8th July 2018
By Ian Haylock

I saw the Fan Dance event on Facebook which is held in Brecon. It’s run by Ken Jones as part of the Avalanche Endurance series. Please click here to see what it’s about. I’d not been to Brecon for close on 20 years so got the calling to do it. It’s run as a civilian endurance event and attracts people from all walks of life: ex military and civi street. Also there’s 2 versions: Load Bearing or Clean Fatigue (no weight but certain safety stores need to be carried, 3-4 Litres, waterproofs etc). Most of the events, I do these days are runs from 1m, 5ks, 10ks through to 26.2m. This had a few more added dimensions: weight, hills and heat; the distance was no problem.

Here’s the route. Its an out and back. Old Red Phone Box at Storey Arms -> Pen Y Fan summit (RV1) -> Taf Fechan Forest (RV2) -> Pen Y Fan (RV 3) -> Old Red Phone Box (Final RV, RV4)

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Mapping (colour coded route) … (to be waterproofed and carried)

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In the weeks before the event I maintained the usual running training but also did weekly runs with weight. In hindsight now, I didn’t get in enough hill work. The DS (Directing Staff) sent out a number of emails detailing their high standards relating to the mandatory kit, all of which has to be waterproofed. Safety is paramount on this event as sadly 3 military reservists perished in 2013 on these hills on their military selection course in 30 degree heat (this event is a separate civilian course run by ex military). Actions on any casualty: use the casualty’s own first aid kit to patch him up and call in for help using 4 or 6 figure grid references {if we couldn’t do that then its yellow (Pen Y Fan ascent), blue (Fan descent), black (Roman road) or green (Taf Fechan Forest) on the map} to let the Directing Staff know our location.

The day before I headed down to Brecon and did my stop short to watch the England game just over the Severn Bridge in Newport. England 2-0 vs Sweden, a tidy result and the weekend was off to a flyer. I loaded up with fish n chips – I was going to need it. Brecon is easy to get to: M4 to junction 32, then head North on the A470 for 30-40 mins. I headed to the race registration, a car park along the A470 which was 500m short of the race start at Storey Arms. I presented my kit (26 lbs) and 5L of water to the DS (Directing Staff) - total 37 lbs for inspection and registered and signed off a disclaimer (which I didn’t read). In the weeks before the event you know from the tone of the email instructions that the DS won’t take any slackness – safety is paramount, if you don’t attend the safety brief or don’t meet the mid point RV2 cut off in 2 hrs 30, your number is taken off you and you’re put in the back of the wagon. Any back chat, or refusing to come off the march, you get filled in ☺ (I wasn’t going to go down this route). They can’t afford to tie up man power to look after someone in a bad state who insists on staying on the march – DS were needed to man RVs and safety points. Key timings then for the following Sunday morning: 0730 safety brief for 0745-0800 start – translation, be there by 0700. That’s all I needed to know.

Kit inspection (to include mandatory safety stores + 4-5l of fluid) and weight check…

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I then drove to find my crib for the night, YHA Brecon. Ideal as it was just 2 miles from the race start and then headed to the pub to fuel up (not beer, a proper meal). I met a chap who used to be in ‘The Regiment’ and did his selection many years ago. He told me that quite a few had pulled out of the march on Saturday’s event due to the heat but recommended wearing a cap so I could fill up with water at the streams and whack it back on my head – that proved to be a life saver: older guys always have wise tips. I then headed back to the YHA and into my room. When I got there, there were 8 bunks and everyone was in their pit by 2200. As you can imagine, the room was honking with 8 blokes but there was silence… you could feel the apprehension of what was to come the following morning – a severe thrashing was just a few hours away. By contrast, young teenage kids were getting wasted outside having a good time – there was plenty of noise coming from them into the early hours.

YHA Brecon – Resting up…

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0430 on the Sunday I woke, adrenalin pumping – I couldn’t sleep, so decided to whack in 500ml of Lucozade and banana then rested up. Then I got up and ate porridge and did a final kit check. Back in the room at 0630 some were still in their pit. I reminded them of the 0730 safety brief and the need to get their fuel on board…
I arrived at 0700 with the safety brief at 0730. We were told to keep hydrating or you’ll go down very quickly. The other nasty was that you needed to meet the half way (RV2) in 2 hours 30 or your number would be taken and you’d be put on the wagon. There were a few ways to fail the march: poor kit inspection, miss the safety brief, Voluntarily withdrawal, DS remove your number as you’re in a sorry state, miss RV2 in the 2.30 cut off and kit below weight at the Final RV. The back marker identified himself and so I was determined to stay ahead of him to meet the cut off.

The Start …

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… by the old red phone box

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0800, the race started with a thunderflash and off we went. Clean fatigue racing snakes flew up the hill and the load bearers set off at a brisk march. The field spread out fairly quickly and within the first 2k people were feeling the effects. I’d heard that many had pulled themselves off the march the day before because of the insane heat (30 degrees) and already I was feeling it. I just took one step at a time climbing up these steep slopes. I was only averaging about 4k/hr up the hill but that was all I could manage but kept hydrating from Lucozade and my camelbak. On the flats I needed to run to make up the time as I was in danger of missing the 2 hr 30 time at RV2 and my number taken. I was going to need to find it within. We finally got to the summit of Pen Y Fan, circumventing Corn Du. RV1 had been reached. We had been briefed what the RV protocol was: ‘Get to the RV, show your number and F☺☺☺ off - no room for selfie culture, you’re against the clock’. Once checked in, we went down the steep part of Pen Y Fan called Jacob’s ladder which was very tricky and needed full concentration – you wouldn’t want to face plant it down there with your kit on. I also decided to get another banana in the tank to fuel me.

From there, it was onto the Roman road and about 7k to the RV2 point. Here I needed to move, I was behind time. The chat was walk the hills and run the flats, so that’s what I did. Running down the Roman Road is a nightmare, rocks everywhere and you can easily twist an ankle and then be off the march. I was severely overheating so was grateful to find a stream and soak my hat using the advice from the chap I’d met the night before in the pub. At the 9k mark, I saw one of the clean fatigue (no kit) racing snakes coming the other way - as it’s an out and back course he was at 15k, miles in front of anyone. Around 10-11k, I saw the first load bearer on the way back: he was at the 13k mark then, so 2-3k in front of me. He was way out in front for a load bearer and as I approached the half way 12k point I saw a few more load bearers – I was doing ok. I got to half way in just over 2 hrs (well ahead of the 2.30 cut off, progress was decent). We did the usual RV protocol and the DS signed us off, did a water replen and off we went in reverse back up the Roman Road. I planned to run the 7k or so back to Pen y Fan but it wasn’t happening. I also thought I needed to get the salt on board so banged in a packet of crisps, tout de suite. Most others felt tired, we were all broken by the punishing heat. I also figured, I needed to save something in the locker for Jacob’s ladder, the 2nd but toughest ascent of Pen Y Fan. I got into a group of 3 and we marched the 7k up the Roman Road at a brisk pace but running wasn’t happening. Around 13k, I saw the back marker who was at 11k (I’d put 2k into the him so there was headroom in the locker) but I wasn’t going to take it easy. Going up Jacob’s ladder was brutal – everyone was falling apart and taking tiny steps and sucking it in. The calf muscles were taking some pain. Once we finally summited, we checked in with the DS at RV3, remembering DS protocol. From there the route was back to the FRV (Final RV), the Old red phone box at Storey Arms – I started to leg it – I wanted to get some time back. Legging it downhill was also tough on the legs – this time the quads were exploding as I was trying to brake to some extent. I checked my Garmin and ticked off the last few ks of running and got to the end in 4 hrs 22-3. I placed 14th out of 112 load bearers and 6th of 47 in the masters category. A couple of mountain goats and racing snakes got around 3 hrs 30 ish but there were also a fair few in the 5, 6 and 7 hour range. The Holy Grail for secret squirrel ☺ is 4 hrs, only 8 of 112 load bearers made that time – the trick is to keep on moving, never stop – run the flats and downhills and march the up hills. Once I got to the end, I was told I wasn’t finished – I had to go back up to the summit again which I was ready to do – the DS were kidding but impressed with the attitude and time and invited me on the next event – longer and more weight. I’m not so sure as the heat was an absolute nightmare. As soon you’re finished the kit is weighed (I was 35 lbs) to see if you dumped weight. If you’re underweight you failed the march. Then its off to get presented with your Fan dance badge.

The Fan dance was something different – the added dimensions of weight, heat and hills are huge.. The event is hard but the safety standards are far better than the military. Organisation is excellent. In addition to the RVs, there are a few safety Mountain safety Points (MSPs) manned by DS at various locations. It’s strange that if you think you’re crazy, there’s people far worse than you. People sign up for 2 or even 3 of these things back to back…they suffer big time. The only way to train is run on hills with weight so you get used to it. After a hamburger I was off back on the A470 and M4 heading East London bound. I’d drank at least 5 litres on the march. I was still over heating the whole way back to London and despite having the air con on max chat, I couldn’t cool my body quick enough – I stopped 3 times at the services to get more fluid in me and probably only cooled down about 5 hours after I finished… my total fluid intake that day was 9L, the most I think I’ve ever done. The legs are still aching today but it’s a nice muscle pain not joint pain meaning with more bergan and hill training there’s more in me for heavier loads and longer distances. As you break yourself, you definitely come back stronger. These events are great – when you think you’re broken, there’s more in you and you find out a lot about yourself.

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Happy to take it easy now for a while, cheerios ☺
Ian