Photo Credit: Tony Jarvis
Sleep deprivation, mind games, freezing sea submersions and exhausting SAS-Style physical challenges. The Unknown is a brutal 36-hour test of fitness and mental resilience designed to push you to your limits. Here, 37-year-old Police Inspector, Georgie Newton, who has completed the Unknown twice, recalls just how deep you need to dig.
Photo Credit: Tony Jarvis
The Unknown: a gruelling 36+ hours consisting of an unrelenting series of physical, emotional and mental challenges based on methods and tasks used in SAS and Special Force training.
For those doubting the status of the name, I can assure you that details are concealed until the very last moment. You sign up to the event knowing the dates. Nothing further. After entering a year prior to the event, nothing is communicated until a few weeks beforehand when an intimidating kit list is sent to participants. Mandatory items that flicker across your mind whenever you have a restless night’s sleep. Paying for gaffer tape, a length of rope, large cable ties and a single house brick raises a few eyebrows at the local hardware store. Being unable to account for why you need them raises eyebrows even further. A couple of weeks prior to the event you are given the postcode of the registration and a stern reminder that those who are late immediately fail.
This is no ordinary event. There are no pleasantries, no words of encouragement, no goody bag at the end.
Many don’t even make it to the start. The total failure rate is estimated to be 80%.
Everything I take for the weekend is packed into a Bergen. A 25kg weight limit together with the likelihood that I will spend the majority of the 36 hours carrying it means a fine balance between weight and necessity. In the car park, an hour before travelling to the meeting point, my Bergen is re-packed, shedding 4 kg. Weight which needed to go, along with it some of the comforts of extra dry clothing and food.
My journey to this point started a few days after completing The Unknown last year. Balancing a young son with full-time shift work meant that my training for sleep deprivation was well and truly catered for. I slot in strength sessions in the gym, HIIT sessions, boxing, ultra-marathons, swimming, mountain biking, and endless tabbing with a Bergen, around my commitments. I worked a Trident Fan Dance (three SAS test marches carrying 45lb in 36 hours, including one overnight) into my schedule to assist with the endurance aspect. All had left me fit and strong until a kidney infection knocked me off course a couple of weeks prior to the start. Taking my last antibiotic a few days before the start left me questioning my ability to succeed this year.
The Unknown is not just an event for the body, it’s an event for the mind.
Friday 2100 hours
I’ve arrived at the postcode, the centre of which is a farm. As I queue to register I reflect upon the previous year’s Unknown. A year before, I was in exactly the same position but as a rookie ‘number’ who didn’t know anyone. I now have the comfort of friends from last year (an unbreakable bond between ‘numbers’ based upon sharing an experience you can’t describe). I have the advantage of experience this year, an idea of the type of tasks I will now face. I’ve spent a year building on my weaknesses, which for me included navigational skills. But with the experience comes the disadvantage of knowing how much pain there is to come, physically and mentally. The endless cold and wet which makes you shake uncontrollably for hour after hour. The hunger from surviving off minimum rations and eating when allowed. The battles within your own head during each task you undertake. The longing for a hot shower and a warm bed. My expectation is that I will have approximately an hour of sleep over the weekend.
Photo Credit: Tony Jarvis
The mind games will silently chip away at you. It’s hard to count down the hours when you know that 36 hours turns into 37, 38…The cold will numb your body and the tiredness will make rational thought difficult.
I’m spurred on by the feeling of achievement from last year. The underlying confidence you gain in your own abilities. The sheer amount you learn about the limits of the human body and mind. 36 hours last year taught me more about myself than 36 years had previously. The energy, excitement and apprehension is felt in the cold dark air from the group surrounding me.
I register and am issued with a vest and three tabs which are attached to my overalls. Number 227 clearly identifies me.
I am now a number.
Punishment befalls those who use names. The mind games have begun. Simple but ruthless, this one de-humanises you.
My thermal kit under my green overalls and vest means that I’m warm and despite the heavy rain, mostly dry. It will be 40 hours until I am next dry and warm. During that time I will witness numbers failing for many different reasons, some through fitness, some through lack of preparation, others just simply unable to take the sheer magnitude of the weekend. For many it will end with a medical issue – exhaustion, injury or hypothermia.
If I lose all three of my tabs I will fail. I will survive on a cocktail of adrenalin, energy gels, pride and stubbornness.
The entrants that passed the first test of actually turning up are stood around in a big circle in number order. Staff comes over on the megaphone with the immortal but unwelcoming words: “Welcome to the Unknown… you are here on a voluntary basis… you can quit… at any time.”
Then followed a kit check of the mandatory items. The first task designed to weed out those who hadn’t organised their kit, because no sooner had everyone got their kit out a stun grenade was set off and we were given 30 seconds to pack our ‘sh#t’ and move.
A short tab with my Bergen. My pace is too fast and I’m punished with the other leading group by having to hold a plank until every other number joins us.
Photo Credit: Tony Jarvis
We are divided in to groups and form circles. Two numbers are picked each time and wrestle in the centre. Well within my comfort zone, I am happy waiting for my turn and once picked wrestle my partner to the floor. Full of energy and adrenalin the numbers are volatile; everyone has something to prove. Within the first few minutes two numbers are out. For good. An ankle injury and shoulder injury forcing them straight to hospital. It’s a reality check. This is no parkrun.
The next couple of hours are passed on the beach. The sand is wet and thick, making every movement harder. Crawling on my front and back along the sand. Moving on my knees with a sandbag on my shoulders. Lying in the cold water of the sea waiting for the next wave to enter my overalls and snake its icy way down my back, taking my breath away during sit-ups and leg raises.
Holding my face under the icy water until I’m allowed to raise it and breathe again is out of my comfort zone. I count my breaths in and out rhythmically in an attempt to keep myself calm and not panic. The work I’d done in the swimming pool over the past year being no match to the dark, rough water of the Irish Sea. The sea is so cold, my head hurts. Not just any ice cream headache, this pain is real and deep. I raise my head out the water for a second of relief. Masked staff shout my number through a megaphone and without compassion I’m told to hold my head down.
As a final closure of the beach beasting, we’re ordered into the rapidly rising tidal surf with our Bergens on and ordered to sit down. We’re thrown about by the waves. Poorly packed kit is being washed out of Bergens to become flotsam. Numbers scrabble to salvage their kit.
Four checkpoints to find, 6 numbers to memorise on a grid pattern. The rain and wind are so strong I can barely read my map or use my compass. Endless sand dunes provide little assistance when lost. Check points are hidden. The rocks and dunes are no match to the light from my head torch and I stumble around turning my ankles several times.
I make it to the final checkpoint and wait shivering for a bus, soon to be sandbagged (blindfolded).
A short ride later the morning is breaking through. I alight from the bus and, sandbag removed, it’s straight into a rapid uphill tab into the Cumbrian fells wearing my Bergen. It’s beginning to cut in to my shoulders and the base of my back. I’m cold. My seized up legs mean I have to concentrate on every footfall. Now carrying wet clothes, my Bergen weighs more. My boots have retained some water from the overnight tasks and feel like bricks at the end of my feet. On to a variety of tasks which involve small teams carrying artificial logs filled with water or metal stretchers. We ascend and descend a number of peaks, the elevation demanding we push the logs up some steep sections. Probably the lowest point of the weekend for me. I’ve done enough to make me tired and weak but the remaining time stretches ahead of me without any hint of respite.
Photo Credit: Tony Jarvis
With a bag over my head I’m herded into a group with the remaining numbers. The difference in group size is significant now. One by one I can hear numbers being taken away. I’m lifted from my position on the ground and walked away. I begin to hear running water. Not a trickle from a stream but the pounding of heavy, fast water. What’s more, it appears to be from below where I am standing.
I don’t have many fears but heights are one. Jumping into water from a height compounds this fear. I shuffle forward and am stopped by a rough hand on each arm. I’m given clear instructions. When the bag is taken off my head I have ten seconds to step forward. If I fail to comply I do not continue on The Unknown and I’ll be ‘binned’. The confidence test. My worst fears become real when, bag off my head, I look down to see a 25ft drop in front of me into cold, dark churning water fed by a waterfall to the left. The weekend’s weather has made it rough. I’d made a bargain with myself whilst apprehensively waiting. A soliloquy where the stubborn competitive side of me bargains with the fearful yet probably fairly rational side. Competitive side wins and I jump quickly. The cold water hits hard and it’s a struggle to breathe let alone swim to the side and pull myself out. I walk back to my Bergen with a huge smile and change into some dry gear. A big challenge down. Many more to come but I’m feeling pretty invincible, at least for the moment.
Saturday evening, Bergens on and maps out, we’re given a location and told to prepare for a recce. We set off in a group, the atmosphere is pretty relaxed and we’ve just had the longest break since we began, so are feeling rejuvenated. A few minutes in, we’re ambushed by staff. Smoke grenades, flash bangs, and amid a plethora of shouting we all end up in a ditch, soon to be sandbagged again. I’m pulled to my feet and I feel my bag being roughly and tightly taped over my eyes and partially over my nose. I’m moved into what feels like a barn. I immediately hear dogs barking. Loudly. Endlessly. And on a loop. I’m pushed to my knees. The bruises from crawling through a rocky stream endless times that day make any movement on them agonising. My hands are placed behind my back with my thumbs interlocked, the first of many stress positions. I’m bent forward slightly so that my core has to fight to keep me there. So far OK. I’m relatively warm. My core is strong. I can do this!
At varying points staff come and place us in new stress positions. Move my arms to my head. Stand me up. Push me back to my knees. Each one is held until my body begins to shake with the strain. I hear other numbers struggling. At one point, standing up with my body at an angle my arms to my side and my forehead pressed against a concrete wall taking all my weight, I fall asleep. I’m exhausted. I can’t describe how tired you have to be to fall asleep in a stress position. Not even the sounds of the dogs, a baby crying endlessly, white TV noise or the eerie sounds that are echoing through the barn can keep me awake.
It’s the strangest things that can get you. A couple of hours in, hands on head, someone faintly runs their hand down each side of my arm. I spend the next two hours not knowing whether someone is repeatedly doing this or whether it’s my very tired, very strained imagination. At points numbers are taken for interrogation. Whilst this happens, strange words and noises are whispered in my ears. Eventually we’re released, only to endure a further beasting down in the sea with 3-gallon water-filled buckets as exercise weights.
Photo Credit: Tony Jarvis
I’m woken from a very cold, very uncomfortable 20 minutes’ sleep. Although I could theoretically have had more, the circumstances limited it. I’m lying in a field. In my sleeping bag. Within a plastic survival bag. I’m surrounded by approximately 30 snoring men. And I’m cold to the point where I am still visibly shaking. Despite the cold, it takes every ounce of willpower to get out as I know that it will be even colder out of it. It’s still dark. I’m in my only (fairly) dry clothes. I force an energy gel down, one of two which make up my entire remaining food source, and get back in to my wet overalls and trainers. We are marched to the beach.
“Final” task! Two sets of flags, 10 metres apart, on the wet sand. My muscles ache. I’m cramping. I don’t have to be here. I’m cold. I crave hot food. A hot drink. A hot shower. We’re lined up. We have to run as a group between the flags. We aren’t allowed to begin to run back until we have all reached the flag each time. I start to relax a little thinking it’s the equivalent of a beep test. Oh. The final piece of information – we have to run 10km like this. In 75 minutes. Even my tired brain can process that this is one thousand lengths.
Tired, the group spends the majority of the time arguing about how best to do it. We try various ways. We run for a while before organising ourselves into a fast march which was more effective. Tempers have flared. Numbers have argued. But at least the task is over and The Unknown has finished.
Except it wasn’t the final task. We don’t finish now. We have more tasks.
We move up the beach. Dragging the logs with us. On all fours. The next task involves “sausage rolling”, a vomit-inducing masterpiece of torture in its simplest form; roll on your side and crawl between flags over a course in amongst the sand dunes. To pass each lap we have to answer a question. Simple questions. Unless you’ve not slept. Not eaten. And have been pushed to the extreme. We are forced to down water after every lap which, when combined with the rolls, forces me to vomit violently every few rolls until there is nothing left. The feeling of nausea remains even afterwards.
Sausage rolling. Running. Crawling. On each loop. Three passes of the loop and you’ve completed the Unknown. Simple? Not so simple when in order to pass a loop you have to dunk your head into a bucket containing a putrid concoction of fish, curdled milk and orange juice to retrieve a plastic Kinder Egg-style container with your teeth. Inside is a pass or a fail. There are more fails than passes. A classic example of The Unknown pushing your mind. Things are easier when you can see the end or know how far you have to go. This could take me 30 minutes or 3 hours.
I finish. Elation. Emotion. Tiredness. Proud of myself. But most of all I’m cold. Really cold. My kidneys hurt with every breath.
That night is spent in fitful sleep. Reliving the stress positions. The thoughts at the top of the jump. My body is tired but my mind has lots to process.
The Unknown pushes you beyond what you believed your limits were. The combination of the physical, mental and emotional is not for the fainthearted and not for those who haven’t seriously trained. Peak physical condition will only get you so far though.
In terms of a human experiment this is the most interesting you can get. For me, this element distracted me from many negative thoughts. The demographic of those who even sign up. Those who leave quickly. Those who leave nearing the end. Those who make it through. A variety of ages, sexes (although there were 5 women standing at the end) and professions.
Why? A question many of my events raise in others, not least The Unknown. Many answers; because I don’t want to waste my life watching TV, because I’m interested in learning about my limits. I’m happiest outdoors. If the staff at the nursing home when I’m aged and decrepit don’t pass me off as senile when I recount my achievements, then I’ve not done enough. 10 years ago I was overweight and couldn’t run 100 metres. So most of all, because I can. And I did. Twice.
There were many coping strategies I employed during the event. My personal one, and one that I noticed other numbers also used, is counting. Simple but effective. You can count steps to the top of peaks. Steps until you get relieved from carrying the logs. Steps until you allow yourself to stop and take an extra breath. Mentally sometimes there is little you can do. Hooded stress positions leave you with no alternative to thought. For endless hours. With little control over the content.
There were many personal challenges throughout such a big event. My navigational skills have always been weak and something I struggle with. With some practice and skills sought from the right people, I have improved. Last year I had a band taken from me due to a failure in the navigation task. This year my skills got me through, but it’s still an area I’m not confident enough in.
Reliance on others is also an area where I struggle. Normally each of my events is done solo. I only have myself to let down. I’m not let down by others. There are a variety of tasks where teamwork, either as a whole or as smaller groups, was required. Sharing skills and physical effort can either ease the burden or cause huge rifts and arguments. Tied to another number I’d never met before for 3 hours was difficult.
The physical aftermath of the event is primarily exhaustion. Luckily this time I didn’t have to work a night shift straight away like last year! Bergen sores and blistered feet are to be expected. Huge volumes of sand cause issues, especially when it’s impossible to remain dry.
Mentally, it can take a while to process the event. For most, the initial elation and high is replaced with a crashing low several days later which can last for days. The Unknown. It leads you to question everything afterwards.