Those of you who read my blog should know by now that I have got into ‘tabbing’ in a big way. Just to remind you, ‘tabbing’ is a military term (‘tactical advance to battle’) which essentially means moving quickly while carrying weight. Of course, I do not travel as quickly or with as much weight as the military, but the events I am currently drawn to are worked on this basis. Back in the summer of 2014 I had taken part in The Fan Dance organised by Avalanche Endurance Events to recreate one of the SAS Selection Test Marches (and you can read about my efforts in that here) and now I was back to do the Winter edition, but with the added twist that I would be doing it twice, Back To Back, first on the Saturday (which you can read about here) and now again on the Sunday, to get a small taste of what it might be like to go through consecutive days of Test Marches as part of Selection.
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 (although I still measure distance in miles). 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 3 litres of 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…
I was ready for this. I had a clear objective for the weekend, which was to complete Back To Back, so I was not worried about my times (and had made a big improvement on my Summer Fan Dance time yesterday anyway) and I woke up feeling recovered from the day before. Just like the day before, I woke at 0600 and ate a banana and some Maple Sunrise cereal for breakfast (which contains corn, rice, flax, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth), while drinking coconut water and a cup of tea. I was already packed from the day before, using my Berghaus Cyclops Crusader bergen, with most kit in the main compartment and just a few bits and pieces in the side pockets. I had put my sleeping bag inside my bivi bag and stuffed it into the bottom, and the rest of the weight was made up of my safety kit, which consisted of two compasses, two headtorches, spare laces, paracord, gaffer tape and a couple of utility tools in one waterproof bag; spare wooly hat, ruff, and spare pair of inner and outer gloves in another; waterproofed full map in the inner pocket, with my fabloned Winter Fan Dance map with the safety card on the reverse in one of the side pockets; my radio in the other side pocket; mountain first aid kit, Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine jacket, and a towel and talcum powder in their own bags; a hexamine stove with a Zippo lighter, spork, tea bags and bags of porridge inside a metal pot and cup, all bagged and secured so it would not rattle; a cut down rollmat, and in another waterproof bag my change of clothing, being a short sleeved zipped base layer, long sleeved base layer, two fleeces, a pair of hiking trousers, long johns and inner and outer socks, and a knee brace, just in case. I would be wearing long North Face hiking trousers, 2XU compression tights (in a change from the day before), Bridgedale socks, a Rab long-sleeved base layer, my new Team Bright Hammer technical tshirt from Scimitar (which still had my green 22 number pinned to it from yesterday) and, in another change from yesterday, my Mountain Equipment Fitzroy jacket on top, because I had taken a look outside and there was some snow even here, off the mountain. I had energy gels and granola bars spread between my trouser pockets, with my racing snake map from Point To Point also in one of the trouser pockets and a survival blanket in the other, my radio in one of my jacket pockets, with my Rite In The Rain notepad and pencil, and some food (a bag of mixed nuts, raisins and chocolates I had copied from that provided to us for Point To Point) and a lip salve in the other, wooly hat on my head, and I decided that I would wear a pair of thin gloves and a pair of outer gloves. I could easily take them off if I got too hot, but I had a feeling that would not be the case. I would also be wearing my Garmin Fenix 2 watch. I had also finished off my bergen packing by replenishing my fluids, as I would be carrying 2 litres of water with High 5 Zero electrolytes in a bladder in the top of my bergen, and in the side pocket with my fabloned map 1 litre of hot water in a thermos flask, and water purification tablets in an empty water bottle in case of the need for an emergency resupply from a stream. When I took my belt kit together with the kit in my bergen, I had absolutely everything I could ever need to survive on a mountain and now it was all packed and ready, and had been weighed when I had registered on the Friday evening.
I left the Nant Ddu Lodge Hotel & Spa and it was dark outside, dry, less windy than the day before, and with some snow on the parked cars but none on the driveway. I carried my bergen and my Aku Pilgrim boots (which had dried out very nicely overnight) down to the car, and drove the couple of miles up to the Storey Arms, in which time I could see there was more snow higher up on the mountain sides. The weather did feel a lot calmer than the day before, though. Once again, I parked along the side of the road because the car parking spaces across from the Storey Arms were already taken, and ate an apple as I put on my boots, because this was a routine which seemed to have served me well yesterday. I then walked up to the Storey Arms, where I did not spot any familiar faces at this time. I knew they must be out there somewhere, because I was not the only one doing Back To Back. Then I spotted Mark Pigden and his far better half, Jess Gallacher, both of whom I knew from Regiment Fitness bootcamp sessions in Welwyn Garden City. Mark had run the Summer Fan Dance very overloaded on weight and put in an outstanding time, so I was very interested to see how he would do carrying a proper amount of weight.
People started moving towards the old red phone box and I went with them. The weather was dry and very much less windy, as I have said, there was a much calmer feel than the day before, and while it was colder at least it was not snowing at the moment, with the snow from the night very visible on the hills surrounding us. I decided my plan for today was to take it steady, and just get it done. I wanted that Back To Back patch. We were called forward and made our way through the 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. I was right at the front this time, ready to hear everything Ken had to say, but before he got going Linda arrived and needed to speak with competitor number 22. That was me. I stepped forward, causing Ken to say “yes, he’s known to us,” which sounded a bit ominous !
Linda wanted to check how I had signed up to Back To Back, because, as I mentioned yesterday, my admin for that had not been the best. We quickly sorted it all out. Then I was back to listening to Ken, but from the moment he had he begun there was constant talking coming from the back, so he had to go and sort that out. “That’s ruined the Braveheart speech, so we’ll go straight on to the safety briefing.” It has to be said that the safety briefing largely focuses on death. Death by falling off the summit of Pen-y-Fan, death by falling off the left of Jacob’s Ladder. Death, and the costs of dry cleaning for the Directing Staff who have to recover the body, the bill for which will be sent to your next of kin. The lesson here is do not die. We had learnt the day before how important it was to listen to the DS because the wind had made everything pretty dicey up top, to the extent that Dave Humm reported seeing a sheep blown off its feet. And with the safety briefing fresh in our minds we were off and I was feeling good about the day.
The fact that it was not raining already made a positive difference, but that beginning march from the old red telephone box still went on and on and on. There were fewer people than the day before so we were not so packed together from the beginning and I was just going at my own pace. It was all uphill for that first half a mile, climbing from just under 1,500ft to 1,950ft, and I found myself walking with Mick Henderson, who is always very welcome company. The day had started off lighter and it was perfectly clear by the time I reached the gate at the top, where I encountered a much shorter queue than the day before, although once I was through it was almost impossible to push on because of the ice on the pathway leading down to the stream crossing, which was a lot shallower than the day before and again posed no problem for my Aku Pilgrims. I felt like I was keeping as good a pace as the day before and I definitely felt like I could keep this pace going as I began pushing uphill again, reaching a fork in the track where one of the DS was stationed and turning right, to start that long zigzag which would bring us to the summit.
This stretch was a completely different proposition to the day before. The streams of water had disappeared, replaced with ice that was beginning to crack and melt, and there was not such a strong wind, so we were not being blown along, which had been something of a benefit along this stretch the day before. The wind had a much colder edge to it, though. In the very clear conditions I could easily see a trail of people ahead of me as the end of this zig brought us to a turn to the left which led to a plateau and a forking of the track. The left fork would take me to the summit of Corn Du, while the right fork would take me where I wanted to go, and the map instructions very clearly stated “Don’t ascend Corn Du”. The view from here was even more magnificent than the day before with the dusting of snow, and I could see where I would be going once I was over the summit. I did not realise it at the time, but as I took this first turn into the contouring of Corn Du, I passed elite obstacle course racer, Thomas Blanc, for the third time this weekend.
He had been at the previous MST station the day before but had mostly stayed in his tent to try to shelter from the cold and the wind and the rain, as I found out while chatting with him at a recent Spartan Workout, which you can read about here. My story with him over this weekend was not quite over yet, though. The wind was blowing along the straighter part of the track, and while it was nothing compared to the day before I was a little worried that if it was channelled in the right way it might become powerful enough to cause some real damage. So when I caught sight of Gerald McCarthy standing at the edge of the track posing for a photograph I shouted to him to close his mouth just in case ! No real chance of that ever happening, though. It was great to see him again but his news was not good because he had pulled his calf, although he had been fortunate to do that while tabbing alongside a physio, who had worked on him to give him some relief. He was determined to push on and I said I would see him back at the finish. I reached the summit, and the expected tent this time, RV1 and the DS at 1 hour and 06 minutes, having walked for 2.5 miles, climbed from 1,5ooft to 2,907ft, and knocked a minute off my time from yesterday. I was feeling very good about that, and it was certainly much calmer here at the summit today.
As I moved from the summit I caught sight of Mick again, and Jim Davenport for the first time today, and we set off together down Jacob’s Ladder, going over to the right at the top and taking it as steady as yesterday because although the wind had gone, we now had ice to contend with. This made the footing really tricky and once we got off the scrambling part and on to the paved steps it was impossible to walk on them. It might as well have been an ice rink. This made progress much slower than the day before on this part because we were having to make our way down the track at the side, but it did make Jim the poster boy of the Winter Fan Dance.
There were people sliding over around us and as we got further down the DS positioned there directed us off the path and the track and on to the grass at the right because it was just too treacherous to carry straight on down. That did not stop people from slipping over, though ! Soon enough I was at the bottom of the slope, feeling glad to have put Jacob’s Ladder behind me because I had much more enjoyed it the day before, and carrying on along the path to contour the base of Cribyn. The water had gone from this path as well, replaced with more melting ice, and although we did not have the sun coming through like yesterday, so the ice was not melting in any way quickly at all, I was still able to push it a bit along this stretch. I had to get right to the side at one point because a section of troops doing this for real was coming the other way. Just like yesterday I found myself catching up with Jonathan Dando on the way out, but this time I told him I was going to push on because I knew I would be slower on the way back, so I carried on alone.
When I got to the DS station at the 4 miles point at Windy Gap I was surprised to see that Ian Ford had got out of his tent today. I was not surprised to see he was eating a sandwich. I will repeat what I said in yesterday’s blog, that I had first met Ian on one of the navigation training days in the lead up to Point To Point, which you can read about here, and he has become a firm friend. Just like the day before, it was great to see him now and his infectious smile once again set me up for the next stage of the outward journey. You really should go and read his blog here. 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 and the first of the Clean Fatigue runners passed me at 1 hour and 34 minutes, which gave me a good feeling today because it was 10 minutes later than the previous day. I was making sure to keep drinking from my Camelbak internal bladder while making my way along the track, and today I was also eating a couple of granola bars, which I had not done the day before and I was sure that had slowed me down on the way back. After 1 hour and 55 minutes I encountered Rob Paine heading back up the track, and he was clearly living up to his promise to take it steady today because he was 5 minutes behind his time from the day before ! He came in second in the Masters category and third overall, to cap an outstanding weekend.
Not very long after that at 2 hours and 01 minute I passed Mark Pidgen, who was storming to a 3 hours and 38 minutes finish, beating his summer Fan Dance time, and putting him in an excellent 13th position overall. As I continued down the Roman Road I knew the gully was coming up and I wondered if it was going to be the same as yesterday. I hoped not because I was enjoying having dry feet. I was very pleased to see that the water level had gone down and that the stepping stones were at least partly above water, so I got across with dry feet.
I made my way up the steep slope on the other side, and was handrailing the woodline of the Taf Fechan Forest, once again with a constant stream of people coming my way, a mixture of Load Bearing and Clean Fatigue runners, and some familiar faces, including Vini Sihra (who not only finished as Champion of the Load Bearing Women, but also finished 27th overall with a time under 4 hours, while completing Back To Back), the formidable Billy McKie who was looking very strong as he pushed on to complete his Back To Back with two times just outside of 4 hours
David Ellicott and Tony Kelly (who had given me the lift on the morning of Point To Point) and Mark Massey, who was going strong but unfortunately picked up an injury on his way back in which hit his time, although he still managed it just outside of Selection time. The track was drier today even though the sun had chosen not to show itself and I was making good time along it. RV2 marked the 7 mile turn around point, and it had taken me 2 hours and 33 minutes to get here, which was disappointing because it was slower than yesterday, but not surprising because I felt like it had been a slower descent of Jacob’s Ladder. Stuart was manning RV2 today and as I got there he was preparing to give out ‘sickeners’ in the traditional form of press ups to the physio who had helped Gerald back at Corn Du. He had arrived at the RV with his race number not showing and had tried to guess it. Stuart had suggested in his own little way that there would be 10 press ups for every number he was out, and he was out by about 100 !
The press ups were postponed to allow him to continue. I checked in with Stuart, he said I was putting in a good effort, and I turned around and set straight off again without stopping. It was a new experience for me to be passing people I knew while heading back from the turnaround point, and I was a little surprised to be seeing Gerald first – he must have put in a storming section from the summit, and he looked his usual cheery self. Then there was Jonathan, Stuart Massey and Jim, Mike McDonald, Mick Henderson and, all things considered, everyone was looking happy. I was feeling good by the time I got back to the gully and quickly dealt with the descent to the stream, stormed across with the water still down below the stepping stones, and then gave a real push to go up the other side. I was back on the Roman Road and decided to eat another granola bar, which was far easier to do than the day before, and I kept pushing along. This was easily the best I had felt going back up the Roman Road and my disappointment at reaching RV2 slower than yesterday had disappeared. I was under no illusions and fully expected those who I had passed as they made their way to RV2 to pass me well before we got back to the old red phone box, but as I kept pushing along I was thinking to myself that it would be interesting to see just how far I could get before that happened, and then, just before the top of the Roman Road, I was passed by Jim and we had a chat as he went past.
I reached the tent at Windy Gap and found Ian Ford not eating a sandwich. I was not alone in having a little chat with him as I went past, and he gave good encouragement. I did not have any aches and pains today so I found it easy to drive myself up that slope from Windy Gap and push on around the base of Cribyn, passing Jim as he was getting his clothing and kit sorted before hitting Jacob’s Ladder. I was catching up with a few people as I kept driving myself forward, and my eating strategy today had clearly worked because I felt full of energy. As I approached the base of Jacob’s Ladder I made sure to eat an energy gel to give me an extra boost once I got there. I was passed by Mike McDonald, who was someone I recognised from other events but who I had not yet managed to speak with properly, and we exchanged a few words as we walked along together. There will be a far better chat than that the next time we meet !
I checked my watch and after 4 hours and 4 minutes I was at the base of Jacob’s Ladder, which meant I was a minute quicker than yesterday, despite having taken longer to get to the turnaround point. Now that certainly gave me a boost, because it meant I must have knocked some good time off my performance on the Roman Road, and I was determined to build on that. My time from here to the top in the summer had been 43 minutes, yesterday had been a disappointing 46 and a half minutes, so I still had my summer time to beat. I did not stop before setting off on the climb, as always just putting one foot in front of the other and wanting no more than to just keep on doing that until I got to the top. No, that is wrong. I did want more. I really wanted to beat my summer time. The start was easy enough, that gentle introduction to the hell I knew was about to come. Yesterday we had snow as I climbed, but today was worse than that to my mind, because we had a very strong crosswind blowing in gusts against us towards Cribyn, which meant at times it was very difficult to stay on your feet, especially with the bergens on our back. Jim passed me again as I climbed, and then I noticed another section of troops coming down across the grass to the side of the track, pretty much following the same route we had taken to get down earlier. I was joined by Mick as I followed Jim and we leapfrogged our way to the top, pushing as much as we could. It was very hard work, with Mick even taking a seat at one point to admire the view down the valley as I drove myself to get past him. Just to confirm, he had not fallen over.
I had one eye on my watch as it counted off the seconds, the minutes, and my other eye glancing up to see if the summit was getting any closer. I know this track well enough now to know that it never is. It never seems to get any closer until finally you reach the bigger ‘steps’ towards the top, and then we were heading over to the left corner, to the route we had taken to descend. I got to the summit after 4 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds, so my climb of Jacob’s Ladder had taken me 40 minutes, knocking 3 minutes off my time in the summer, which was brilliant, and clearly my fuelling strategy today was working. And now I was ahead of yesterday’s time at the same point by 7 minutes, which meant if I could keep it going I would beat my summer time by an hour. So it would make perfect sense to follow the same procedure as yesterday, check in at RV3, confirm I was good to carry on, and not go to the summit cairn because I did not have a second to spare. I have no idea what it was, but something told me to go to the summit cairn, and when I got there, there he was, Lloyd Newell, Lloydy, the Ally SkyGod. If you read my blog from yesterday you will remember that when I got to the summit on the outward leg I noticed something in Steve Moore’s hand, and I directed you to the blog page of my very good friend, Karl Rushen, to find out the story behind that. You can find that page here. The thing in his hand was Karl’s tribute to his little brother, Lloydy, and Steve had obviously placed it so very carefully at the summit cairn that despite the ferocious wind and the rain and the snow it was still here. Karl was not taking part today, so I took a photograph for him, and, to be honest, I took the photograph for myself as well, because although I never had the honour and the privilege and the pleasure to meet the man, through Karl he has become an absolute inspiration to me.
And now I knew why I had been drawn here and what I had to do – I had to beat the 5 and a half hour mark that I knew inside I had wanted to beat yesterday. And by God, if this man is not inspiration and motivation enough to achieve something like that then nothing ever will be. In addition to that, there really must be something about this place because once again I felt a real surge of energy as I left the summit after checking in with the DS. I knew what I had to do, which was knock off another 4 minutes from yesterday’s time in the remaining 2.5 miles, and while it was all downhill from here (apart from that one bit, but I knew I could definitely deal with that this time around) and I did have a spring in my step as I pushed on, I was aware that I had pushed it yesterday, and if I was to hit my target I needed to go quicker than that now. So it was time to really give it a push. I followed the path off the summit, passing Mick and telling him I was on a mission to finish in a quicker time than the day before, because I did not want to appear rude by not giving him company over this final stretch. He sent me on my way with his best wishes ! I carried on along the track as it continued to go downhill, passing another section of troops and then Thomas Blanc once more. He was on his radio as I passed and I nodded a greeting, but before I knew it he was running to catch me to ensure I took the correct turn off this track. This will be the only time I will ever record in a blog that Thomas Blanc was running to catch me up ! I took the right turn along the adjoining track, still pushing things along as I continued to feel good, and taking whatever route looked best. My feet were dry, so I did not care if they got wet along this stretch today, I just wanted to go as quickly as I could and a straight line seemed like the best option right now. I turned left off this track, just like yesterday passing a few other competitors as I came down to the stream, and now I was driving up the last hill, knowing that it would be all downhill from then on, and putting everything that I could into it, with a few glances at the watch to see how I was doing. I was feeling really good but the seconds were ticking away and I was not going to let this opportunity pass. The A470 came into view in the distance and I knew I would do it as step by step everything got a little closer until I was running down the hill towards a little welcoming committee, and once again wondering if this time I would be presented with my patch by Ken Jones. I reached the finish in 5 hours 29 minutes and 10 seconds, knocking 12 minutes and 33 seconds off my time from the day before, and in total 1 hour 04 minutes and 54 seconds off my summer time, and I was very pleased with that. I had broken the 5 and a half hours mark, and the official results actually have me at 5 hours and 28 minutes. I had finished 123rd out of 158 male Load Bearers, 29th out of 34 male Load Bearing Back To Back competitors on the day (although I suspect 34th on combined times over the two days), and the most important thing was that I had finished Back To Back without any major injuries – the only thing I had picked up was a partially formed blister on the inside of my right big toe. I was presented with my patch by Stuart, and I could not have been happier – that made a clean sweep of Ken, Jason and Stuart with patch presentations over the weekend. Stuart asked me which of the Back To Back patches I wanted and I went for the gold, we posed for the photograph, I told him I had knocked over an hour off my summer time and he congratulated me on my effort. That meant everything to me.
I was really not very bothered about rest and recovery today, so I went back to my car to drop off my bergen, sent off a text to Debbie to let her know I had finished safely again, then came back to chat with those who were still here, not bothering with the hogroast because I was not feeling hungry. I bought myself a Winter Fan Dance hoodie, and I have to say it is so warm and comfortable that it has hardly been off me since. As with the day before, most of the people I knew were still there and I congratulated them on their performances while taking great delight in telling them about mine, getting their congratulations in return. Anyone would think there was a bit of an AEE family growing here… Ken was preparing to do the prize giving, and it seemed like a lot of people had decided to stay on for it.
Jonathan had his Point To Point patch on the arm of his fleece and Mark Massey asked how it was attached. When told it was being held on by velcro he decided to find out how firmly attached it was. Not very firmly at all, as it turned out. It was not as cold for the prize giving today, and again it was very well worth staying to hear the stories behind the Champions and be able to applaud their achievement. Rich Smith won the Men’s Load Bearing; Anthony Callaghan won the Men’s Load Bearing Masters
Vini was a very popular winner of the Women’s Load Bearing after her performance in Point To Point; Mick Clifford doubled up over the weekend by winning the Men’s Clean Fatigue, an awesome Back To Back achievement; Reuben Evans won the Men’s Clean Fatigue Masters; and Rhian Probert won the Women’s Clean Fatigue. Congratulations to each and every one of them. It just remained to take a photograph of all those we could find from Team Bawbag, the Back To Back Sacks 2015. Somehow we did not spot that Jim was across the road until after the photograph had been taken.
I walked back to my car thinking what a brilliant weekend it had been. There was no snow on the roads so I was able to get away quickly and was soon at the first services in England for what I suspect may well become a traditional post-Avalanche Endurance Events meal at Burger King. I met a couple of guys there who had done the Fan Dance today and as we got chatting I mentioned how different the weather had been the day before and so they realised I had done Back To Back. I was genuinely surprised at their respectful reaction, and suddenly just what I had achieved over the weekend really began to sink in.
There are so many people I need to thank in respect of the weekend, and I hope I will not forget anyone. First of all, everyone involved with the brilliant organisation of the weekend by Avalanche Endurance Events, Ken Jones and Jason Williams; Matt, Stuart, Dave Humm, Ian Ford, Steve Moore, Thomas Blanc and all the other MST; Linda and those involved behind the scenes. I also want to thank everybody who took part with me, because without you all it would be a very different and far less enjoyable experience – Karl Rushen, Vini Sihra, Maximilian Lebmeier, Mick Henderson, Billy McKie, Adam and Lisa Linehan, Jim Davenport, Stuart Massey, Rob Paine, Jamie Horgan, Kate Parkes, Peter Lavelle, David Ellicott, Jonathan Dando, Mike Smith, Mark Pigden, Gerald McCarthy, Tony Kelly, Mark Massey, Mike McDonald, John Nicholson, Andrew Heller, Mark Lundqvist, James Nicholson – it is a list of friends, old and new, and it was great to see so many of the Originals there; and, of course, I must thank Debbie for allowing me to go off and be an idiot again. And again.
And so we await a date for Iron Man, and then I can think about getting that summer Fan Dance time down below 5 hours.
You can see more of my photographs from the day here.