The Fan Dance these days is becoming famous.
It never used to be famous when they started using it to weed out those not suited to the Special Air Service. It was quite the opposite. Deliberately discreet. A trade secret even. A few dozen wet and exhausted soldiers on the side of Pen Y Fan in Wales, running where they could and walking where they couldn’t. Fast, and breathing hard. Single minded. Fit, determined, young men, carrying equipment and wearing clothing that to our 21st century micronutrient-fed and Gore-Tex clad minds would look ludicrously unfit for purpose and horribly uncomfortable. They still kept coming though, and over the years the route has become better understood, well-known even – people have heard of it. When we started on this idea, explaining it to family and friends wasn’t that hard – “You’re doing that thing?! Don’t people get hurt doing that!?” would be a standard reply. And it’s true, there are men who have pitched all and lost on it, but it’s very rare thank God, and for those who do it as part of UK Special Forces selection, it is of course worth it. So they keep coming…
Picture the scene – you need to fast forward a few decades from the days of Self Loading Rifles, 58-pattern webbing and olive drab trousers, to the middle of January 2017. My group are assembled by the famous red phone box which marks the start of the route, looking a world away from those nervous young men of before. But they’re nervous all right, probably more so. They’re not the kind of people to say they are – they’ve learned over the years to have two lives, the one at home and the Game Face. And they’re not under the same crushing self-induced pressure of the men who HAVE to succeed against the clock. And HAVE to carry a bigger bag, and a weapon. And find their own way round.
Despite that, the Game Face is starting to crumble a little (you can spot the signs if you’re really careful) as people are jumping up and down on the spot to keep warm in the driving sleet, willing the organisers to get us started. Last minute clothing adjustments, zips being checked, a few photos and a quick safety inspection of our kit by the directing staff. The wait is maybe thirty minutes, as a million little events, painfully slowly, coalesce into one – a bloody big bang as one of the ex-military staff lobs a thunderflash onto the floor, making already slightly elevated heart-rates rush harder. And we start running. Which is ok. And then after a while, you start the climb up that mountain.
It feels normal to begin with. Like a training run really. Although there’s a lot more snow that anything I’ve run on before. In fact, apart from running to catch the kids on toboggans, I’m not sure I’ve ever run on snow. Walked, yes, but run, no. It’s very slippy, although not too bad where the current snowfall has left a new layer. The two girls I have trained with are running with me. They are both seriously fit. Experienced athletes, and with a competitive spirit that glows white hot. I’m a dad of two, and trying my best. Lads – do the maths, the gauntlet has slammed to the floor, with accompanying sparks. But for Heaven’s sake one of them gave birth not so long back.
If the devil made Physical Training Instructors, they immediately sat round in their nasty little mess and designed this route. As it happens, Pen Y Fan is a 886m tall mountain (the tallest in the UK South of Snowdon) made of sandstones and mudstones courtesy of the last glaciation. And when you start from that red phone box, you climb immediately something like 440 of those metres in three kilometres. Now anyone who runs will tell you that a start like that is going to hurt, but none of them will have done this route without choosing a different adjective. The girls were setting a blistering pace. And chatting, which was infuriating. But I kept up. I have no idea what happened to the rest of my team – I felt guilty – a mixture of guilt for having abandoned them and a sense of… not wanting to stop I suppose. I stole a glace or two over my shoulder, but everything was surrounded with mist and that awful eyelash-water you get.
They kept running. And running. Before long, we passed our first “load bearer”. This is the proper Fan Dance group who set off an hour before us (I think in one instance 90 minutes, but she only has one leg). They’re carrying big backpacks, and wearing boots. Tougher, longer, more difficult on the knees. We’re dancing around them, which sounds great, but lacks any dignity in reality.
And all of a sudden the temperature noticeably drops. It is cold anyway – one of the girls went blue whilst waiting for the race to start, but this is different. As we move higher, the air chills and fills with fast moving snow. There is a difference between the snow in your garden on the occasional flurry we have in the UK and this snow. This is snow with a big CV, that’s been hanging around for weeks. And recently topped up.
All of a sudden, my foot went into a hole. The ground was there, and then it was not. I’d gone off the path with my leg thigh-deep in the drifting white stuff. The girls had chosen better, and they moved rapidly into the murk. I righted myself with my hands on the floor, and stood up. And that’s when it happened – that damned curse I’ve been fighting for years. The hated thing that has dogged me from when I was a little boy standing in front of the big boys during rugby practise in the 90’s. Asthma.
I can’t breathe. I’m drowning. Free of it for two years, and the cold air has got me. My throat has closed up. I feel like I’m being crushed – like my chest simply won’t pull in enough air. Raising my head, I can see that the girls have moved further forward, but they are now becoming shadows against the white-out. One of them once told me “it’s all in your head you know”. And I could not let them know that I was suffering so badly – they’d have slowed down and I would have hated myself for ever.
Breathing like Darth Vader with a head cold, I pick myself up and stagger back onto the path. Reaching into my jacket I find the hated inhaler and sort myself out, somehow catching up with them. And all of a sudden (bear in mind it’s not far as the crow flies), there is a tent. With some sort of radio mast or something. And a man standing outside it asked me to show him my race number, pinned to a t-shirt, below my jacket.
It’s the summit. Hard to believe, but having memorised the route, I know we’re about to go down fast, so I feel better.
We came across something called Jacob’s Ladder at that point. It’s just a steep slope down the other side of the mountain. One of the girls does it on her bum, forcing smiles and with an impressive speed. More of Jacob’s Ladder later…
All of a sudden the landscape changes. As we crunch through the snowline, we start to schlep though a mixture of water, ice and mud. And it goes on forever. Not so much ascent/descent, but the surface is horrific – a mix of loose rocks and old brick or something. To be honest I don’t remember. The backside of this frozen horror-berg goes on for maybe 7 kilometres or something. The girls curse me for trying to take scenic shots of the heartbreakingly beautiful valley and we keep running. Eventually the route takes you to the turnaround RVP – a bloke in a tent who takes your race number and says “keep going” if you’re lucky.
Now I’m sorry, but I’ve been at it for maybe an hour and a half, and I need a wee. Coming back from behind a mound of earth, and hoping for a breather, and maybe some food, one of the girls yells “Tom!” from over her shoulder and we’re off again, but back up the way we’ve come.
To my great delight, I started to see others from our team – a striding-healthy cyclist, Richard, a highly experienced mountaineer, Jerry. Familiar faces. And it is sunny too! Steely and watery British sun, but right there, right then, better sunlight than any of that imported foreign stuff.
The incline is more gentle this time. I get into my stride. I pass others on route, people I know well – friends of mine who are smiling, all of them. And then Richard told me, in a stern voice, “Tom, you need to eat something”. Much agreement all round. So he kindly leant to his left, said “in the net on the side of my pack”, and I had one of those gel things you see by the tills in Millets. It tasted something like apple.
So I kept running, and kept running, and I was sorry to go, but somehow my pace picked up and I left the others. Finding myself on my own, I could be the master of my own destiny and started to relax for the first time. I even exchanged a brief hug with Ahmed, one of my lads who I found coming down with the time to give a little more than the speedy high-five I’d given everyone else
Happy days. Until I came back to Jacob’s ladder.
Imagine a slope. Now tip it back a bit until you’re looking up at it with your neck stretched. But in your head, it’s not far, because Sarah slid off it in ten minutes, with you lolloping behind. So it feels ok…
72 paces. I know I do 72 paces per 100 meters on the flat. So I counted to 72, again and again and again, knowing that the wretched thing was no more than five of those groups. Everything was on fire. Despite my weedy, tiny backpack, I found myself pushing my knees with my hands to make my legs straighten. One of the lads, Derek, confided with me later that his low point was watching his own dribble hit the deck in front of him. I passed a man stricken on the side of the path, with his boots off and someone forcing his legs to bend – I have no idea what had happened to him, but to my great shame I figured there were enough people around with the requisite skill set to deal with him.
Shuffling on, I overtook more poor suffering souls with full sized backpacks.. And then I realised that the maths in my head was wrong! The map I had in my head was a 1:25000…. The distance was twice as much. Back to counting… And finally, after what seemed an utter age of strife, I found the same tent as before… Downhill more or less all the way…
An hour later, I finally clap eyes on a reservoir which told me I was approaching the end point. Knees screaming in pain, I crossed the gate for a brisk “nice one” from the DS and a photo. John from Hostage UK was there with his charming and very cold looking wife Marilyn, with hot bullshot, which tasted like nectar. Warm clothes. Walking on concrete. The feel of a car seat.
And better than everything, I saw my team mates finish. Richard’s powerful frame came striding down that hill with a huge smile on his face. The two girls, to whom I owe so much, finished shortly after, together, and literally holding hands. The race DS were confused – they had won the female race! After some serious head scratching, they share the title. In no particular order, Jerry and Tom, a mate from the military, and David from another force came in with their heads held high. Alex, one of the more senior gents but scarily fast. Heather and Zoe, Derek and Lenny (an ex-marine who had heart surgery three years ago), Mark and Mark who had run the whole thing together, and finally Ahmed, who of all of us had pushed himself further, came in with the same smiling spirit as when he had started.
I love them all. A credit to the police, and to Hostage UK, who know a thing or two about endurance.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
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