Going to extremes: 'ordinary' blokes lift their game

There was a time when only the toughest of the tough completed an IronMan challenge. Now it seems everyone wants to be a Gladiator.

As more "ordinary" men participate in extreme fitness events, the boundaries of what's considered "extraordinary" are shifting to ever more challenging extremes. Tough blokes must go further to impress as normal blokes chase them, realising they can achieve more than they first thought.

The tough bloke is somewhat of an Aussie institution. Sydney's Pete Jacobs, 31, was this month crowned the IronMan World Champion in Hawaii, taking the number of Australian winners of the world's toughest challenge event to six in a row.

A mere 14 kilometres like the City2Surf no longer cuts the mustard. To attract sponsors to donate to his challenge, the ordinary bloke is replacing fun runs with mud, obstacles and distance.

I'm one of them. In July, I completed the Barnardos Tough Bloke Challenge. For me, it was about defying expectations. Tough blokes are tall, dark and beefy. I'm short, ranga and gay. I long ago came to terms with being the runt of the litter.

But runts are used to battling to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. So in the interests of social Darwinism and contrariness, I signed up to do the army-style obstacle course including tunnel shimmying, mud-crawling under barbed wire and vertical wall clambering. Think Gladiators meets Total Wipeout. I loved every second.

The Tough Bloke Challenge is, however, somewhat of a misnomer. At a modest 7 kilometres, it has an infinitely more formidable cousin in the 20 kilometre Tough Mudder.

Dan Stewart, 31, from Bondi, casts a shadow over my meagre 7 kilometre "achievement". He completed his first Tough Mudder this year “because it's the biggest and best”. No incremental training for Dan – straight in for the jugular: “First there was the gym - now there's army-style boot camp; first there was a race - now there's Tough Mudder.”

Asher Sutton, also 31, entered Tough Mudder for medical reasons: “I was recently diagnosed with a heart condition and the doctors suggested I concentrate on getting out of the office. My exercise regime became repetitive. Tough Mudder was a great opportunity to get healthy, and do something different.”


Oliver Shawyer, 27 (“but after Tough Mudder felt 65”), had a different health reason for entering his first Mudder this year; he found it a positive way of improving his mental health: “I had a pretty tough struggle with depression last year, and I figured that one of the best ways to deal with it was to test myself – push boundaries to overcome the uncomfortable zones within life. This was one of those events that the old me would never take on. I knew I'd feel a great sense of accomplishment if I applied myself.”

All the Tough Mudders I interviewed cited camaraderie as a drawcard; ordinary men helping other ordinary men to get through and feel tough, without judgment. It's something echoed by Alex Patterson, Tough Mudder's chief marketing officer: “This event isn't about being the first past the post; it's about making it through obstacles together, then celebrating with a cold beer. As mateship is very much viewed as an Australian quality, I think this is why so many people have been signing up.”

Alex says recent events at Phillip Island and Glenworth Valley have been their “biggest ever”. He suggests more ordinary men want in on the action to alleviate the sedentary nature of their working lives: “A lot of people work in offices and sit at desks all day, so this is an opportunity to get back to our roots, get a little dirty and prove how tough we can be.”

It's not always about proving you're tough. Sometimes it's about realising that there are people out there who have it tougher than you.

For Tim Chapman, recent triathlete, it's all about the cause: “I'm doing my upcoming triathlon for Camp Quality, the children's cancer charity. Sure, triathlons are tough. But when you see children living with cancer and their families facing their cancer journey with resilience at one of Camp Quality's family camps, that's true toughness. It's what keeps me focused.”

Tim, 36, hadn't even completed a fun run before he joined the Coffs Triathlon Club 18 months ago. He went straight for the extreme “because just one discipline isn't as exciting”. Tim does a sprint distance triathlon (750 metre swim; 20 kilometre cycle; 5 kilometre run) at the club every fortnight. His Camp Quality fund-raiser (mycampquality.org.au/tri4cq) will be the next rung up – an Olympic distance triathlon: 1.5 kilometre swim; 40 kilometre cycle; 10 kilometre run. He has perceived a surge in ordinary blokes doing triathlons: “It's something that's no longer only available to the elite. Regardless of age or ability, you can go to your local triathlon club 10 minutes away. The Coffs Club now has 100 members.”

It seems that sporty extremity breeds further extremity; when asked about Port Macquarie's IronMan (3.8 kilometre swim; 180 kilometre cycle; 42.2 kilometre run), “I'm not saying no” was Tim's double-negative affirmative response.

Chris Gibbons, 32, is an ordinary bloke with an extreme fitness fetish. He has completed 12 marathons (including London, New York, Berlin, Paris and Reykjavik) and three triathlons. He also has his sights set on Port Macquarie's IronMan. He does it because “every marathon is different – the course, the crowds, the scenery – and it's a novel way to experience different places, a way you never could as a tourist”.

What do his ordinary friends make of his sporty extremeness? “They're always goading me for filling their Facebook and Twitter feeds with updates about my latest race or some early-morning training session. But a few have been intrigued and asked to run marathons with me so as not to go it alone. Some caught the running bug; others vowed never to run again. Ever.”

So extreme challenges aren't for everyone. But for an increasing number of once-ordinary blokes, they're the healthiest addiction around.