Some time back in August while visiting a pal in the most stunning little thatched cottage in the county of Limerick I got roped into entering into what I was told was a 10K run with an obstacle course for ‘Special Olympics Ireland’. I was also told it would be great craic and that four of us would do it as a team. The event was called “Hell & Back”. It may have been the sun blinding me or the drink but I said yes. For about ten minutes I was excited. Then I Googled it and saw the most dire advertisement for ‘Irelands Toughest Challenge’ consisting of numerous punishing challenges through a variety of natural terrain.
After the memory of weekend started to drift away I started to feel a little terrified of the upcoming event. Not being the fittest in our little group I realised I had a long way to go to be as fit as all those guys and girls being turfed over walls and diving head first into bogs on the video. Our group of women grew over another night out and all of a sudden we had nine competing in Hell and Back, two teams of four and an individual. Girl Power was the topic over the pints. We were nine women, spanning the ages from 30 to 50 and all moderately eager, that was until the dreaded video came out again on the iphone.
Our aim was to train as a group twice a week in the phoenix park and do our own little bit on another night. We had eight weeks to do this and get our shape in order. I had my doubts as I am not the most slender or agile of the gang but I said I would give it a lash. The first evening we trained we went to military hill in the Phoenix park. Now for those of you who have never seen military hill, it’s a steep hill with an abandoned barracks at the top of it. If you run up the hill and around the barracks, down the other side, up into the wood and back to the start it’s about a kilometre. After the first two of them I knew I would struggle. In between these we did some squats, crawling and other horrific exercises I can't remember the names of.
As the days went by everyone in our group was getting fitter and having more fun. I had come down with a weird skin disorder which involved me taking lots and lots of steroids and other stuff to try and get rid of it, so what better way to counteract the weight gain than to compete in Hell & Back. As October came and went everyone supported each other as a team, we had our own private Facebook page and the banter on it was electric. We all had our nicknames, mostly based on our names or personalities. We had a Skippy, a Lucifer (you can only imagine why she got that name) we had a Ms Motivator and my personal favourite, a Brendan Behan.
As some of the group were fitter than others there had to be rules. If we started as a team we had to end as a team. The fitter ones were supposed to stay and support the others and we would all sing “Cum By Ya My Lord” together. The week before the event, Lucifer informed us that we were not allowed to eat red meat that week as it took to long to digest, we all told her to go (do something bold) to herself but not one of us broke it. We were also told not to intake alcohol, again she was told to go do something bold to herself, I'm not going to lie, I might have had a tipple. Arrangements were made to collect t-shirts, numbers and packs. Rumour had it the course was now 12k with 20 obstacles. Lucifer was contacted and words were exchanged. Then our pack came and the route was now 13k with 25 obstacles, another conversation was had. Finally I collected the packs….the course was 14k and 29 obstacles. I was devastated, and conned, but I got over it.
The morning of the event I put on my long running socks, so the silt couldn’t get into my runners when I hit the water and mud. On went my long running leggings made of wicking material. Wicking material I found out was material that expelled the water from the skin, apparently really important for all hell and backers. The boulder proof bra went on, letting the boobs know that they would see no movement for the next 10 hours or so. My long sleeved Underarmour, also wicking and my Special Olympics T-shirt. I decided on a hat to keep the heat in and runners of course as choice of footwear. I had a breakie of porridge, multiple steroids and water.
We, Skippy and I went and met Lucifer and Brendan Behan at a car park half way and from the minute we met them we could sense they were seeping excitement. As the car journey commenced we all started to have doubts, well except Lucifer who was going to wreck it, Brendan Behan was complaining of a chest infection, I was complaining about my itchy scratchy syndrome and Skippy was going on about her Achilles.. We stopped again for the rest of the girls, ran around looking for a toilet and eventually all nine of us were arriving at the designated car park for the event all armed with a banana, for energy.
My nerves were at me as people of all shapes and sizes and levels of fitness zoomed around in excitement all wearing their designated t-shirts for their designated charities. We were all in the fifth wave that were due to take off and the excitement was building. Our supporter, the lovely Marie, was doing pre race interviews with the team and taking photos trying to psych us up. All of a sudden it was 12:15 and we were to make our way to the warm up zone.
My heart was pounding with nerves. I was all over the shop. A run through with the team was had about the rules was done once more and once we saw all the big men putting gaffa tape on their feet to keep their shoes on we had to do it too. So once we were all gaffa taped up we were ready to start. As we made our way to the start line we saw a big wall about 8 feet tall. I threw Lucifer a look and said “ Marvellous, an obstacle before the start line, what kind of shite is this” I got a few laughs from the big bear like men behind me. After I got one of the team over, Lucifer got another then helped me over. All I can say is God love the lads behind me. I was so awkward. Poor Lucifer had my feet all over her and I didn’t so much as scale the wall as was thrown over it. Never the less I was at the start line and started to feel the adrenalin pulse through my veins.
As the fog horn went and the surge of adrenalin filled fitness freaks flew forward I found myself running quickly towards the first hurdle…or pond as it’s known. Only waist deep it would appear easy enough but when there are 200 people surrounding you and splashing around it soon becomes a little wet. I observed some over enthusiastic hell raiser jump in, fall head first into the water and proceed to dance all over some poor girl dragging her into the water too. If it had been me I would have killed him but she shook it off and made her way to the next obstacle as I giggled at their misfortune.
My team mates and I survived our first obstacle, only 28 to go. On to the second, the hurdles of hell. These consisted of a muddy, wet, slop infested track of hell. By the time we got through the multiple hurdles I was covered head to toe in mud. It was in my hair, my eyes and I'm pretty sure it had gotten into my bomb proof bra as my nips were itchy. From there we had a run uphill toward the climb. The mini Sugarloaf…in my opinion there was nothing mini about it. It was a very narrow climb filled with brambles and stingers galore, thank god for the full length leggings and long armed top. At the top there were screams and cries for the first timers who thought they were at the top…I being one of them. I saw the top, let out a little sigh as I reached the top, then to my horror I saw the peak of another mountain..and yes we had to keep climbing. Eventually at the top about the 5.4k mark we started the devils decent. The water station was just in view and couldn’t have come soon enough. I was parched..my throat was dry, so I took my water bottle and carried it down a tough, rocky, slippy little run to the bottom.
Then came the crappiest, horriblest part of the event. It wasn't on the map, but as far as I'm concerned it was awful. It was a QUEUE…yes a 35 minute QUEUE…whatever bright spark designed the course made it so about 400 people stood, not moving, freezing and stiff waiting to get to a log carry. So you QUEUED… got your log, ran up the hill again with the log and then passed it to some poor unfortunate who was probably waiting longer than yourself at that point.
After that you had another little run, then you had to carry a bag of sand up and down a hill then climb a hill under a net where if, like the poor girl in front of me, had a pony tail that got entangled in the net had to hold up the line to get assistance from the poor fool behind you who is still in shock from the second mountain to be of any great help. After I helped her and realised that my team where gone and I was all alone the girl with the pony tail adopted me into her group with some reassuring words like… “Ah you lost your group did ya, don't mind them F%@kers you can hang with us” not going to lie, I was only delighted.
So I ran with them for a while until one of their teammates lost her leggings and there was a pause as they discussed what they were going to do. Her leggings had quite literally ripped off her, she was left with leggings that resembled Elvis Priestly legs, all flared at the end. It was quite funny.
Next came Satan’s Pit…I was running along alone when all of sudden I saw two of my team mates, Skippy and Lucifer. I was only delighted, they were shouting and waving I thought to myself ‘oh my god, I'm, here I’ve done it…I’ve done hell and back. Lucifer shouted the next couple of things are horrible but once over that your home free…. So I threw myself into them..quite literally, because there was another queue. I climbed under a barbed wire cage like thing filled with what appeared to be taken from the floor of a dirty stable..it was gross, then I slid into a pit only to climb up and be faced with a ten foot wall made of logs. People were wedged, I was expecting to hear You’ll Never Walk Alone being chanted from the other side. After another wait and a bit of a mill it was my turn, all I could see was the finish. Two big burley men grabbed my feet and quite literally threw me over the wall. As I reached the top and overshot it by about a foot I found myself hanging upside down facing two guys who tried to grab me. They caught me by the shoulders and after a bit of backflip and a cheer from Skippy I knew just over the wall of tyres I’d climb to freedom.
As I ran to the girls, arms out stretched and hugs galore I said…….where was the second water station, I thought it was at the 9k mark?…It is, said Lucifer, its just over there…she pointed to the water station and my heart sank.. I still had 5k to go. The girls nearly keeled over laughing at my idiotic suggestion that I had thought I was finished. So head hung low and totally deflated I turned and walked to the water station, took my water and continued on down the mucky pathway.
At the bottom of what seemed like a very long hill Skippy and I arrived at the black hole or some crappy name like that. It consisted of a large black piece of wavin pipe that you couldn’t see to the end of. It didn’t help that there were speakers playing scream noises and wails coming from all around us. Skippy suffers with claustrophobia and was a little terrified at the thought of going into it, but with a gentle kick to the spine and some words of encouragement she went head first into the tunnel with me quickly behind. I kept shouting “you’re doing great” and “you’re nearly there”. Now I didn’t know how far away we were but what I do know is at the end of it you get an awful fright when you fall head first into a combination of muck and river water.
After that we ran through knee deep mud a dodgy swamp and ended up in a bog that smelled like crap. We waded through the bog for a while until I hear Skippy saying…Joy I’m stuck, I’m really stuck. I climb back and start yanking at her leg.. the panic was setting in..I’d been running in the cold for what seemed like hours and I was only short of falling on my knees going WHY GOD, WHY!!! But instead I started screaming at all the guys passing….I NEED A MAN…PLEASE..I NEED A MAN…. Words which I don’t think have ever come out of my mouth…needless to say I got two men. They were like brown muddy angles. They dug with their bare hands for a couple of minutes until we saw her familiar yellow runner. There were screams of joy until the lads were stuck and I had to start scream, WE NEED ANOTHER MAN….OH LORD WE NEED ANOTHER MAN.
After that ordeal we had to climb another wall, do another bit of running, then it hit me, the noise. It’s a sound that anyone who has been within a mile of it will know…the sound of water…. It was loud and gushing and there was also a lot of screaming. When I saw it I thought, crap, that’s way higher than I thought. Skippy jumped in not a bother on her…I followed, my leg went in and got stuck in a branch and I was wedged again…Balls, wedged in the freezing. I eventually got my leg out and my knee was all cut. The words about Weils disease started coming back to me. After we waded slowly around the river hanging onto the ropes for dear life we climbed out and were so cold we couldn’t even talk..there were weird glances and nods like “Well Done” and “Holy F@?k That Was Cold” and then more nodding. Then we saw Marie, the trusty supporter, there on hand to tell us we were doing great and take a couple of really unattractive photos of us. Once I saw her I knew we weren’t too far off.
Off running again we went, passing another mucky patch, in through another stream, into another bog and then under nets to be greeted with yet another wall. There was a lot of blasphemy at this point. Over the wall we went and someone shouted this is it, we are nearly there so we decided to wait for our team so we could cross the finish together. After about 20 minutes of jumping up and down and running around shouting words of encouragement and tips at others to keep our spirits up and our feet warm we saw our team mates turn the corner. We waved, shouted and hugged, it was all very emotional. We ran down the final stretch as a team, entered the two ice baths as a team, got electrocuted at the electric tunnel as a team, stood and cried at the wall as a team and crossed the finish as a team. The joy when we reached the finish was unbelievable. It was great when a stranger offered us a shot of Jagermeister on the bus back to the car, we all slugged down the shot with mucky smiles on our faces. We hugged and congratulated each other and the fact that we had to stand around in the cold for about an hour soaking wet and freezing cold was forgotten when we had a drink as a team later on, well not forgotten but we can laugh about it now.
I’ve already decided I will do it again, am I mad? Maybe. Will I regret it? Maybe, but what I do know is, if I do it, I will know what’s coming up and will be prepared. For anyone thinking of doing Hell and Back, it is achievable, no matter what your level of fitness and you will feel amazing when you cross that line. Even though its not a race, you certainly feel like a winner after completing ‘Irelands Toughest Physical Challenge'.