“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”.
On Saturday 14th January 2017, I successfully completed (or should perhaps say ‘survived’) my first ever Fan Dance. As one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever undertaken, I thought I’d share a personal perspective of a very humbling and memorable day…
First, some background: The Fan Dance is a gruelling 24km race that twice ascends the summit of Pen-y-Fan (the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons). It is based on the infamous load-bearing test march undertaken during the SAS (Special Air Service) and SBS (Special Boat Service) selection programme. Thanks to Avalanche Endurance Events, members of the public can take part in a faithful replication of the event, which is run by ex-Special Forces operators and their teams. This is how my day went:
I arrived at base camp next to the famous old red phone box at around 0630hrs. The wind was cutting as cold rain scythed down mercilessly and the hulking shapes of surrounding mountains loomed ominously in the darkness, adding to the sense of foreboding.
After registering and weighing my bergen (35lbs plus food and water) then getting kitted up, I and the other Fan Dancers gathered in the freezing cold to wait for the safety briefing, as the rain turned to sleet and the sky began to lighten.
Shortly after 0800hrs we set off up the first of many steep inclines, initially on a track that threaded visibly through the snow-carpeted terrain. It wasn’t long, however, before the track disappeared under compacted snow and we were surrounded by a white wintery wilderness with few defining features.
As we marched further uphill into the snowy landscape I was feeling strong and determined, even passing a few of the others who had started out in front of me. Upon encountering the first slight downward slope I broke into a run, closing the gap on the front runners of the group. Being no stranger to lengthy load-bearing yomps / tabs, at that stage I even foolishly believed I might complete the route within the time set for Special Forces selection candidates (4 hours). In retrospect however, that prospect was purely fantastical as I had seriously underestimated how brutal the Fan Dance would be.
We continued the arduous but steady climb to the summit of Pen-y-Fan as the weather closed in and visibility reduced dramatically. At one point, after dutifully following the man in front for a while, I made the mistake of overtaking him, only to find myself at the front of a group and with others just about in view ahead of us. The white-out was complete with the tracks of those ahead already being lost in the developing blizzard and suddenly I was struggling to maintain visual contact with the faint shapes of fellow Fan Dancers in the distance; my efforts not to meander off the route were only aided by occasional orange markers alongside the track which I assumed still existed underneath the snow.
We trudged on as the snow became knee-deep in places and I cursed at the effort I was expending, having to lift my feet in and out of the footprints left by others, just to ensure I didn’t wander off track. Eventually we reached a section where a rocky surface protruded from beneath the snow and this enabled some traction and temporarily faster progress. I was surprised (and a bit worried) to see a few Fan Dancers heading back down the mountain past us and I wondered what awaited me. If a few had reached their personal limits already, how bad was it going to be?
Shortly afterwards I reached the summit of Pen-y-Fan for the first time that day, although it almost caught me by surprise. I’d spotted the tent as it came into view and assumed it was another MST (Mountain Safety Team) interim checkpoint, but upon approaching it I saw the pennants indicating it was RV Point 1 – the summit of the mountain. I was incredibly pleased with myself when I realised this – yes, the slog up the slope had been arduous and the weather was worsening, but I felt good and I knew the next section was, by definition, going to be downhill.
In my mind’s eye, I’d planned to capitalise on the downward sections of the course to gain time – during training I had become quite adept at quick descents and thought the opportunity lay ahead to take advantage of this technique. However, I hadn’t anticipated how steep and icy it would be, as next came a difficult descent down the treacherous and perilously slippy Jacob’s Ladder (by ‘difficult’ I mean I slipped over three times, landing on my back before unceremoniously struggling to right myself like some graceless oversize upturned beetle – I also turned my ankle in the process, but more of that later).
We then followed an icy track above a valley, constantly slipping, sliding and being buffeted by the wind that thrashed us cruelly, threatening to send us crashing down the slope into the valley below at a moment’s notice. The terrain made for steady but careful going, plus I was cautious not to further aggravate my ankle. The blizzard had also picked up by now, coming in at right angles to the ground, smashing me in the face and causing me to deploy the hood on my smock for the first time ‘in anger’.
Nevertheless, of everything I recall about the day, this was the one point I really felt ‘in the zone’. Despite the freezing cold, stinging snow and biting winds, I was actually really enjoying myself. It was hard, but I was pitting myself against the elements, the terrain and my own limits and it felt great. I was also on relatively level ground at that point, had reached the summit of Pen-y-Fan without stopping (and in good time), and was looking forward to the ‘Roman Road’ section of the route where I planned to get a move on and make up more time.
However, when we hit the Roman Road I was surprised and a bit disappointed at how uneven it was. The surface was riddled with potholes and bricks jutting through its surface – when coupled with the ever-present slush and freezing muddy puddles it made for quite unpleasant going and I only managed a couple of short bursts above anything resembling a rapid walking pace. At times it was more of a case of hopping around hazards (partially obscured by snow at times, which made it worse) rather than making decent progress in a straight line, but at least the awesome views made up for it!
As I approached the subsequent (extremely muddy) forest track ahead of the turnaround point I marvelled at how deftly the first of the clean fatigue runners who passed us picked their way through these hazards and I instantly developed a degree of respect for this particular breed of athletes.
The turnaround point at RV2 was relatively uneventful – I was determined to crack on without stopping for hot brew so checked in with the DS (Directing Staff) and turned straight around. There then followed the slog through the sloshy mud track that was apparently a forest path at some point in its recent history, before hitting the Roman Road again. Now, I wasn’t a fan of this section the first time round, but the return leg involved a steady and unrelenting incline. And this time it almost finished me.
Just a few steps along the Roman Road and it was like someone had suddenly turned my fuel supply off. I bombed. Although I had eaten and hydrated at exactly the rate I’d planned for, suddenly I had absolutely nothing left. Maybe I’d underestimated the energy I would have expended climbing Pen-y-Fan and failed to replenish to the necessary levels, or maybe it was just bad luck, I don’t know. In any case, I slowed to a snail’s pace and for the first time since falling at Jacob’s Ladder, felt my left ankle really begin to throb as well. Then my mind started messing with me.
They say the Fan Dance is part physical and part mental. Now, I’ll never claim to be the fittest out there by a long stretch but I thought I had a reasonable reserve of mental resilience. I’ll tell you what though – this is where it really began to be tested. For a start, as I picked my way through the jagged bricks and zig-zagged around flooded potholes, I became more and more convinced my ankle was badly damaged. (I’d done myself a serious injury to it a few years ago and was warned a repeat could result in permanent disability).
I inched along at a pathetic rate, watching others I’d overtaken earlier now overtake me – pretty dispiriting, but I really had nothing left at that point. A couple of lads stopped and asked if I was okay (I must have been staggering around like a lost drunkard or gone grey or something) – they handed me a fistful of jelly babies, which I forced myself to eat even though I wasn’t hungry, then trudged on…very slowly.
More people passed me and I wallowed in visions of failure. I was convinced this was it for me – that I’d be going back and pathetically telling everyone ‘I nearly made it – I got past the halfway point though’. I could feel the embarrassment and shame welling up inside me. I wasn’t good enough. I’d trained, but not hard enough. I wasn’t up to the challenge. I wasn’t going to make it.
I was convinced the next MST staff who clapped eyes on me would remove me from the course immediately. I thought about the second ascent of Pen-y-Fan that lay ahead (if I even managed to make it that far), knowing this time it would involve somehow climbing Jacob’s Ladder. And that was miles away yet – assuming I even made it to the end of the Roman Road and along the icy ridge I had actually enjoyed being on so much earlier. In my mind I had already failed – I planned my excuses: “My ankle gave out” / “The weather made it impossible” / “The terrain was worse than I anticipated”, and so on.
These thoughts persisted as I morosely trod the Roman Road, where the above picture was taken. In the distance you’ll see Cribyn, with Pen-y-Fan somewhere behind it towards the left, shrouded in cloud. If you zoom in you’ll see a little parade of ants about two thirds of the way up the slope – these are actually Fan Dancers, making their way to the final climb. Imagine how it feels to be shuffling along with that sight in the distance, knowing if you manage to get there you’ll have to climb to that height, negotiate the icy ledge whilst battling sudden gusts of wind once more, then take on Pen-y-Fan for the second time, via Jacob’s Ladder.
At this point, gone were any fantasies of gloriously smashing SAS/SBS selection timings – I just wanted to make it a bit further along the course. I thought that if I made it as far as the next MST then I might have to throw in the towel, but if so I could at least tell people I managed to climb Pen-y-Fan once. It was a lonely moment.
But then, stumbling past the amazing views all around me, I gave up all thoughts of hauling myself up Jacob’s Ladder and started to concentrate on the here and now, just putting one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other…and nothing more.
I looked at the beautiful scenery around me and was just grateful to be there. My ankle was hurting, my energy levels were next to nothing, but I was alive and as long as I could physically keep going, I would. No matter how long it took me to get to the finish and no matter how slowly I had to move, I would keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going. And so it went on.
“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”.
I counted my steps in my head. I repeated song lyrics to myself. I kept checking my watch and saw that I’d managed another minute, another two minutes, another five minutes. I wouldn’t allow myself to think about what lay ahead of me or how far I still had to travel; just where I was at that moment in time and that I must keep moving. I looked back and saw the Roman Road stretching out behind me, then realised I’d somehow beaten that part of the route.
I eventually reached the foot of Pen-y-Fan, but upon looking up, a dark sense of foreboding overcame me. The summit was shrouded in cloud and I knew somewhere up there was the slow and agonising hell of the Jacob’s Ladder ascent. Slowly putting one foot in front of the other, I took my first step back onto the mountain. It hurt. Each step hurt. My thighs were burning, my lungs were burning; everything was burning. I made slow progress upward, flashing an unconvincing grin and ‘thumbs up’ at the MST staff as I passed their station, continuing upward painfully at a snail’s pace.
On the way, I encountered a fellow Fan Dancer in difficulty – his thighs were seizing up and he asked if I had any electrolytes. I had two soluble tablets as ‘back up’ so I gave him one and he cracked on. This struck me as a good idea, so not wanting to use my last litre of water just yet, I ate a handful of snow mixed in with pieces of my last electrolyte tablet, which (as you’d expect) tasted bitter and wholly unpleasant. Then it was time to push on once again.
Apart from the punishing gradient, this second ascent was literally like trying to walk up a ski-slope at times. With the weight on my back, I had to stop dead on a few occasions and tense up to avoid sliding down backwards. I even diverted from the trail to climb over rocks on my hands and feet just to get a decent purchase. Eventually I reached the final stages of Jacob’s Ladder and will never forget the effort it took just to lift one leg after the other to make progress. I remember one of the clean fatigue runners passing me and saying, “I’ve got so much respect for you load-bearers!”, which I thought was ironic, given the admiration I’d felt for his cohort earlier.
Again, I remembered the words of the maxim I posted at the beginning of this blog about crawling if you have to – and I actually had to as I reached the top of Jacob’s Ladder. When I reached the summit of Pen-y-Fan for the second time that day I felt an incredible sense of relief and achievement, knowing it was (mainly) downhill from there. Unfortunately, I took a tumble shortly afterwards, somehow managing to turn my left leg under my body and gashing my knee on an exposed rock in the process. (All that soft snow and you still managed to connect with a rock, Guilfoyle you moron!)
Anyway, I’d beaten the geological and psychological mountains by that point so this mishap was not going to stop me. I limped on to the finish line where SAS legend Ken Jones presented me with my finishers’ patch, whilst exclaiming, “You’re that copper from Twitter!”
I’m proud of achieving that patch because of what I battled against to achieve it. I feel privileged and humbled to have been there. My ankle is still a bit niggly and my knee is sore, but it’s nothing really. The real battle was the one that went on inside my head about potential failure. The Fan Dance seems to be a good setting to have those battles.
2017 Winter Fan Dance: I’ve got the T-Shirt