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), had repeated it twice in the Winter (which you can read about here and here), and now I was back to do the Summer edition again, but only the one time because I knew for sure I was not up to doing Back To Back, but more about that later.
The basics behind The Fan Dance are pretty simple : it takes place in the Brecon Beacons, starting at the old 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 an increase to 4 litres of water this time around, because the weather is predicted to be hot and sunny. I will be wearing my trekking gear, meaning a pair of walking boots (actually my Aku Pilgrim tabbing 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 knew I was not ready for this, but I had to be there to at least give it a go, and for many other reasons which now go way beyond the event itself. I had been unable to do very much in terms of fitness training since the beginning of March, and while I had dragged myself around the Ironman test march (which you can read about here) my most recent attempt at tabbing, as a training run for The 100 Peaks Challenge (which you can read about here), which we ran as a substitute for the postponed Paras’ 10, had not gone very well. I was still carrying injuries down my right side through my achilles, my hamstrings, my thigh, my back, my hip, and most recently my digestion, which was causing me almost constant discomfort and pain, while also affecting my eating. Anyway, it was too late to do anything more about any of that now and I would just have to see where my current fitness level got me to – I had a clear objective for the weekend, which was to get there and back again, and I was not so worried about my time.
I left my house pretty much on time for once and had a clear run right up to the point when I paid £6.50 to get into Wales, after which the traffic became a queue and I lost an hour. Even so, I was still in good time to register on the Friday evening. As I drove past the bottom car park near to the Storey Arms I noticed that Avalanche Endurance Events were set up there, so I quickly turned around and found somewhere to park, meeting up with Maximilian Lebmeier and Enigma almost immediately as Max very kindly helped direct me into the parking space, and then seeing the ever-smiling Ian Ford, who may well have still been under the influence of moonshine after his recent trip to the good ol’ U S of A, and who was going to be spending most of his weekend manning the Mountain Safety Team point at Windy Gap. Probably the most compelling reason I was actually down here this weekend, given the state my body was in, was to meet up with all the very good friends I have made through these events in only just over a year, and it was brilliant to meet up with some of them straight away. And it is not only old friends to be met up with, but also new ones to meet. I walked into the registration tent expecting to have to show an ID I had left in the car, but in actual fact was registered in no time at all because Jonathan Rees recognised me from, as he put it, all my “Likes on Facebook”, so I got my number (2 Blue) and a couple of free electrolyte capsules from Elete, and then walked over to have my bergen weighed because there was no queue. Ken Jones was waiting there and after we had exchanged greetings we weighed my bergen. I had packed and weighed my bergen before leaving the house so I was pretty sure it was spot on 35lbs, and that turned out to be correct, with my food and water still to be added. I was using my Karrimor SF Sabre 45 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; put my basha (with bungees already attached) in the top pocket (because my basha appears to be my heaviest bit of kit), and the rest of the weight was made up of my safety kit, which consisted of two compasses, two headtorches, a survival blanket, spare laces, paracord, gaffer tape and a couple of utility tools in one waterproof bag; wooly hat, ruff, and a pair of inner and outer gloves in another; waterproofed full map in the inner pocket, with my fabloned Summer 2015 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, Fitzroy 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. My pacing beads were attached to one of the shoulder straps on the bergen, although they are not really needed for this test march. Ken looked at me and asked if I knew it was that weight, and I replied that I did. He said that as a Master I could carry less weight, and I replied that I never carried less than the 35lbs, to which he said that was right, I never did. I joined the queue for the merchandise because I needed to get one of the new wristbands and one of the new Avalanche Endurance Events technical tshirts being sold in support of the SAS Regimental Association, and billed as “the allyest kit in NATO”. In fact, DS Stu came over to me as I stood in line, saw that I was wearing my The 100 Peaks Challenge technical tshirt and asked me what I was doing with that, telling me there was only one top I should be wearing. I assured him that was why I was in the queue ! I got to the front to find Tim Donati-Ford sitting there, one of the Originals from the Point To Point test march (which you can read about here), who was unable to take part this weekend but had still come over from Jersey to assist on the admin side. That tells you a lot about how people feel towards the Avalanche Endurance Events organisation. It was good to have a quick catch up with him as he took my money. I walked over to have a chat with Dave Humm, who would be running the communications network again this weekend, and he managed to take some more money off me for raffle tickets. Still, that was worth it to be able to stand underneath his as the rain began to fall. I also had the opportunity to meet and chat with Charlotte Glass, who was going to be manning one of the MST points on the Saturday, before taking on the Fan Dance herself on the Sunday.
I was chatting with Richie Chamberlain, another of the DS for the weekend, when I saw more people were arriving, and it was great to see and catch up with every single one of them, with a lot of smiling faces all round – Karl Rushen, with a great big box of The 100 Peaks Challenge technical tshirts, ready for distribution, Mike ‘Strokey’ (sic (c) Karl) McDonald, Olly Rowsell, Jonathan Dando, Mark Massey, David Ellicott, Paul Southernwood, Charlie Martin, Pierre-Charles Wood, James Nicholson (and later John Nicholson, who was getting himself sorted out and ready for his 24 Hour Charity Walk, when he would complete the Fan Dance four times in 24 hours). Alan Wilkins had brought his family with him, and so had Andy Heller.
Then Billy McKie turned up with what was quickly referred to as a blue crucifix tattoo on his right calf, and as he was weighing his bergen with DS Stu, Dave Humm was straight in there to write Bawbag on it. Another new face this time around was Phil Campion, who was joining the DS team for the event, and there seemed to be a permanent excited buzz around him. In fact, there were so many people here now that I am sure nobody noticed Fordy kicking over some beer bottles.
It was decided that we would go down to the Nant Ddu Lodge to get something to eat, although we would be on something of a time limit because Karl had agreed with DS Stu that we would be back in time for a presentation he had planned for Ken. I got down there at the same time as Karl and Billy, and when we got inside it was clear there were no tables available for us straight away, so we got some (very soft) drinks and went outside to wait. Billy was buzzing, but it was Karl who managed to spill his drink, only Billy’s lightening sharp reflexes keeping it from being a disaster ! I did suffer a disaster of my own, though, with the midges managing to leave me with 25 bites before we headed back inside. We were soon joined by Olly, Mike and James Nicholson as a table became available, and while we were waiting for chicken supreme all round, Jim Davenport and his far better half, Jo, came over to say hello. They were staying in the Lodge and were taking the very wise decision not to join us. Time was running out for us anyway, if we were to eat and get back in time for the presentation, even before the waitress came over to tell us there were not enough jacket potatoes to go round ! I chose to go for the rice instead, and Billy said he would have whatever contained the most carbs, adding that the chef should know what that would be when the poor girl looked a bit lost. The food arrived and I ate mine in no time at all, causing Karl to remark that it was “the quickest thing he’ll do all weekend”, and he was not wrong. We very quickly settled the bill and hurried off in our cars, getting back in one piece, despite Olly’s best efforts, to find that nothing had happened. Hurry up and wait. As we were waiting there Ken and Dave arrived back with fish and chips for all the DS and MST, and DS Stu brought us through so that he could do his presentation once the food had been distributed.
The presentation was a cake to welcome Ken and Linda’s new baby, Bodhi, and it was a very special moment to be invited to share in. I also got to share DS Stu’s fish and chips (which were delicious), and enjoyed a slice of the fruit cake before I headed back to my car, which is where I would be spending the night. I got into the back and put together a bag of P2P mix, ready to go into my bergen in the morning, then drank my Mountain Fuel ‘Night Fuel’ (just mixing the sachet with water) and prepared the ‘Morning Fuel’ in the same way so it was ready for my breakfast. I set my alarm on my telephone and my watch, just to be sure, so that I would be woken up at 0530, which would give me a lot of time to get ready and over to the start line at the old red telephone box. I had brought a quilt and pillow with me and that was more than fine as I lay down on the back seat of my car to sleep.
The light of the dawn woke me before either of my alarms went off, and I looked out of my car to see a strong wind blowing through the trees around me. It looked like it had rained some more overnight and now it was just about holding off. I began to sip on my Mountain Fuel. Even if nothing else had woken me up, it would have happened at 0530, because that is the time that Gerald McCarthy arrived and parked next to me. It was great to see him, even at that time of the morning, and the banter was flowing freely between himself and Jonathan Dando.
I got myself ready as Ian Ford and the rest of the MST moved off to their positions – I would be wearing long North Face hiking trousers, Paramo boxer shorts, Bridgedale socks, my new The 100 Peaks Challenge technical tshirt from Scimitar and I put my Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine jacket in one of the bergen side pockets (in case the weather did not hold). I had Hig 5 energy gels and Chia Charge bars spread between my trouser pockets, with my Rite In The Rain notepad and pencil in one of the trouser pockets, and a lip salve in the other. I would also be wearing my Garmin Fenix 2 watch. I finished off my bergen packing as I would be carrying 3 litres of water with High 5 Zero electrolytes in a bladder in the inside pouch of my bergen, and in one of the side pockets 1 litre of spare water in one water bottle, and water purification tablets in an empty water bottle in case of the need for an emergency resupply from a stream. I also put a bottle of Mountain Fuel ‘Energy Fuel’ in one of the side pockets. I put my bag of P2P mix in the top pocket with my basha, for easy access. I had absolutely everything I could ever need to survive on a mountain and now it was all packed and ready. I had been chatting with Paul Southernwood while I was going through my final preparations, and now Jamie Horgan and Kate Parkes arrived. I pinned my event number to the top of my bergen, locked up my car, and we all set off to get to the start line in good time for the briefing. We were using a track which looked down on the bottom car park, and as we went past DS Stu shouted up at us to keep the noise down. There were some more familiar faces as we reached the old red telephone box and went through the gate at the bottom to get to the staging area along the bottom of the slope, ready for Ken’s briefing.
Everyone listened in. Then there were some stirring words from Phil Campion, telling us “You’re all doing it for a reason, when it gets tough remember that reason,” and how while some men had filled him with hate in his life, “that old red telephone box was the happiest thing I have ever seen.” DS Matt, a medic who had been a great help to me on the Ironman training day (which you can read about here) added in some “words to relax any anxieties in view of recent events,” saying that rather than being struck by lightning it was much more likely on this event that someone would fall over and cut their head. Everyone looked round for Mick Henderson. He was still standing up. There was a final brilliant moment when Ken introduced us to Richard O’Shea, who had been through Selection in 1969, and Richard said that being an ex-Para he had never understood the Marines calling it a ‘yomp’. It was a tab, a tactical advance to battle, and with that he shouted, “prepare to advance !” and as someone moved forward too soon he pointed at them with one of his walking poles and ordered “stand still !” before telling us to “advance !” and we were off in dramatic fashion.
It was just after 0700, very light, overcast, and I decided my plan for today was to slot in near the back at the start, take it steady, and just see where it got me. Of course, with this being my fourth Fan Dance I had a very good idea of what was ahead of me, but as we set off I once again could not see what was ahead of me due to the number of people in front of me. Just like the other times, that beginning march from the old red telephone box went on and on and on, the moment of seeing Ken smile as I walked past him as we set off already seeming like a lifetime away. We all stay together at first, a great thick snake of people starting to make its way up the mountain, covering the trail because really it is practically impossible to overtake at this stage, if I could have managed it in my state.
Then we came away from the trees and into open ground and the line started to thin itself out. At this stage I was going at my own pace and starting to be overtaken, drifting to the back as I felt the rain coming in. 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 once again had it brought home to me just how far was still left to go to get anywhere near to the summit of Pen-y-Fan. I joined the back of the queue at the gate at the top and while I did not feel like I needed the rest, I realised just how slowly I was going, and not through design. This was the pace I was capable of, although I tried to push it on the downhill after the gate. This was really brought home to me after the first mile because I had made a note in my notebook of my fastest and slowest times over the 14 and a bit miles of the Fan Dance, and some of the checkpoints in between. My fastest first mile had been from the Saturday of the Winter Back To Back, when I had done it in 23 minutes 01 seconds, and my slowest first mile had been from the Summer 2014, when I had done it in 28 minutes and 35 seconds. Here I was today doing it in 32 minutes 08 seconds. Some of the others would have made RV1 in that time. While there was no body part of me particularly hurting at this stage, I had noticed that my stomach had already begun to bloat, which was becoming very uncomfortable. Of course, now there was also the small issue of going back uphill again, and I began to climb slowly and steadily, not being able to get any real pace going and coming to an almost inevitable realisation – I was not going to be able to complete this Fan Dance. Now it was just a matter of how to handle that, and I gave that my full consideration as I climbed the path to reach the fork in the track where the first Mountain Safety Team was stationed.
I could see Charlotte Glass from where I was, and Dave Humm was with her. Dave knows me from the Test Marches, so I knew he would understand my decision. The rain was starting to fall more heavily now, so I would need to stop at them to put on my Rab jacket in any event. I reached them and said hello, and as I got my jacket out of the side pocket of my bergen I told them that I was going to get to the summit and RV1 and then VW (Voluntary Withdrawal). I explained my recent injury history and how I was feeling at that moment, and made the point that while I could easily get down Jacob’s Ladder, I was less certain about the stretch between there and Windy Gap, and that even if I made it through all that and got to RV2, there was no chance at all I would be able to get back up Jacob’s Ladder unless my condition seriously improved, and that was not going to be happening over the next few hours. It was a lot more likely that my condition would worsen, and the very last thing I wanted to do was inconvenience anyone by foolishly pushing on too far. Knowing the route, I was far better needing assistance this side of Jacob’s Ladder, because I could be more easily reached, but in any event, my plan of action was based on me getting back under my own steam, and feeling that would be possible if I turned around at RV1. Dave made the point that I had nothing to prove by doing this, and it was true. I had done the Fan Dance before. I knew I could do it. I want to do it a lot faster than I have done before, but that is a different matter. If this had been my first time I am sure I would have looked at it in a completely different way, but as it was, my decision was made. It took me some time to get my jacket on, during which time Dave had been positively outraged by a group of walkers who went past us looking utterly unprepared for being on a mountain. I set off, agreeing that I would let them know of my plan at RV1, and depending on how I was feeling on the way back might take the granny path to the bottom, which would bring me out at the car park where I had left my car. As I continued along the straight incline from MST1, the mist came down and I was passed by the first of the clean fatigue runners at 1 hour 12 minutes – at the Winter Fan Dance I had been able to hold them off until 1 hour 34 minutes, and some time after I had passed over the summit and got down Jacob’s Ladder. My second mile had taken my 43 minutes 42 seconds, and although it did include my stop at MST1, it was still way outside of my best time of 27 minutes 09 seconds. I knew I was making the correct decision.
I know this route like the back of my hand by now. I got to the junction of the tracks at the end of the incline and turned left, then very soon reached MST2 to find it occupied by Russell West. I explained to him what I was doing and he said to let him know when I was coming back past him and he would call it in on the net. I looked out over VW valley as I continued along the track, and it looked like the only strip of ground attracting the sun. I decided it was mocking me and chose to ignore it. A stream of clean fatigue runners were going past me now, with so many of them encouraging me along as they passed, and I returned the encouragement. I hardly knew any of them and I very much doubt they knew me, it is just the wonderful camaraderie of the event. One runner I did know was Jon Rees from registration the previous evening, and it was good to be able to exchange a few words with him as he went past looking strong. I pushed on up the slope, it all made easier by the fact I knew I was almost at the summit, and then I reached the point where the path opens out and I could see the tent at RV1.
It had taken me 1 hour 41 minutes to get here. I was around 20 minutes behind my slowest time before this. I reported in to Richie Chamberlain, the DS manning this RV, and told him I was going to VW and head back down to the start point. He was very busy marking down the stream of clean fatigue runners going past his RV and I do not think he immediately took in what I was saying. I suspect it was not what he was expecting me to be saying. He ticked me off his list and told me to let them know at registration when I did get back down. I walked over to the summit cairn and saw Karl had left his tribute to Lloydy.
Right, it was time for me to get off this mountain. I followed the route I had come in on, going against the continuing stream of clean fatigue runners, getting to Russell at MST2 and confirming to him that I had checked in at RV1 and was not heading back down to the start point. I decided I would also take the same route from here as I had come in on, which meant going past MST1 rather than going down the granny track, and as I was heading down the straight track which led to MST1 I saw Lawrence Toms coming the other way. I know he is not that slow, so he must have started late ! We exchanged a few words as we passed and I wished him well today. I reached MST1, confirmed to Charlotte that I was still good to continue down, after all, it was mostly downhill from here, and said that it would be nice to get back down before any of the real finishers got there, to which she replied that some of them were already on their way back. I reckoned that if I got down within 3 hours I should just about beat them. Charlotte reminded me to check in with registration when I got to the bottom and I was on my way. I was going downhill but I was in some pain from the bloating of my stomach, and I was not looking forward to the uphill stretch the other side of the stream. I caught sight of the far too casual walkers who had so annoyed Dave earlier on in the morning and decided to take my mind off things by trying to catch them. I managed to do that as we reached the stream, and I pushed on up the slope. As I was going up, I saw the familiar figure of Lesley Kemp coming down, as her and a couple of others were going to find a good spot to see Paul Southernwood coming back. I took the opportunity of chatting with them to take a breather on my way up the slope, told them what had happened to me, and warned them that the weather did not get any better as you climbed towards the summit. We carried on our separate ways, although not very much longer they came past me as they had changed their minds and were going to wait at the bottom, and I did not blame them. Once we had crested the ridge I passed them again on the downward slope and knew I was on the homeward stretch.
I could see the A470 as Mike Smith came storming past me with a “Hello, James ! Thanks for sponsoring me !” and he pushed on to post an awesome time, well inside of 3 hours. I am really beginning to think that in his life away from all this he puts on a pair of glasses and goes under the name Clark Kent. A few minutes later the first of the men’s clean fatigue runners came past me, and just a very short while after that I was also passed by another male load bearer, Anthony Goodwin. It had taken me just under 3 hours to get back to the start line, and three guys had completed the whole thing in the time it had taken me to get to RV1 and back. Outstanding, and my hat goes off to each of them. I reached the bottom to a few puzzled faces, because I clearly did not have the look of a person who would be coming in third in the load bearing category ! I gave them my number and everything clicked into place because my situation had been radioed down to them. Excellent organisation demonstrated. And that was my event over. No shake of the hand this time, no patch, no sheep poo certificate. I was gutted.
I headed back to my car to dump my bergen. I had two choices now. I could get in the car and drive home early, or I could wait for everyone else to finish and see how many of The 100 Peaks Challenge tshirts I could photograph as they came over the line. There was not really a choice to be made, of course, and so I headed back to the finish with my camera. Which meant that to a great extent, in the immortal words of Brian Hanrahan, “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back.” I had missed a few, most notably Kate Parkes putting in an absolutely outstanding performance to win the Women’s Load Bearing category, but I did manage to capture Rob Paine, Mark Lundqvist, Billy McKie and David Ellicott, Matt Lister, Phil Williams, Adam Gain, Jim Davenport seeing Charlie Martin safely home, Karl Rushen, Mark Massey, Alan Wilkins, Matt Borders, Jamie Horgan and a very special little dance
Andy Heller, Paul Southernwood (smashing his target time in his first Fan Dance) coming home with the remarkable Richard O’Shea
Mick Henderson (strangely uncut on a day when more than a few seemed to suffer cuts of varying severity), Jamie Turner, James Nicholson, Mark Hughes, Barry Watkins, Marc Reardon, Maximilian Lebmeier and Enigma, John Nicholson (but his day was far from finished), Tony Kelly (who had turned this into a family outing), Olly Rowsell, Gadge Grocott (with a wound that puts Mick Henderson to shame)
Chris Jackson (who I know from Regiment Fitness tabbing), Gerald McCarthy and Dan Ellis. Legends, every single one of them, and so many of them posting personal bests. Apologies to those I know and who I missed. And while all this was going on John Nicholson was turning around to do the second of his four Fan Dances in 24 hours, setting off with Billy, and you can read more about that in Billy’s excellent blog here.
Tim Donati-Ford provided an invaluable service at this time, bringing up some baps from the hog roast so that people could feed as they crossed the line, rather than having to go down to the bottom car park. I spent some time chatting with Mike Smith, congratulating him on his amazing achievement today, going through the list of things that were wrong with me and taking his advice on what to do about it. I am always struck by his quiet humility after these events, when he would have every right to be the big man. I will look forward to seeing him go past me again on the Test Marches. I also enjoyed chatting with Dan Ellis, who I had first met on the eventful evening before the training day for Point To Point (which you can read about here), and he made the point that you think you are fit and then you come up against this mountain and you find out just how fit you really are. I also managed to grab a word with Ken, who asked me what had happened today, so I gave him the details and told him I just did not have it in me today, to which he replied that he knew I had it in me, I had done Ironman. I will admit that gave me a huge boost. I had been looking wistfully at everyone collecting their patches, knowing that was one I would not be adding to my collection, and those few words from Ken meant a lot. He must have been reading my mind as he said, “you like your patches, so I know you’ll be back for more.”
As we got ready to go down to the bottom car park for the prize giving ceremony, we spotted Andy Heller heading off in a hurry with DS Stu. Unfortunately, there had been an incident a little way down the A470 and they were going to provide support, with Andy being a paramedic. It was nothing to do with the event, but the event came to a halt so that whatever assistance was available could be provided. That is the spirit of Avalanche Endurance Events, and I know that people like Jim Davenport and Olly Rowsell had shown that spirit during the event, sacrificing their times in order to assist other competitors who were in need.
The prize giving was very well attended, which is always good to see, and today had seen some brilliant winning times being posted so the winners were very well deserving of the applause.
For me, this had not been the Fan Dance I had envisaged. I had not made it to Fordy’s Windy Gap and instead this had turned into a 5.5 mile training tab which I now have to build on for Ricochet, the next of the Test Marches. Even so, it had been entirely worthwhile coming down to simply spend the time among friends. As always with Avalanche Endurance Events, the organisation and administration had been impeccable, and from what I could see they had dealt with everything thrown at them by the event with absolute professionalism. Beyond Ricochet, I have already signed up for the Winter Fan Dance 2016 with Avalanche Endurance Events – I have a point to prove, and I have The 100 Peaks Challenge to be training for.
You can see more of my photographs from the day here.