill runs, are infamous in Tough Guy circles, so I was relieved to run up and down them with ease … or so I thought. In actual fact, they were just the warm-up hills. I defy anyone to tackle the real slaloms with anything approaching ease. Imagine a sheer hillside. Now picture yourself climbing up and running down it, again … and again … and again. I think there were around a dozen slaloms in all, though it's hard to be sure - by the end I was a little delirious.
The rest of the run was a breeze in comparison: crawling under nets and jumping over giant hay bales were nothing next to those hills. That is, until we reached the mud slaloms. Similar to the hill slaloms, these involved sliding down a muddy bank into pond full of filth, clambering out again - with great difficulty if, like me, you're somewhat vertically challenged - moving down the bank, and repeating. And repeating. And repeating. It was at this point that the utter pointlessness of the whole endeavour hit home to everyone, and people reacted in one of two ways. They either embraced the futility, as I did, and doggedly ploughed on - or they cheated. In fact, from this moment onwards the cheating - mainly skipping obstacles - was rife. Not that I'm bitter ...
On a more positive note, this was also the point that the legendary Tough Guy spirit was revealed and everyone started helping everyone else, offering leg-ups out of ponds or holding out a helping hand from the bank. The whole race was notable for its camaraderie and cheerful, 'we're all mugs together' atmosphere.
Slaloms over and nearly two hours in, I finally hit the assault course. Obstacles came thick and fast: the Colditz Walls, the Behemoth, the Dead Leg Swamp, the Stalag Escape … The indoor climbing training I had done came into its own as I tackled the intimidatingly named A-frames, cargo nets and rope crossings. The only hairy moment came when a particularly tall man chose the same roped route as me, stretching the two ropes so far apart that I almost lost my grip and fell headlong into the waiting nettles.
My favourite obstacle was, contrary to its disturbing name, the Death Plunge. This involved walking the plank, plunging into the lake below, and swimming to shore - tremendous fun. The obstacle I had most feared, the Underwater Tunnels, had been replaced this year with some simple log ducking, which was both a relief and a letdown.
I was thankful for my small stature on several occasions. The aforementioned Torture Tunnels were agony for the legions of large, muscular men dragging themselves on their bellies through a very confined space, but relatively easy for anyone who could fit through on their hands and knees (I even managed to avoid the electric shocks). Ditto the crawls through tyres and under barbed wire.
A lake-based log carry and a rafting challenge are unique to the summer event. Some competitors were shivering thanks to the prolonged immersion in the cold water, but I'd taken up kayaking as part of my training and become accustomed to it, which was a big help.
On my second circuit of the assault course the runners thinned dramatically, leading me to conclude that either a) a lot of people had dropped out, b) a lot of people had skipped the second lap, or c) I was very slow. I think it was probably a combination of all three.
I didn't have much time to worry about it as I slogged my way towards the end, leaping up and over the Anaconda as I went. There was just time for one more crippling hill climb, one more slide in the mud, and one more soaking in filth before I rounded the corner and made a break for the finish line. The relief was immense, but so was the sense of achievement. Yohimbé!
My top tips for Nettle Warrior
Train harder than you need to. I had no ambitions beyond completing the event without injury, but I trained hard: boxing, climbing, kayaking, running, cycling, strength training, yoga, team sports … This made the event itself pretty easy, and dramatically sped up my recovery.
Work on your balance, grip and core strength. You'll need them all for the assault course.
Enter with a friend or a group. I was on my own, thinking that I wouldn't want to hold someone back, or be held back myself. In actual fact, the bottlenecks mean it's easier to stay together than to go it alone. Unless you're ultra-competitive, it's more of a fun challenge than a race, and most things are more fun with two.
Plan ahead. If you do want to compete with the frontrunners, pay extra for a better start position. Failing that, get fit enough to sprint the first section of the run to overtake the crowds. By the time you get to the slaloms, it's too late.
Wear gloves. This was a piece of last-minute advice kindly emailed to me by reader Chris Pile. I opted for fingerless cycling gloves and they were invaluable. Otherwise, as Chris pointed out, "The wet ropes will rip up your bare hands." Ouch.
Take a supporter. Supporters can get close to the action, so they can ply you with jelly babies and sports drinks when you need them, and take lots of embarrassing pictures.
Have fun! Nettle Warrior allows you to be a kid again: you get wet and muddy, feel unfathomably proud of yourself, and go to bed tired but happy. What could be better?
Over to you
I'm really interested to hear how my experience of Nettle Warrior tallied with that of other competitors. Did you compete in this year's event? How was it for you? Perhaps you've done it in past years, or maybe you've braved the January version?
I'm also looking for a new fitness challenge, preferably one that combines pain with fun, rather than anything deadly serious - think Total Wipeout or Gladiators, not the Marathon des Sables. Any suggestions will be gratefully received.