Not for the Faint Hearted

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9faF1ZZ0Kl0

 

Mohammed Ajaoun prepares for the toughest day of his life with a cup of coffee and Nutella on bread. Ajaoun, known to everyone here as ‘Momo,’ stands in a field at the campground near Nürburgring. He and his friends spent the night here in six tents, two RVs, one trailer, and three Vivaros. However, for the ten Opel employees, it’s nothing like a vacation in the countryside. They are about to compete in a Strongman competition alongside 11,000 other runners. According to the organizers, it’s the toughest race in the world. Tough means running two 12-kilometer laps and overcoming 17 obstacles on each lap. The obstacles have names like ‘Hero Crusher’ and ‘Knee Killer.’ Opel employees need to get from start to finish in less than four hours; otherwise, they’ll be disqualified.

So why do they do it? “I just want to know what it takes,” says Ajaoun. The 38-year-old runs ten kilometers three times a week and plays soccer, despite working in shifts as Senior Fire Chief of the Rüsselsheim Plant Fire Department. His job keeps him fit. He has to wear heavy-duty gear at work.

 

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Strong men: Opel employees Okay Kocak (1st from left), Jörg Osberger (4th from left), Nihat Yoslun (5th from left), Stefan Hofmann (8th from left) and Mohammed Ajaoun (9th from left) with fellow runners, all in shirts with a clear message by Opel.

Running in a Muscle Suit
The same goes for Okay Kocak, a longtime friend of Ajaoun and also a Senior Fire Chief at Opel. Kocak just changed clothes and is now showing off his outfit for the race: a nude one-piece featuring some serious muscle definition. It’s the team uniform for him and his buddy. He puts on an Opel shirt from the ‘Rethink’ campaign over it. Wearing two layers isn’t really the best idea, he says: “It can chafe when you’re crawling through the mud.” But today, flying the flag is much more important. Kocak is only concerned about making it through to the other side. He took part last year and finished in just under four hours. “Some of my fellow workers didn’t think I had it in me, but I showed them.” This time round, Kocak trained for the event by running and doing strength exercises. Today, he just wants to have a good time.

To help get motivated, he fills in the form on the back of his start number. He writes down the name his friends will be allowed to call him if he gives up: ‘Pussy.’ It’s a common term at the eighth German Strongman race. If you’re not up to tackling any of the obstacles, you can take the alternative route, also known as the wimp’s lane. And there’s more: Stefan Hofmann, Deputy Head of the Plant Fire Department and Kocak’s boss, is also taking part. And who wants to look old in front of the boss?

 

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Strong together: An Opel colleague helps Okay Kocak at the tire station.

 

Fire and Base Kick off the Race
Tension is mounting: There’s not long to go before the starter’s gun sounds. The men run toward the field together with their attendants. It’s ten degrees Celsius and a light drizzle comes and goes. This makes for poor conditions for a race like this, but somehow, the dark, gray sky is just right for what’s about to go down on the track. There’s a boisterous atmosphere around the start line. A lot of teams are wearing Viking helmets, dressed as zombies, or sporting full-body suits. The bass-heavy rock music pumping out from the stage is deafening. This is no place for cheesy pop. The starter’s gun fires at 1 o’clock on the dot: “Run for your lives, run for glory, and run for honor!” yells the announcer into the megaphone. A flamethrower spews flames and fireworks burst along the course. What a show!

Most of the Opel employees quickly lose each other in the crowd. Kocak and Hofmann stick together though; they want to make it to the finish as a team. They get soaked to their necks at the first obstacle: They wade through pools of mud, scum, mud again, and then ice-cold water. It’s unpleasant, but a piece of cake compared with what’s waiting for them next. To get through the next obstacle, they have to crawl on all fours over wet, slippery terrain and endure electric shocks from strips hanging down from generators. “Ouch!” is all you can hear from contestants on all sides. But it doesn’t help, the only way is forwards.

 

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Nihat Yoslun (front) has been preparing for weeks for the competition.

 

 

Fitness Worth More than Experience
The two men quickly lose sight of star athlete Ajaoun: Here, fitness is worth more than previous experience. Kocak and Hofmann climb over hay bale obstacles, wade through mud covered with nets, and struggle to clamber over towers of tires drenched by rain. Nevertheless, their spirits are still high, and the two even muster up the extra strength to pose for a few photos. They pass by one man who is so exhausted he can no longer run in a straight line. Another man vomits along one side of the course. Ambulances are on hand to take away those who can’t go on.

The second lap is brutal. Muscles contract in the cold. The second half of the race sees Kocak constantly fighting the threatening cramps in his calves and thighs. Hofmann and Kocak continue to work as a team, upping their efforts and helping each other conquer the obstacles. But their voices have fallen silent. They no longer have the energy to cheer each other on. Kocak eventually notices that he’s holding the boss back. “Go on, I can make it on my own,” he shouts.

 

Tears at the Finish Line
Meanwhile, Ajaoun has already crossed the finish line in a time of just over three hours, an hour and a half behind the winner. It’s a respectable result for the firefighter, particularly given that many competitors are only starting their second lap as he receives his medal. Kocak crosses the line 45 minutes later. His legs are burning and full of scratches, but he managed to beat his time from last year. And like last year, joy and relief have brought him close to tears.

“Setting this goal and then reaching it is the best feeling,” he says later on, as the first sausages sizzle on the barbeque. Everyone is happy that tomorrow is a day off work. Despite their exhaustion, everyone in the group managed to sign up for next year’s race, even before hitting the showers. They can’t give up now – they have a reputation to protect.

Facts
  • Competitors at the eighth Strongman race in Germany faced 24 kilometers, 1,300 meters of altitude difference, and 34 obstacles.
  • 13,000 people signed up to take part in the race, which sold out within a few hours. The waiting list contained 27,000 names.
  • 11,906 runners, including 1,870 women, gathered at the start line.
  • 8,176 participants finished in under four hours – 7,389 men and 787 women.
  • Those looking for an extra challenge were able to take the ‘Climb Test’: The idea is to conquer a steep, muddy 50-meter slope on the southern curve of the course twice. A chip automatically records each runner’s time.
  • Tom Schlegel and Felix Grelak were the fastest men with a time of 1:44:25. Carole Koster finished in 2:06:01, making her the fastest woman.
  • The next race is set to take place in Ferropolis near Dessau on 30 August. Pre-registration is already underway.