Special Forces Fan Dance
One beer too many at a party last summer, too much pride to back out and I had agreed to do the Winter Fan Dance 2019. That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek because deep down as soon as my friend had mooted the idea at the party, I was pretty keen. To be honest, I had never really challenged myself in this way before and the idea of doing something outside of my comfort zone very much appealed to me.
For those who haven’t heard of The Fan Dance race before, it is what the organisers describe as, “a gruelling 24km SAS Selection test march staged over Pen Y Fan, the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons. The infamous march is the world’s oldest Special Forces test…” (www.thefandancerace.com). Weighed down with a fully loaded army Bergen (i.e. rucksack), it’s you against nature, the elements and, for the more competitive participants taking part, the clock – 4 hours or under being the gold standard.
Bearing in mind that I’d never done any serious running over about 5 miles (& if I’m honest I was probably only running closer to half that distance in more recent times), I knew I’d need some assistance in the coming months to build up my fitness, endurance levels & strength. On the advice of my aforementioned friend, I signed up with Kerry Sutton of Perpetual Motion – no apologies for the plug as I truly appreciate the advice, training plans and encouragement I got from Kerry during the months leading up to the event.
During a simple 30-minute assessment Kerry sized me up and quickly identified my weak points and what needed to be done. She had training plans formulated for me at the start of each month, with each subsequent plan dependent on how I had progressed the previous month – and the plans did indeed change in unintended ways as the injuries came and went, which I suppose is all part of the joys of doing an endurance event like this.
The training was tough, and the intensity gradually ramped up over the months leading up to the event: hill runs & long runs to begin with, supplemented with stretching and strength exercises; once I had the miles in my legs from the running then the weight was gradually added on to my runs and I transitioned to a steady-paced march. My biggest lesson from the training was that I didn’t transition to a marching pace sooner once I had started carrying the heavier loads on my back. One particular long run with an almost fully loaded bergen played havoc with my knees (or to be more exact my ITBs) and put me out of action for about 2 weeks. But by then a lot of the hard work had been done and the break from the exercise was not all bad, perhaps even beneficial.
I mentioned above that the training was tough and you do have to be disciplined to keep on top of it. However, if you want to achieve the necessary level of fitness and give the Fan Dance the proper respect that it is due then this is what is required. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the training & being outdoors. Furthermore, we are lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of the world here in Bath and, as a relative newcomer to these parts, I really came to appreciate this during my training, particularly my long runs along the canal or the treks up in the local National Trust lands.
In the days leading up the event itself, I knew I had put in the hard work, so I felt both mentally prepared, focused and physically ready. I was actually pretty wound up and impatient just to get cracking on with it. I had already done a couple of practice treks along The Fan Dance route – both with and without load – so I knew what to expect, where to take it easy and where I could potentially make up time. For anyone interested in doing the event, particularly first time Fan Dancers, I’d highly recommend a “recon” trip or two which will dispel any fears and concerns you might have – in addition to instilling a healthy dose of respect for what you are about to embark upon.
Lined up in the semi-darkness on a cold early January morning, I will admit that there were a few butterflies in the stomach. However, once the starter’s gun went off, my focus turned to the race. I made the rookie’s mistake of getting stuck in the middle of the crowd, so I probably lost a few minutes getting properly started and into my natural pace. However, the first c. 20 minutes consists of a steep intense climb and at about 10 minutes in, I could hear the laboured breathing of my fellow participants and soon enough there was room to do my own thing and up the speed – Kerry’s hill work exercises were kicking in! My heart was pumping and my hat came off as I started to heat up but I was feeling surprisingly good – albeit praying that I wasn’t going to pay for going at such a fast pace early on during the latter stages of the race.
Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case and I maintained my momentum throughout. What did slow me down somewhat though was a lack of appreciation for just how much weight I had lost during the training for The Fan Dance. My hiking trousers seemed fine at the start of the race but as they got further exposed to the elements and I got hotter and (more to the point) sweatier, they began to slide down, particularly when I tried to up the pace – more fool me for not bringing a belt. So along with a fully loaded bergen to contend with as well as icy conditions on the mountain, I had to do about half the race holding up my trousers with my hands, which was rather cumbersome. I can laugh about it now but certainly not my finest moment and I was really annoyed with myself at the time. A lesson learned.
The Fan Dance route is a simple head out in one direction, hit the halfway checkpoint then turn around and retrace your steps. At the halfway point, I had made steady progress up through the field and found my fellow competitors simply spitting out their race numbers to the officials, then turning straight around without pause and off they went. No lunch break for these guys so likewise for me – not what I had originally planned but not to be outdone I did similar. In retrospect, I’d rethink this strategy or certainly how I could carry my rations more efficiently without removing my bergen – getting food and water on board is essential for maintaining the energy levels.
Ultimately, I did stop for a minute or two and took off my bergen so I could take on food. This was just before I took on the reverse climb back up Pen Y Fan – the infamous “Devil’s Ladder”. As mentioned previously, I’d done a couple of trial runs of the route, so I was already familiar with the Devil’s Ladder – a hellish, near vertical climb to the peak of Pen Y Fan which on previous occasions had taken me about 35 – 40 minutes to complete. I knew I’d need some reserves on board before tackling the climb, so I reached into the side pouch of my bergen and out came one freezing cold, brown, mushy banana. Unappetising to state the obvious but down the throat it went along with a handful of equally unappealing now-slimy jelly babies and finally some water to help wash it all down (note to self: insulate food & water next time).
From experience, I’d come to the conclusion that the only way to do this climb was to keep on plugging away, step by (small) step, making progress no matter how slow and only looking as far ahead as I needed to. Muscles aching, heart pumping, head pounding & hands freezing (as they held up my trousers), I passed by quite a few people on the way up who had stopped for a breather and couldn’t sustain the pace – I figured if you stopped once then you’ll stop again. If I wasn’t feeling so fatigued & sore, I’d have probably felt rather smug passing them by, but concentration was the name of the game at that moment. It was a struggle just to wish them well.
As a final insult, right at the top of the climb you encounter a pile of massive stepped rocks and with my centre of gravity somewhere in the middle of my bergen the last few metres were a humiliating crawl / climb on all fours to avoid toppling over. I would be pretty confident that I was not alone in tackling the last section of the Devil’s Ladder in this manner.
Once at the top, I spied the silhouettes in the mist which were the officials manning the final checkpoint and gave them my number. I’d reached the peak at about 3 hours 21 minutes. I was quietly confident I could get in under the 4 hour mark but I’d need to get my skates on. Still wondering how I could resolve my “trousers problem” for the final push home, I hit upon an improvisation by pulling open the fly of my trousers and then threading the waistband of my bergen through. I tugged my jacket down further to protect my modesty. Not a perfect solution – I still had to hold them up at the back to avoid the “builder’s bum” look but better than nothing. I had considered taking my trousers off altogether – I had thermals on underneath – but that risked disqualification as the organisers seemed pretty strict about clothing and protection from the elements. I’m not sure the middle-aged male ballet dancer vibe would have suited me either so I quickly discounted that option.
Save for one final climb out of a valley, it was mostly downhill from the peak of Pen Y Fan and a race for home. I was pretty much running down the last section, acting as a pacemaker for another participant I had overtaken as we both realised after a quick word that we were on target to get in under 4 hours. Actually, we both ended up beating that time comfortably, with my Garmin timing me at 3:53 as I crossed the finishing line. I was pretty happy with that. Finisher’s Fan Dance cloth patch awarded, a quick handshake from the head organiser along with a photo and that was it, I had officially done the Winter Fan Dance. An underwhelming finishing ceremony but I was buzzing nonetheless, as I was for several days afterwards.
It was a tough slog but I hope none of the above puts anyone off doing the event as there were people of all ages, gender and sizes taking part. A couple of participants even brought their dogs along too! I’d highly recommend The Fan Dance to anyone with half an inkling of doing it. For most, the event is just about taking part and simply making it to the finishing line – a bit like a marathon in that regard. For those that are a little worried about the load-bearing element there is even a non-load bearing version called the “Clean Fatigue” which is run at the same time.
Would I do it again? Hell, yeah. It was a fantastic experience and I loved every moment of it – training, injuries and all.