In the world of extreme fitness, there are Iron Men and there are Tough Guys. The former compete in Hawaii. The latter go to an unkempt part of central England, where they claw their way through eight bramble-choked, mud-caked miles on one of the world's most grueling assault courses—all in hopes of earning a hot shower, a cup of tea and a souvenir T-shirt.
On July 25, about 2,500 people—having paid the �50 entry fee and signed a "death warrant" stating that a fatal injury to any contestant is his "own bloody fault"—will converge upon the Wolverhampton countryside to compete in the second annual summer version of the 14-year-old Tough Guy Challenge, a winter event that is expected to draw 7,000 entrants on Jan. 30, 2000. Event founder Billy Wilson, a former Grenadier Guard in the British army, devised the summer Challenge as a way to test new obstacles on his 700-acre property. Though fair-weather racers will not have to endure the Polar Ice Cap obstacle (overcome by climbing with the aid of only a pocketknife or by swimming through a tunnel of near-freezing water), they will encounter such typical Tough Guy venues as the Viet Cong Tunnels of Terror (a pitch-black underground maze), the Tiger (a rope ladder laced with live electrical wires) and the Fire Zone (flame-filled passageways), not to mention a crocodile-and-piranha pool (over which they must shinny on a rope bridge) and beds of stinging nettles.
By Wilson's definition, Tough Guys are not only physically but also emotionally superior to their fellow man. "It is only after your mind has passed through the portal of death," says Wilson, "that you are suddenly faced with a better world." According to Tough Gal Zelah Morrall, 30, who has been the first woman finisher three times, the only sensation she feels upon rising from the ice-capped underwater tunnels is "the worst ice-cream headache imaginable." Women—"the pretties," Wilson calls them—make up 10% of the field. That's a far cry from 1986, when the first Challenge was run by only a handful of men. Today, Wilson says, "magistrates, prison guards, criminals, Oxford-versus-Cambridge-boat-race people and City of London financial people" help make up the field. The course record is one hour, 42 minutes.
While Tough Guys from the U.S. must travel to England to challenge themselves, Wilson says that he is negotiating to build assault courses "in every one of the United States," starting with California, where his daughter, Tracie, the wife of ex-Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, once lived. "From what I understand, Americans are fat, flabby and full of hamburgers," says Wilson, who (insisting his age is between 21 and 70) claims he runs on his course every morning. "A challenge is just what they need."