It is now 48 hours since I completed the Fan Dance and my walk still resembles a waddling duck. I wanted to share the experience and thank everyone who generously supported Rachel and I on this challenge by donating to Cancer Research UK raising almost £3,000.
How It All Began
Just over a year ago, my best friend from University called me to say he had been diagnosed with Cancer and things did not look good. A few weeks later Rachel and I were talking to some people at a social who had completed the 2017 Fan Dance and despite the gruesome stories we both looked at each other, had that crazy glint in our eye and said we can do this.
The Fan Dance is part of the SAS (British Special Forces) Test Selection. It involves a 24km race over Pen Y Fan mountain and back in boots and carrying a full military backpack (Bergen). I was carrying 35lb plus 5 litres of water making total weight closer to 45lb and Rachel was carrying 25lb plus the same amount of water making that closer to 35lb. It involves Tabbing (Tactical Advance into Battle) – that means you march up the hills and run down the hills and on the flat. The ultimate goal is to complete the race within 4 hours which is the SAS qualifying time, however, this is a very tall order for civilians.
So We Started Training
Just like buyer’s remorse, as soon as we signed-up we had the reality check that this was not going to be easy. We are both relatively fit, but not to the extent needed for probably the toughest UK endurance event. So, in the cold days of January we started training. We would run, do 2-3 British Military Fitness sessions a week and then started running with Bergens on our back, gradually building up the weight. We headed to the hills and Newlands Corner, Box Hill and St Martha’s became regular venues for TABs as we built up our load and distance to 20k runs.
We drove to Wales the night before and where most people would be admiring the beautiful countryside, our car went very quiet as it dawned on us just how tall the mountains stood. As we went to weigh in and collect our race number, it suddenly got very real. The event is run by a team of ex-special forces and as close as you get to a real military experience – no frills, no razzmatazz, just a DS that checks your kit is in order, your Bergen is the required weight and you have the right boots.
The morning of 7th July 2018, we were up at 4.45 am to eat something, prepare our fluids and make our way to the mountain. As we assembled at the famous red phone box for the safety briefing everything turned very serious. The DS did not hold back, no motivational speech, just some hard facts including if you get too close to the left of Jacobs Ladder you will fall 1200 ft and die. Then the canon sounds and we are off. Best foot forward marching up Pen Y Fan. I had been told that this was a long way up, but nothing could have prepared me for just how long. For about an hour I marched up the mountain and with each step the peak looked higher and higher. Adrenaline and training kicked in and I got into a good rhythm, managed to pick up some speed running down into the gully, overtaking a few people and feeling good, only to face the final ascent to the summit.
At the summit is the first checkpoint, the DS took my number and pointed me to Jacobs Ladder, as I jogged on I heard a call over the radio, 4 people had already voluntarily withdrawn and another 2 were being assessed by mountain rescue; wow, it was not just me finding this tough. I then got to the edge of Jacobs Ladder and the emotion that is fear hit me. This was steep with some steps almost a metre high. But with people behind me I had to go for it, I took a deep breath and picked my way down. With 45lbs on your back you are a little unstable so the decent was treacherous. I lost my footing at one stage and hit my elbow against the rocks; it was only later that I realised it was bleeding and I have left my mark on the mountain.
It was then onto the Roman Road, I knew I had to run to make up time, but the terrain is ridiculous and picking a route through the rocks takes every bit of mental concentration. The route to the half-way point is a long way, I kept expecting the elite guys to come and pass me on their way back, but they didn’t- meaning that the half-way point was still a long way to go. Finally, I saw the leader and a bit further on someone said that we only had about 800m to go. I have never been so pleased to see a checkpoint in my life and probably even had a smile when I reported to the DS. He asked me if I was OK and had enough water left, I replied yes and he said, “OK on your way lad”. Two things went through my mind at this point, first no one had called me ‘lad’ for many a year, so I was quite chuffed. But then I had the reality that I had to do it all again in reverse. My time at half-way was 2 hours and 1 minute, a little behind where I wanted to be, but still on the 4 hour pace. I can do this.
As I headed back up the Roman Road and towards the mountain is when it really started to hurt. I felt pain in my shoulders like never before as the 45lbs really made their presence felt. I hitched the pack up higher, I released the straps to take the weight on my core and even put my hands at my back to support the weight, but this was really hurting. The ascent to Jacobs Ladder is long and my legs started to cramp. It was now very hot and although I thought I was drinking lots, I obviously was not. I took a step up and my legs seized, and I thought that was it – they would have to carry me off the mountain. I reluctantly released my Bergen and placed it down to get the water inside. I drank over half a litre, gave myself a good talking to and decided there was no turning back. Getting my bergen back on was probably one of the hardest things, but I did it and I was off again.
In training when ascending hills I would count to 50 and if I needed to I would stop for a count of 5 before striding on. As I climbed Jacobs Ladder my count fell to 10 before I had to pause. If I thought Jacobs Ladder was steep coming down, it was unbelievably steep going back up, but it is all about putting one foot in front of the other and somehow I got to the top. I checked in with the DS one final time and started the decent. Everyone had told me that the last 4k is downhill and even though I had come up this way at the start, I forgot about the gully. As I ran down the side my brain was in denial that I could get up the other side, but another little talk to myself and I made it.
As I ran the last few kilometres down to the red phone box, I have never felt in so much pain. Despite having a great pair of Solomon boots, my feet had taken a major punishing and I could feel blisters bursting. My knees where screaming for me to stop and my shoulders truly felt like they had the weight of the world upon them. I had done it, I reached the phone box and completed the 24km in 4 hours 34 mins, slightly over what I had hoped for at half-way and 30 mins off the SAS qualifying time, but at this point was just proud of the fact that I had completed as there were a number of points I really wanted to give up.
My thoughts then turned to Rachel, this was so hard and so hot and she was carrying over a quarter of her weight again on her back and so many people had either withdrawn or had been pulled out by the DS. I dumped my Bergen and headed back up the mountain to meet her. In the distance I saw the familiar figure running down, and still finding the strength to overtake people. She had done it and as I struggled to keep pace with her as she ran to the finish, I was so proud.
Unfortunately, my friend did not make it to see us finish, he lost his fight with cancer a couple of weeks earlier. So, this achievement is in his honour. Thank you to everyone who generously donated to the worthy cause and as I continue to waddle through my day, the toughest physical and mental challenge that Rachel and I have ever been through has generated almost £3,000 for Cancer Research UK.
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Gary is the Managing Director of Cremarc, a specialist B2B marketing company that helps organisations to deliver effective marketing through storytelling, marketing automation and cleverly designed ‘challenger marketing’.