Unlocked Ultra Attempt 1 Race Report by Stewart Unsworth

Event: Unlocked Ultra (Target of 50 miles in 12 hours or less)
Date: 20th July 2020
Result: DNF – Missed Cut-Off

It is fair to say that the last 15 months have not been my finest running period. Back injury, plantar fasciitis and hip flexor issues had me on the treatment table more often than out on the trails or road but thanks to Jane Clarke for firstly sorting the back and then (along with Andrew Wood) for putting up strength and conditioning exercises on the club Facebook page I began to string together some weeks without being injured. Indeed, after a 22 mile practice run I felt confident enough to have a go at the ‘Unlocked Ultra’.

The Unlocked Ultra is the brainchild of Mark Cockbain, a race director that thrives on setting exceptionally challenging ultra events. The Tunnel Ultra (yes the 200 mile one in Bath, forward and backward, forward and backward) would be his best known one in this area. I was casually flicking through his Facebook events page (memo to self – think twice before doing this again) where I noticed he had set two challenges during the lockdown period.

One was the ‘Accumulator’ where you simply start from the 1st of the month running one mile, two on the second and so on up to 30 or 31 miles on the 30th or 31st depending on the month you choose to run in. I was not keen on the challenge the back end of a month would pose so chose the Unlocked Ultra. The format is similar to the Escape from Meriden race that Dan and I attempted in 2017, the further you run, the higher the reward; you get a ‘wood’ medal for running 50 miles in 12 hours; ‘bronze’ for 100 in 28; ‘silver’ for 150 in 48; ‘gold’ for 200 in 60 and ‘legend’ for 300 in 120. Silver upwards are for the Damian Halls of this world but despite my weekly mileage being relatively low I fancied the 50 in 12 hours with an option to up it to 100 if I was feeling strong enough.

The rules were simple: you picked your own route and had to be self-supported. Many competitors chose their house as a base; I decided that the temptation would be too great after 30 or 40 miles to turn on the TV or find something else more relaxing. A dull flat route around the lanes was feasible but in the end I plumped for Cherhill, my favourite local route. Yes it has three stiff climbs per lap but I knew it like the back of my hand and I could organise laps where I could reach the checkpoint (my car parked in the Smallgrain Plantation car park) relatively frequently.

The days leading up to the attempt I was feeling a little nervous; I treated that positively as it indicated I cared about the outcome and would not give up at the first hint of trouble. Come the day, I took a little long getting all the gear and food loaded up and was only ready to start at 9:50am. This meant I had no wiggle room with darkness for the first part of the challenge.

I ran the first lap with no pack, reasoning it was an unnecessary burden for what would be an 8.25 mile loop. I decided to use the lane at Calstone Wellington for the early loops, calculating that the horrible Calstone climb only needed to be done six times for the 50 miles. Other than unnecessary dithering at the car the first few laps were uneventful; I noted with satisfaction that my time through 22 miles was identical to my practice run and I was set fair.

Bitter experience taught me that the first marathon or so is basically a warm up where you can get the miles on the board and things could quickly unravel at any stage thereafter. The first issue was that after the fourth lap, I realised that I did not bring enough water to fuel me for 100 miles. Therefore the 50 miles in 12 hours would now have to be the main goal and any miles achieved after that would be a bonus.

A bit like cricket, I use a ‘run rate’ method to continuously calculate what my speed is and what I need to do to meet the cut-off / target. When the required rate creeps up above 4 miles an hour (15 min/miles) it is a concern; above 5 (12 min/miles) and it is a serious issue. By running the downhill / flat sections as best I could I was keeping in touch – but eventually the equation was 7 miles left in an hour and 20 minutes. At this point I was in the first field leading down to the church and realised that the only hope I had was to ditch the Calstone Climb and accept a fate of doing a shuttle run along the lane for the best part of 6 miles. My tired mind was just coming to terms with the forthcoming tedium when my legs cut a swathe through the plan by completely seizing up, presumably with severe cramp. Reduced to a 2.5 mile an hour walk, the task was hopeless. Dan had promised to run the last part with me but unfortunately for him he had turned up at just the wrong time.

Stewart navigates a stile!

I decided to shelf the lane running and do a last short lap so the 50 miles would be completed just as I was back at my car so I need not run any further. Foolishly I did not bother collecting my headtorch for the short lap and although Dan was trying his best to keep my spirits up I was tired, frustrated, tottering round in darkness and just wanted to be back home. I did eventually complete the 50 miles in a shade over 13 hours.

So what next? The answer to me seems obvious; I am not quite fit enough to complete 50 miles in 12 hours round Cherhill so 100 miles in 28 hours is the revised aim. Or more realistically 100 miles in however long it takes. The lap has been revised so the lane is fully utilised and is now an 8.75 mile loop. I will be (hopefully!) six weeks fitter. The weather might be slightly cooler. I will bring enough water. I have now had a sighter and on August 29th (Bank Holiday Saturday) barring injury, the 100 mile attempt will be made.

Editor: To find out how Stewart got on for his second attempt, the report for that will be released at Midday on Thursday.