Unlocked Ultra Attempt 2 Race Report by Stewart Unsworth

I cannot remember exactly what it was that made me think that I could run 100 miles; it was certainly not before my first ultra (Escape from Meriden in November 2017) and it was not after the ill-fated Cotswold Way Century attempt in September 2018 that remains (hopefully forever) my most embarrassing race attempt at any distance to date. Therefore at some time in between those dates I have got it into my head that my chisel and grind style would be suitable for running extreme distances.

The 80 miles racked up (albeit as a timed-out DNF) in the Grim Reaper ultra in Lincolnshire last year gave that perception more credence and this year I had entered the Ring O Fire multi-day 135 mile race round Anglesey. Sadly the covid pandemic has put that back a year so I am eternally grateful to Mark Cockbain for putting up his ‘Unlocked Ultra’ challenge that enabled me to attempt 100 miles for some tangible reward (a bronze medal if I broke 28 hours).

The 50 mile attempt six weeks earlier turned out to be a good sighter for the 100 mile challenge. I had decided that Cherhill away run route should still be used but with the lane added, primarily to chop out a twelfth lap of the dreaded Calstone Climb but also in my mind was the desire to make the distance something akin to but still marginally harder than the Ring O Fire coastal course. Roughly speaking the days are split into 35, 65 and 33 miles so a 35 / 65 mile split would be noted.

I was slightly more organised this time, arriving at Cherhill 30 minutes earlier than I did for the 50 mile run. At around 9:20am on the August Bank Holiday Saturday I was on the startline and away. The weather was kind; sunny but unlike the July attempt not too hot.

The main issue on my mind in the early miles was how to avoid suffering the severe cramp that kyboshed the previous attempt going over 50 miles. In all honesty, I did not have a clue other than telling myself not to run any mile quicker than 10 minutes and using the lane to cut down the constant ascending and descending that I felt contributed to my downfall. Hence it was a pleasant surprise that the confidently predicted hip flexor, groin and hamstring tweaks failed to materialise in the first half of the race. 35 miles came and went in 8 hours 23 and 50 miles in 12 hours 41. Both were in my target time area so as I moved into the darkness laps things were going as well as I could reasonably expect.

Cherhill was reasonably busy during the day but it was back to its lovely remoteness during the evening and overnight. To that end I had enlisted the help of Carl; Dan; Julia and the Mackies as a messenger contact in case I ran into difficulties. I knew that one or two of them had it in mind to meet me at some stage for heckling purposes; what I did not expect was that they would all come over at some point and run all or part of a lap with me. I was conscious that the ‘Unlocked Ultra’ rules required me to be self supported and that they should not pace me; however I was extremely thankful for the company, particularly in the later laps when I was fading like butter on hot toast.

I have always been reasonably proficient with fuel in a race, never before citing it as a contributor to any deficiency in performance. However, I had never run entirely self-supported over such a long distance before. In hindsight running in a remote location proved to be a major disadvantage in that respect: I could not gain any access to hot food or drink when I needed it in the final quarter of the challenge and required the Mackies to bail me out in that regard.

Pre-race, I had surmised that the last darkness lap would be the most challenging and as long as I made it to sunrise the worst would be over. This was a critical error of judgement. The ninth lap began with sunrise at the opposite side to the course and, as at the Grim Reaper event the previous year, the dawn light prompted hallucination. At the far end of the stony track a massive flag of Northern Ireland (the Ulster Banner) that is used in Olympic events was draped across the course. I have no idea how my subconscious dredges this sort of stuff up but as I got nearer I realised the flag was in fact the same configuration of large puddles that were there for the previous eight laps.

I recollect hallucinations with wry amusement when reporting on them after the event but the reality here was that it was effectively the end of the road in terms of breaking the 28 hours. My strategy in the race was to walk the three large inclines (Morgan’s Hill; Poacher’s Croft and Calstone Climb) and to run or trot at sub-15 minute miles the rest of the loop. 74 miles in, at the top of Poacher’s Croft on the swing round to the Landsdowne monument I instructed my legs to run and the response was minimal. My speed had dropped from 18 minute miles – enough to squeak under the 28 hours – to 25 minutes. I had hit the dreaded wall. My mind became a sea of negativity and as I dropped down onto the lane I decided to extend the trudge on it so when I got back to the car I would be on 81 miles and could give up at my longest ever distance. I relayed a message to the gang saying I had stopped to nothing.

A mile later I had reached Calstone Climb and was marginally more positive in that I had decided I would rest in the car for a time and see if things improved. While I was pondering this strategy over, the Mackies came from the other direction. The fact that they had traipsed back to Cherhill must have pricked my conscience and as we met I had already decided to continue. Dave’s, let us say, choice words of encouragement further embellished that view and after a stoppage for food I was left with two and a bit laps to complete.

Three of the next seven miles were sub-20 minutes but they were ticking ever so slowly. I looked at my watch an inordinate amount of times but that served to frustrate further. For some reason Stuart Henderson’s comment in the previous week that the furthest he had run was 86 miles lodged in my mind and as I crept past that total I was slightly uplifted. At this point any semblance of positivity was gold dust as I had decided some time earlier that everything was falling to pieces. The truth of the matter was that my mind had fallen to pieces but save for a number of blisters on my feet the body was standing up to the task remarkably well, something I observed with frustration in the days immediately after the event.

Sue waiting for Stewart to finish.

I do not remember anything of the final lap at all other than it was dreadfully slow and painful. The Mackies had stuck with me throughout the final 20 miles but they kindly offered to let me run the final couple of miles – a shuttle along the path that did not take in any hills – myself. I recognised a couple from one of the houses on my post round going the other way and shouted hello to them; little did they know I was on my ninety-ninth mile! There were plenty of people on that path, all seemingly there to get in the way but I eventually neared the final stretch where the Mackies were there shouting ‘Sprint Finish!’ I said ‘OK’ and did! Legs not so tired after all! The last 25 miles had taken nearly 10 hours to complete and I crossed the line (right next to the car) in just under 30 hours and 37 minutes; thus the final 65 miles had taken over 22 hours. Not ideal given I have only 18 hours to complete the second day of the Ring O Fire but at least I can rest overnight in that event.

Stewart on his final trek down the path to the start/finish car park.

A couple of weeks later I marshalled one of Mark’s events (the White Horse 100) and was lucky enough to meet and thank him. I confessed (much to his amusement) that I was operating a ‘me versus him’ strategy and for each mile that I noticed was under 16 minutes I was saying to myself ‘one to me there Cockbain…’ but unfortunately although I was just ahead on points at mile 75 he then landed the knockout blow.

There is a lot of room for improvement, not least in the fueling and mindset over the last 20 miles but I can now say that I have managed to run (walk/ shuffle / stagger) 100 miles. After all, it apparently counts so long as it is on Strava.