7th December 2016 was the day that we booked our challenge of a lifetime, on Saturday 1st July 2017 we would take on the infamous SAS selection Fan Dance route in the Brecon Beacons. 24km (14.9 miles) sounds pretty straightforward for a hike in the Welsh countryside, however, that thought never crossed our minds.
We like walking and often spend time in the Lake District and had given ourselves plenty of time to prepare so we started on a good foundation.
We had a friend that has completed the course in 2016 so we gleaned all the information we could from him and the blogs of others and from the very detailed and informative emails from the team at AEE who ran the event. Staged emails with kit lists, safety advice, updates etc. were a godsend for planning freaks like us.
We researched hotels in the area, wanting to be within a 30-minute drive to the start minimising the stress levels on the evening before for registration and morning of the event and managed to find a Premier Inn in Merthyr Tydfil which gave us the perfect base and guaranteed us a bar, food, shower and comfy bed after we completed.
Next up was the kit list, both Sarah and I had to carry 25lb + food and water which was less of a challenge for a 100kg 180cm bloke than it was for my petite wife but would still test us both more than we had been before. We decided on bergens over conventional rucksacks, after all that is what they are designed for and we systematically put together our kit, labelled it, packed it, weighed it, took it all out, packed it, weighed it again and worked to get it to 25lbs on the nail so we were not carrying any excess. Throw on the food and water I think we both tipped the scales around 35lbs on Friday evening (although we did have a little scare on that – read on)
As I mentioned we do a fair amount of walking/hiking so are pretty well kitted out from a clothing and boots point of view so we had a plan and had put our logistical and kit preparation plans in place, so now to prepare body and minds!
We had a week holiday planned in the Lake District in April, this would be basis of our preparation around Sarah’s road running and my cycling and boot camp giving us ample opportunity of long fast paced hill climbs and descents with some weight (even the kids and dog did not complain too much)
The final test outing was Kinder Scout on 7th May, we had considered Snowdon but the journey time to and from made it not really viable (one for the future) – this time we went with our bergens at full weight covering over 20km including a climb up Jacobs Ladder and the waterfall descent
On Friday 30th June our journey started with the drive from the North West to our hotel in Merthyr Tydfil and after checking into the hotel we set out to registration and kit check and weigh in full of trepidation and excitement.
All of the preparation and good administration went to pot when Sarah put her Bergen on the scales and it was coming up light, how?? we had both checked it numerous times and it had the same kit as mine which was slightly over! I rushed back to the car to get some ballast to get it back up to weight only to return to find out there was a problem with the scale station it was being weighed on which was giving a false reading… panic over we removed the additional kit and it was bang on this time.
We picked up some souvenir hoodies (to be worn strictly after we had earned them by finishing) and loaded the kit back into the car and heading back for food and a pensive evening.
As we drove down to the start on Saturday morning, the visibility was low and after taking the last place in the car park (even if it was in a very deep puddle) we kitted up and after a last wee stop heading to the infamous red phone box. After checking onto the mountain we gathered with the rest of the participants, a proper mix of all sorts competing for the safety briefing and waiting for the thunderflash signalling the start.
We were off, slow to start as people got moving along the path up, I found it beneficial that you could not see more than 20m in front and just got my head down and followed the boots in front only breaking stride to get through the gate. Seemed to lose all sense of time when we got going, our plan was to make it round and not miss the cut off time at halfway and the pace check on my watch was bang on. We reached RV1 on the top of Pen-y-fan with others still around and the non-load bearing runners catching us up and being not a fan of heights the lack of visibility as we started over Jacob’s Ladder was welcome and I even went back up once over the top to help another girl who was struggling getting a route down the big steps.
Now for the long steep down, this went better than I had expected and when we were around 1/3 of the way down we both looked up and the sky was blue and the views amazing, the mist had lifted and we could see the trail of ants heading down the Roman Road in front of us. The long hike to the halfway RV and turn point was broken up by the motivational support from those who were now on their way back and those that were passing us, some at some amazing pace! Sarah managed to pick up the best pants award at the next RV and I then managed to end up on my back twice slipping as we passed through a dip.
Halfway seemed to not be anywhere near, but then we saw the car park to be greeted by the barks of the DS telling us to “double” in as we were close to the cutoff. We were well under on my calculation but we did not take the risk and proper ran to get a pep talk, fill up the hydro packs and take off some layers before getting back into a rhythm for the long walk back to the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder. When we reached the RV at the bottom we ditched any excess water and tea that we would not need for the final climb and got our heads down and just kept moving telling ourselves not to look up. We had to stop a few times on the climb up to catch breath or shift the weight of our Bergens but the sight of the DS who were perched on the very top of the Ladder at the RV made us both smile and a sense of achievement as we reached to top of Pen’y’Fan for the 2nd time brought a tear to the eye I am not ashamed to tell you. It was a surreal experience being atop of the mountain along with the mass of tourists and day walkers after what for us had been a mammoth effort.
Now for the down, it was long and a lot harder on the knees that the rest of the route. I think my body had relaxed after reaching the top and it made it so much harder but we just kept pushing on passing and being passed by hordes out for a Saturday afternoon walk. The end was in sight and now our only target was red phone box, patch, photo with the man himself Ken Jones and get that bloody Bergen off.
We finished in 6:30, we vowed that we would never do it again. We signed up for Fan Dance 2018 on the following Wednesday because we knew we can go faster.