The basics behind The Fan Dance are pretty simple : it takes place in the Brecon Beacons, starting at the red telephone box at The Storey Arms, going straight up to the summit checkpoint of Pen y Fan before descending by ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, and then continuing along an undulating stone vehicle track (the ‘Roman Road’) to the second checkpoint which also serves as a tea stop and turnaround point. Then, taking the route in reverse, it climbs back up “The Fan” via Jacob’s Ladder and passes through the summit checkpoint a second time before descending to the finish at the Storey Arms. That is 24km. When it is used as part of the SAS selection process it has a time limit of 4 hours and 15 minutes, and they carry 55lbs plus a weapon and food and water. I will only be carrying 35lbs. Plus food and water. I will be wearing my trekking gear, meaning a pair of walking boots rather than running shoes, but this is not going to be a walk in the National Park. Ah, yes, of course, it is, but…
It had taken a while for me to get here after first rather (very !) naively raising the idea in my mind in December 2012 (which you can read about here) and I was still not sure I was ready. I had kept my running training going but the bergen runs had tailed off as I ran out of time and I felt like I was at least one 10 mile bergen run and one 15 mile bergen run short. Anyway, it was too late to do anything more about that now and I would just have to see where my current fitness level got me to. The fact that the drive down took 6 hours (twice as long as it should have taken) did not help my nerves, and nor did the pouring rain as I walked over to the Storey Arms to register on the Friday evening. At least it was not the burning sun of the week leading up to this point. I registered in no time at all, got my number and then headed over to the weighing station, where one of the DS was waiting. I had packed and weighed my bergen before leaving the house so I was pretty sure it was almost spot on, and that turned out to be correct. I had packed it with the necessary survival kit for a mountain (to keep things realistic, rather than just using bricks), which meant that my Berghaus 35+8 Freeflow rucksack was holding a compass, 2 Petzl headtorches, spare laces, a Mountain Equipment wooly hat, the Outdoor Research sun runner cap which I had worn for the Paras’ 10 in Colchester (which you can read about here), a neck ruff, 2 pairs of gloves (one inner pair and one outer pair), a waterproof mapcase with the relevant Ordnance Survey map and the route card and safety information provided by the organisers (waterproofed with fablon, as instructed), a Lifesystems mountain first aid kit, my Mountain Equipment Fitzroy jacket, a bivi bag, Rab sleeping bag, gaiters, knee brace and a towel, which is about the most massively useful thing a Fan Dancer can have. I was also carrying spare clothing in a waterproof bag inside the bergen, a Rab long-sleeved base layer, a Berghaus short-sleeved zipped base layer, two fleeces (one Rab, one Berghaus), North Face hiking trousers, Helly Hansen long johns, and a pair of hiking socks. I had also attached my walking poles to the outside of my bergen. I did not intend to use them while tabbing, but after my experience on High Spy on Christmas Eve (which you can read about here) I decided it was sensible to take them, just in case. I also had 6kg of dumbbell weights wrapped up in various items inside the bergen. I was told it needed another couple of pounds to bring it up to 35lbs, and then I would add food and water to that.
I was soaked from the rain by the time I got back to the car, and was left hoping that would not be the weather for the following day. We were staying at the Nant Ddu Lodge Hotel & Spa, just down the road from the Storey Arms, so we headed there to check-in, had something to eat, and then I finished off the packing of my bergen, adding 3 litres of water into my CamelBak internal reservoir, and also putting in one 750ml bottle and one 500ml bottle of water containing High5 Zero electrolyte tablets. I also packed an extra litre of water which I would be dropping off at Windy Gap, and had another litre ready to be taken to the turnaround point. From the moment I had signed up I had been receiving excellent communications from the organisers, the latest of which had detailed the water requirements for the day, and I was making sure to comply with those. I found spaces for the food I would be carrying, 2 packets of peanuts and raisins, 2 flapjacks, 3 energy gels, and 4 packets of jelly babies, and added an extra 0.5kg dumbbell weight, to make sure I would be on 35lbs without the food and water. I made sure my clothes were ready for the morning, a Rab short sleeved base layer, North Face hiking trousers, a pair of inner socks and a pair of hiking socks, a Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine jacket and my Scarpa ZG-10 GTX hiking boots, into which I had put a pair of Sorbothane insoles. I pinned my event number to the front of my base layer. Everything was ready, so I went to bed to get some sleep, listening to the rain continuing to fall as I lay there.
I woke at 0630 and ate three pots of Oat So Simple for breakfast, adding in some flaxseed and maca, while drinking coconut water. I was pleased to note that the rain seemed to have stopped, but still decided to put the waterproof cover over my bergen. I was quickly dressed and stowed one bag of the jelly babies in my jacket pocket, together with my Rite In The Rain notepad and pen. I did not want to be carrying too much in my jacket because it would just feel awkward, but I knew that if I did not carry some food in there then I would not stop to eat any. I carried my bergen, my boots and the spare water down to the car and drove the couple of miles up to the Storey Arms. So after around 1000 words you will be pleased to know that I am almost at the start line. Well, I say almost… I parked along the side of the road because the car parking spaces were already taken, and put on my boots. I walked across the road and round the back of the Storey Arms to have my bergen weighed again, and this time it was being done by none other than Ken Jones, the founder and organiser of this event and someone who, frankly, I was in awe of.
Even when he looked at me like I was a complete idiot, because now my bergen weighed 51lbs. He asked my age, and when I replied that I was 45 he reminded me that as someone in the Master class of the event I could go with 25lbs, but I was adamant that I wanted to carry the 35lbs plus water. However, the water requirement had been relaxed because of the cooling of the weather, so I could lose the extra 1 litre in my bergen at least, would not need to supply the 1 litre for the turnaround point, and so could set off with 35lbs plus 3 litres. While I had been doing that Mark Pigden, who I knew from bootcamp sessions with Regiment Fitness at Welwyn Garden City, had arrived with his girlfriend, Jess Gallacher, and I took a moment to chat with them as Mark got his bergen ready to be weighed. He was also over the minimum but I knew that would not hold him back. Despite his own reservations about how he might do on the day, Jess and I both knew Mark was going to smash this. I went back to the car to get my bergen sorted, dumped the excess water, a packet of jelly babies and one of the dumbbells, and returned to be told that my bergen now weighed 46.5lbs, including the water and food. I decided I would go with that, and it was one of the most foolish decisions I have ever taken. Anyway, now I was done and ready and it was just a matter of waiting for everything to get going.
People started moving towards the old red phone box and Mark and I followed along. I was not going to be running with him because I would hold him back far too much, but I could keep pace with him wandering down to the start. I am not ashamed to admit that I was feeling petrified at this point. I think I had spent the past week doing little else but building this up in my mind, and it really did not need any building up anyway because I knew this was going to be the toughest event I had undertaken. I knew I could tab because I had done the Paras’ 10, and I knew I could get over Pen-y-Fan because I had done the Brecon Beacons Horseshoe before (which you can read about here), so I think my biggest worry was that because of the distance being covered if anything did go wrong I would not be able to just get myself around to the finishing point, most likely because there would be a mountain in the way. The weather was dry and overcast and now I just wanted to get going before it either started raining or the sun burnt through. As I was standing near the old red phone box I spotted a familiar face from the Avalanche Endurance Events club on Strava and went over to introduce myself to the very amiable Jim Davenport. He seemed very relaxed and ready for this. I would not be running with him either ! No, my plan was just to slot in somewhere near the back at the start so I did not get in the way of anyone else, take it steady, and just see where it got me. We were called forward and through a gate at the bottom of the track, those first through moving up the track until the rest of us were through, when we gathered in a circle around Ken Jones for an introduction and a safety briefing.
One point which stuck in my mind was Ken telling us that the tent at the summit of Pen-y-Fan was our “limit of exploitation. Don’t go beyond that because there’s a cliff.” Good to know. We were also advised that if we were taking in sufficient fluids we “should have a pee on the way round.” And then, almost another 1000 words on from my first ‘almost’, we were moving back on to the main track, hearing a countdown and we were off.
I had deliberately placed myself near the back of the field because I did not want to get in anyone’s way as we went up this first part. I had no illusions about my ability, and equally knew just how very good and fast some of these guys were going to be. I was not setting out to achieve a specific time (not this time, anyway), I just wanted to get there and back again. When I had first thought about doing The Fan Dance I had plans of coming down and doing some practice runs before the real thing, but they never materialised and when I had climbed Pen-y-Fan it was from the other side, so I had no idea what was ahead of me, and as we set off I could not even see what was ahead of me due to the number of people in front of me. That beginning march from the red telephone box just went on and on and on. We all seemed to stay together at first, a great thick snake of people starting to make its way up the mountain, covering the trail so that it was practically impossible to overtake at this stage anyway, before we came away from the trees and into open ground and the line started to thin itself out. At this stage I was feeling fine, going at my own pace which at times was overtaking some people and at other times saw me being overtaken, until I knew I was among those at the back. It made no odds to me, and at least I could follow everyone else and not get lost. It was all uphill for the first half a mile, climbing from just under 1,500ft to 1,950ft, and when I got to the top of that I could see just how much the field had thinned out, and also got an idea of how far was still left to go to get anywhere near to the summit of Pen-y-Fan.
Having said that, I was feeling fine anyway, and enjoyed a little canter down the other side until it brought us to a stream crossing, which posed no problem for my Scarpas. It had taken me 28 minutes and 35 seconds to cover the first mile and I felt like I was going as fast as I could. There was no part of me particularly hurting at this stage, it was just hard going to get any more speed out of my legs. Of course, now there was just the small issue of going back uphill again, and I began to climb steadily again, reaching a fork in the track where one of the DS (Directing Staff) was stationed and turning right, to start a long zigzag which would bring us to the summit.
I could still see a trail of people ahead of me as the end of this zig brought us to a tent and another DS, and a turn to the left which led to a plateau and a forking of the track. The trail of people had disappeared, which meant I could not just follow them, so fortunately I knew (and was able to check on the map) that the left fork would take me to the summit of Corn Du, while the right fork would take me where I wanted to go, because the instructions very clearly stated “Don’t ascend Corn Du”. The view from here was magnificent, and I could see where I would be going once I was over the summit. It had taken me 40 minutes and 52 seconds to climb the second mile. I continued along the track and at 1 hour and 21 minutes was overtaken by the first of the Clean Fatigue runners.
I reached the summit, the tent, RV1 and the pair of DS at 1 hour and 24 minutes, having walked for 2.5 miles and climbed from 1,5ooft to 2,907ft. It had been a long slog but I had not stopped along the way, my body felt fine with no specific aches, and the Sorbothane insoles appeared to be doing their job because I certainly did not feel any aching in my knees.
I confirmed to the DS that I was fine and headed off to Jacob’s Ladder, being followed by a group who were doing their Duke of Edinburgh Award. I had climbed Jacob’s Ladder when I had come across from Cribyn while doing the Brecon Beacons Horseshoe, but had not been down it before and was looking forward to the experience while not really knowing what to expect. What I certainly did not expect was one of the Clean Fatigue runners to come bombing past me on the grass to the left of the track and to continue hurtling headlong, seemingly inevitably to a massive tumble and a fall, and I came to a halt with the Duke of Edinburgh guys as we watched in awe the disaster unfolding before our eyes, but somehow he managed to retain his footing, got to where the slope evened off, and was on his way. We all decided we were going to take a more non-death-defying approach to the descent !
It was steep and the initial steps were awkward at times, but after that I found the footing to be good and I was pushing along. As I approached the track to Cribyn I chatted with the DS positioned there, who informed me that coming back up Jacob’s Ladder was considered to be the hardest part of the course, telling me that as he took my photo, which does seem to lack an element of dynamic action on my part !
I suspected that I would have to at least try to be a lot more dynamic on my way back if I was to make it. My third mile had taken me 29 minutes 15 seconds and I followed the “Don’t ascend Cribyn” instructions. I continued to the bottom of the slope and then carried on along the path to contour the base of Cribyn. The path was still wet from the rain from night before, which had left puddles of water as well as giving a slippery edge to some of the rocks along the track, and because of that and the constant stream of Clean Fatigue runners coming past me, I kept to the side. That still did not stop me slipping and having to put a hand down to steady myself to avoid a fall as I moved aside to allow one group to pass, but generally my Scarpas were giving me their usual excellent grip on this kind of terrain.
There was another tented DS station at the 4 miles point at Windy Gap and it had taken me 21 minutes 31 seconds over the last mile, which looking back at it I would say is fast considering how carefully I was taking it. Now I turned right on to a track I had seen as I had come around the base of Cribyn, and made sure not to ascend Fan-y-Big. I was on the Roman Road. From afar this had looked like it would be a steady flat stage, and as it was out in the open I was beginning to feel the sun. I was very thankful for my Camelbak internal bladder as I drank while making my way along the even track – I know I stupidly would not have been drinking if I had been relying on water bottles in my bergen because I would not have stopped to take them out, in much the same way I was not stopping to take off my jacket even though I was boiling inside it and soaking it with sweat.
After 2 hours and 6 minutes I encountered the first of the Load Bearing runners heading back up the track, as well as a group of horseriders, the first people I had seen who I knew were not part of the event. My request for a lift was not taken seriously.
After 2 hours, 15 minutes and 30 seconds I encountered the first of the Clean Fatigue runners heading back up the track,
and then after 2 hours and 17 minutes Mark Pigden was coming towards me, telling me about the cramp in his legs while I had nothing really to report, other than some pain developing in my left shoulder because of the weight of the bergen. It turns out Mark had overpacked his bergen in the same way as me, and the cramp got worse for him as he ascended Jacob’s Ladder, and yet he still managed to finish 38th out of all Load Bearers in a brilliant time of 3 hours, 59 minutes and 31 seconds.
The 5 mile mark came as I was across from the Upper Neuadd Reservoir, and I had picked up some speed on the track, doing that last mile in 18 minutes and 49 seconds. Then on 2 hours and 26 minutes I saw Jim Davenport coming towards me, looking pretty fresh and giving me words of encouragement which were very gratefully received. Even if he was very clearly lying about the time he expected me to finish in ! He came 53rd out of all Load Bearers overall and also finished in a brilliant time of 4 hours, 15 minutes and 36 seconds.
I was passing a lot of people as I kept on along the track and reached a gully at the same time as a group were coming up out of it, so I was careful to pick a line which did not see me crashing into them as I went down the steep slope.
I crossed the stream at the bottom and made my way up the steep slope on the other side, this time making sure to avoid some others coming down who were not quite managing to keep their feet. So I had that to look forward to on my way back. Now I was handrailing the woodline of the Taf Fechan Forest, with a constant stream of people coming my way, now a mixture of Load Bearing and Clean Fatigue runners. It was a good track and the going was easy even though the sun was now fully out, and I passed the 6 mile mark some way down the track, doing that mile in 18 minutes and 06 seconds.
After a grassy track between trees there was a split in the track and I took the left hand fork past a group of walkers who must have wondered where all these people on this track were coming from today. Given this was the first group of walkers I had seen today I would have thought a group as large as this event would stand out ! I was beginning to wonder where the RV2 had got to as I continued along and the track widened, then the people I was passing were telling me it was just around the corner and encouraging me along, which was very much welcomed. I went around to the left and then back to the right again, and there it was in front of me.
RV2 marked the 7 mile turn around point, and the last mile had taken me 16 minutes and 46 seconds. In total, it had taken me 2 hours and 58 minutes to reach the halfway mark, which I was reasonably pleased with. I did ask if it was quicker going back and was told that depended on how fast you ran. I checked in with the DS and confirmed that I was good to continue, before taking off my bergen so I could sit down to drink some water. How tempting it was to simply stay sitting there in the sun with the bergen off. My jacket was soaked in sweat, and although the clouds looked as though they might come over the sun I decided to take it off before I departed RV2 on 3 hours and 09 began to make my way back again.
I started at a brisk pace, encouraging those few who were arriving behind me, and noticing a couple of real soldiers at the side of the track who appeared to be doing some sort of map reading exercise.
I did the first mile up the track to 8 miles in 15 minutes and 52 seconds. I was feeling very good about this, but suddenly my bergen was feeling very heavy on my left shoulder and in the small of my back, and the ‘flat’ track I had followed coming in seemed to have changed into an uphill track now that I was heading back. Which, obviously, was not fair. I got back to the gully and just like everything else it suddenly seemed so much harder to deal with. I used my hands to help with the descent to the stream and then gave a real push to go up the other side. Now my bergen was feeling very heavy indeed, and I had not been doing much to reduce that weight because I had only eaten half a packet of jelly babies by this stage. I was pushing along with my hands behind me and under the bergen, trying to hold some of the weight off my shoulders. This deterioration had all come much sooner than I had hoped for and my mile up the track to 9 miles had taken me 24 minutes 28 seconds, instead of the 18 minutes and 06 seconds it had taken me in the opposite direction. There were no other runners from the event around me now, which meant that much of what was keeping me going through the growing pain in my left shoulder was self-motivation. I knew that once I got to the end of this stretch that I would only have another 4 miles to go, and that seemed like a manageable distance. I was not thinking about what actually made up that 4 miles, despite what the DS on Jacob’s Ladder had said to me earlier.
I was not alone on the track, though, because I did start to catch up with other people who were walking along it, talking with some of them who asked what I was doing, including one group who ranged from 6 years up to 72 years. This was proving to be a long, hard slog and I eventually reached the tent at the 10 miles mark having spent 31 minutes and 08 seconds walking the mile to there. My left shoulder was throbbing with the pain and the small of my back felt sore from the rubbing of the bergen, even though, given the design of the bergen I was using, I was not sure how it could be rubbing me there. I pushed on around the base of Cribyn and now I was alone. Every step was getting harder and I could no longer avoid the fact that the hardest part was to come, because it was staring me straight in the face.
After 4 hours and 55 minutes I was at the base of Jacob’s Ladder for the second time that day. I took the opportunity to take the bergen off my back, took a pee, ate the last few jelly babies in that first bag, also ate a couple of energy gels, drank some water from my waterbottle which contained High5 Zero electrolyte tablets, put a new packet of jelly babies in my pocket, got my phone ready for the summit, put my bergen back on, and basically steeled myself for what was to come. At 4 hours and 58 minutes I set off, just putting one foot in front of the other and determined to keep on doing that until I got to the top. The start was easy enough, a gentle introduction to the hell I knew was about to come. I just kept plodding along, making sure not to come to an absolute halt even if my steps were getting slower, and I passed the 11 mile mark at the path to Cribyn, my last mile having taken 26 minutes and 35 seconds. Now I could hear someone else coming up behind me and decided that I just wanted to stay ahead of whoever it was, which was a good enough motivation to keep the legs going, climbing and climbing, concentrating on keeping the legs moving and trying to shut out the pain in my left shoulder and the small of my bag, trying to keep my hands behind me and under the bergen to hold the weight off my shoulders, but also needing my hands free so that I could swing my arms to give me that extra momentum for climbing. I kept looking up to see if I could see the actual top of this part, rather than the false tops with their false hope. So I could see there were people coming down towards me in some groups and my only thought on seeing them was that I hoped they would move out of my way because I doubted I was capable of making a move from the direction I was headed, straight on with no deviation.
Fortunately they did, because I was also conscious that if they did push into me I was more than likely without sufficient energy to stop myself from falling. I kept pushing on, had not stopped on the way, and now reached the bigger ‘steps’ towards the top, and the person behind me caught up. It turned out he was one of the Clean Fatigue runners and we pushed each other on, until he took a slightly different route through the rocks which simply was not going to work for me with my bergen.
I got to the top of Jacob’s Ladder after 5 hours and 36 minutes and 2 minutes later I checked in at RV3, and confirmed I was good to carry on, although there was one thing I had to do before leaving the summit on 5 hours and 40 minutes. Yes, I had to get a selfie.
I felt a real surge of energy as I left the summit. It was all downhill from here (apart from that one bit, but I chose not to think about that for now) and I did have a spring in my step as I pushed on. I stopped by one of the Load Bearing runners who had a muscle strain to see if he needed any help but he told me to carry on, and my mile to the 12 mile point had taken me 40 minutes and 39 seconds (that being the mile from part way up Jacob’s Ladder and over the summit), and had not actually been my slowest mile of the day (which was from mile 1 to mile 2). As I carried on down the track, at 5 hours and 48 minutes, I noticed a group had gathered around a casualty from the event, so I stopped to offer my assistance, which was welcomed in case they needed an extra pair of hands. More people arrived at the scene so I asked one of the DS who was present if I could be released to continue on my way. He thanked me for waiting and agreed I could continue, so after having been there for only a few minutes (which shows you the quick and efficient way they were responding to this incident) I was on my way again. I carried on along the track as it continued to go downhill, passing the tented DS point and taking a right turn along the adjoining track, pushing things along as I started to feel the aching in my left shoulder again now that the surge from the summit had passed. I turned left off this track just before another group of walkers reached the junction coming down from another route off Corn Du and I determined to stay ahead of them. As it turned out, that was no challenge at all. My push to 13 miles, with a couple of stops along the way, had taken me 31 minutes 38 seconds and now I was pushing up the last hill, knowing that it would be all downhill from then on, and putting everything that I could into it. My legs felt fine and it was just my left shoulder which was holding me back. I got to 14 miles in 17 minutes 56 seconds. I knew that there was less than a mile to go but it began to feel like it was the longest mile. This was supposed to be downhill but I was not feeling it getting any easier. I needed it to finish because I needed to get this bergen off my shoulder, so all I could was keep going. And then the A470 came into view in the distance and step by step everything got a little closer until I was coming down the hill towards a little welcoming committee, and confusion took hold of me.
I was expecting to see Ken Jones and I saw someone who I told myself was Ken Jones even though I was also telling myself at the same time that this was clearly not Ken Jones. It was not Ken Jones. At the time I was getting to the finish Ken was dealing with the casualty incident I mentioned earlier. Anyway, whoever it was, they congratulated me on finishing, shook my hand and presented me with the cloth badge for finishers, while I thanked them for organising such a brilliant event. That final stretch had taken me 20 minutes 44 seconds and I reached the finish in 6 hours, 34 minutes and 04 seconds, with my load now weighing 43lbs. I had finished 199th out of 201 Load Bearers, but for me the most important thing was that I had finished.
My watch battery was down to 62% and my internal battery was lower than that, so I got myself a hogroast and got the bergen off my back, which gave me an instant boost. The hogroast lasted no time at all on my plate, so I took all my kit off to the car before coming back to buy a tshirt and a copy of Ken’s book, Darkness Descending. I was sure I had seen the real Ken walking about the place since I had finished, and was keen to ask him to autograph the book, so I went in search of him, wandering around the place a few times before resigning myself to the fact that he had gone, when suddenly he appeared and was very kind enough to spend a few moments chatting with me while signing the book. I thanked him for spending some time with me and went away happy to have had the opportunity to have thanked him personally for setting up this event.
In the time between finishing the Fan Dance and managing to get this blog written up I have read the excellent Darkness Descending (once I started it I could not put it down !), and in writing this conclusion I am guided by part of the conclusion from the book – what did I learn ? First of all, I learnt that I can finish the Fan Dance (albeit very, very slowly); secondly, I learnt that every pound counts and being ‘just a few pounds’ over the required weight is foolhardy, so if you are not going to eat it then do not carry it; thirdly, I learnt that if it looks like it might be downhill then I have to take the opportunity to push it because at some point that it going to turn into an uphill; fourthly, I learnt that my Scarpa boots are brilliant, but they are not the best for tabbing so I will need to get another more suitable pair; and I say that because the fifth thing I learnt is that I can do better than I did this time around, and I do believe that part of my conversation with Ken included me agreeing to come back for the Winter Fan Dance.
You can see more of my photographs from the day here.