en-Y-Fan, at 886m, is the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons and also the highest peak in the UK South of Snowdon. It's almost as legendary as the regiment of the British Army it is most closely associated with – the Special Air Service, better known as the SAS or The Regiment.
The Fan Dance is a 15mile run which takes place on Pen-Y-Fan, one of the most well known parts of SAS Selection. Whilst having a celebratory pint or two after completing the Paras10 Catterick in September 2012 a friend made a suggestion as to what I should attempt next. It’ll involve a trip to Wales I was told and, not for the last time, I heard the phrase “It’s just a hill”.
Eight months after the conversation on May 17th, Peter "It's just a hill" Robinson and myself arrived at a camp site just North of Pen-Y-Fan ready to take on Extreme Energy's 2013 Fan Dance.
I found myself in the Fan Warrior category (carrying a bergen, minimum weight 30lb) and Peter in the Fan Elite Warrior category (same 30lb bergen plus a training rifle)
There was a great atmosphere in the camp on the Friday night with a mix of fell runners, mud runners, former soldiers and others who have attempted the Fan Dance in one form or another and finally, the Fan virgin’s such as myself. There was a definite sense of enthusiasm with everyone keen to get going and see what they were capable of.
The day of the race arrived and, in total contradiction to my phone app, the weather was gorgeous. Blue skies, little cloud, calm breeze and surprisingly warm!
My bergen weighed in at 32lb and my required safety kit ticked all the checklist boxes. We attended the safety briefing and it was more or less time to line up at the start ready for the off.
10.15am and the group set off, I began running, holding onto the romantic yet highly unlikely goal of finishing within 4 hours.
This target very quickly went out of the window. Hailing from Newcastle, there is nothing remotely similar to Pen-Y-Fan to train on.
I completed the first section, the hardest stretch of the entire route as far as I'm concerned, in approximately 1hr45. My 4 hour goal was finished but I was still happy with my progress.
The second section was relatively uneventful for me. I made up some time but when I didn’t see any other competitors for what seemed an inordinately long period of time I did start to wonder if I’d got the checkpoints in the wrong order!
Fortunately not. I reached checkpoint 2 and after filling up my water bottle and getting some much needed haribo’s it was back the way I’d come. Heading up Jacob’s Ladder was where the pain, both mental and physical, really began.
On numerous occasions I almost vomited, my quads started to pack in, I became acutely aware of the 32lb bergen on my back and told myself many times that once I get to the summit of Pen-Y-Fan and the 3rd checkpoint that I’d reluctantly retire from the race and head back to the start.
Many thanks to the 2 competitors; sorry I don’t recall your names, who’s encouragement got me to the summit, you became my running partners (Needs Link) for that small stint and I am thankful for you. Having people around you during the tough sections of training or events can make the difference between success and failure.
After the next checkpoint I made probably the most idiotic decision of the day. Instead of heading back the way I had came I decided on the more direct route, straight up and over the summit before me.
By this stage I was already 5 hours into the event. My map reading skills were getting shoddy and my eyes failed to see the steep countors and river that this direct route would have to offer.
Most of this leg was spent on my own and any motivation I had left disappeared and thoughts of celebrating finishing the Fan Dance were replaced with “will I get to the finish?” questions.
Very slowly and following more near vomiting and a few pauses to sit down I made it to the top and rejoined the main path. With about 200 – 300m of climb to go my quads, calves, shoulders and pretty much everything else simultaneously refused to do any further climbing, even crawling only get me a couple of feet further.
After a few minutes spent flat on my back, I called the start area to let them know I wouldn’t be making the checkpoint and dejectedly headed back to the start the same way I’d come up 6hrs 45mins earlier.
Again, close to tears due to being beaten by the final climb, by pure stroke of luck I spent much of this descent with the 2 competitors who had been so helpful in getting me up the 2nd ascent. After some much welcomed encouragement they began to pull away.
A Friendly Face
With a km or so to go I saw the very welcome sight of my friend and mentor Peter heading towards me and with approximately 100m to go he coerced me into one last sprint to “finish strong”.
So, 8hrs 24mins after setting off I finally finished the Fan Dance (6:37:33 for Peter). Receiving my medal is possibly the proudest moment to date for me. I may have taken twice as long as my initial aim but I’m still immensely proud to have finished.
I have learned more about myself on that “hill” than in any other race. I'd strongly recommend the Fan Dance to anyone who wants to test their physical and mental limits. Exceedingly hard but the sense of accomplishment at the finish is unlike anything else.
I must mention the two competitors who voluntarily withdrew from the event to provide assistance to an injured runner, truly inspirational and thankfully there were no serious injuries.
For any future Fan Dancers, remember, “it’s just a hill”.