Race report: Didcot Runners' Tom Reddy reports from the Fan Dance - Saturday, January 19, 2013
The weather had closed firmly back in around me as I climbed, gently at first on this section. I was at least on the return leg, visibility dropped back down to fifty metres at best, and a howling wind was picking up handfuls of loose snow and whipping it angrily into my eyes. Eyes that were no longer protected by my unsuitable sunglasses given that they had frozen up long ago, and with hands that were too cold to find a dry enough bit of cloth to clear them, there was nothing for it. Dressed to run, walking wasn't really an option any further on the flatter sections if you wanted to retain any slight notion of warmth or comfort - relative terms of course in these conditions. Jacob's Ladder was approaching once again, and memories of this climb from a past life weighed heavy on my mind, as I willed my legs to do their thing, and concentrated on connecting each footfall without going over on an ankle. Would it get me again? Welcome to the Brecon Beacons in January. Welcome to the Fan Dance.
It was with no small amount of trepidation that I dragged myself to the infamous red phone box of the old Storey Arms Mountain Rescue Centre, on a very snowy January Saturday morning. A place where dreams are made, of young boys and romantic special forces fantasies, of embassy sieges from a fiery balcony, of serious moustaches, of David Stirling, Pebble Island and Bravo Two Zero. Though it always starts with a wintry day on Pen-Y-Fan, and that is where you stop kidding yourself. Your dreams found crushed a mere matter of a few cold hours later, under the metaphorical size 13 combat boot of the directing staff.
Photos: Marching up the snowy slope. Didcot Runners' (l-r) Bill Larnach, Paul Griffiths and the author Tom Reddy
This, of course, was my idea several months ago, and at the time it seemed like such a good one. A new race series from a company called Avalanche Events, headed by Ken Jones, was hosting its inaugural winter edition of the infamous “Fan Dance”. It was touch and go, wondering whether we might make it at all, given the heavy snowfall of the preceding days. Someone had worked hard though to clear the roads and as a result, the race was a 'Go'. Though through the complete lack of sympathy gleaned from the multiple emails received just prior to the event, it was clear that this was never really going to be called off.
Registration was a simple and painless affair, no chip timing here, just a number to pin on and you're ready to race. There was also an authentic goody bag issued before the race, with gels and mineral supplements which perhaps hints at the severity of the ordeal to come. They can't very well issue a goody bag to you, if you are lying on a trolley at the Mountain Rescue centre, best get it out of the way.
The event is apparently closely based on the authentic 'Fan Dance' which is used by special forces in the early stages of their selection process. It is a march/run starting at the Storey Arms, heading up over Pen-Y-Fan and down the other side to Torpantau Station on the edge of Taf Fechan Forest. You then turn around and come back, 24km or thereabouts, taking in just under 4500ft of elevation. In short, it's a tester, and in the middle of winter, it takes no prisoners. On the start line, during the safety briefing, we were informed that bona fide 'Selection' was in fact also starting today, on these very hills less than 15 miles away, so if we wanted authenticity, that was a stark reminder that we were just about to get it, in spades.
I was concerned, having been here before many years ago, and more recently competed in a similar hilly nightmare (sorry, challenge) of a race in Dorset as part of the Coastal Trail Series from Endurance Life. I took a knock there, an experience new to me in running, and since then my confidence for covering ground at speed over extremely hilly terrain was very low. I knew this was my chance at a reprieve, and I was going to give it everything. Though not having specifically trained outside my usual running routine, I was perhaps wondering if I was ready. The start was without ceremony, and marching up into the hills, it soon became apparent that the snow was quite severe and drifting all the time, every footstep would have to be accounted for.
It didn't take long to settle into the climb. You are climbing right from the start, and apart from a short dip down again as the Storey Arms drifts out of sight, you were soon digging in for the slog to the summit of Pen-Y-Fan. The weather was predictably atrocious. The mountain forecast had predicted a temperature of -7 at 800m before wind chill and there was a strong easterly of around 30mph pretty much consistently on the exposed sides. This would clearly explain the reason why my Salomon bladder tube froze up within an hour of the start, rendering it useless, and me almost waterless for the remainder of the race.
Photos: Marching up the snowy slope. The author Tom Reddy, Bill Larnach and Paul Griffiths proudly show off their Winter Edition Fan Dance patches
Thanks to the fog, the peak arrived far sooner than I was expecting. So soon in fact, that there was a lot of doubt among the competitors about whether this was in fact the highest point, or even the correct peak at all. Talk of lost signposts or “Did you see an arrow back there?”, navigation was a lost cause for most. This was supposed to be a non-navigational race; we were issued with maps, and were told to bring compasses, but without the ability to take a bearing from any distinguishing feature, it was very much best guess. This would be a theme for the remainder of the race, and time was lost at several points, as the flow ground to a halt when someone started to question if this was the correct way. Footsteps would dissipate as the field spread out, footpaths would be lost, and doubt would creep in.
Since the load bearing competitors (those people mad enough to want to do this with a 35lb backpack, for added authenticity) set off an hour earlier than the runners, we were basically chasing them, but at several points, it didn't look possible that 100+ sets of heavy footprints had come this way, and thus we had lost the path. Clearly there were some people with local knowledge here, and further some with hand-held GPS, so one way or another, we would re-establish the route.
As we descended Jacob's Ladder, the climb down would slowly decrease in severity and I chose this moment to let my concentration slide. Runners were beginning to increase the speed again with the careless abandon of mountain goats, and in doing so myself, I felt both my feet disappear forwards from under me, and suddenly all four limbs were in the air. This was going to hurt. It did. Landing hard on my backside and jarring my left arm, for a brief few moments, I had the thought that my race might be over. Thankfully it became clear that whilst it was hurting, it wouldn't stop me fom carrying on. So I picked myself up, and with the adrenaline, came the hysterical laughter. It would have been a good shot had anyone been around with a camera to catch it.
The turn around point approached as we descended out of the mist, and were met by one of the directing staff, who informed us that he had pulled the RV point in from the original point and was persuading people to turn around here due to the conditions. However, we were welcome to continue on the 400m “or so” to the official turn around point for completeness sake. There was no way I was going through all of that, to cut this race short, so we continued on. Though a typical army type understatement, I should have known, the actual turn around point at the bridge, was nearly a mile further on down the road. We stopped here for a few minutes to refuel and salvage any non frozen water that we could. It was very hard to get going again, and to break back into a run. The slight descent all the way along the old Roman road, went by unnoticed in the other direction, but was now very much an incline, and it didn't feel welcome.
It did seem noticeably colder on the run back in, and my hands were beginning to freeze up from the rest stop. This sort of race truly tests your kit, and I now have a good idea of the capabilities of every item I was wearing that day. The biggest shortfall (outside the frozen water bladder) were my gloves, which although fantastic and claim to be breathable, wind proof and waterproof, only appear to keep your hands warm in these conditions when you are actually running quite hard. I overtook a large group of load bearers on a narrow path back up towards Jacob's Ladder, crunching through knee deep snow in order to get past and keep the pace up, I soon found myself very much alone save for the odd few load bearing participants grinding up the climb. This was the real tester for me. The longest climb of the day by far, the steepest and the toughest, energy fading and legs beginning to scream.
When the peak finally arrived I was greeted by a cameraman who seemed far too pleased to be there, and found myself almost caught up in an impromptu interview. We checked our numbers in with the final RV point, and by this time my hands were two blocks of ice. I just wanted to get on back down to the finish, but had no idea of the way. It all looked the same in every direction, and a vague arm point from a few people didn't give me much to go on. I had to tag along with a few more load bearers (who unfortunately also went wrong) before I could pick the route back up, and think about picking up the pace once again.
The descent was rapid as you could imagine, and as the last hump approached out of the mist before the Storey Arms would be in view, I found a burst of energy. I wanted to finish, and I wanted to do that as soon as possible, and ran all the way to the red phone box, to be met by race director Ken Jones, a photograph and the issue of my Winter Edition Fan Dance patch. Hard earned if I do say so myself, but something I will be rather proud of, above and beyond perhaps all but my debut marathon medal.
It is not for everyone, it is something different, something tough, it was at times cold, painful and unpleasant, but at the same time deeply rewarding. It has all the hallmarks to bring me back again, and I get the feeling it may well become a cult race.
I felt that some long held demons were buried atop the 'Fan that day. I look forward to an attempt at the Summer version to pick up that patch and complete my collection, and I may well return for another bash at Winter. Though, even if not, perhaps in years to come and many years hence, those who know will talk about those few cold hours, that infamous race, the first of the series, the biting winds on those snowy slopes in the harsh January winter of 2013. I'll be able to say, that among those lucky few, I was there. I danced.
"We are the Pilgrims, master: we shall go always a little further: it may be beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow, across that angry or that glimmering sea" James Elroy Flecker.
Check out the event website for further information: www.thefandancerace.com