Pain and punishment

Wolverhampton, UK -- I was very sorry to have shot the last Tough Guy competition last week. Not only did it make for great pictures, but it was also quite a good time -- it’s amazing how much fun people can have after paying to basically be put through torture.

There are all sorts of races like these all over the UK now, demanding survival races. But Tough Guy billed itself as the original and the toughest, held since 1986. I’m not quite sure why they’re stopping, but I’ll sure miss it.

A man with a painted torso lights a cigar before the start of the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, West Midlands, on January 29, 2017. The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of comp (AFP / Oli Scarff)

Basically it’s an adventure race for mad outdoor types who are real suckers for punishment. You start off with a cross-country run through fields and hills filled with obstacles. There are different elements to them and some are just all-out punishment. One of my favorites was a large shed, where the competitors had to crawl through, with it being completely dark inside and on the roof, they put up little strips of material that you use on electric fences for horses and such. So basically people were crawling through complete darkness, with their faces in the mud, and being slightly electrocuted from above at the same time. And they paid money for this experience. Some of them year after year.

Competitors slide through pipes as they take part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitor (AFP / Oli Scarff)

For a photographer, the race was a dream. This being England, the competitors dress up in crazy costumes. And since this race had the reputation that it did, it attracted serious competitors from across Europe. I personally saw Dutch, Finns, Czechs. In previous years, you had them from as far away as Japan. So there were lots of people who probably took it a bit more seriously than the Brits did. But they made for nice pictures as well -- they may not have been dressed up in crazy costumes, but many had their usual neon running gear on. So you always have some really nice photographs of the pre-race and the start.

Competitors take part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a gruelling course (AFP / Oli Scarff)
Competitors start the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a gruelling course whilst (AFP / Oli Scarff)

 

So you have people getting ready and then the madness of the start -- it’s a big mass start, with smoke flares, so it makes for fantastic pictures. But then it’s over within about five minutes and you’re left alone with your colleagues from the media and the few hundred spectators who’ve come to watch and cheer.

But then there is the course itself, with its crazy obstacles.

A competitor takes part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, West Midlands, on January 29, 2017. The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a gruelling course w (AFP / Oli Scarff)

I’ve covered the race before, so I had an idea of what to expect, but I got there three hours early to have a bit of a recce of the course. One of my favorites this year was a particularly brutal section in a pond. Basically, the course ran down into this pond, where the temperature was a few degrees above freezing. The depth was such that not much more than a person’s head stuck above the water. Across the top of the pond, they laid down logs.

So the competitors wade in with their heads above water until they encounter a log. Then they have to duck their heads under the log and come up on the other side. For pictures, it’s fantastic.

A competitor takes on a water obstacle as he takes part part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of (AFP / Oli Scarff)

They have to duck down and come up on the other side gasping for breath and visibly shaking and screaming in agony and they have three more to do in quick succession. It’s also a good spot for pictures because you know where they’re going to pop up and when they’re going to pop up and you know that they will have a pained expression doing so.

Being there also gave a good sense of the atmosphere, because you have a lot of safety marshals on hand to take people out if they’re not in a good way. And the marshals are also encouraging the competitors to go on.

A competitor shouts as he takes part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a gr (AFP / Oli Scarff)

Another nice part of the course this year was the section where the competitors have to run through a section of fire. Basically, they set a few hay bales on fire and you have volunteer fire marshals constantly feeding these hay bales as the competitors run over them.

A competitor jumps a burning bale of hay as he takes part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of co (AFP / Oli Scarff)

You would think that an event like this, where everywhere you turn you have the potential for a nice picture, that a photographer can be relaxed. But I find the opposite. There’s a little bit of pressure, as you’re always thinking whether you’re missing a better shot elsewhere. So you can be taking pictures at one obstacle and thinking, ‘that person that I saw in the previous obstacle in the Hawaiian shirt and sombrero, is he going to come through while I’m here, making me miss a fabulous picture?’

A competitor goes into a muddy pool as he takes part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competi (AFP / Oli Scarff)
A competitor goes into a muddy pool as he takes part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competi (AFP / Oli Scarff)

 

As always, it’s a super friendly atmosphere with the other photographers covering the event. We’re always usually friendly, but especially at an event like this, where there is so much space. It’s not like there is one spot and you’re all packed in and fighting for the optimal angle of anything.

I didn’t stay until the end of the race this year, because by 1 pm, it started raining quite heavily. When that happens, all the competitors get caked in mud and your pictures aren’t as nice and colorful. Plus most of my competitors file early, so I’m no choice but follow suit.

Competitors take part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a gruelling course (AFP / Oli Scarff)

I have to say that I probably made for a spectacle myself. I wore wellies and waterproof trousers. So the bottom part of me was totally caked in mud. And since it was raining, the top part of me, with the two cameras hanging around my neck, was totally soaked. 

I will really miss shooting it, not only because there are great pictures, but also because it’s such a fun event to cover. Everyone there is having a great time. Amazingly, I suppose, when you consider the pain that most of the people are going through. But they’ve all signed up for it, noone made them do it. And in that atmosphere, you can have someone just totally caked in mud, with not a bit of clean skin or clothing on them and he or she will jump or do something silly when they see you. It’s just the type of a nice, quirky event that I like to fit into my calendar. I don’t know why they’re stopping it, because it’s very popular. Hopefully they’ll come up with a suitable replacement.

A competitor takes part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a gruelling cours (AFP / Oli Scarff)

There is one image that will stay with me from this event, which kind of sums it all up. There was a woman, I photographed her at the start and she had an interesting dress of and had her face made up in the motif of the Mexican day of the dead. And at the start, she was so happy and jolly. You could tell that she made quite an effort for her outfit. And then I saw her a bit into the race and she was totally and utterly caked in mud. And by that point, she was also exhausted. She was no longer jolly and happy.

(AFP / Oli Scarff)
A competitor reacts as she takes part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a g (AFP / Oli Scarff)

 

And she still had a long way to go. I overheard her talking at the start, saying that she did the race some crazy number of times, like 18 or so, so I was fairly convinced that she would complete it and be allright. But her whole demeanor and look just changed completely from the start. The contrast was just unbelievable.

 

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Competitors take part in the 'Tough Guy' adventure race near Wolverhampton, central England, on January 29, 2017.  The Tough Guy event, which is being held for the final time in its 30th year, challenges thousands of competitors to run a gruelling course (AFP / Oli Scarff)

 

Oli Scarff