SAS Fan Dance Race Report: Womens Load Bearing
It’s Sunday 6th January. My alarm goes off at 6am… Fan Dance Race Day run by Avalanche Endurance Events had arrived. A 24km race in the Brecon Beacons over Pen Y Fan, heading out 12km and then back with a challenging climb on the return over Jacob’s Ladder.
We’d all gone to bed in our dorm at 8.30pm but I am convinced I heard every noise in the night and was awake from 3.30am full of anticipation and nerves!
Having watched our friends take part in the race on Saturday and seeing pretty much everyone who came to the finish line at the red telephone box a shadow of their former selves…. This didn’t exactly fill me with delight about what was to come.
Between 6am and 7am I think I repacked and reweighed my bag about 5 times…then I kept checking whether I’d lost things! Standard pre-race nerves. Finally, I settled on the fact that my bag did in fact weight the correct 25lbs plus food and water.
Pre-race nutrition I know is key, but I haven’t always been great at eating early or when feeling a bit nervous but I did manage to shove down some porridge, two bananas, a lot of soreen and some oranges and then we were off to the car for the 5 minute drive to the start!
The three of us doing the race today (Nat, John and myself) all pile into the car at 7.30am, we are staying a 3-minute drive from the start at the YHA Brecon Beacons. Perfect!
We arrived, parked up and there was a quiet buzz in the air. It’s a no-frills event, people are there to get the race done and have an authentic SAS experience (minus the rifle), simple as that.
Before receiving our race number, we headed to the weigh stations manned by a DS. They checked our bag was the correct weight (25lbs plus food and water for ladies and 35lbs plus food and water) and that our shoes fit the necessary requirements for the race. The bag must consist of all the items sent out on the list (dry clothes, emergency equipment, food rations, sleeping bag etc) and cannot consist of pure dead weight.
We then headed over to the registration tent and sign in.I decided to attach my race number to my leg – 564.Best place for it then you don’t have to worry about it being covered it with a jacket or anything. Now to wait in the car until it’s time to get ready to go
It’s time, t-minus 15 minutes. We gather just on the other side of the gate and renowned red telephone box at 8.50am where Ken Jones briefs up on what to expect. This is a no-nonsense talk covering all safety elements but also reminding us that is not for the faint-hearted, they expect us to work hard and if we don’t make each check point in the cut off - tough, the race is over.
We then all moved onto the path with the ‘clean fatigue’ racers (unloaded apart from water and a waterproof) going ahead and the ‘Load bearing’ behind. 9.00am swings around and we are told to get ready, 5 seconds pass, then an almighty bang (sounds like a gun going off) we all jumped in surprise then everyone started to shuffle forward.
The race begins with a 4.5km pretty much straight up to Pen Y Fan summit. 10 minutes in, I was thinking, “If the whole thing is like this, I’m not finishing this race”. However, I reminded myself that I was told about this hill, that the start is a mental challenge that puts the doubt in your mind straight away and that I needed to remember, get through this then one of the worst bits out of the way.
When I say it goes straight up, that’s not strictly true, it goes up for about 1.5km and you think you are at the top, then at the top you see it drops down at 50m and the climb to Pen Y Fan resumes again!
Despite the fact that I thought I was having a mini heart-attack, I did get chatting to a guy who was on his 3rd Fan Dance of the weekend, I learnt all about his best times, as well as how he tackles and breaks down the race. One thing you will discover is that the event has a great sense of camaraderie and shared experience, with all participants being really friendly, supportive and encouraging throughout.
One thing I would 100% recommend, when you hit the flat before reaching rendezvous 1 (RV 1.), look right across the valley. With the mist starting to clear, I have to say it was one of the most breath-taking views I have ever seen; I almost missed it as I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
Reaching the top of Pen Y Fan, RV 1. has arrived. You approach, read out your number and continue on. Simple.
You may only be around 5km into this race but that first part took me around an hour to complete. Now time to start the descent of Jacob’s Ladder. It is very steep at the top and some of the more familiar people with this sort of terrain seem to be descending like mountain goats. I try to pick up speed, but I am definitely no mountain goat, carefully placing my feet as I head down.
Soon enough, it starts to flatten out, right…time to run. If you are comfortable with the weighted backpack and running, you can now basically run all the way to the RV 2. Downhill and then into the forest (roughly around 6km). Arriving bang on 1 hour and 50 minutes, the directing staff (DS) tells us not to hang about (I’m hoping that means we are on for a good time). We give them our numbers, tighten shoelaces etc and then turn and go. Maybe sub 4 hours is possible after all?
Heading back, we walk 100 steps, run 100 steps to the edge of the forest (the guy I mentioned earlier told me about this tactic, it’s known as “Scout’s Pace”. Through the forest there is a steady ascent all the way back to the start of Jacob’s Ladder. Here we decided to walk at a quick pace around 9.30 minutes a km. This is definitely the least painful part of the race, just a slog where you switch your brain off and keep marching forward. Nat says she doesn’t think that there are any other load bearing women ahead of us, if she’s right, it means we are currently in 1st and 2nd place.
And before we know it, Jacob’s Ladder arrives. Any pictures you find on the internet of Jacob’s Ladder do not do this beast justice, and any training hills you have done, do not prepare you for this. Or at least they didn’t for me.
Despite the fact that I have come down it only 2 hours before, I couldn’t remember it on the way back; memory of a goldfish. It lulls you into a false sense of security by starting off somewhat bearable. Within 5 minutes, the incline is getting pretty steep. Here one of the staff members for the AEE turns to look at me and says, ‘That’s a pain face’ – speaks volumes really. We chat a little and then I try to push on, as I get a little ahead, he just says ‘Are you load bearing?!’ followed by ‘You’re a nutter’! My husband would definitely agree with that.
As the hill got steeper, there were quite a few moments of hands on knees or leaning on a rock to catch my breath. But I keep telling myself, the fastest way to make this stop, is to get to the top as quickly as possible.
The top is in sight and then it flattens out to the RV 3. (RV 1. checkpoint on the way out), the final checkout point. I give the DS my number 564, then press on.
I take a look at my watch, there is roughly 5km to go. I know that Nat is just ahead, she climbed Jacob’s Ladder like it was nothing and that’s where we got separated. I think to myself, “if there is a time to run, it is now”.
I start running telling myself that, a worst-case scenario, 6-7 minute kilometres would see me at the finish in under 35 minutes. “Don’t think about how you are feeling, focus on getting to the finish as fast as you can.”
Right, I can see Nat, she is just ahead. As we turn for our first descent, I manage to pass her, if there is no one in front of us, I know I’m now in first place. It’s mine to lose. I switch my mind off, pretend in my head I am not carrying my bag, keep my eyes focused on the terrain whilst trying to be careful not to fall and run as fast as my now very tired legs will allow. According to my watch, this was between 4.30km and 5.30km pace the whole way back (might explain the heart rate!).
Then, I hit that final small ascent, another thing I had forgotten about, wow that was an emotional blow. “Keep moving, do not slow down.” I pass a family not in my best state and the mother says, ‘You can do this. You are stronger than you think’. I don’t even know now if I even said anything back, but they were the perfect words at the time when I needed them most.
I reach the top and I can now see the finish. Final sprint, gathering up any remaining energy but looking like a school kid running for a bus, I staggered down the last final descent and crossed the finish line. The race is over and I have made it. I queue behind a ‘clean fatigue’ runner; and then it’s my time to give my number and I’m told I’m the first load bearing women back in a time of 3 hours and 48 minutes. Not sure where the time went or what I was doing for almost 4 hours, it flew by and all seems to smush into a bit of a blur.
The first thing they do when you finish is weigh your bag again, no cheaters allowed here. 30lbs bang on (It is expected to be at least 25lbs on the return - shouldn’t have taken so much water!).
Turns out the winner gets a painting as a prize along with the renowned Fan Dance badge. Ken Jones presents me with the painting (captured below) and we have a bit of a chat about how the race went. The painting will go in pride of my place on my wall forever.
- Was it tough? Definitely.
- Was it a mental battle? Completely.
- Was it an amazing and something I’ll remember forever? No doubt.
- Will I do it again? Absolutely. I’ve already signed up for the Summer 2019 Trident.