Early Morning Wake Up Call
A Right Old Dance.
I could hear voices, joking and excitedly laughing. They were not in my head and I had been woken up.
I looked at my Garmin Fenix Watch which told me it was 04:30am. Not the time I had planned on waking.
I was staying on the Grawen Campsite just a few miles from the Foot of Pen Y Fan and the scene of my 3rd Fan Dance Race.
A group of young bucks had arrived and set up next to me the previous day and I had listened to them excitedly talking about what they thought their first Fan Dance experience would be like. I smiled to myself as I reflected back to my first experience 12 months ago and remembered how underprepared I had been and what an utterly savage challenge that day had been – and one that planted a new seed of passion within my being – adventure, opportunity and transformation on the high hills.
I unzipped my bivvy door and poked my head outside. Dimly lit blue skies with a hit of pink and red lit up the horizon. The dark tree outline met with the grass and a heavy dew could be seen.
“Looks like it’s going to be a warm one” I thought to myself as I dragged my carcass out of my bivvy and in bare feet stood on the cold, wet dewy grass.
First things first and its Jet boil stove on, water boiled and poured over course black, dark ground coffee. The aroma igniting my nostrils as I looked out over the valley and began to prepare myself what lay ahead.
The Fan Dance – What is it?
The Fan Dance is a gruelling 24km Special Forces Test March based on a route that sees two ascents of Pen Y Fan – the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons.
The pass mark for Special Forces selection is 4 hours. I had achieved a time of 3 hours 56 in January on my second attempt at the course, my first event 12 months ago taking me 4hr 28 minutes.
One of the key components of this challenge that adds to the flavour of disgusting beauty is that the event is done loaded. A Bergan weighing at least 35lb must be carried containing essential mountain equipment. On top of this you must carry 4l of water plus food to eat on the march. When it’s all combined it’s a pack weight of around 44 to 46lb – just over 20kg.
Sitting on the tailgate of my truck I drank the steaming hot nectar that would soon work its magic on my body and start to wake up my synapses. Breakfast is a simple affair. Tesco’s pasta bows with spinach, green pesto, pine nuts and parmesan. It’s not my usual breakfast fair but it seems to hit the spot – easy to digest, zero gastrointestinal issues and something that appears to fuel me very well for the first half of the race.
25 minutes later and I am parked in the Pont Ar Dar Car Park and checking and double checking my Bergan contents.
I had weighed my Bergan the day prior and on the Directing Staff scales it weighed 35lb exactly.
I had added another 2lb of weight just in case there was a fluctuation in scales at the end.
3l of electrolyte fluid in a camel back into the top of my Bergan plus another 1l of carbohydrate energy drink in a Sigg Bottle. Food to eat on the march and its 44lb dead. Perfect.
Get Ready – GO!
Its 06:45am and so I make my way to the start line and foot of Pen Y Fan.
I say hello to the one of two familiar faces I recognise and then it’s into the Zone.
We are lined up on the hill while Ken Jones, Race Director and founder of Avalanche Endurance Events provides his usual no nonsense race summary before the off.
“Racing snakes to the front” and up I go to the front.
A flare is set off, a bang and GO! The race is on.
I had walked the start the day prior to remind myself of the terrain intricately.
The First Ascent of the Fan.
I am marching fast uphill as another competitor runs past me to get ahead. I let him go and settle into my pace. Breathing elevates in no time and I notice I feel differently about it compared to 6 months prior. My breathing is deep and heavy as I march powerfully uphill. Previously I had found myself anxious about the prospect of spending 4 hours with heart rate at near max intensity and whether it would be sustainable.
Now it just felt an extension of any other heart rate intensity. It was uncomfortable, sure, but this time I knew it was sustainable. I smiled within as I kept marching hard up the first incline.
After 10 minutes the pathway levels off and I pull my Bergan higher onto my back. Waist strap and chest strap now clipped together and I start to run. Mouth wide open and gulping in air I navigate a kissing gate and briefly look back. There are a handful of people with me and the guy ahead but largely the pack is falling way back.
Running down hill on the rock strewn cobble paths I try and lengthen my stride, carefully choosing my route and trying to flow – minimising heavy foot landings.
I splash through the stream and then it’s up again. I release the waist strap and chest straps. A ploy I have found useful to aid better breathing and less hip flexor activation while ascending. The gradient is almost a constant steep ascent now on gravel paths. Calves are filled with lactic acid and the front of my shins feel engorged with blood. They ache.
I focus on driving up through the balls of my feet and using full calf length to try and ease the stiffness.
I get to the turning at Corn Du within 27 minutes and start the rocky and muddy traverse heading diagonally up the mountain. Marching hard I stick to the grassy edge to maximise flow and minimise tripping. Within minutes I am at Mountain Safety Check Point and I head up to the left.
The pathway opens up and levels off and I know I am roughly 5 minutes from the summit of Pen Y Fan if I can pull my finger out.
Tabbing uphill hard is an unusual experience. My breathing is heavy and running feels right now like the last thing I’d like to do. But I know that if a fast Fan time is to be had the running is needed despite what my mind tries to convince me otherwise.
Early Personal Best
Running hard and to the RV1 I hand in my name and number. It’s taken me 45 minutes to reach the 2.5 mile summit and it’s a personal best by 5 minutes from January.
I run over to the top of Jacobs Ladder and compose myself.
No time to take in the landscape there is a job to do.
I carefully negotiate the huge boulders that form the top 15m of the mountain. Total awareness is required to avoid taking a heavy fall.
Safely through and I start to pick my way down the steep cobbled and stepped pathway. Eyes down and leaning back into the hill with loose arms – I flow down the mountain side. Avoiding using too much braking to save the legs within minutes I am safely down.
I pull out 2 cliff bloc energy cubes and shove them into my mouth, chew quickly while marching and gulp back on my electrolyte drink.
On the now rocky uneven path that I rolled an ankle on earlier in the year my focus is total and complete. Picking my way through the rock, running when I can, fast marching when needed my brain is in the zone. The effort is hard, physically and mentally.
I get to windy gap and turn at the MST point.
The Roman Road lies ahead. Around 3.5 miles of vehicle track laden with rocks and gravel. I strap my Bergan tight again and begin to run. I have been moving for 1 hour and 5 minutes. I wanted to be at the RV2 in around 1hr 30.
I pass a photographer who I recognise as a guy I had competed again in the P Company Fan Dance earlier in the year and shared first place with him and another.
“Keep going mate you are smashing it.”
I appreciated the comments and energy behind his words as I flew as fast as I could downhill.
My Garmin told me I was at around 9:30 to 10min mile pace. I hadn’t bothered to look at my HR during the race – I didn’t need to. I could feel it in my mouth and that was all I needed to know – I was most definitely at race pace.
Two guys pass me and as they do one trips and takes a heavy fall.
We stop to assess the damage. He’s fine. We get up and run on. My legs feel heavy and the two guys move ahead.
“I’ll let them go” I think to myself, “Run your own race Matt”.
As I checked in with myself my mind turned to the training I had done in preparation for this moment. 50 to 60 miles per week of running and tabbing, week in, week out since January.
“I’ll catch them later in the event” I thought to myself as I knew that the length of the race would work in my favour.
I run hard down the gravel track and reach half way in 1hour 35 minutes. A 15 minute best compared to January.
The Turning Point.
No time to stop I start running back. My legs feel heavily fatigued and I reach for more energy blocs. 3 in my mouth and I make a concerted effort to really up the drinking.
On reaching the rockier section of road I move into a high speed march. I calculate I am in about 8th position. I close on 1 competitor and see 3 others ahead.
My watch tells me I have done 10 miles in 2 hours 20. I am feeling confident of a huge personal best if I can only keep going.
I close on another competitor and we chat for a few moments.
Both of us marching and talking between breaths I notice a sensation occur in my left calf. A slight “gripping” feeling emerging if I push too hard.
My breathing feels comfortable and I feel like I would like to run on the upper reaches of the road to windy gap. But as I push a little harder off the left foot the gripping feeling intensifies a little.
“Not again” I think to myself as I recognise now the familiar feeling of cramp emerging.
I gulp back fluid as I have been doing all race.
“I just need to manage my effort all the way up Jacobs Ladder” I think to myself.
I know that if I get to the top of Jacobs at 3 hours I will be on for a sub 3:30 finish.
Part way up Jacobs ladder and I observe my breathing feels well below where it has been in previous races. Cardiovascularly I feel good.
I take a steep step and my calf locks up like a fist sized lump of muscle. “Fuckkkkkk that hurts” as I face uphill and try and extend my heel. I bend over to let the calf relax with Bergan high on my back, hands on knees.
A few moments of self-massage and off I go again. Onwards and upwards I am closing in on another competitor before cramp strikes again but this time in my quad.
For a moment I think about kicking my heel back to stretch out but then fear stops me. Fear of my hamstring cramping and feeling worse. I bend over and stop. Hands on knees. In the moment I decide to take off my Bergan and get more fluid.
My 3l camel back is empty and I pour in a 1l of energy drink from my sigg bottle. Bergan back on I gulp back the lemony sweet fluid.
The cramp has eased I have about 5 more minutes of ascending to do.
Suddenly I become aware that my legs feel soaked with fluid.
“I didn’t realise I was sweating that much” is my first though and then I realise.
Bergan off quick sharp and I find a disaster. My camel back had burst and the 1l of fluid I had to drink has gone.
“FUCK” I say to myself. Onwards though.
I catch the next guy up and pass him. Into the steep boulders of the upper reaches of Jacobs Ladder and cramp strikes again just as the photographer snaps me. For a moment I daren’t move. My entire left leg is locked. I breathe deeply and it lets go. Up over the top and to RV3.
“Stop Feeling Sorry for Yourself”
“How are you doing” says the DS.
“Cramping but fine” I say before providing my name and number.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get down the mountain” says the DS.
As I begin a tentative run downhill I smile to myself at the response. No-nonsense – get the job done.
Running fairly fluidly I arrive at MST point 1 and review my watch. It says 3 hours 8 minutes. I need to get a gallop on as I traverse Corn Du and see another competitor in front of me.
Running, jumping, short steps, less impact, high knees to prevent tripping on now heavily fatigued legs.
This is the part of the race where it is just about hanging on and going as fast as you can.
I know there are 2 miles left and its 3hr 10 now.
I just need to keep faster than 10 min mile pace.
Onto the main track down Pen Y Fan now and I am running fast.
“On your right” I shout as I pass another competitor teetering on the edge of loss of control.
I pass some walkers and promptly my calf ignites into fist sized ball. I cry out in pain, roll up my trouser leg and quickly massage. The calf looks deformed such is the tension but I manage to relax it.
Off I go again holding back a little now.
Over the stream and a final uphill burst to the kissing gate.
Through the gate and I know its 6 minutes to the bottom.
I look at my watch and see it’ll be close to a sub 3:30.
Running hard cramp strikes again. “For fucks sake” I think to myself before dealing with it again.
I blast down the mountain, legs ticking over fast, strength almost gone, and knees almost buckling from the effort to stay upright.
I reach the Red Phone box. 3 hours 30 and 55 seconds I am told.
I have achieved a massive personal best by 25 minutes from January and just under an hour from 12 months ago.
At the End all Memories of Suffering turn to Pleasure.
A strong handshake from Ken and cloth patch awarded.
I make my way to sit down by a stone wall and my body feels ravaged from the effort.
My single thought. There is more to come here.
I finished 3rd on the day in my category and 4th overall on the day. I am pleased and elated at the same time.
The Fan Dance website talks about the Fan Dance being a life changing event.
I admit I was sceptical at first.
But in the last 12 months, since my first Fan Dance my life has indeed changed beyond recognition. A seed was planted when I first set foot on the hallowed grounds of Pen Y Fan and the Brecon beacons; Or maybe the seed was there and lying dormant just waiting to be watered at the right time.
My passion for the event is immeasurable. I simply love it. Moreover, my passion for the mountains has been a life changing experience. Next week a new chapter of my life starts when I take on the Mountain Leader Course at Plas Y Brenin and from there, new, more exciting chapters will also emerge.
I must thank my running coach Julia for coaching me into the form I have presented in recent months. Her knowledge and support has been a cornerstone in helping me to move beyond any ideas I had of my own potential to perform while helping me to find a system of training that works perfectly for my body.
Thanks also to Ken and the Avalanche Endurance Events Team for organising such an incredible challenge. I am on for Iron Man Test March in September and looking forward to seeing what emerges there.