Adventure on the High Hills – P Company Fan Dance.
This blog post is my exprience of the P Company Fan Dance – Steel Bayonet organised by Avalanche Endurance Events. Fine purveyors of challenges designed to truly test ones mettle and endurance to the extreme. I had a great day out and finished joint first with two other strong lads.
Morning has broken.
My alarm goes off and I pick up my phone from by the side of me.
It says 05:45am. I push open the hatch on the back of my Nissan Navara pickup truck and stick my head out into the cold morning air, take a deep breath and then exhale and watch as my breath evaporates into thin air over the back drop of the Brecon Beacons.
I push back the top layer of my sleeping bag and pull on my jeans. “Not a bad night’s sleep that” I think to myself as I clamber out and onto the dewy grass.
It’s Saturday morning and I am on a small campsite not far from Pen Y Fan – the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons, a place that seems to have taken a seductive grasp over me in recent times.
First things first and its coffee on and time for pasta, pesto, parmesan, pine nuts and spinach. Not the usual breakfast fayre but one I have found to be perfect for what I have lined up for the day ahead.
I had booked to race in the P Company Fan Dance – Exercise Steel Bayonet– an event organised by Avalanche Endurance Events and one that covers a course steeped in history of military selection test marches. This version of the Fan Dance is unique in that it has two different elements.
One Race Is Not Enough.
Stage 1 is non navigational individual best effort over a course taking in ascents of Pen Y Fan and Fan Fawr.
Then a 30 minute enforced rest must be taken before then embarking on stage 2.
Stage 2 is a 10km time trial for your best time possible.
Both stages are done load bearing and a choice of weights were given from 25lb plus water and food to 44lb plus water and food.
I got to the rendezvous point for 7am and began to triple check my Bergen which contained mountain essential gear in addition to 3l of water/carbohydrate drink, 3 packs of jelly babies, some Nakd bars and my secret weapon, a large can of Red Bull.
My Bergen weighed 38lb exactly. I avoided the temptation to go for the top load. This weekend was about getting in some quality miles, stretching myself a little and seeing where I was at but without hammering myself too hard or risking picking up an injury – the hammering proper will wait until July 2nd which is when I tackle the Summer Fan Dance and my main athletic goal of the year.
From my own experience I know I have very few truly all out efforts within me in a 12 month period. Historically I would have used such moments to test myself, to prove to myself that the training was working and I was indeed getting fitter.
I have since let go of such patterns and now rarely test myself. I simply trust the training process provided by my coach, Julia Chi Taylor, listen to how my body feels, and take note of my running data and everything falls into place from there.
3 weeks ago Julia had planned a single 20 minute interval for me which saw me run well under 20 minutes for 5km with some left in the tank. A huge personal best by over 90 seconds and evidence that my form had indeed arrived, as I felt it had within my body.
Once all of the competitors had arrived we were shuttled to the start line some miles away and to the North of Pen Y Fan.
I positioned myself near the front of the field of 35 and awaited the shout.
“GO!!” and we are off. 2 people ahead of me as I lean into the incline and follow their feet.
Breathing rate climbs and climbs and my heart rate tells me it’s at 160 within a few minutes.
“Time to settle down Matty Boy and relax into the effort” I think to myself.
The pace isn’t quite to my liking so I over take on a steeper section of terrain and I am leading the pack up the mountain. Breathing is hard but comfortable. My previous Fan efforts and training has taught me that I can sustain being pretty uncomfortable for a good amount of time. The challenge was young and there would be lots of suffering to be had as the miles stretched out. The longer the event went on, the more I felt it would suit me given the weekly mileage I had been racking up week in, week out for the past few months.
I looked back over my shoulder. There were 4 others not far behind as the rest of the field began to fall away into the distance.
I felt comfortable and focussed. Eyes down, plotting the most efficient way up the almost constant, steep gradient. After a couple of miles ascending the line of people is starting to stretch back and I take stock.
I am pulling away bar 2 people behind me. “If I keep going like this I know I will be top 5 at least and for a training run, that’ll be good enough for me this weekend.”
I stopped, put my hands on my knees and bent over to give my back relief from the Bergen while allowing one of the other men to take the lead.
I started again as the next competitor levelled with me and we continued the by now, steep, rocky and at times loose ascent of the upper reaches of Pen Y Fan. We talked as we climbed, I tried to gather a little info and to weigh up his ability.
Breathing between talking is very heavy by now and the summit is only 10m away.
We report in to the Directing Staff, throw a few jelly babies down my dry throat, greedily gulp back some water, strap my Bergen tighter to my back and start to run downhill.
Going Down, Down, Down.
The descent from the summit of Pen Y Fan is around 2.5 miles and can obliterate your legs.
The front man pulled away from me a little as my descending skills are a work in progress. I leant back into my Bergen keeping my weight back while running with long strides, trying to flow with the gradient of the mountain and all the time teetering on the edge of being out of control.
24 minutes later and I am at the bottom of Pen Y Fan by the iconic Red Phone Box waiting to cross the road. We are there for a few minutes and in that time 3 other competitors join myself and the first man.
My legs while fatigued feel good and I am glad of the respite.
We cross the road and then it begins again. A long drawn out drag following a narrow sheep track to trig point 692 located at the top of Craig Cerrig. Again I follow the lead man, breathing hard yet at the same time feeling relaxed. Again we pull away from the 3 men behind us and then descend over grassy terrain until the formidable sight of Fan Fawr looms before us.
I look to see where the marker flags are leading us. For a moment I look and think the flags traverse to the left over easier terrain. Then my eyes refocus and I see a steady line of orange flags leading straight up Fan Fawr – “Of course they do” I thought to myself followed by “better get on with it then.”
What a Bitch!
Fan Fawr is a total bitch of a climb. Soggy, Mossy slopes and bundles of deep wiry grass make the ascent to be even more punishing. 10 steps up, stop, hands on knees, gasp for breath, try to relax and go again.
One man is still ahead of me but as I look down I can see another closing in on me.
“This is a complete and utter “f*ucker” I say to myself and then for a fleeting moment I entertain the idea of not getting to the top. For a moment I think to myself I can’t do it. 8 miles of punishing terrain and now this. “You’re in too deep now Matt” I think to myself. Quitting now is not an option. It’s too far to go back and I am half way up this god forsaken hill.
“Short term pain, long term gain” I say to myself and onwards I push, breath rasping, legs burning and filled with scorching lactic acid.
I eventually get to the summit and register with the DS.
“How are you feeling?” said the DS.
“Good now I am over that sodding hill, bit fucked but nothing major” I reply.
“Off you go then, follow the ridgeline and descend down into the trees over to your left.”
I am running as best I can downhill. It looks to be about 2 miles of descent.
Again my legs turn over at a rapid rate of knots. Hanging on to threads of control while looking down and ahead to try and pick the most efficient route while avoiding catching a booted toe on a rock and tripping. As I race down, down, down I periodically need to adjust my Bergen straps to keep the weight high on my back.
I am running well and it feels as fluid as running with 35lb strapped to your back can do.
I stop briefly and look back up the hill behind me. There is no one to be seen. Just the two guys ahead of me it is then.
I navigate my way over 2 styles and then run to the rendezvous point. 10 miles in 2hr 53 and I have arrived 4 minutes behind the two leaders.
30 minutes enforced rest for me before I tackle the 10k speed march.
The moment I take my Bergen off I can feel my body breathe a sigh of relief. I move my shoulders that have been punished by tight straps for the last few hours. Priority now is to stretch off, take on carbohydrate containing fluid, eat some jelly babies and get a can of Red Bull down my neck. My preferred choice of beverage when things start getting tough.
It’s amazing how quickly 30 minutes goes when you know what lies ahead is going to seriously test your mental fortitude.
The two men before me had left 4 minutes ago.
Strap In and Hold Tight.
I received the nod from the DS and off I went. Running along a forest fire track and within minutes found myself having to navigate a section of bog land. Trying to pick my way over more solid looking grass and jump over the peaty bogs as I went. I miss placed a footing and immediately sank up to my ankle in filthy stinking mud. Squelch as I pulled my boot out and carried on.
I could see the front runners ahead of me by a few hundred metres. That was all I needed to spur me on.
By now the sun had risen to its highest point. I felt dry. I had got through 2.5 litres of fluid and my desire to drink more was increasing. I tried to ration sips for later in the run and performed a combination of high speed marching and running.
1.5 miles in and I am telling myself “Just another mile, then another one”.
I turn a pine tree lined corner and see the two leaders ahead of me chatting to the DS. I increase my pace and they set off again. “Shit, that’s not the turning point then” I say to myself.
Moments later I reach the DS who instructs me to take 1 minute rest to rehydrate. “It’s 300m further down there before you head back. You are going great here so keep your head down and you’ll catch those boys.”
Off I go again and I pass the leaders going back now.
I turn and the chase begins. They pass the DS again and I am 200m behind them. I march fast on the uphill as I see them start to run on the flat.
I pass the DS again. “If you catch them up it’ll crush them. Get to it.” I dig deeper.
Now running on an incline and the gap closes a little further.
They look back and run again. A game of cat and mouse.
I have by now ran out of water and I start to fantasise about drinking ice cold fluids at the finish.
The bog section looms again and the front runners are 100m in front of me. I pick my way quickly over the terrain, taking a higher route on an off camber. I plummet into mud that is deeper than I realise, my knees give way and my left hand plunges into stinking mud. “Shit” I pull myself up and carry on at full pelt, a mixture of marching as hard as I can and running.
Through one final gate that the leaders kindly closed for me once passing and then it’s a sprint to the FRV. I come in around 30 seconds behind the 2 leaders.
“Very well done mate that’s a great effort” from the DS. I am pleased. Nothing more need be said.
Just over 16 miles in 4 hours and 3 minutes.
2hr 53 for Stage 1 in which I placed 3rd.
1hr 10 minutes for the High Speed March Stage 2 which saw me come 1st place but just missing the P Company pass mark by a mere 1 minute.
I finished joint First overall with two other strong lads.
The P Company Fan Dance has been done.
Another hugely memorable day out exploring a deeper strength in the Brecon Beacons amongst a fine group of people brought together by Ken Jones and the team from Avalanche Endurance Events.
Thank you guys for organising such an incredibly digusting yet beautiful, life affirming event.
Massive thanks also to my fantastic coach Julia. Through her coaching I have learned how to train with less push and more flow. I have enjoyed the effects of lots of Long Slow Distance Mileage combined with small bouts of high intensity running and it’s fair to say I have never been fitter.
I cant wait to bring the best version of myself to the Summer Fan Dance 2017. Thank you Julia for your amazing support, insight and teachings.
See you all again on the high hills.