Man vs Tech: can T3’s Action Man survive Britain’s toughest obstacle course?

And can tech enhance and record the whimpering and sobbing?

The mission

Action Days Out’s The Nuts Challenge has been voted toughest military obstacle course in the UK. Will our man survive the mud, nad-shrinkingly cold water and shouty PTI? Throughout it all, there will be gadgets to enhance, monitor and record his performance – when he asks for his teddy we’ll have it on film.

The man

Our resident running addict and former Army Cadet corporal thinks he’s a real-life Action Man. So we marched him to the country’s toughest military-style obstacle course to see if he’s more Rambo or Bambi.

In real life, I’m an award-dodging journalist, but deep down my spiritual calling is soldier. I’ve watched Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and the one where Mrs Doubtfire is a disc jockey. Plus, I was in the Army Cadets and had an Action Man (it was a long time ago, though. I was maybe 26, 27…). When World War III starts, no one will doubt my credentials to be Colonel of the Commandos, so I’m looking forward to this challenge.

I love running around in the woods, getting muddy and playing at being an action hero. So when I find myself in a battle-battered jungle that’s packed with obstacles, I’m in my element. Well, OK, today that jungle is a wood in deepest Surrey, but it’s really muddy. And there are definitely obstacles.

No obstacle big enough

A gaggle of camo-net-covered huts and military vehicles are dotted about a large clearing. Smoke from a campfire smoulders in the distance. The Nuts Challenge HQ feels like a rebel hideout. The idea is that I belt around this 100-obstacle course to prove my super-soldier athleticism.

I’ve got a GoPro Hero 4 Session action cam strapped to my chest – to record my many moments of heroism – and a TomTom Runner 2 Cardio + Music watch on my wrist to gather key stats on my performance, plus I’m decked out in techy Salomon clobber and a pair of 1000 Mile Socklets to keep me warm and supported. I’ve also guzzled a Chia Energy Gel from 33Shake to give me a natural boost of energy.

“Is this our victim?” asks ex-Paratrooper Wayne, who runs the camp. I’m told this 7km course has been voted the UK’s toughest obstacle course two years in a row. I say I’ve done Tough Mudder. I get laughed at. I downgrade my ambitions from ‘set a course record’ to ‘don’t cry or piss myself’.

Time for a beasting

I meet my PTI for the course. Michael is ex-military and he’s going to literally show me the ropes. I was expecting a veins- bursting-from-the-neck, spittle-flying-from- the-lips shouty type like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, but Michael is disarmingly friendly. Could it be an act? Is he just gearing up to give me a beasting?

Setting aside my suspicions, I jog after him through muddy woods. The Salomon S-Lab Sense 4 Ultra shoes I’m wearing feel lightweight yet sturdy, their tiny black ‘lugs’ digging and clawing into the mud as I pick up the pace. Suddenly, the path runs out at a dirty brown river with high banks. I try to suggest that we must’ve taken a wrong turn. Michael’s grinning look says, “In yer get, then.” Oh Lordie, here we go...

As I approach the edge of the slippery bank, my nerves best me and… Woah! Splash! I want to pretend I purposefully jumped into the river, like Rambo might, but I’m holding a broken signpost in my hand, which I grabbed in a desperate attempt to halve my sideways slide. For the first time today, everyone’s laughing at me.

I’m soon clambering up the muddy bank with the aid of a net. Thankfully, the Salomon Endurance Tight covering my bottom half is still in place – this isn’t the time to be showing off my builder’s inch. Then I’m over the bank and – oh look! – there’s more river to splash in. I glance at the TomTom Runner 2 – it’s waterproof (to a depth of 40m) and working like a charm. It seems more rugged than I feel right now.

Wading through the murky river, I round a corner as Michael says something about a step and… Gah! The floor drops away and I’m waist-deep in water. I suppress a wimpy shriek. “You big girl’s blouse!” shouts Joseph, T3’s photographer. Bastard.

I balance on thin logs over a river. A wall of muddy tyres rises up in front of me. I scuttle up banks more slippery than Sepp Blatter, and plunge down into waist-high water troughs. I’m tiring, but the 33Shake Chia Energy Gel is mingling with my own sense of determination, pushing me on.

I use ropes to climb up an army truck. Then I’m sliding under a huge net. I’m no Arnie but I do OK on a series of hanging rings, until the last one where my hand slips and I crash down. As long as I forget this is being captured in 1080p by the GoPro strapped to my chest, I can enjoy it. Sort of.

“How are you, temperature-wise?” Michael asks. “OK,” I say. “Well, you wanna work a bit harder, then,” he says, eyeballing me. He might not be impressed, but my kit is working hard – my Salomon tights and shoes are shedding water fast after each mud bath. Even though I’m running and climbing around the course, the TomTom doesn’t budge off my wrist, and the display is easy to read on the fly – the heart-rate figures are shooting up into the 170s and beyond each time I hit the water.

Sink or swim

The TomTom says my average pace is 13 minutes per mile, which sounds feeble but I do have one or two things blocking my path. I pull myself up through a long metal tube nicknamed the ‘Birthing Tube’. Next there’s a big net for me to climb up. Then a fireman’s pole to slide down. The GoPro doesn’t get in the way at all – it’s so light, I can hardly feel it. “Now the rope swing!” Michael says, a little too gleefully.

Michael is thorough with his instructions, but my temperature is dropping and when it comes to crunch time, I forget what to do. Rather than swinging like Tarzan to the other side of the water, I slip down the rope and into the water. Although the 1000 Mile Ultra Performance Socklets kept me warm initially, I can’t feel my feet now. To be fair, these socks are made for endurance running and not for handling muddy water.

Now, I’m on hands and knees in water-mud-slop, crawling under 20 metres of (plastic) barbed wire. Up ahead, there’s a huge pile of tyres to contend with, and I’m glad again for the aggressive grip on my shoes. Panting, I pull myself over a wooden wall... and into a 20-metre-long water trough with a wonky floor. Some parts of my body are whinging about the cold. Let’s just say it’s a good job I don’t plan to have more kids.

Although my kit is performing well – the posture- support tech in my Salomon tee is helping to keep me upright – I wish I had on some thermal undies. The TomTom watch says I’ve burned 522 calories and that my heart rate is jumping above 180. I was hoping the watch wouldn’t survive all this mud and clambering, so that my underwhelming stats wouldn’t exist, but it’s cheerily telling me how mediocre my performance is.

Next up is the Bunker, a huge shed roof on the ground. I crawl under it and into water. I can stand up but it’s very dark and I want to cry. I emerge looking downtrodden. At the top of a net, Michael encourages me to do a roly-poly. I’m too tired to say no. I just want a hot-water bottle and my teddy.

The finish line

Before I can get to those (or at least the cacao-flavoured 33Shake All-In-One Shake that’s waiting for me), I have to conquer the Kamikaze Jump. I’m on a platform with another pool of brown water below me. It’s only two metres high but from this perspective it looks like ten. Jump? Really? The longer I stand here, the more at risk I am of hypothermia, so I take the plunge.

Wet and shivering, I’ve reached the end of the challenge. I’m nowhere near beating the course record. I’ve done a little wee, but I don’t think anybody saw me. And although I cried out a few times, no one can prove that actual tears were involved.

Michael gives me some encouraging feedback and I ask him for tips on how to train for military-style obstacle courses (see boxout). I also get a moment to look over my kit: the TomTom is practically buzzing with stats, the GoPro is still filming, and the Salomon clobber has survived all that hell, too – shedding water and helping to keep me as warm as possible on a big, muddy, water-logged course like this.

After knocking back my 33Shake – a pre-made smoothie packed with natural anti-inflammatories such as turmeric and green coffee, ideal for triggering recovery – and slipping into a pair of comfy Adidas Climaheat Rocket Boost shoes that are perfect for warming my toes and keeping the chill out, I’m forced to conclude that maybe I’m more Bambi than Rambo. But I’m also a sports-tech geek and I can’t wait to pore over the GPS and heart-rate data... just as soon as my teeth stop chattering, I can feel my hands again and my sugar lumps return to their rightful size.

PTI Michael Midgley, of SIXT6 Health & Fitness, on what it takes to succeed

“You need to be able to run 10km before you’re ready for most obstacle courses. [The Nuts Challenge], because it’s so obstacle-dense, doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to open your legs up for a good run. So 5ks and fun runs are good preparation for the general fitness you need.

“You need some upper body and core strength, too. Go to a gym and do some hanging and pulling on an assisted-pull-ups or lat-pull-downs machine. Alternatively, go to your local park and find something to hang from. Pulling yourself up is useful, but slowly lowering yourself is even more useful – that eccentric motion builds ideal strength and the right muscles for obstacle courses.

“Bouldering is excellent, as it builds grip strength. I do a lot of kettle-bell workouts, kettle-bell swings and big, heavy weights with my PT clients, building their core. It’s needed for the ropes and being able to bring your legs up. A lot of people don’t have that key core strength.

“My big tip for mid-pack runners is to try and run with someone who’s about the same speed as you. Most hypothermia cases are faster runners in a large, mixed-ability group. The faster ones end up standing around waiting, and that’s when they might get into trouble. The tubby ones at the back are usually fine. Plus, running with someone else means helping each other over obstacles.

“Nutrition is key. Cramp can easily come on, especially in the cold when you’re constantly depleting your muscles’ energy. I prefer bananas and sports gels, plus extra salt. Drink extra water for a few days after [completing an obstacle course] to help clear lactic acid and your kidneys, and always eat well afterwards.

“Kit is important, too. Running has become all about high-tech equipment, which is OK in the summer but in the winter you need to stay warm. It’s about using natural fibres, such as Merino wool, which stays warm when wet. I wear tight compression over a Merino top to hold it against my body. With a loose tech tee, all the air gets in, warmth is moved out and you get cold. In winter, use a hat and gloves.

“Also, look for a local obstacle-course racing (OCR) club. We have a team of 70 at Team Nuts, and are always looking for new members.”

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