When I found myself heading to London at the beginning of March, I never expected sunny weather in the 50s (F), but I also never dreamed I would be faced with the most difficult obstacle race ever. Needing a place to stay in London, I contacted my friend and obstacle racer James Appleton. James is one of the top obstacle racers in the UK (and the World), plus he’s teammates with World Champion Jon Albon on the Inov-8 OCR Pro Team. I told James the dates that I would be in town and he said there was room in his flat, but he’d be leaving for a photoshoot in Norway. However, before he left he’d be heading to the Nuts Challenge to race with his team and earn points in the Mudstacle League. I vaguely remembered seeing the Nuts on Facebook or somewhere online, but didn’t really understand what it was all about.
The Nuts Challenge boasts 100 obstacles in just 7km. Let that sink in for a minute. Located in Dorking, Surrey, outside London, the Nuts Challenge Assault Course takes mud and obstacles to a new level. Designed over 20 years ago by course owner Wayne Monkman (an ex-parachute regimen soldier), the Nuts could be one of the oldest permanent military style obstacle courses open to the public. Though many of us have heard of Tough Guy UK as the Grand Daddy of obstacle racing and the genesis of Tough Mudder et al., few from the USA have heard of the Nuts, so when James said he was racing it, I knew I had to check it out.
Since I didn’t have any of my cold-water race gear with me in Europe, I decided I would show up and cheer James on. Just like the winter Tough Guy, the Nuts in March claims a similar number of hypothermia victims each year. Just ask James. However, with a bit of prodding from Matt B. Davis (“How could you pass that up?”) I was totes convinced to give it a go, bro. So armed with a pair of borrowed Inov-8 X-Talons and three layers of compression gear, I showed up on Sunday morning ready to toe the line once more. The Sunday race consisted of four-lappers vying for the main title, and maximum Mudstacle League points, during 28 kilometers of mud, freezing rivers, tubes, nets, tires, logs, walls, smoke, and thankfully, no electric shocks. That’s right, four laps of insanity. Being of sound mind, I signed up for two laps instead.
The temperature hovered in the forties and promised to give a little relief from the threats of hypothermia, but everyone started the first lap in their warmest gear anyway. The cool thing about multiple laps, is the opportunity to have a gear drop, and a refuel every four miles. The generous guys at Clif Bar gave the Inov-8 team heaps of gels, chews, and bars to keep everyone going and I looked forward to coming around to the transition area after lap one. Though I didn’t want to think too far ahead, I knew I wanted to push myself and finish two laps no matter what. After a quick race brief and some motivational speeches, they sent us off into the growing light and fog.
The first kilometer started like any OCR: some light jogging, a fence here, a net scramble there; nothing I hadn’t seen before. Then the carnage began. The course for the four-lappers veered to the left. Mudstacle released footage the night before of this special section just for the three and four lap athletes that contained all the hardest obstacles on the entire course, which by any standards was already tough enough. Not wanting to miss any of the action I followed even though, as a two-lapper, I didn’t have to. How could I pass that up?
First, we faced a Hanging-Tough style set of swinging rings, which I promptly slipped off due to all the mud. At the Nuts Challenge the penalty for failing an obstacle was a short out-and-back loop with a log. Thankful to not be doing burpees, I grabbed my piece of wood and did a quick lap. Next, we faced a 10 foot wall. This was the first time I’d ever seen a 10 footer, and though I’m really good at the dry 8 foot wall in my yard, I nearly failed out. Determined to make it over, I used the small ledge about two feet up, swallowed my pride, and asked for help. Luckily, everyone at the Nuts helped each other out and there was always a friendly vibe.
After tackling the 1o foot wall, we headed to the most diabolical monkey bars I’ve ever experienced. On the surface they looked normal, even easy. No slick rungs, no uphill or inverted sections, and only about 10 feet from one end to the other. How hard could they be? Upon closer inspection, I realized the rungs were square diamond-plate metal, and only about 1/2 inch around. I should have gone for another log loop, but being the hard-ass that I believe I am, I went for it. The tiny rungs took every ounce of grip strength I had to get my 230 lb frame from one end to the other, but I made it! Before I could start celebrating, it hit me. A fire kindled in my hands. My palms began to burn. I couldn’t move my fingers and the pain became intense. I can still feel it now two weeks later. I looked at my hands. No blood, no blisters, no cuts. Those little square devil-rungs had bruised and shredded my bones from the inside out. I will never forget my gloves again.
There was a long queue before the next obstacle, so my hands had a little time to recoup. This monstrosity must have been called the chimney because we had to climb inside of a stack of tractor tires about 20 feet in the air. Being a big dude, this obstacle required a lot of squirming, several apologies to the people below for all the waiting, and a great deal of tolerance for mud in the eyes every time I looked up to see where I was going. After that bottle neck, the course opened up and there wasn’t any more waiting, but the obstacles never let up.
Every 10 yards a new hurdle, another net, a pile of tires, a ravine, a mud pit, a river crossing, another rope, a drainage pipe, a log, more barbed wire. Sections of obstacles followed by….. more obstacles! All these obstacles made it impossible to run, or move quickly in any way, but at least the activity kept me warm. Until Hell River. Hell River was about a kilometer of running right down the middle of a creek with high muddy banks and unexpected drops. One minute you’re running on fine crushed gravel, in water up to your ankles, the next you’re up to your neck in water just above freezing. Only a few paces in and my feet went completely numb. A few cargo nets took us up out of the river and then dropped us right back in. Just as I began to seriously consider whether I would ever feel my feet again, we passed a sign that read, “Remember, you signed up for this!” I actually smiled.
Hell River wasn’t done with me yet. To exit this section I forced my wide shoulders and butt up a tiny drainage pipe at an unholy vertical angle with only muddy, wet, knotted strings for purchase (these didn’t qualify as ropes). Moving on from the water, my frozen feet got a break as I clomped around a replica village of Vietnam complete with flash-bangs, smoke grenades, and dark bunker crawls. What tied everything together was the mud. Mud pits, muddy trails, muddy fields, muddy rivers, muddy crawls. I think there’s still mud from the Nuts on my body somewhere.
About this time, I noticed the sign for 3 kilometers and my heart sank. I wasn’t even half way through the first lap?! The negative voices started in my head and the first doubts that I could finish 2 laps crept in. “Just keep one foot in front of the other,” I told myself and then I joined a couple other runners at the same pace, to share in my misery. The funny thing was that volunteers kept asking me, “Why are you still smiling?” which kept me going. Everyone was suffering, but at least I wasn’t showing it on the outside. Knowing that gave me some small comfort.
Next we hit a section of hilly trails, wooded stream beds, and another long section of mud pits, crawls, and tubes followed by Hamburger Hill. As the only elevation on the entire course, Hamburger Hill consisted of numerous climbs up and down the side of a large muddy mound. Starting with a tire carry, and ending with a giant slide into a cold muddy water crossing, the hill was completely exposed, allowing the wind to cut right through me. As the day wore on though, the sun warmed up the countryside and only the water threatened to lower my body temperature.
The Nuts Challenge manages to test you physically and mentally non-stop, and the truly unique feature about it is, the Nuts doesn’t have obstacles, it has obstacle sections. Entire groupings of obstacles that never give you a chance to relax. You think a 20 foot A-frame cargo net is tough? Try two back to back. Followed by a 30 foot Weaver section, with full submersion. Followed by drainage tubes. Followed by a claustrophobia inducing parachute crawl. Followed by a lake crossing on floaty platforms. Followed by a lake crossing on floaty inner tubes. Followed by a lake crossing in near-freezing water up to your neck. Followed by….. you get the picture. When I finally rounded the lake and entered the transition area to finish my first lap, I couldn’t believe what I had just been through. In fact, given the position of the 3k sign, I was kind of shocked to finish so quickly, and a little sliver of hope shined down, and made me think, “Maybe I can do two laps after all.”
I quickly stripped off my top layer of winter running gear. It was never designed for water and mud crossings, so it was severely weighing me down, and with the sun out, I felt sufficiently confident in my ability to stay warm with out it. I also left my hat, in favor of an old Spartan ‘Race Number’ headband just to cover my ears. I fueled up on Clif Shots and Shot Blocks, then washed it down with some Powerade (in Europe it doesn’t contain High Fructose Corn Syrup! Hurray!). I headed back out for lap two.
The only big changes for lap two were that within the first kilometer I started to feel a rock in my shoe and secondly, I decided to skip the extra section with the doomsday monkey bars and 10 foot wall. I completed the extra section on the first lap, and so I experienced the entire Nuts Challenge, but didn’t feel the desire to do it again, since I wasn’t required to do it in the first place. The rock in my shoe turned into several rocks, and since the loaner X-talons were a good 1/2 size too small anyway, I’m probably going to lose my first toenail. When I rounded the lake for the end of that second lap, I received my medal with pride. It took me just under four hours on a flat course, which by time, is equivalent to the Wintergreen, VA Spartan.
So if you asked me which is the hardest obstacle course? The Vermont Beast or the Nuts Challenge, I’d say Nuts wins by sheer volume of mud and obstacles. Any Norm Koch course is hard to beat, but mostly due to the rugged terrain and elevation changes. The Nuts Challenge, however, is an obstacle racer’s dream. Obstacles, built on Obstacles, built on mud, with a side of obstacles. Isn’t that what we’re here for?
If not the obstacles, then we are here for the community. The UK OCR scene is awesome. It probably helps that the UK is a lot smaller than the US, so it’s easier to set up a league, get everyone together, and see the same people over and over. I made tons of new OCR friends, including team inov-8, the Mudstacle Crew with Pete Rees, and I even met Dirk Schrama from Dutch Mud Men (He’s fast!). Thanks to Wayne Monkman for putting on an awesome race and building such a challenging course. Wayne said I’m the first American to ever finish the Nuts Challenge! Thanks also to all the runners who helped me along the way. Congrats to the winners Conor Hancock and Beth Albon (yes, it’s Jon’s sister!). And the biggest thanks to James Appleton for a place to stay, a tour of London, some proper OCR shoes, and the greatest obstacle challenge I’ve ever had. Cheers mates!