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I Went on CBS' Tough as Nails With Phil Keoghan, and It Turns Out I'm Not Tough as Nails

Here's what it's like tackling a challenge on CBS's new reality competition

Malcolm Venable

Tough as Nails, CBS's new reality competition show from The Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan, is novel for a few reasons. For starters, unlike some strength and endurance shows that cast athletes and gym rats, this one highlights first responders, veterans, and everyday Americans. The show has contestants replicate real-world challenges, like laying railroad track -- and on this one, nobody gets eliminated. The 12 contestants, including a welder, a firefighter, a farmer, a roofer, a deputy sheriff, and a Marine Corps veteran, compete in teams and declare a winner at the end. Another way Tough as Nails sets itself apart? It's the only reality competition that has invited me, a desk worker who sits on his bum for 60 percent of an average day, to see if I'm as tough as nails. 

This was pre-COVID, obviously, on a warm day in downtown Los Angeles so many months ago now it seems like it happened in an alternate dimension. (I'm told it was February.) I had no idea what to expect but figured since I'm reasonably fit from hitting the gym (remember those?), running, and doing pretty intense hourlong yoga sessions twice a week, keeping up with whatever challenge they threw my way couldn't be that hard, right? Wrong.

The Amazing Race's Phil Keoghan Introduces His New Competition Show Tough As Nails

I learned upon arrival that the challenge I'd be taking part in was a lineman drill -- which I'd never even known was a thing before now. A lineman, I soon learned, is one of those brave and skilled people who toil atop terrifyingly tall poles to keep electricity flowing properly. The drill required us to strap into a harness, scale the wooden pole, and rescue a dummy at the top by cutting him free and lowering him down to safety; the person with the fastest time would win. I watched an instructor show several of the show's participants -- including at least two people decades older than me, in their 60s -- how to do this, and they did fairly easily. Just watching them looked tiring, but I convinced myself, "I got this." 

And I did, kind of, at first. As you can see in the video above, I got off to a decent start, hoisting myself up the pole efficiently. But this challenge, as with all the tasks on Tough as Nails, required way more than strength or an initial gust of determination. It takes coordination to straddle your legs the right way so that spikes inside the boots give you the leverage you need to advance. But you also need concentration, longevity, patience, and, most of all, focus. As Phil Keoghan says in the first episode and throughout the series, mental toughness is really the thing that unlocks and maintains physical strength. You don't have to strain too hard to see where I started whining and complaining (and cursing out the dummy for getting himself in this mess), but in my defense, whining, complaining, and cursing are considered valuable skills on the internet. 

What did I learn from the experience? Well, I very much prefer working at a desk, indoors, for one, and I learned I'm stronger than I give myself credit for. But I also found a greater appreciation for the people who keep America afloat with their hands. In the months since we shot this, the term "essential worker" has helped many of us see how much we owe frontline workers, including folks like linemen, without whom I would not have wi-fi or TV shows to write about. I can only hope that next time I'm about to whine about how hard my job is, I think of them and remember what a tough job really looks like. I sure remember how it felt, and whoever wins this show has my ultimate respect. 

Tough As Nails airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on CBS; the episode featuring this challenge airs August 5th. 

TV Guide Sr. Editor Malcolm Venable, Tough as Nails

TV Guide Sr. Editor Malcolm Venable, Tough as Nails