Brecon Beacons Fan Dance Winter Edition SAS Load Bearing Challenge

I found out about Fan Dance from Richard Pringle the now Spartan Race Director. I was quite excited to find out about it as I did a similar challenge called Paras10 which is a 35lbs bergen that you carry and follow the route the soldiers take to qualify for the Para regiment. I did the Paras10 TAB in Aldershot in May 2013 which I found hard going. Granted I only found out very late and entered 2 months before the event.

Paras10 Tab results

Paras10 Tab results

This pattern repeated itself and I only entered Fan Dance Race in November which left me with 2 months more or less to get into acceptable shape to do the event. I knew I would complete but was planning to build on gains over December and be in reasonable shape to cope with the event on the day.

Let me be clear about something. I don’t consider myself tough as there are people a lot more capable and really inspiring that did this event. I did it as a personal challenge to test myself and I was honoured to be able to do it and proud of what I achieved. I am also grateful for all the Avalance DS staff for their assistance and this is a truly outstanding challenge.

My training went reasonably well and I did a mix of long runs, hill work and sprint all with a standard weight of 20 kgs or 44 lbs. I had a couple of disadvantages in that I had to build up to my standard weight of 20kgs. Working in IT meant being on call, this restricted outside runs and it meant I had to compensate with treadmill training.

I picked up a cold over Xmas which affected my last week’s training and this resulted in me losing a lot of gains post Xmas. I was left spending the last week stretching and recovering from the cold and making sure I got rid of any body tension.

I made sure when training I ran with heavy boots. I did stair climbs to ensure I got in as much hill climb to work my legs as I was expecting elevation challenges. I didn’t expect the pain and grinding endurance of Pen Y Fan when going up Jacobs Ladder to be so brutal though.

Fan Dance Race was started after race director and creator Ken Jones returned to his home ground after a 2 year recovery from an accident. He had a shattered pelvis and broken femur when he got caught in an avalanche in the mountains and had to crawl, hobble and fight his way back to a hut to get medical assistance in the depths of winter in Romania.

He created Fan Dance to share the challenge that he went through as part of his SAS training and also due to the fact he followed the route as a challenge to prove he was able to once he recovered from his accident.

As part of the load bearing requirements you have to have a pack with a sleeping bag, my SA army waterproof poncho/bivvy, change of clothes, food and water. I also had a small radio as suggested by Dave Humm who is the comms officer for the event. He created a local radio network setup. This included a repeater station. He also has full training and advice for participants who want to use the facility when you join the Facebook group. Due to the very windy conditions the whole weekend he couldn’t deploy the full capability but it was nice to know that it was there if needed.

This creates a unique experience as you learn how to use correct call signals and in case of emergency can request for assistance. There are 2 Facebook groups for the event which are the Avalanche Safety Radio Group and Avalanche Endurance Events. Both provide valuable info relating to the event.

For those travelling from far and wide it is best to get accommodation in the area as it makes it easier to get registration done the night before which leaves you free to get to know some of the staff and other participants drifting in and out of Storey Arms where the event is staged from.

I was fortunate enough meet up with 2 OCR regulars Thomas Blanc and Simon Watts on Saturday night and we had a good catch up and spoke about the days events and conditions as well as some OCR stuff. It made a massive difference being able to talk to some of the DS staff and I had the opportunity to meet Ken the Saturday night as I was doing the Sunday load bearing event.

Registration

To register you had to go to the rear of Storey Arms. When you arrive you can park in front or across the road in a larger car park. Walk up to the front and follow around to the right to go round to the back. Turn left before you go into the building you can go to the weighing station. This is about halfway towards the entrance before the climbing wall. On the right are steps going up to the weighing in station which is a hut where the load bearing participants get there bergen’s weighed.

Make sure your base weight is 35 lbs. Food and water is additional. My weight on the morning came up to 43 lbs and this worked out to about 20 kgs which I was training with. Be warned the DS will do a check on bag contents to make sure you have the right contents in your bag and don’t just have dead weight in there.

Registration consist of you collecting your race number and any instructions for the event. As mentioned its a good time to have a chat with the other participants and DS and registration staff. They are all a good friendly group of people and pay attention to any conditions in case you have to change some of your clothing or prep.

I was able to have my radio configuration checked by Dave Humm who was about specifically to help those with radios. I got a inexpensive Baofeng UV5-R radio which was a nice piece of kit for the event and one I am going to use on the next one. I will add a list of other radios and items Dave suggested depending on budget.

Race Day

Sunday arrived and I parked up on the verge as the parking bays were all taken up with people staying overnight at Storey Arms or early arrivals. I got there at 7 am and first things first got my bergen weighed and signed off as OK. Do your final checks for food and water for the day and make sure your bag is setup correctly which in my case was getting my radio switched on and making sure everything was in easy reach in case I needed it.

The call came 10 minutes before 8 to congregate at the Red Phone box and to listen to Ken giving out race instructions and updates on waether conditions. Once this was completed we were given the signal to start. The first bit was jostling for position and getting into a rhythm and having the pack settle in and warming the body up.

True to the instructions don’t dress to warmly as you will very quickly overheat. I was dressed in UnderArmour ColdGear compression top with a wind and rain proof combat jacket. I also had a Xmas pressie of a UnderArmour ColdGear beanie

Fan dance start

Here we go. Pain to follow. Me in grey beanie top right.

As I have an old hamstring and glute injury on my left leg I wore similar UA ColdGear compression tights under my trousers. This also helps regulate body temperature when it goes cold. Once you get over the first hill you climb a second one which then gets to approaching Corn Du. I had a brief photo op courtesy of Thomas Blanc who was at the second Mountain Safety Station (MST). I then followed the path up towards Pen y Fan summit.

Pen y Fan happiness

Pen y Fan happiness

I had a brief water and food stop at RV 1, wind conditions weren’t too bad, I then then headed down Jacob’s Ladder.  This was treacherous as the conditions were icy and there was some snow on the ground. At various stages down JL you had to get off the stone path as the amount of ice was too dangerous. We were guided down away from JL to make sure we didn’t ascend Cribyn.

You skirt around the base of Cribyn which was a mix of stone, running water and icy patches. At the base of Cribyn I passed another MST and on my return was glad for assistance before my ascent to RV1.

The next stage was the long slow descent on the old Roman road in the direction of the half way mark of RV2. I was able to keep a decent pace but the later stages closer to RV2 my legs started feeling the distance. At RV2 I had a welcome 10 minute break to grab some more food and water. I had a quick joke with the other participants and DS staff and got back into it to see if I could press home the gains I had made in the first part.

The way back to Cribyn up the Roman road was hard going. It is deceptively hard going with a slow continuous incline for miles which saps strength and tests endurance. I was quite glad to reach the MST again and grabbed another bite to eat and more water. I got the pack back up but had to re-adjusted my bergen to use the waist belt with the MST assistance as my hands were frozen and I was suffering a bit.

Once properly strapped in I ascended Cribyn to skirt the base on the way to the next point which was the ascent up Jacob’s Ladder to RV1. Luckily the path wasn’t as icy as the ice had melted which left a lot of run off water. I got to the base of Pen Y Fan and this section was where I had to scrape the barrel and make the decision no matter what I had to get to RV1.

By this stage I had a cramp issue in one leg and they were painful to say the least due to lactic acid. I was fighting every step up Jacob’s Ladder and to make it more interesting the wind had picked up and made it harder work. I had to fight all the way up to the top, agonising all the way with both legs cramping by this stage. At certain points I was pushed off the stone path and balancing on one leg due to the strong wind.

The last bits at the top of Jacobs Ladder I was climbing using my hands and feet just to get to the top. I was using every bit of mental grit to get to the top. I knew if I had stopped at any stage of the way back up Jacob’s I would be in serious trouble as I would never start up again. By the time I got to RV1 I had to take a quick breather, fighting my way up was slow and this cost me a lot of body heat and took its toll.

I sat down in a area out of the worst wind and again I was grateful for assistance from the DS staff. They must have been quite concerned as they asked me to test my hand co-ordination and do a finger count. I had another drink, some more food and some chocolate for an energy boost. I got back onto my feet and was instructed to start running to warm up and generate some body heat.

This was a lot easier as it was on the way down and there was less wind exposure albeit still quite cold. I got to the MST where Thomas was stationed and found out it was about 12:30 which meant I was about 4h30 in and on the way back. I pushed a bit harder to generate heat and get back sooner. I was grateful more of the ice had melted and just had to contend with muddy track conditions.

I passed the last MST skirtin Corn Du and the next stage where the last 2 hills before getting back to the landmark Red Phone box. I was keeping a reasonable pace and part of the way down the first hill twisted my left ankle which strained the top of my foot. I had to run through the pain to make sure I didn’t stop and this stage is where my legs started cramping badly.

On the final hill I was reduced to a slog and every now and then attempted to do a bit of running, The last half a mile down I was reduced to a walk but was greeted by more DS staff to record my race number and official finish time of 5h01. I received my coveted Fan Dance Winter badge and a greeting and congratulations from Ken Jones himself.

Finally what took you?

Finally what took you?

Final thoughts

There are a couple of things I will change. For the next one, some of it will be my nutrition. I will go for lighter higher energy foods as some of my food choices where to heavy for the event. I also will look into some salt replacement as this caused me major issues.

I could cut a significant amount of time if I didn’t have to fight the pain and cramps. Last but not least training. I would do a lot more hill running and longer preparation time. Granted I only had about 6 weeks of actual training time and I was recovering from a Xmas chest cold and was studying for an exam which made time scarce.

This is the most difficult challenge I have done.  There are personal reasons for doing this challenge. One which was to experience a small part of what SAS selection is about and to see to what level I could push myself. I am and never will be a swift runner but I will always work hard. This is an awesome challenge and to the others who do back to back events I admire greatly including anyone attempting this as a stand alone event.

There is one down side and I did see gels that runners and participants had discarded. It doesn’t take much to put those in a pocket or a gel pouch. It is disrespectful to others doing that as we and DS staff have to clean up and the Trust hold Avalanche responsible for this I am sure. We are there to appreciate the Brecon Beacons. Its our responsibility to leave it as we found it.

Load Bearing Gear

These are links to amazon and eBay.

Baofeng UV5-R radio

UnderArmour ColdGear compression top

UA ColdGear compression tights

UnderArmour ColdGear beanie

eBay SAS Smock

eBay Military combat trousers

Ebay Petzl Head Torch

or

Amazon Petzl Headtorch

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