Iron Man – If at First You Don’t Succeed.
Two weeks ago I took part in the Iron Man Test March organised by Avalanche Endurance Events.
Set in the beautiful, yet savage and unforgiving Brecon Beacons Iron Man is the second march to take place during SAS Selection week.
The march is load bearing meaning you carry everything you need in a Bergan for the full event. I had originally chosen go for the middle weight of 35lb with food and water on top.
On the day in question events didn’t go to plan and my team mate and I were not permitted to take the high route from rendezvous point (RV) 5 to 6 and then onto Final Rendezvous (FRV).
We had still managed 10 hours of marching and 22 miles of terrain covered but we just weren’t fast enough.
I left that day feeling that I had unfinished business and vowed to return as soon as possible to take advantage of the training I had committed to in the many months leading up to the event.
Iron Man – Attempt 2
Fast forward 2 weeks and I am yet again in the Brecon Beacons this time with my mate Rob Blair – Owner of the Commando Temple who was accompanying me on route for safety purposes and to get some miles into the legs in preparation for our expedition to Aconcagua in January 2018.
Sunday am and the 06:15am alarm soon went off in our dilapidated, over heated and noisy hotel.
The previous night Rob had asked me what weight id be taking. I said “35lb plus food and water.”
He gave me a look I have gotten used to over the years of knowing him as he said “will you be really happy with that knowing you could have gone Blade category” and with that he was right.
Additional weight was added to make 45lb plus 4 litres of fluid, 1 flask of sugary tea and enough flapjack to sink a battleship. From the start 53lb – all the excuse I needed to ensure I got the fluids and food down me from the go.
To the RV1 and ready for the long day ahead. The weather was over cast, some fog higher up and warm – 14 degrees. Perfect.
I planned to navigate from RV1 to RV2 using a different route to the previous time in attempt to choose a faster, more forgiving route. Map and compass out, bearing set to the next location and off we went. Marching up hill, leaning into the gradient the heavy pack soon made its presence known on my body by my heavy breathing and legs filling rapidly with lactic acid.
Over a fence and then up to the crest of the hill. Looking back from where we came I knew where I wanted to go to – a route taking in less bog land and more sheep tracks.
Moments later the clag came in and visual sighting became a no go.
Out with the compass, bearing made and off again.
We tabbed for about 15 to 20 minutes on fairly comfortable terrain.
The clag suddenly lifted and then a puzzle became apparent. I thought I could see a stream which then became clear wasn’t at all – it was road. Looking at the map and I couldn’t see any roads where I should be headed – certainly not as close as this one.
Damn. Mistake made.
“Where the hell are we?”
A very rough bearing taken and off again for another 20 minutes of marching.
The terrain feels impossible. As far as the eye can see mounds of grass at waist height, saturated ground between the clumps and sections of bog land. Progress slow and heavy, every pace worked for.
“This is gonna be a long day” I thought to myself.
My boot sunk deep into moss covered silt and I fell down onto hands and knees in the mud. Shit.
Picking myself up and breathing rate is high. Partly from the effort, the terrain and the anxiety of needing to get back on track.
Map out again. Where the fuck are we. I could see a large mountain to our south but that didn’t look like where we needed to go. In my head I started to think about the week I had had on the build up to this day. Stressful and some personal issues meant prep had been less than ideal.
I observed I was giving myself a hard time.
“Maybe you can’t do this Matt. Maybe you are just not cut out for this. Maybe you should just jack it now and head to the car. You’ve wasted too much time and fucked it up, you can’t possibly get a decent time now. Might as well jib it off and head home” were all the thoughts running through my mind. I thought about failing again and how frustrating that would feel.
“Ok Matt, slow down, take a few breaths and think.”
Strength of Mind
I conferred with Rob and we reset.
True north found, map aligned to the ground and bearing taken again. I had a feeling about where we needed to go. A ridge in the distance and it was clear we had headed far too far south. 30 minutes of hard marching over disgustingly difficult terrain. I fell over time and time again swearing and feeling the despair of not being able to establish a steady pace.
Up and over the ridge over leg sapping and leg busting terrain and then the RV2 came into sight. Some relief washed over me.
We calculate about 2.5 km away and 30-35 minutes or so hard effort. We got there in 30.
2hr 40 to get to RV2 was way too long and I feared another 10 hour day and frankly not good enough performance for my own standards.
At RV2 the map is set, bearing taken and path plotted. By now the vis is good and the clag has lifted.
Sigg bottle containing water out, electrolyte tab down the hatch and two blocks of flapjack are demolished in no time at all.
Marching hard over boggy terrain fuelled by dense, fatty, sickly sweet blocks of flapjack we continue.
We head towards a saddle in the distance and on reaching it check the bearing again. Compass kept out at the ready determined not to fuck up again and waste more time.
The terrain takes on a consistent upward gradient and I am really starting to feel the weight of my Bergan. It feels like every single foot step is an effort, hard earned and progress slow.
Boots are soaked and socks wet through. “Things won’t improve from here comfort wise” I think to myself.
It’s a funny thing marching in soaking wet boots. At first you notice it and then over time it becomes irrelevant – relentless forward progress is all that matters regardless of comfort or lack of.
Looking down at my Garmin and HR now has been at 150 plus for over 3 hours.
I keep checking our bearing on the compass determined not to make another mistake.
Before long we appear on a ridge line with a well-used path. I know where we are and the compass goes away for the time being.
Ascending steadily I can feel my heart beating in my mouth – thumping away while my ankles, knees and back complain about the weight that is on my back.
Up and up we go and visibility becomes poor again – I guess around 200m.
We pop out at a rocky spot height and take another bearing. 500m more to our RV point and we march on. Within 10 minutes the RV becomes visible.
Map out, bearing taken for RV3 and off we go again.
Descending down a long, steep, wet grassy slope for what seems like eternity. Down and down we go trying to tab quickly but without falling foul to any of the hidden holes or sinking into unseen bogs.
Water Wading and Heavy Ascents
A river comes into view before a savagely steep grassy and rocky climb. I step straight into the river and wade through coming out the other side, once again boots freshly filled with cold water.
Bergan off, water and fuel in, gather our senses and then the long drag uphill begins.
I take 20 paces forwards digging toes into the slipper grassy banks. Then 20 paces side stepping up with my right leg. The same for the left leg and then turn and face down hill, hands on knees gulping in air and trying to let the sensation of molten lactic acid leave my legs. With hands on knees and back straight for a few moments the relief in the spine is pure bliss.
But time spent resting is wasted time and so we continue the pattern up the incline. The top of the mountain cannot be seen due to clag and a false summit gives us false hope.
The ascent has been tough but rapid and before we know it speed is gained downhill to RV3.
From RV3 map is out again and another bearing taken. Route selection traverses along the side of the mountain before heading up onto the crest.
By now the sun is starting to emerge and the clag lifts. We have been going for 6 hours and things are feeling hard.
“Just got to keep going. One foot in front of the other.”
Heading up another Relentless steep slope for almost 25 minutes of effort we break onto the top to be rewarded by the sight of a decent looking foot path skirting upwards to what will surely be RV4.
Marching hard the ground is broken and grassland is replaced by thick gloopy mud and lots of step ups and step downs to negotiate. My legs are hurting and each time a big step up is needed my hands are on my knees to assist. Jumping down is worse, it feels like my legs might collapse without warning.
Eyes front and we can see where we are headed later in the march as a formidable sight looms into sight. A massively steep gradient that I know will carry a heavy cost on the body.
“Can’t think about that now – focus on getting to the next RV quick sharp” I think to myself.
By now I am starting to feel exhausted. It’s time like these I notice I start to look for any little glimpse of positive thought I can find.
“When I get to the next RV I’m gonna have some hot sugary tea – that’ll do the job.” I promise myself.
After what seems like an eternity RV4 comes into view. “Thank fuck for that” as it’s the last long leg done and now I know I can look forward to some shorter, albeit disgustingly savage ground between the next 3 RV points.
RV4 to RV5
From RV4 it’s a short section to RV5 – a steep descent over wet grassy terrain then straight back up retracing our steps to get back onto high ground and onwards to RV6.
We get back onto the high ground doubled over, hands on knees, gasping for air.
We both know what lies ahead for us. It had been taunting us all the way from the top of the mountain after RV3 on our way to RV4.
Ahead we can see it. It reminds me of the tidal wave from the movie Interstellar.
Bergan strapped tighter to my back, a switch of fuel to jelly babies for another big push and off we go. Trudging slowly yet breathing hard.
We both find our pace. Rob takes a route the left and I head right. Progress is slow and painful. My legs literally have nothing left. I slip on a mossy rock and fall to my knees.
“Don’t look up now.”
I find that the key to ascending serious inclines is to just focus on your immediate steps. As soon as the glance is taken up we can be prone to anxiety of how much further there is to endure.
Onwards is the Only Way
Still on my knees, my fingers buried in mud and lungs gasping I look over to see Rob also taking a rest. Every ounce of my body wants to stop and get to the car – but there is no way out. The car is miles away and terrain savage whichever way you go.
Small steps taken it feels like the top will never arrive.
After a huge effort the top is made and it’s all downhill from here. RV6 to RV7. Bearing taken, path identified and quick sharp down the muddy, slippery ridgeline path.
I look my watch and it says 8hrs 20.
I think to myself “I wonder if I can get to 8hr 45 or less.”
I put the hammer down on legs that are shot. Breathing is shallow and pace feels almost desperate.
It’s not flowing and every step taken is planned metres ahead to try and select the least boggy, least slippery route.
I know there is a style further down the path and I am just waiting for it to emerge into view.
2 minutes later and we are at the FRV gate. 8hr 45:13
Undoubtedly the toughest day in the Beacons I have tackled thus far. I hobbled back to the car before painstaking trying to remove my soaking wet clothes and boots. It’s painful just to stand.
The initial mistake was costly. There is a quicker time to be had if the nav is 100% bang on. With that I decided ill return to give it another crack in a couple of weeks – call me a glutton for punishment but practice makes perfect.