The Winter Fan Dance
This Saturday I went out to the Brecon Beacons in South Wales to take part in an mountain endurance event named the ‘Fan Dance’. A basic synopsis is best taking from the organisers themselves Avalanche Endurance Events:
The Fan Dance is a gruelling 24km Special Air Service Selection test march staged over Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons. The infamous march is the world’s oldest Special Forces test and is considered the yardstick of a candidate’s potential to perform well on Test Week and ultimately pass the SAS & SBS (Special Boat Service) Selection course. The AEE Fan Dance event Series is the original version with a provable and undeniable heritage, and the only one exclusively managed and delivered by actual former SAS & SBS staff.
The route is a real lung buster that throws everything at you, including the elements. There are steady slopes that allow a solid jogging pace, shocking inclines that have you almost on your hands and knees, loose stone tracks that require cautious foot placements and a forested off-road vehicle track that allows for some rapid going. Even SAS & SBS candidates at the height of their physical abilities regard beating the clock in this event as a serious challenge, and all know its capacity to hurt. Aside from the race aspect of this event, just getting to the end is an accomplishment and something to be proud of.
It is touted as being the hardest endurance event in the UK, and has been said to make “tough mudders feel like a walk in the park”. This is largely due to the unpredictable weather conditions, huge inclines and doing all this while Load Bearing (35lb backpack with added food and 3 litres of water).
I trained eight months for this race (lots of hilly trail running around Wiltshire, UK) and was happy to get to the event injury free and without hosting any of the UK’s numerous cold and flu bugs that go around during the winter months.
What follows is my race journal of the day. If you don’t want to read the lot, I finished and got a time that I was both surprised and very happy with - 4 hours and 40 minutes.
Up at 3am and checked my kit again for the quadrillionth time and threw it into the boot of the car at 4am and then made the drive to the mountainous area of south Wales to arrive at 5.30am. I was really happy to get a decent parking space right over the road from the iconic old red phone box where the race starts and ends.
I then fixed some coffee and got myself prepped (Blister Plasters, Sealskinz socks, Boots on, Base Layer and a soft shell jacket, vaseline on lips, energy gels in pockets and 3 litres of heated water in bottles and a drinking bladder , all stowed in socks to stop it from freezing). After that I went for a wander around base camp.
I could see where some might have felt intimated (some did a “voluntary withdrawal” before the race even started). It was still very dark (and freezing) with those taking part carrying around Bergens (backpacks) that were the size of small houses, while all clad out in mountaineering gear or Military camos wearing oversized tightly laced boots. You also felt the aura of the darkness enshrouded mountain in the background, looming over all of us. I got my kit weighed at the weight stations and got the OK from the race marshals, signed into the mountain rescue sheet and drank some more coffee in the hope of getting out a pre-race poo.
Starting flares / pistol off.
At 8am we all gathered around the phone box and one of the SAS directing staff gave us a safety run down followed by a loud ‘bang’ as the starting pistol discharged. Immediately everyone started to stomp off up the first ascent. There is no easing into this race, its a sharp gradient from the very start. I noted quite a few folks were already breathing heavy and yet I felt surprisingly nimble, so I started to work my way towards the front as much as I could. From there we traversed the first Mountain (Pen Y Fan) and reached the first RV (rendezvous point), I checked in with my race number and then headed over to start coming down ‘Jacobs Ladder’, the other face of Pen Y Fan.
It was at this point that I realised how treacherous the conditions were as a lot of black ice had covered the rocks you need to scramble down. Races were slipping over and falling down and a lot of warnings were being made at people going to close to the edge, “Move f**king back mate, you’re way to close there”. I made my way down unscathed, but with my thighs already burning away. At this point my running really, really helped, so I pulled on my backpack straps to raise the pack high, got into a rhythm and ran most of the “Roman Road” and forest path all the way to the next RV and turn around point. I gave the ‘I am OK” and got my race number noted down and a nod to keep going.
I noticed the RV had a tent with a few blokes laid out on stretchers with various injuries, this brought home to me how serious this event can be and how vigilance is needed. I did not hang about for a hot tea or breather, and turned back to tackle the mountains for a second time, although feeling a lot worse for wear now. This was just a long drag of running and walking fast to try and my maintain my heart rate from being in the red for to long and having to go through the hell of lactate build up shutting down your legs into jelly. Every hour I necked down an energy gel, no solids as they make me feel a little sick when on the move. Eventually I arrived back at the dreaded Jacobs Ladder, and started what I know is the most hardest part of the race. It has the fiercest accent, which gets coupled with your now exhausted legs that are trying to pull you along with a heavy backpack pulling into your back and shoulders. This was hell as expected, it was like a 2000 odd ft stone stair case covered in ice and snow. To top it all, a blizzard kicked in. I then made my first stop and got out some ski goggles and pulled some ice spikes over my boots. A lot of racers were struggling like hell at this point, taking small steps each time, and stopping every now and then to try and grasp some air into their lungs - I was one of them.
Last dash to the finish
Getting to the top was a massive relief and I was surprised how quickly my legs got a second wind. From there I ran as much as I could (downhill sections) and finally got to the finish line. I looked at my watch and was surprised and very happy to see I was in the 4 hour range, looks like 4 hours and 40 minutes. The SAS selection time is 4 hour 15 minutes, so even though I did not make this time, I still think it was a good result, what with me being a forty something year old IT bloke and the really bad weather conditions (it was the coldest event on record). I then got my customary much coveted patch and a hand shake / photo op with the race organiser and former SAS trooper Ken Jones.
Coming back up that final mountain, I swore I would never do this again and questioned myself as to why I was doing this to myself. Now I am back home again, I am already thinking of signing up to the Summer version and trying to crack the four hour mark!