My alarm went off at 6am in the darkness, I had already been awake unable to sleep since 4:30am.
“This was not how it was meant to be” I thought to myself having gotten in bed the previous night at just gone midnight but struggled to get to sleep in the first place – a mixture of excitement and nervous energy about what lay ahead.
I lay in the darkness for a minute more and then turned on the light. First things first, Kettle on, Nuclear Coffee (yes it really is called that) in the coffee press, over to the fridge to retrieve my breakfast – pasta with spinach, pine nuts and pesto.
In the silence I shovelled down the pasta eager to get it in me and digested as soon as possible. It wasn’t what I wanted at 6am. This wasn’t about taste, it was about function and past experience has shown me that pasta in the hours before a hard endurance effort suits me perfectly.
Showered, shaved, drinking the strong, steaming black nectar I became aware of the caffeine entering my system and waking up the synapses.
Racing clothes on and time to double check my Bergan. All present and correct, weighing 38lb to which I added 2l of water in a bladder, 1l of water in a bottle, a flask of coffee and box full of flapjack. Back on the scales, just over 44lb. Perfect.
I left the cottage in the dark while my mates slept on, I’d see them later on the mountain.
It was the day of the Fan Dance – a 24km race in the Brecon Beacons over Pen Y Fan – The highest mountain in the area and a route that is steeped in SAS selection history.
I had been training diligently following the Strength Matters SKM1 Certificate at the end of September, racking up consistently 30 to 40 miles of running and tabbing per week.
Coming into the week of the race I’d had a chest infection which I thought might hamper my efforts. On the Thursday it started to leave my body and by Saturday morning it was gone all by a tickly cough. Perfect timing.
I had been aware of a feeling of wellbeing developing in my body over the Friday afternoon and Saturday.
For once, I felt pretty good and was aware of an air of confidence. A rarity, as historically I am a bag of nerves before any kind of competition.
To The Storey Arms.
Driving in the darkness to the hallowed Storey Arms and the location of the Iconic Red Phone Box at the foot of Pen Y Fan I turned my awareness inwards.
I had done the Fan Dance once before in the summer and had gone off too hard on the first ascent of Pen Y Fan and paid the price of dead legs. I thought I’d try and hold back a little on the ascent and save myself for a harder effort on the Roman Road. As I drove I focussed on deep breathing, keeping relaxed and paying attention to the fact I felt bloody good.
15 minutes later and I’m parked and pulling the Bergan out of the back of my truck.
20 minutes until start time, it’s still pretty dark and foggy but it’s warm. 9 degrees. Perfect conditions.
I crossed the gate to the start line with the others and stood waiting for the chat from Ken Jones, race organiser.
I stood listening as the darkness subsided, talking to no one, mind focussed on the task that was about to take place.
We were instructed to line up on the path, me about 8 places back from the front.
BANG! A flare went off and the race started.
The ascent of Pen Y Fan is brutal. From the go it’s straight up on a steep, rocky and today, wet muddy path.
“Just do your own thing” was the thought I had. Working at my own pace and trusting that my training and body would give me what I needed.
Within 5 minutes my heart rate was above 170, almost at max. Breathing heavily my mind turned to “Fuck I forgot how hard this is” and a moment of fear crept in. “Can I sustain this for 4 hours?”
“Just RELAXXXXX” and with that I let go of the projection into potential suffering and focussed on the here and now, breathing deep into my lungs, trudging up the wet muddy terrain, leaning into the mountain while the Bergan straps did their best to bite into my shoulders.
After 20 minutes or so I reached the false peak where the terrain levels off before heading down to a stream. Clipping on the waist strap, tightening my shoulder straps I started to run.
“March fast on the uphill, run on the flat and downhill” is the name of the game for a good Fan performance.
The path, strewn with boulders and rocks make for a concentrated effort. It’s only too easy to trip and take a heavy fall. Down into the stream crossing and then back up again I go. Glancing at my heart rate I see its now 168. Only two guys have passed me and there is a small group of 8 ahead of me. I look back expecting to see lots of people close behind only to see a relatively clear path with the nearest bod some 30m back.
I’m ascending well and despite being near my limit I feel at ease.
Lactic acid is a constant companion as I climb, calves, hamstrings and glutes burning while I gulp in air through my wide open mouth.
Any ideas of holding back at the start have long gone and now all I want to do is summit. ASAP.
A right turn in front of Corn Du and up past the Mountain Service Team. The ground levels off and then it’s flat and running again. The path is drenched in watery mud and I splash along being mindful of foot placement so as not to roll and ankle or trip.
A glance at the watch and its saying 44 minutes – I wanted to be at the top in 50. The path elevates again over a section I had forgotten, a short steep climb to the Pen Y Fan summit and suddenly my legs are filled with acid again.
Over to the RV point and I spit out my race number and name to the Directing Staff (DS). 50 minutes of near max effort and I am where I wanted to be.
I reach into my pocket and pull out two cliff blocs and shove them into my mouth, chew them quickly while trying to breathe and sucking on my water supply to wash down the sickly sweet jelly.
Jacobs Ladder – Descent.
I make my way to the top of Jacobs Ladder – the steepest, most harsh side of Pen Y Fan.
I take a moment to look out over the mountainous valley. My hair is matted to my head from the damp mist and sweat and beads of fluid run down my face. I wipe a hand over my face and walk to the edge.
The top section of Jacobs Ladder is certainly interesting and requires full concentration. Massive rocks have formed to create giant steps which must be descended carefully with a heavy load on to avoid taking a painful fall. One hand goes down on a huge boulder as I jump down and then navigate the next 15 metres before the path becomes a more steady, but steep descent.
My descending skills are my Achilles heel – Looking a few metres ahead, picking the least muddy, slippery route, trying to move quickly, but not so quickly that you lose control.
I dug my heels into the hill, sat back into my Bergan and just tried to relax, legs ticking over, trying not to brake too hard on each footstep – just trying to flow with the mountain terrain without tension.
Another competitor passed me and I was determined to follow his footsteps and in doing so provide a little relief from the foot placement – decision making process.
As I descended I became aware of my quads taking a beating. I was looking forward to changing the pace up a bit and running to loosen off.
From the foot of Jacobs Ladder the path elevates slightly along a muddy rock strewn path before heading down to Windy Gap and the start of the Roman Road.
By now the sun was breaking out and I briefly looked up to take in the view. TRIP and “Shit” as I roll my left ankle. For a moment I stop, check it out, feels ok. Adrenaline pumping, heart thumping I remind myself that every time I lose consciousness of my path I put myself at risk.
From that point forward the sightseeing would have to wait for another day.
Onto the Roman Road and it’s time to get some speed up. 4 miles or so out to the half way RV point.
I break into a run, strapping my Bergan tighter to my back, keeping arms loose and focus on short running steps, staying light on my feet, “air shuffling.” Breathing powerful and deep I feel at ease within the effort.
I catch another competitor and we exchange pleasantries. We ran for about 500m together before I pushed on. Running at 9 minute mile pace now with my Bergan straps digging into my shoulders and my lower back starting to complain.
Through a series of wooden gates and I know I am almost half way.
Half Way From Hell
Onto the road section before the RV point and I know it’s nearly there. Is it after the next corner? Shit no, keep going.
I get to the RV point at half way in 1 hr 51. I am on track for a sub 4 hour finish which is what I wanted. Race number and name in again to the DS and I shove another 3 blocs down my throat and chew as fast as possible.
“There’s some water here boys” said the DS – the small group of 3 of us just turned around and started on the return leg.
My legs by this time are protesting. Battered from ascending, descending and running I think to myself “Just got to keep digging in and the rest will fall into place.”
The Roman Road back to Windy Gap for the most part is on a slight incline. I ran for 5 minutes, marched for 2. When the terrain turned more technical it was marching hard.
I noticed my marching was at a pace of 16-17 minutes per mile, heart rate 168.
As I got near the end of the Roman Road I looked down. I’d done 11 miles in just over 2hr 50 with 3.5 miles to go. “Surely I can make it sub 4.”
I passed the MST at Windy Point “If you carry on at this pace you’ll be good for a SF time bud” said the MST.
By now I was seriously suffering. Energy was dropping, stomach felt sick from the jelly blocs and sheer effort and legs felt destroyed. I hacked up some phlegm and bent over with hands on knees just to relieve the tension in my back.
I decided I needed a caffeine hit so quickly dropped off my Bergan, pulled out my flask and poured a cup of thick, black, steaming coffee. I poured it into my mouth and felt the burning liquid travel into my stomach “too fucking hot”. 2 pieces of flapjack next which I immediately regretted. My mouth dried out instantly. My water bladder is now empty. Out comes my back up water bottle.
I stand on the mountain side and glance at my watch. I’ve been stationery for 90 seconds. Need to get cracking.
Suddenly a pang of cramp drives into my left medial quad. I try and relax, massage it off, gulp of water to take away the sticky sweet flapjack, Bergan back on and off I go.
“Always a little further.”
Following the rock strewn trail uphill to the lower reaches of Jacobs ladder I am aware of cramp starting to become more of an issue. I can feel tension in my adductors and quads and I notice a pang of fear. “Please don’t lock up on me now” as I start the ascent of Jacobs Ladder.
“Relaxxxxx” I say to myself and breathe deeply.
Looking up I can see a few people ahead of me. Jacobs ladder is a relentlessly steep, nasty climb that is a “back breaker and lung buster.”
50 metres into the ascent and I realise I am making hard work for myself as I’ve taken a less than ideal path. I cut across some boggy mud and take a slip.
Cramp rips into my right quad. I stand up straight leaning into the mountain to relieve the tension. I get moving again being very careful to try not to load my quads too much.
As I look up Jacobs ladder I see my two mates waiting for me “Come on Matt, you are smashing this” As I reach them and double over, hands on knees, gulping air into my molten filled lungs.
“I’m really struggling with cramp boys”
“Just keep going mate, if you don’t get sub 4hr today you will be fucking gutted” said Rob. “Just 20m more and you’re at the top.”
As I entered the giant steps at the top of Jacobs Ladder I just need to get there. At the foot up a huge step I take a moment to just gather myself. On hands and knees I clamber up the rock as cramp strikes again.
“Keep going you’re doing really well” shouts an onlooker.
I am grateful for their energy and make my way over the summit to the RV point. Number and name in to the DS, 3 more blocs shoved into my mouth and then it’s a case of getting down the mountain quick sharp.
My watch says its 3hrs 35. I need to get a serious move on and Robs words play over in my mind.
“If you don’t do sub 4 you’ll be fucking gutted…..”
The Final Push.
For a moment I feel overwhelmingly emotional.
I am in a world of pain and the end just feels too much of a stretch. I imagine missing the 4 hour SAS cut off point and how gutted I would be.
“Just stay present” I say to myself and with that I am off again. Trying to run as efficiently as possible but in reality feeling like my legs will give way with any misplaced step.
I focus on the flow, on trying to keep relaxed. Down, down, down, heavy legs, heart thumping hard. I’ve descended 1 mile and got just over another to go.
Over the stream and onto a short incline. It feels like I crawl up it, every ounce of my being now just focussed on surviving to the end. Walkers ascending come towards me “coming through” as I run past barely able to control my descent.
A glance at my watch I can see the finish line down the hill. 3hr 52. I increase the pace a little harder and push for the line.
As I reach the gate my vision blurs and legs almost give way. “What time did I do?”
3hr 54 – and a time worthy of SAS standard pass for this course. I had made it into the arena of the Elite while knocking off 34 minutes of my previous time from the summer.
An overwhelming wave of elation fills my being. I want to shout with all my might but I hold it back.
Must remain reserved. My smile however cannot lie.
Over to the DS and a firm handshake, a smile and a nod “Well Done” as the cloth patch I worked so hard to achieve is handed to me.
Such an understated finish but one that speaks to me on a deep level.
I hung around the finish line for a while reflecting on what had happened.
This victory was a huge moment for me for lots of personal reasons.
“After the finish, all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure.”
I got the results a few days later. 9th in my loaded category and 14th overall from the loaded competitors. Elated.
I have entered the Summer Fan Dance on July 2nd 2017.
For almost a year the idea of a sub 4 hour Fan seemed almost beyond reach. It’s amazing what happens when you achieve something monumental to your own experience – you realise that actually, we can reach further yet still and the previous limitation has now changed beyond all recognition.