In December I was starting to wind down my Year of Challenges, and feeling quite low with nothing at all booked in 2015, when along came some of my training friends, who convinced me that I should join them in doing the Fan Dance in January. Their enthusiasm during our training session was contagious and once I got home I signed up to the tough, prestigious race, that would see us clambering over a mountain in the middle of winter.
After signing up on little less than a whim, the avalanche of emails for the event came through, which detailed the required tonne of kit that I didn’t yet have, and the scariest safety warning I’ve read, and I started to regret my decision to sign up. I hadn’t done any specific training for this event, just my usual classes, running and personal training sessions, which left me in some doubt as to my ability to actually get safely over the mountain and back again.
Despite my worries, some good advice, encouragement from friends and a shopping spree later and I was as ready as I was going to be, and we packed 7 of us into 2 cars full of kit and made the road trip to Wales.
The Fan Dance is run by Avalanche Endurance Events, and is based on the course used by the SAS as selection criteria. It is a 24km trek over Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. The race takes you up from the red phone box to the peak of Pen Y Fan, down Jacobs ladder on the other side, and along an old Roman road, at the end of which you turn around and retrace your steps back up and over the mountain again.
We travelled up the day before the race and stayed over, as we had a 9am start, and spent a quiet evening cut off from the outside world, although we did meet Joe De Sena, the Spartan Race founder in a pub!
We woke up bright an early, and there was a smattering of snow on the ground, it was cold, with a biting wind. We pulled on our kit, gulped down some porridge and sorted out our backpacks. We were all running Clean Fatigue rather than loaded, but this being winter there was still quite a sizeable kit list that we were supposed to take with us in-case of emergencies, which included a warm jacket, emergency meal, emergency blankets and 2 litres of water amongst other things.
We gathered at the bottom of the mountain to listen to the safety briefing, where we were told about how the wind had picked up a sheep the day before and flung it through the air, and were warned about where the wind would be the most treacherous, being told to keep over to the side or we may well get blown over the cliff edge and die – not the most reassuring safety talk I’ve heard!
Feeling cold in the wind, we were counted down and we began the assent, a thigh burning start to the race which soon warmed us back up. After climbing around 150m in the first kilometre there was a rocky decent followed by another steep climb.
The first part of the race for me was horrendous, I got stomach cramps that were debilitating. They came on suddenly and I had to stop moving, I thought I was going to throw up, and I was having to seriously consider turning round and heading back down to the start. Russ, Kev and Dom all stopped with me, offering to take my backpack, and trying to help. I kept moving as much as I could, pride keeping me moving more than anything – I couldn’t bare the thought of turning back and having to tell people that I had failed. I wouldn’t let the boys take my bag either, If I was doing it, I was doing it properly. I pushed on and thankfully the cramps died off, and as we climbed higher and jogged along a fairly flat section for a bit I finally started to enjoy myself and it was worth it just for the views.
We continued up to the summit, where the wind whipped round, but we paused to take in the views and have photos at the top.
We then crossed the peak and headed down Jacobs Ladder, it was steep, and windy enough to knock you off your feet, there was also ice over the path making it slippery. We carefully picked our way down, then picked up speed down the hillside. We made good pace down the rocky paths, Kev took a bit of a spill, and I somehow saved myself from what would have been a spectacular face-plant with some vigorous wind-milling of my arms, as we hit the old Roman road we were jogging along happily, feeling quite warm, and really enjoying the race.
We hit the turn around point, checked in and had a bit of food, then turned around and headed back the way we came. Going back up the Roman road was much less pleasant as the barely notice decline on the way down made itself felt on the way back up. At this point I started to notice a blister on my foot, the last thing I needed with a long way still to go, and I was really slowing down. I’m really grateful that the boys are all way to nice to leave me on a mountainside alone!
We made our way along what had started to feel like a long slog for me, having to walk more often than I could jog, and then promptly falling over when I did try a little run, smashing my elbow and knee into the rocky ground, but being pulled back to my feet by Dominic and another passing guy.
Finally we hit Jacobs Ladder again, and started the brutal climb back to the top. The wind was fierce and I had to stop and grab hold of a rock at one point. My legs were screaming but I knew I had to keep going, there’s not really a lot of alternatives. I had gone from feeling hot to feeling cold, but I had chosen good kit and was able to keep my body temperature up. The boys had all stopped to wait for me, I told them to keep moving, I didn’t want them to freeze, but there was no way they were leaving me now.
We finally got back to the peak of Pen Y Fan, the visibility had deteriorated a little, but so far the weather was still being relatively kind. We started the decent and managed to get a jog on to warm up after our slow climb to the top. For the first time my hands were feeling cold and I was trying to flex my fingers to get the blood flowing again. We jogged our way back down, went up the final climb before beginning to head back down in earnest.
As we reached the top of the final hill, and could see the road beneath us, I have never been so happy to see cars in my life! We ran down the hill, the pain in my blister momentarily forgotten as I gleefully made my way down as fast as I dared. We had done it, and completed the brutal Winter Fan Dance, no one had died, and we all completed it inside of 4 hours. Elated we collected our finishers patches and posed for a final picture by the phone box.
This was an absolute epic challenge, the toughest thing I’ve ever done, furthest I’ve ever run (well run-ish), and an amazing experience.
I’m adding this section as when preparing for this race I found it hard to find advice on what people wore.
Before I start it is important to note that we had really good conditions for the race, there was no precipitation whatsoever, visibility was good, although there was a cold wind and some snow and ice on the ground. With worse conditions I can’t say whether my choices would stand up to the test, but there were perfect for me on the day and I was pleased with my choices.
Starting from my feet, I wore my Salomon Fellraiser shoes, with two pairs of socks. I had my Inov-8 Mudsoc’s with a pair of my Prosoks over the top. My feet were warm throughout and even when freezing water got into my shoes I had no discomfort from the cold. I also used Inov-8 debris gaiters.
On my legs I wore a pair of thermal 2XU compression leggings, which were superb, my legs were never cold once, even in the winds at the top. I had a pair of waterproof trousers in my backpack, but they were not needed on the day. The leggings also helped to keep cramp at bay up the steep inclines.
On my top half I had on a long sleeve Inov-8 merino wool base layer, with my long sleeve RPCC Obstacle Course Race Team top over it. I also had a t-shirt in my bag and a small thermal fleece in my bag – but again they were un-needed on the day. Over the top I wore an Inov-8 Race Elite Stormshell jacket, which is thin, but waterproof and windproof and was excellent at the top of the mountain, without being too hot when we were running in the well sheltered areas.
I finished off with a wrag around my neck, which I could pull up over my face if needed, my dirty dozen bobble hat (because I never got round to buying a more suitable one – since it didn’t rain though the hat was perfect), and I started off with my darkfin gloves but quickly swapped to a pair of thermal ski gloves which were easier to take on and off and were warmer.
After being really worried about what I was going to wear, I was really happy with my choices in the end, which kept me warm when needed without me being way to hot when we were sheltered.