The Unknown: Now I know!
Posted on: September 15, 2015 /
If my preview blog post for Judgement Day: The Unknown was tough to write due to writers’ block, this is the exact opposite. Three days on and my head is still swirling with details, experiences and life changing moments all to share. I signed up for this as a birthday present to myself, and what a present it turned out to be. It has however left me with a dilemma; For me, this event was so good and with such bonds made with my fellow competitors and the organisers, that there is no possible way of articulating the full experience in a blog article. You had to be there. You had to experience it for yourself.
So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to recall the bits that have stuck with me at this point in time. I won’t cover everything that went on during the 36 hours as some simply wouldn’t make sense, and some parts, for me, were an intimate experience between me and what I will remember forever as the Judgement Day: The Unknown 2015 Family. I say ‘Family’ because we forged bonds in the sands of southern Wales that went well beyond normal teamwork and friendships.
I had plenty to time to consider my prep on the drive up to Wales. I was late out of work and traffic was a nightmare, causing quite a few delays. The forecast of rain due to begin around 2000 was spot on, and as soon as I crossed into Wales the heavens opened. I arrived about 2040 and straight away the usual sense of anticipation was heightened seeing the tent village, parade ground and marshal tents, all set on sand. I promptly registered and, mindful of the 2200 briefing time, began ferrying my two small tents out of the car to setup for the weekend. The choice of tent was one of my biggest concerns from the kit list. Would we need to carry it with us for the weekend? No-one knew for sure, so just in case I took a small pop-up and my normal 1-2 man tunnel tent. After looking around the village, it seemed others had not had the same concerns as their were several 8-10 man tents and one massive teepee. I was, it’s far to say, a little jealous as I was sure the luxury of having more room away from the wind and rain over the weekend could provide.
The Welsh rain was coming in sideways and my tent and most of my kit was soaked through. Not a great start. I decided to pitch both tents that I bought and used one as a kit tent and the other for sleeping (ha ha!). This at least let me organise my space well enough so that I knew where everything was. The skies were pitch black for the 10pm briefing and walking down with all mandatory kit to what we would know as the ‘Parade Ground’ (A large circle in the sand marked with thick battling rope), you could tell we were in for something special. The atmosphere was electric. We lined up around the circle for the briefing in our number order which we were given on registration on large red bibs, and were promptly told that this was the only way we would be known for the duration of the event. No more names and punishment for anyone using names. I am now #79 and all JD Staff and Volunteers would only be referred to as ‘Staff’.
We went through mandatory kit checks in several formats culminating in our food being put in black bin liners, and us burying it in the sand. Once buried, we were then made to crawl over the area so that there were no markings for any of us that could identify where our food was. For someone who is used to consuming a lot of calories on a standard day, this did not bode well. We were sent back to get some sleep before a 6am start. But of course, if you really believed that, you would believe anything.
Sure enough, 2am came and the flash-bang grenades went off, music played and Staff shouting at us to get to The Parade Ground through megaphones within 2 minutes. What followed was a short beasting (Extreme physical exercise) session at the parade ground and then off for a ~2 mile trail run to the shore via head torch. Just before we set off, Staff made an example of one number who decided to adorn his bib with something other than his number. I won’t name names, but then addition of #MKRUCKLEY to a bib had us all doing more exercise, except him. The rules were being set, and examples being made of those who stepped out of line. The run was the first real opportunity for most of us to experience the terrain where we would be spending the next day and a half and there is simply only one word for it: Sand. Sand, sand, sand. All of the trails leading our of the parade ground were sand, right to the beach with dunes and hills of varying sizes leading to the beach. Sand drains your energy and tests your calves and Achilles at the best of times and was sure that this would be causing a few aches and pains by the end of the weekend. When we got to the shore, we obviously got in and got wet, with various exercises and sprints completed in the sea before heading back. We were given rules of communication and teamwork throughout and we started to learn very quickly that we needed to look out for each other as much as ourselves by not only following the rules, but looking out for anyone struggling and spurring them on.
We got back to our tents at around 0320 and at 0330 we were up again for another quick beasting. This pretty much set the tone for the weekend. Have an open mind and be ready at a minutes’ notice to train, and train hard.
I couldn’t sleep after the second beasting, still high on adrenaline, so when my 0520 alarm went off I had plenty of time for admin before being ready on The Parade Ground. We headed back over the trails to a JD flag on the top on a high sand hill a few hundred meters from the beach, designated checkpoint one. From here we were shown another four checkpoints and instructed to memorise them well as they would be integral to the weekend both individually and as teams. We headed back for another beasting and were then sent to an almighty sand hill (affectionately known as ‘Claire’). Claire Hill was a few hundred meters of pure sand and we were informed that we would be hitting the summit some 70 times in the next few hours, making a rough estimate of 22,000m of assent.
We dug in as we were asked to rep the hill in various formats; Sometimes as teams altogether helping each other up, sometimes the stronger runners while then others held squat position at the bottom, sometimes carrying objects as a group. This hill was relentless and the fact that it was pure sand made it all the tougher. We finished by running up it backwards and then hot-dog rolling down it. I was pretty quick on the descent but managed to go all over the place and made a trail like a pinball. When I reached the bottom, I can honestly say I’ve never been so dizzy. I was all over the place and couldn’t work out who was talking to me or what direction they were coming from. The heavens opened as we finished up which was a pretty common theme on the Saturday: The training was tough, and the small bit of downtime that we had was spent trying to dry kit out while not getting more wet.
‘Claire Hill’ from the bottom. Squat position held whilst others completed a hill rep
On return to basecamp, we were told to dig up our food. I was lucky to locate mine pretty quickly and began to fuel up and change for the next session. Again another common theme throughout the weekend was that you could get more admin time when you completed things faster. It took some people a long time to find their food and they therefore only had a few minutes to be able to change, fill up water bottles, eat, etc. Before heading back out I checked the time. It felt like it should have been 2pm. In reality, it was just past 10am. My heart sunk a bit. This was going to be a long weekend!
Another beasting and then back to the checkpoints, this time in teams with some of the carry kit that was used frequently throughout the weekend: A heavy (~75kg) metal stretcher, sandbag, ammo tins, tyre and weighted bergans. We carried these in various combinations around the checkpoints, at one point stopping off between checkpoints one and three for a compass point drill consisting of 4 hill sprints (in sand, obvs!) with five ‘JD Burpees’ over two rounds. For this, first to finish meant that everyone finished, so the more capable people could spend some of their energy finishing faster and helping out those who were struggling. Being someone who likes short distances and burpees, I decided to get rid of a bit of energy and ‘take one for the team’, finishing up as quickly as I could to stop the beasting for everyone else. We then did a similar exercise in pairs and I was lucky enough to team up with fellow Brocket Gear Race Team member Jason, and between us we made short work of the next session.
Now at this point what I’m describing may sound easy. You may be thinking: “A few burpees and some hill sprints, I do that at my bootcamp three times a week”. This comes back to how difficult this is to describe. There is so much extra that I simply can’t cover; The crawling, leopard crawling, duck walking, bear crawling between sections, the constant grind of sand everywhere not only testing your muscles but rubbing away at your skin (Think about taking sandpaper to your genitals while trying to work out ;-)), the small amounts of food, the smaller amounts of sleep. This was not an easy ride.
The day continued with various team challenges involving weights and the checkpoints, along with a brutal sandbag session in the sea. I was convinced that the only thing that would/could stop me this weekend would be hypothermia and the slow pace of the jog back to basecamp from the shore with the sandbags via some very high checkpoints in the wind, and I started to shiver. A few were in the same position, but my brothers and sisters huddled in together to share body heat and I was soon back on track.
‘Penguining’ together to share body heat
After getting back to basecamp, the mind games continued whereby, as a group that was down to approx 35 people, we were asked to volunteer or vote for 5 people to exit from the process. The bonds that we had formed along with our own desire to see the process through to the end left us in gridlock. In the end, we were threatened with more beastings before coming back to do it again. A tactic of voting for the person to your left was put forward, and the first five people to do this were automatically exited by the Staff. The atmosphere dropped. The remaining competitors had the wind taken out of them. We proceeded with the next task as a group to checkpoint one with some heavy kit, trying to keep morale and the team spirit up where we were greeted by the five competitors who were just ‘exited’. They were still with us, and it was simply another tactic by the JD Staff to mess with our heads. As we knew before, this would be a showing of mental and well as physical toughness.
Moving forward to the Saturday evening, we were called to the Parade Square with our skipping ropes. The Duct tape and safety goggles had already been given to the Staff earlier in the experience and the skipping ropes were one of the final objects left to use. After another beasting (obviously), we were asking to empty our sandbags and place them on the floor behind us. The mood changed: It was very quiet and we were asked to tie ourselves to the person next to use by the forearm using skipping ropes. The sandbags were then promptly over our heads and secured tightly with the safety goggles so that we could barely see with sand and Hessian being pressed against our lips and noses. All lights were cut and we were lead into ‘The box’ where we were subjected to an hour of incredibly loud white noise, screaming baby sounds, random bangs and various other interrogation tactics. It was a surreal experience and I won’t go into all of the details, but one that I am very glad to have had the opportunity to take part in.
Sandbags strapped to our faces, just before all the lights were cut
The Sunday had a different feel to it, with our space hoppers being used for the first time. A run to the shore with no walking at all permitted (Tough with a group of fatigued individuals, all at differing fitness levels with bottlenecking opportunities on every thin-trailed hill) with a 50m space hopper race to the water. Last five to finish had to sit in the water while the others went again. This continued until there was a winner, when all could then finish.
We then headed back to the base camp and began another team task with the five checkpoints, this time with a Lego set to build before we could head off. Finally, something that fell within my skill set We did well in the challenge, heading out in fourth position but coming back second which we were pretty happy with.
There were a few more challenges before the final stint; A 1km loop with our bergans on, containing 8kg of weight to start off with, and carrying our shovels. We had to complete 10 laps of the course, which included scaling the back of Claire Hill. At the beginning of each lap, we had to fill two 500ml bottles with sand using our teaspoons and add them to the bag. This meant that every lap with did not only did we get more tired, but the bags got heavier. To add to it, Sunday midday was quite warm and we were given water rations for the whole group (not allowed to take our own, or any food). We were given a 2 hour deadline, which only a few hit. We all had to finish though and we did. As time went on, we were permitted to share the load of those who wanted or needed it, with several of us putting in extra laps to help our brothers and sisters.
And with that, we were done. From 2200 Friday to 1430 Sunday, this had been the inaugural ‘The Unknown’. We lined up around the Parade Square for a final speech from Dean, and medals/tees for the finishers. Anyone who took part from the beginning of the event was invited to have one; You had to judge for yourself if you thought you had done enough to earn one.
So there you have it, a small glimpse of what I and 90 odd others went through at The Unknown. It was tough, really tough. There was no room for faking it, or trying to get by with a half-arsed effort. No matter what the fitness level and ability of the people who took part, they all gave it their all, which is exactly what this event demanded from us. I took on approx 10,000 calories from start to finish, and still lost 2.5kg of weight in doing it. I injured my foot, I got cold and I got tired. But I did not quit. 100% all the way through and with the encouragement and support from The Unknown family and Staff, I’ve taken away far more from this event than just a medal.
Things that I learnt from The Unknown:
- I can survive on far less food than I thought I could.
- I *suck* at using a Space Hopper.
- I’m still good at running up hills.
- It is outstanding just how difficult a group of 90 adults can find it to count to 20, four and a half times over without saying 21… (We started four times in Welsh and failed. We then tried three time in English and also failed!)
- Sand on a beach for 8 hours during the summer is fun. Running, carrying, crawling, lifting, eating and sleeping in sand is not so much.
- Waterproof and windproof running jackets stop hypothermia so well.
- Mark Buller is simply one of the nicest men on Earth. I’ve never been told to ‘Get an effing move on’ in such a polite way before.
- Judgement Day just raised the bar.
This event is 100% on my must do list now for every year that they decide to run it. I’m honestly torn between wanting to come back as a competitor or a volunteer, as the volunteers seemed to give so much and take away great memories as well. I urge you to sign up now and let the mind games begin. Registration is open already, here.
A huge thank you to Dean, Mark, Gary, Adam and all of the JD staff for making this such an awesome experience. And to my fellow numbers, #79 will see you next year