After 7 weeks of training and 3 days of preparation, Monday night was the start of the Fan Dance at last. For me the relationship with the challenge goes back much further, about 20 years further. I’d first heard of the Fan Dance in tales of the SAS on a hiking trip with school, part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award. 24 kilometres up and over the highest peak in South Wales, to a distant checkpoint and back via a second ascent of the mountain and mad dash down to the start point, all within 4 hours! I remember thinking that must be the hardest thing in the World and I couldn’t understand how anyone was capable of such feats. Years later, after I stopped playing rugby and fell back in love with walking the mountains I returned to Pen-y-fan and remembered the Fan Dance. It was still an impossible dream for me, but I thought one day I might walk the route just to see how hard it is. 3 years ago I started running, and I remember one afternoon in 2010 running down the last few kilometres of Helvellyn in the Lake District just because I could and wondering if I’d ever be able to run up it instead…I thought not! That afternoon the Fan Dance came to mind, an impossible challenge that maybe one day I would have a go at…but it was always unlikely I’d ever have the focus and tenacity to do it.
So when the opportunity with Gore-tex came up it seemed a good idea to apply, and amazingly now I was one sleep away from taking on the mountain it still seemed a good idea! Having had the training plan to guide me, being provided with kit I could trust in, having the support of experts preparing us and with a team relying on me it seemed all the ingredients were in place to give it my best possible shot.
There was a nervous excitement around the Storey Arms after dinner on Monday. All talk was of the morning and how people were planning to approach the run, their expectations and worries. As the sun started to set behind Fan Fawr we met on the grass behind the hostel for our final briefing. Instructor Jason had built a visual representation of the route (it was a work of art, I wish I could have brought it home with me!) and proceeded to explain the challenge with military precision. The timetable was set and with an early start agreed I made my excuses and hit my bunk for as much sleep as possible!
Tuesday morning and breakfast was over early as everyone prepared in their own way. I’d already laid out my kit and packed my bags in the car so I had time for a leisurely shower, to knock up a banana smoothie and to stretch out before we all gathered outside for a final photocall (in case we didn’t all make it back!) and final instructions. At 8am life went rapidly uphill!
12 of us set off on the Fan Dance at the same time. I’m sure we all had different experiences and I can only record mine, but one thing I think we all share is that it will stay with us for life. I’d planned my pace up the first 2 mile climb and stuck to it. This meant watching some of the others stride off in to the distance (and mist) but I knew trying to keep pace with them now would cost me later so I stuck to the plan. Carolyne was with me all the way up past Corn Du as we entered the cloud cover and got buffeted by the wind. I wasn’t ever cold thanks to the effort I was putting in but knowing I had the Gore-tex Berghaus kit on me anyway provided comfort. Having run anything flat or downhill we started the short climb from Corn Du on to Pen-y-fan in good time and I was happy with the pace. Despite knowing Pen-y-fan well as we crossed the plateau to touch the summit stone I still checked the compass to be sure we came off the mountain the right way. With visibility down to about 20 feet now would be a bad time to make a navigational error! It turns out not everyone was so lucky, Brendan took a wrong turn at this point adding 5km to his route! The initial descent from the top of the mountain was damp, stepped rock and demanded a slow approach, but once we were past that and out of the wind it was time to open the legs and get back some of the time lost on the climb. I was confident of doing under 6 minute kilometres through this stretch, getting ahead of schedule by the turn around point and having a buffer for the long climb back up the mountain.
And then disaster.
I was making good time and enjoying myself to the point that I was taking self-congratulatory glances at the gps watch a little too often. The almost inevitable happened and as the path leveled out and looked to be getting easier eyes lingered a little to long on the watch and I got my footing all wrong. My left ankle is the reason I don’t play rugby, it’s been weaker since a bad injury 4 years ago but I’ve never turned it as much as I did in that moment. There was an audible pop and the pain was instant, I was stopped in my tracks and my first thought was “oh Christ, Instructor Pete is going to have to carry me out!”. I took a few tentative steps and the pain was excrutiating, but I could still move my foot and had control over it. It was going to hurt but I was still capable of getting to the halfway point under my own steam and at least I wouldn’t suffer the indignity of being escorted out on the arms of a navy boy! With Carolyne still with me I pushed on, but the pace had dropped significantly now. After about another kilometre, so approaching the 7 kilometre mark, I started to feel a bit better. The pain was subsiding and I started to feel fast, loose and like I could run again…I was wrong. I realise now that was adrenaline keeping me upright and helping me continue, but at the time all I could think was not letting myself, and in turn the team, down by not finishing. It was at this point I went over on the ankle again.
With the damage already done by the first injury this time my ankle twisted through almost 90 degrees and left me sprawled on the grass by the side of the track. I was convinced my challenge was over. I ushered Carolyne on, for a terrible moment I thought she was going to insist on waiting with me but I couldn’t have handled the guilt of ruining someone else’s attempt so eventually she turned and took off. I sat for a moment contemplating my options, there weren’t many. I knew Pete would be along at some point, as sweeper he was at the back of the group and would get to me soon enough. Sitting there though all I could think about was all that wasted training, all the effort I’d put in and sacrifices I’d made and all so I could sit here and give up. I thought about how it would feel coming home and telling the story, admitting defeat and disappointing everyone who had shown belief in me. I stood, took a step, took another and decided that whatever it took I would cover the distance and to hell with the pain. Pulling out would be a pain that lived in me forever and anything I was feeling now was only temporary.
I adopted a peculiar shuffling bounce of a running gait, keeping the left foot off the floor as much as possible avoiding as much of the broken ground as I could. There were sections where I had no choice but to slow to a very deliberate walk a step at a time and be certain I knew what was under my feet, but with all thoughts of time gone as long as I was moving forward I was happy. By this time the ankle was throbbing and felt red hot, so much so I had to check I wasn’t bleeding at one point. Swelling was already obvious but I figured if I just kept moving I could keep going as long as I had to. I made it to a gully which signified the end of the really rough track, but crossing that was the most painful challenge I faced. Unable to plant my foot flat to minimise pain but equally unable to put weight on it to stop me sliding I did a kind of one-footed skiing action and landed in a heap in the stream at the bottom. Climbing the other side was a peculiar exercise in hopping and hoping and desperately clinging to anything that looked solid. I knew I was going to have to cross that gully again if I wanted to finish and it was with no small sense of dramatic irony that as I limped away I muttered “I’ll be back”.
On to the flatter terrain and with the shuffle/run perfected I started to move a bit quicker. There was the occasional bad step which would induce a wince, a groan or in some cases some highly creative swearing. At one point I passed Anna and Nicole who were taking photos, and seeing me limping past Nicole shouted out about giving me a lift. My response was far from polite, and I have since apologised, but the basic message was “I’m finishing”. Shortly after that the other challengers started passing me coming back the other way. They were flying and although their cheers and encouragement were well meant to me they sounded like mocking. With no opportunity to explain what had happened as they flew by I was consumed by the idea that these athletes were going past thinking I was slow and incapable and after all the effort I’d put in this made me angry as hell. We’d talked about BPE the night before, Best Possible Effort, and here I was incapable of giving mine.
I got to the turnaround point and was still ahead of Pete and the backmarker, I’m not sure how but it seemed that the early pace had set me up well and I could have been on for a very decent time. At halfway I grabbed a couple of paracetamol and in the absence of any freeze spray poured several litres of cold water on to my ankle. It instantly numbed the throbbing and some of the pain and within minutes of stopping I was off, hobbling back up the mountain with a buoyed sense of grit and determination. It wasn’t long until Pete and Lindsay came past me towards the halfway mark, and were met with some sort of growled greeting. I now knew that until they caught me I wasn’t going to see anyone else before the finish, this was me against the mountain and I wasn’t coming off second best.
The next 5 miles of gentle incline were a mix of slow, careful steps and shuffling as fast as I could when the track allowed. I crossed the gully quicker having learned first time what worked, and by picking the bits of smoother track I’d found first time I was able to cover the ground better heading back up to Pen-y-fan. The path was crossed by small streams quite regularly, and I stopped at every one to splash the cold mountain water on my ankle and keep the pain at bay. On the way back you can see the route ahead of you from a long way off and I could see the mountains getting closer. I knew I was covering the ground albeit slower than I wanted and as long as I was sensible I should be able to finish. As I rounded Cribyn to start the steep ascent of Pen-y-fan for the second time I allowed myself a glance at the watch. Expecting to see I was way off schedule and looking to finish well outside the time I was amazed to see that there was still just over an hour left. I couldn’t believe that even with the injury and stoppages, despite not being able to get up to the speeds I had planned there was still a chance I could make the 4 hour deadline. That thought disappeared almost as soon as I started to climb, the angle of the path and broken terrain made every step an agony and I was managing about 10 paces before having to stop, breath and swear. Progress was slow but I knew every step up was a victory and counting these little victories took my mind off the distance I had to cover. It felt like an eternity, with more time spent bent double than spent moving, but eventually I reached the rock steps that marked the last obstacle to the summit. I picked my route carefully, keeping moves as small as possible, and as my eyes came level with the summit plateau I allowed myself a smile.
The mountain Gods must have been watching and hadn’t finished with me yet. As I lifted myself that last step up on to the summit I caught the toe of my shoe under a rock lip and pulled sharply on my left foot. The pain that shot through my ankle carried on through my entire body and I hit the deck. The pain was so sudden and severe I was sick, and stayed for a minute on all fours struggling for breath. Eventually getting to my feet, the last hundred metres to reach the summit stone the second time were the hardest and most painful of the day, I thought then I might be finished, unsure if I could carry on. WIthout going in to detail (maybe that’s for a later post) when I am training and things get tough I have a few phrases I can be heard mumbling, shouting or screaming at myself to keep me going. None of them seemed to fit at this moment, they were all about driving the last ounce out of tired legs or punishing burning lungs just that little bit more, nothing had prepared me for this situation. It was then I remembered BPE, and thought to myself “surely this must be my best possible effort?”. The answer was no. I was still stood up, I could still move and, whilst it may be slow and may be painful, as long as I was capable of moving forward then I was capable of more.
I don’t remember much about the descent of Pen-y-fan. There was more traffic on the paths by then and I didn’t make eye contact with any of them. I imagined looks of pity, incomprehension or humour from everyone; “why’s this bloke pretending to be a runner, he’s hardly moving, fool”. All I could focus on was putting my feet on something solid, trying to bounce off my toes and not go too fast. I was so focused I nearly missed the turning I needed but Jason’s training come back to me and I knew I wasn’t “handrailing” the ridge so I need to be heading north. I found the right track and shuffled through the last few kilometres to the finish. As I broke over the final rise and looked down and saw the others I knew I was going to finish, but it looked like everyone was there waiting for me and had been for some time. I wanted to let the legs go and sprint the last few metres but I knew it would be dangerous, so I limped my way home to the applause and cheers of my new friends and finally stopped, collapsed against a gatepost.
When I eventually looked at my watch I was amazed to learn I had made it inside the 4 hours (3hrs 40mins) and wasn’t last back. I should have been happy with this and I’ve been told since it was a great achievement and I should be proud. Sadly the truth is that to me it will always feel like I missed an opportunity. I was fitter, faster and stronger than my time tells and sat here 9 days later recovering from the ligament damage I suffered with my crutches leant in the corner of the room I know I will have to go back. I have to take on the mountain again, I have to know what I am truly capable of and know the truth behind “best possible effort”.