As always I’d got itchy feet. Man versus Mountain was a distant memory and I desperately wanted to find something tougher than anything I’d previously done. There are always a million events to choose from, all claiming to be tougher than rest. But to me, the Winter Fan Dance seemed the obvious choice. A 24km special forces test march across the Brecon Beacons in the dead of Winter.
It had the distance, all the challenges of being in the mountains, the promise of beastly weather and the extra ‘fun’ of having to carry a fully loaded Bergen. And there were the associations with the special forces which gave it that extra edge. What’s not to like and what could go wrong?
I’d signed up well in advance. I knew that with hundreds of people descending on the Beacons for the weekend I couldn’t risk leaving the accommodation to the last minute either. So I made sure I booked the local youth hostel asap.
It wasn’t until I was having dinner with my mate John and his family way back in July that I decided to invite him along too. I’d never done anything with John before, but with him having been a member of a running club for years and having just done really well in the Pig Duathlon in Snowdonia, I knew he was good for it.
John was up for up for it and quickly decided he was going to do the ‘clean fatigue’ category which was just as tough but more akin to fell running. I couldn’t blame him really what with us both being built for different things.
So on January the 7th and still full of mince pies, John and I made our way down to South Wales. When we got there the Beacons were pitch black and foggy. Trying to find the Storey Arms was a challenge in itself. Even more difficult was finding a parking space. At registration, I was handed the number ‘Red 10’ and all of a sudden everything started to become very real indeed.
Not only that but I also had to take my rucksack to the weigh station. It needed to be 35lb plus food and water. It came in at 45lb. I was told I might be able to make some adjustments but I need to make sure I didn’t finish the race under the 35lb otherwise I’d be disqualified.
Once we’d done all that the High Mooners were about to leave. There was a real buzz of excitement around the fabled old red phone box. Each competitor sporting lamps on their heads and glow sticks on their packs. As the set off they looked like fireflies buzzing around in the evening sky. Thankfully though, it was so dark and foggy we couldn’t see the ascent.
Finding the YHA in the dark was another mission. But after a warm welcome we soon settled in. We sat around the log fire with people who were participating the next day and some who’d completed the dance that very morning. John and I sat their listening to tales of the days events, some had taken the full seven hours and some were hobbling around stiff as boards. Ever so slowly the enormity of it all started to kick in and there was a little a bit of nerves started creeping in. I think both of us were dying to go to bed so we could get some kip and crack on with it.
What didn’t help was the fact I smashed my head on a wooden beam on the way upstairs. No kidding, I really did crack my skull and it bloody hurt. For a split second I thought it was a trip to A&E. Thankfully it was just a lump and bruise though.
We had bunk beds and it was a squeeze with barely any room to swing the proverbial cat. And for some reason I now found myself having more ‘pre-race Velux issues’. At the last event it was the rain kept me awake. This time it was bloody owl. I’m sure it was perched on the Velux. All it did was hoot all night long just to break my sleep and keep me awake.
Anyway, after a double helping of extra protein porridge, we set off for the Storey Arms. We load bearers gathered on the hill at half 8 for the off. John would have to hang around for another hour though.
Race Director and all round legend Ken Jones came to see us off. He instructed us to “cut about like we mean it and don’t mince around”. Then there was an almighty explosion and ‘something’ flew through the air missing me by a few feet and we were off. Straight up the ascent.
The weather was foggy and damp. Not the blizzard conditions anyone had hoped for. Conditions underfoot were also interesting. Moving from stones, to tracks, to mud but I knew that I wasn’t going to regret buying my Bates army issue boots. Or indeed investing in a pair of waterproof Sealskinz socks. The Sealskinz gloves didn’t stay on long though.
It took me just over 50 minutes to complete the first ascent. It took me a minute to realise I was even there because I could barely see a thing. So I had a quick glance at the Garmin just to check the altitude and then I spotted our first RV. So I knew I was at the summit.
No time to hang around though. So it was straight across the peak to descend Jacob’s Ladder. Crikey it was steep. I just remember thinking about how on earth I was going to make it back up.
As I was coming down the track, the sun started peaking through and began burning the cloud and fog away. It was bright. Luckily I’d packed my sunglasses otherwise I’d have been blinded. Within a short space of time it was a glorious day and the valley spread out in front of me. I was blown away. What a place. Problem was though that the sun brings heat and during the race we’d eventually get up to about 8c. Doesn’t sound like much but it’s enough to make life uncomfortable.
All of a sudden this guy came flying past me at hundred miles an hour. I looked at my watch, I’d been going less than 2 hours. This chap was running ‘clean’ and had started an hour after me. He was either completely awesome, totally nuts or I was rubbish. That was it then – I knew that I had to get to the turn around point before John caught me. I picked up the pace and – in my mind at least – the race was on.
I made it before I even saw John. I took my compression top off, rearranged my gear, replenished my pockets with gels, sweets and water and I was away again.
Within about a quarter mile I met John coming down the track. He was doing really well and from what I could gather he had a really good position. It certainly didn’t take him long to come back around and overtake me.
A short way on – one of the DS said to me “Come on Red 10. Get up the road and get up the Ladder. You’re on for decent time”. Encouragement indeed. I picked my feet up and ran on.
The peak was back in view now and Jacob’s Ladder was looking ominous. The gels had become sickly. The track was getting steeper and higher. It was already getting tough and then it was time for the business end of the ascent.
There were guys on the side lines, sitting down, totally beat. But I trudged on, my quads were on fire, the veins on my temples were ready to pop, and my lungs were burning. The bag had never been so heavy. If I’d have leaned back I reckon I would have gone all the way back to the bottom. It was relentless but I had to go on. My inner monologue was being externalised. Mainly four letter words. Just push to the top and rewards and victories would be massive. Another deep breath. One foot in front of the other. Then I was at the top, I’d smashed it, what a feeling. But even that wasn’t the end.
I went over the peak, another DS barked some encouragement “Downhill from here. Go! Go! Go!”
Actually, I couldn’t stop myself. My feet were burning and the bag was pushing me down the hill. And the day trippers were in the way. I was tearing down the hill and I clearly meant business. But for some reason the half of them acted like rabbits in head lights. It wasn’t as if I was the only one either. And it was nearly game over when some Scottie dog went for my ankles. I lost my footing and nearly went over. I was not amused. And I’d have been less so if it had been more serious.
There was another little hill to climb too but coming down that final slope to the phone box was something else. Pure elation. I’d done it. I’d completed the course with a time of 4 hours 34 minutes and 27th in my class. My bag weighed in at 36lb which was a huge relief. Then I was ushered to get my patch and have my photo taken.
I found John in the merchandise tent. Surprisingly his wife Sarah had turned up to see him finish. There was supposed to be some action shots if me crossing the finish line but i don’t think they’d banked on me finishing so quickly. Mind you I’d surprised myself. It was definitely congratulations all round.
And John? Well – he came 9th in the clean category. Legend.
On the way home we missed the turn off on the motorway and ended up in Dudley somewhere. Still – didn’t put us off signing up for the Summer Fan Dance though.
Roll on the 1st of July….