the view from the middle of the pack

"the hopelessness of the long distance runner"

Fan Dance Race – Pen y Fan

It’s been a while since my last post. There’s no real reason for this other than the fact that I couldn’t really be bothered to write. I’d settled into a nice routine of training and didn’t feel that I had much to say.

Since my last post the Potters Arf came and went. It was a great race as usual, a hot beautiful day and I had a half decent run, completing the course in 1:38:50. This beat my previous course PB by almost 1 minute. Alongside this, endless training runs seemed to blend into one but it was brilliant to be able to run in scorching heat instead of wind and rain.

The reason for my lack of interest in the present was that I had entered a race that was completely different to any that I’d done before and I was really excited by it. Inspired by a former work colleague who completed the event in the January snow, I had entered the Fan Dance Race summer series which would take place at Pen-y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons. The event was run by an ex SAS soldier, Ken Jones and would follow the same route used for SAS selection. Candidates for special forces selection have to complete the course in under 4 hours 5 minutes carrying 55lbs plus weapon, food and water. We would have to carry 20lbs less in our bergen, though still a hefty 35lbs plus food and 4 litres of water. The previous weekend two SAS candidates had sadly died in the area due to the physical demands in the immense heat. There was a worry that the event wouldn’t take place but the decision was taken to bring the start forward from 1000hrs to 0800hrs and for entrants to carry 4 litres of water instead of 3  plus we had to leave an additional 2 litres at the turnaround RV point at half way. As it turned out there was plenty of cloud cover and although it was in the mid 20’s the heat was nowhere near as suffocating as the previous weekend.

I arrived at the start lined outside the Storey Arms Centre at 0630hrs to weigh in and register having camped overnight in Brecon. There were already plenty of people milling around getting kit ready and taking in water ahead of the 0800 start. I was slightly worried that my bergen would be short on weight but as it happened it was bang on 35lbs so I was good to go. I added my water and food after weigh in (taking the weight to over 40lbs) and slapped on suncream and my hat and waited at the old red phone box with the other intrepid competitors waiting for the off.

Start Line - Red Phone Box, Storey Arms.

Start Line (obviously not the same day!) – Old Red Phone Box, Storey Arms.

The course is 24km of rough terrain. The footing all the way round is very uneven and great care has to be taken with foot placement or you risk turning an ankle quite easily, especially with bearing so much extra weight.

The route leaves the Storey Arms centre and summits Pen-y-Fan via Corn Du, respectively the first and second highest peaks in South Wales. The first 3 miles is almost exclusively climbing up to the summit of Pen-y-Fan.

Summit of the Fan looking out over the course ahead

Summit of the Fan looking out over the course ahead. Turnaround point was at the uppermost reservoir in the distance.

You then descend down the Fan for several miles onto the RV turnaround point in Tal Fechan Forest before retracing the route back up the Fan via the madness of Jacobs Ladder before descending back down to the Storey Arms. The reality of what goes down must go back up 2,000 feet again hit when I saw the ascent back to the top of Pen-y-Fan, contouring Cribyn. Positivity was the key but the scale of the challenge was apparent and all idea’s of sub 4 were destroyed by the quad burning, lung busting ascent. By far the hardest physical challenge I have ever undertaken. Ahead of the race I had expected to enjoy the downhill but the reality was that it was so painful on the descent. My toes were getting a pounding in my boots and I had so many hotspots all over my feet in the last couple of miles that it took all my will to keep putting one foot in front of the other to finish. I made great time in the first 8 or 9 miles and was powering to a sub 4 hour finish, ahead of expectation.

The Ascent of Pen-y-Fan as seen from Cribyn

The Ascent of Pen-y-Fan as seen from Cribyn

When I finally got to the top I had a quick look around at the stream of people stretching back out across the course for miles and I couldn’t help but feel pleased to be among those at the head of the load bearing pack. The 2 mile descent to the finish was broken up by a welcome ascent of a couple of hundred metres, easing the pain on my feet. I never expected to be hoping for more uphill to take the pressure off!

I ‘staggered’ back down to the Storey Arms to be greeted by Ken Jones with my finishers Fan Dance Patch for a quick photo opp. To be honest I just wanted the hog roast that I knew was waiting for me at the end, the smell was gorgeous!

I finished in 4 hours and 9 minutes, just 4 minutes outside the special forces cut off time, so not a bad effort in the end. I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed not to break 4 hours and bar a wrong turn 3 miles in due to cloud cover and following the leaders I may have just done it but the effort of the day and what was by far the toughest physical challenge I have ever undertaken saw that the disappointed didn’t last long.

As soon as I finished I said ‘NEVER AGAIN’ but that lasted all of an hour. After I staggered back to the car for the 3 hour drive home after a very welcome shower I was already hatching plans to take part in the winter edition in January.

Bring on the madness!!!


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