Mission complete…for now

My journey into tabbing has been well covered in previous posts. Some five and a half years from being a runner and cyclist, I moved onto running with a backpack. It has helped shape who I am today and has allowed me to find strength and determination I never believed I possessed.

Also in other posts I have bored the socks off you with references to the Fan Dance. I will assume you are either (a) a regular reader and know what I’m talking about, or (b) intelligent enough to use a certain famous internet search engine (which now seems to be a verb) to find out more.

Anyway, after five years and two attempts, I was back in the Brecon Beacons on Friday night to register for my third attempt on Saturday. With many things going on in my life this year, my relevant Fan Dance training was practically zero compared to the previous attempts. I had two reasons to be quietly positive though. Firstly, I bought a better pair of boots last year and they were proving to be a winner. Secondly, at the end of April, I did a solo Fan Dance exercise and did it within the four hour time window, but with a slightly lighter backpack (19kgs).

Registration is an interesting arena. Mixtures of quiet competitors, mean looking ones, terrified ones, and worst of all, in my opinion, loud cocky ones. In the middle of it are the Directing Staff, giving out instructions, and organising everything in precise military fashion. One key thing is to listen carefully. Even then, you can go wrong.

The other purpose of registration is to get your Bergen weighed, checked and tagged. I got mine out of my car, weighed it with my trusty luggage scales and it came in at 16.5kgs, which is half a kilo over, which I can live with. So over to the weighing tent I go. Put it on theirs and it’s underweight. Shock. They weigh it in pounds, so it turned out it was a pound and a half under. So, back to the car to find some dead weight to go in it. I was tempted to nick a stone off a wall nearby, fully intending to replace it later, but thought better of it and used my rubber mallet instead. Back to the tent and who should be at the scales, but my Fan Dance nemesis. He remembered me from the Paras 10 in May and we had a pleasant chat. The bag was bang on. Relaxation time. It did make me think though that if my scales are wrong, my 19kg practice Fan Dance could have easily been 18kgs perhaps. Making me wonder if I could really do it in under four hours with 22kgs.

The campsite was fairly lively, which was great, but not when your alarm is set for 5 am. So, in with the earphones and off to sleep I went, and frustratingly woke up at 4.40. So I got up and started boiling water for breakfast. All admin sorted, and got to the start at 6.15.

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In a world of people getting offended by things, the race brief was not for the easily offended. A very frank, to the point speech about giving it your all and to politely start at the back if you weren’t going to go hard. I had no intention of bring intimidated and made my way to the front. The rapid march started just after 7 am and off we set. Finding myself in touch with the front runners and rapidly overtaking other marchers. Being careful not to blow out in the first two, and arguably most brutal, miles. Over the summit and down Jacob’s Ladder, I could see very little in front of me in terms of competition. Within one hour and forty minutes I was at the halfway point, refilling my water carrier and hitting the trail home. It’s always a great feeling knowing that you’re over half way. I set myself a seemingly unrealistic target of reaching the summit, some four miles away, within one hour of the half way. This four miles including the Roman Road, predominantly uphill and the infamous and punishingly brutal Jacob’s Ladder. I knew it was near impossible but I needed something to aim for. As unbelievable as it sounds, my right hand touched the very last rock to scramble over at the top of the ladder only one hour and ten minutes from the half way point. At that moment I realised my dream was possible. Just two miles down the mountain lay the red telephone box and the culmination of five years’ training, thought and possible obsession. I began to think how bittersweet it felt. On one hand, my dream of completing the march in four hours before I’m 40 very much assured, barring any disasters, yet on the other, the void of having potentially no dreams or further aspirations to motivate me coming up.

So it was head down, brain off, legs striding down the hill to finish in three hours and thirty-five minutes. To be told I was 9th overall and my time was elite, was very humbling, and the emotion of surprise support at the finish line made the experience even more special.

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Four days later, I’m still struggling to take it in. Today at lunchtime, I entered the next big target so the motivation continues. The Fan Dance still has a huge draw for me and I will definitely return in some capacity either supporting or competing. Self belief going through the roof, it’s hard not to wonder what else I’m made of.

The revenant

According to rumours, I’ve ran off into the mountains to live alone in a tent, explaining the radio silence for a few weeks. As much as I wish that was the truth, unfortunately for you and I, it is not.

While the events of the last few weeks are an in-depth blog subject by themselves, they are not for disclosure here, so I’ll spare you the boredom.

The main push to get motivated to write a post this week is that this coming weekend is the Fan Dance that I have written about and referenced many times. The prep leading up to it has not been brilliant to be perfectly honest. No specific training since the Paras 10 at the end of May, and the running has suffered too of late. But it’s too late now to change the course of fate. The only advantage I can see is that my legs will be sufficiently rested going into the event, especially after the ultra marathon at the beginning of May.

So for the third time in three attempts, I go into the Fan Dance facing adversity with plenty of personal stuff on my mind, some good, some bad. I’m definitely going to draw on the good and the bad for motivation throughout, and leave the bad stuff on the mountain. It can keep it, and the next rainfall can wash it out to sea.

Door to the river

Let’s have a show of hands. How many of us would love to give it all up and go and live the dream? I’m guessing if you’re reading this blog, your dream will involve at least something outdoor related. Or perhaps you’re already doing it. If that is the case, kindly tell us how you did it, or sit in the corner smugly while the rest of us despair.

It’s always bloody rotten going back to work after a long weekend. This week has been no different. The weekend was fairly normal, just doing normal stuff, ParkRun, outdoor time, and I surprised myself with a ten mile run on Monday.

I can’t help but think (again) however as I climb onto the early morning branded and mute commuter-packed dream dampener that can only move in two directions, that there’s more I feel I could and should be doing. Meetings alienate me. Conversation with my superiors leave me wary and terrified. As my friend commented about my last blog, and mentioned synchronicity, it’s very apt here to quote from the Police song of the same name;

Every single meeting with his so-called superior is a humiliating kick in the crotch

And man, is my crotch bruised. I exaggerate. My job isn’t humiliating at all. It could easily be if I let it, and saw it as my only reason for existing. You’re only hurt by the things you love and care about the most. I guess I just find the world a little confusing.

So this whole idea of giving up normal life to do something else comes in and out like the tide, getting higher each time. Having a life of contradictory feelings added to the general fear of cutting the supply cord sends me into an insanity loop. There’s the part of me that would happily backpack, who then gets beaten up and left for dead by the part of me that wants to get back on the property ladder.

In many ways my life is changing. I feel I’m either on the cusp of greatness or a complete breakdown. It feels like I’m sat in a deep woodland, and in the distance I can hear a roaring river but have no idea where it is. Wandering about aimlessly in a dreamlike state proves fruitless, and yet somewhere there’s a door in the trees that leads to the river and who knows where.

Who are you?

Seven days ago, I proclaimed that your only certainty, in most difficult events, was pain. In fact, on the ultra marathon a couple of weeks ago, myself and Krister came up with a mantra about holding it together, checking you were still ok, and it was basically along the lines of counting what you still have left when you’re at your lowest ebb and what, or whom, were your ‘friends’. We concluded that when your friend strength leaves you,  you still have humour. When humour leaves you, you still have pain. When pain leaves you, there’s only death left! Such was our black humour that day.

Of course, the motto of Pain is your only certainty was borrowed from a t shirt for the Paras 10 event, which I took part in at the weekend. My third one, but my first one at the Colchester barracks.

In a nutshell, the Paras 10 is a 10 mile loaded (16kgs Bergen, plus food and water) speed march over mixed terrain. In Colchester’s case, it is mainly fields, woodland tracks, two rivers and a swamp. And there is machine gun fire too (blanks, I hope) and smoke grenades. Recruits will be put through this test, amongst others in order to make selection and enter the coveted paratroop regiment. The selection time is 1 hour 50 minutes, and at Catterick, the other Paras 10 venue, I passed in 2017, scraping in at 1 hour 49 and 19 secs! Seat of your pants time.

I didn’t know what to expect on Saturday, but went into it feeling positive and buoyed by my Fan Dance mock run a few weeks ago. It suddenly got warm at the start and a few people started looking nervous. Nothing to be nervous about, just get going and get the job done, even if it is a slower time than you’d like, it’s still a huge achievement.

So off we went and I quickly set into a steady pace, running comfortably with the bag weight less than what I’ve trained with. My boots felt great, everything perfect. Not unusual for running with my military boots, I started to get a dull muscular ache up the front of both shins. I’ve had this many times before so just ran through it, as painful as it is. After about three miles, there’s the first river crossing. About a mile previous, the dull ache in my right shin suddenly became a sharp, concerning pain, like I’d been scratched or stung. This continued up to the water crossing. Maybe it was the shock of the cold water, but the pain quickly disappeared afterwards. The route continued, winding its way through woodland and open fields, through another river, and along some tracks. At one point, I was running with a guy who I recognised and I knew exactly where I knew him from. He is one of the ex-SAS DS Members on the Fan Dance. Every time I have done it, he has been a bit of a nemesis to me. Telling me off for addressing him as mate, not staff. The other time was when he managed to get me to doubt myself and planted the seed in my mind, thus scuppering my sub four hour attempt. So as you can see, he’s played a big part in the story. So I mentioned this to him, to which he revealed his true nature. Unsurprisingly he’s a great guy and has a front to manage. For an older guy too he was churning the miles out. I pulled away from him and although he overtook me later at a drinks station, I finished five minutes ahead of him. He congratulated me at the end. Not sure he’ll be the same person I’ll see on July 6th.

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So, years ago, when I was training for my last Fan Dance, I found myself doing hill repeats with my Bergen at 5.30 am. I used to to 5 bursts. I’d normally be knackered after three. One morning, I found myself really struggling half way up and as if I was a ventriloquist’s dummy, controlled by someone else, I uttered the words, “What are you f*king made of??”. I repeated it, and bang, up a gear and off I went. That has been my self talk mantra ever since, though I rarely need to use it, and always check if there are impressionable children nearby. On Saturday, on a bit of the course which doesn’t need describing due to its name of “The Hill”, I broke into a walk. The sun was beating down on the dusty trail and made it blindingly bright. I could see guys I’d fought so hard to catch up to, still running and pulling away. So I did it again. I clenched my teeth and said, “Who are you?” It was this probing query into my own identity that suddenly had me running again. Who indeed am I? Was I saying to myself, “don’t you remember who you are and what you’ve achieved in the past?”. Either way, it is another mantra.

Two hours later, after finishing 38th in a field of 600 and beating the selection time by 10 minutes, one of my best friends and I began our journey home. “What do you want to listen to, mate?” I asked. “Dunno”, came the reply, “any old crap”. So I hit the shuffle button on my phone and it began playing The Who, Who Are You.

Pain is your only certainty

After last weekend’s excesses I had a reasonably laid back on this weekend. That phrase had so many different meanings in my twenties.

Anyway, the training focus now shifts towards the Fan Dance in about 7 weeks and the ultra marathon following that the weekend after. As luck would have it, a mate of mine whom I met at our local ParkRun, almost read my mind and messaged me to see if I’d be interested in doing some longer runs on Saturday mornings before ParkRun, which is what I was intending to do anyway. So after a night on the tiles on Friday night after work, I met him at 7.30 am and off we trotted at a fairly pleasant pace, able to chat the whole way. By the time we did the ParkRun however, dead legs had set in and despite my assurances to concerned friends overtaking me that I was taking it easy, I couldn’t have actually ran faster if there was an escaped leopard chasing me. I would have been breakfast. Still, it was really enjoyable to run along chatting to people instead of flying along like it’s the Olympics.

The run home for both of us was fairly hilarious as we both literally ground to a halt. Still, it’s good for me not to tire my legs too much ahead of the weekend.

My very good school friend whom I mentioned last week completed an incredible 100 mile (actually 104 mile!) cycle ride at the weekend, and finished in a very respectable time. The face to face conversation we had briefly at my ultra the other week revealed she was concerned that the broom wagon would get her! This obviously wasn’t the case. I think the size of her achievement might not sink in for a while. Despite her doubts, and my years of endurance training, I am actually only 25 minutes faster across that distance, so she has a hell of a lot to be proud of. I hope it is now the catalyst to start a journey of self-discovery and personal achievement that I started out on years ago, cutting any doubt down to size and instilling a kind of quiet confidence that you know what your limits are and what you’re capable of. So many people are afraid to find out.

As I carried out hill sprints and circuits in the woods near my house yesterday morning, I was very aware of the motto on my t-shirt: Pain is your only certainty.

This makes or breaks people. Time find out which.

Krister’s Secret Sauce and the mysterious clicking sound

On Saturday morning, after a week slogging it around the Brecon Beacons, I found myself at 7 am on the starting line of my first ultra marathon of the year. In the past couple of weeks I have raised concerns about my lack of training for this event, not helped by it being brought forward a week, squashing any hope of a recovery week.

So Friday was spent unpacking everything from the mountain escapades and repacking for overnight camping at the race HQ as well as for the run itself. Once there, dinner was made, as well as chatting to the other camper, a guy named Jonny who was doing one of the shorter distances (a mere 31 miles).

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After a humble speech, and rapturous applause, the race field set off. The field quickly spread out and I found myself behind a guy, who awkwardly held every gate for me. Fortunately, I’d had too many coffees and had to stop for relief and he plodded off ahead. I eventually did catch him up again shortly before the first checkpoint, overtook him, and pulled away.

A few miles later, on a beautiful descent down to the River, there was a field of yellow rapeseed crops, with our path cutting through it. On this path I could see two small heads meandering through it. It would have made a fantastic photograph, their blue kit contrasting the yellow, epitomising the beauty of the region and why we get up so bloody early and do this to ourselves.

I had prepared to spend the entire 46 mile course alone, mainly by creating a playlist on my phone for when it got tough, and different techniques to push through when I had to. Such is life and these events that I did catch up with the two guys that I had seen previously in the yellow field, and after running as a trio, three became two. As luck would have it, the two of us were very similar in outlook, humour, pace and temperament. He was a Swedish guy called Krister, though at first I thought he was a Londoner! In all we ran about 20 odd miles together, well over half the race. We talked at length about life, our different cultures, humour, Vikings and cracked a few jokes, usually around our respective nationalities. We created an ultra marathon mantra to ourselves which went something like this:

If you can’t run, there’s always walking. If you can’t walk, there’s always crawling. If you can’t crawl, there’s always Uber!

Two things amused me the most in the final few miles that we were together. The first was a bottle he kept sipping from, which contained his magic sauce. Now, I know what was in it, but I believe it is Krister’s right to secrecy so I won’t reveal the recipe. I should add that there’s nothing illegal in it! It was the sauce (ha ha) of humour that kept me going through some tough climbs, along with trying to work out what this strange clicking sound was. I first heard it, and thought it was me. Or something in my bag, or something in Krister’s bag. It sounded like two pebbles being trapped together. I didn’t say anything until at one point Krister turned and said, “What’s that noise?!” and he worked out it was in fact his shoes. It was like running to a metronome!

It was about 5 miles from the finish that I had to let Krister continue alone, as just of a farm track, sat on the grass with her dog, was a longstanding school friend, who despite being in contact with on social media many times a week, I haven’t seen face to face since we left school in 1998. I often think that your friends will tell you what they think you want to hear, but the best friends you have tell you like it is, and this rang true on Saturday. I mentioned that I had in fact stopped sweating, probably due to dehydration, and quick as you like, my friend looked at my face and neck and said, “Yeah, you’re really crusty, mate!”. After twenty years, five minutes in and those are amongst her first words! It made me laugh all the way to the finish. Really great to see her and humbling to have support.

Eventually I crossed the finish in a time one hour and a quarter faster than last year, finishing seventh in the process. On the back of the success of my midweek test march test march, this gave me more confidence, and has pushed me to begin to consider much bigger goals for the next two years.

Direct from the field

Well this is a first. Usually I write my blog on the train to work, so rather than miss this week’s blog, I thought I’d write it in a tent, in a field, in South Wales.

I’m mostly here to notch up a couple of mountain days for my leadership qualification. Whilst down here I have also had a bash at the Special Forces test march (Fan Dance) that I have written about a few times. It’s not the actual event – that is in July – it’s a complete dress rehearsal for it, wearing the exact kit I will be wearing on the day. I was pleasantly surprised to complete it in under the four hour cut off time. It might not happen on the day, but it’s a positive boost.

My campsite wasn’t able to check me in when I arrived so not one to sit around, I jumped in the car and found a place to do a mountain trail run. A good, hilly 7km jaunt over a mountain. Was great for scenery, and very quiet, apart from my laboured breathing on the climbs.

With all this strenuous activity planned this week, I was looking forward to a rest week next week before my much anticipated first ultra marathon of the year. However. Owing to a massive balls up (popular British phrase) by the organisers, we were informed last Thursday (plenty of notice) that the event was being brought forward a week to this Saturday. Apparently 50% of the field has dropped out because of this error. I can see two things here. Number one: If most of the 50% were faster than me, I could win. Number two: There, in theory, will be half the spectators. Meaning not much support. My Fan Dance result this week has given me a massive boost so my thinking is I’m just going to go for it. I haven’t trained as well as last year, but hopefully I’m fitter than I think. The other drawback is it would appear that food supplies at the feed stations may be low because of the date change. Potentially tricky. Last year I saw them as back up anyway and made sure I had my own with me. This year will be no different.

Despite a tough few weeks mentally, this is one challenge I’m really hoping to test myself on, both mentally and physically. I’m going to go into it refusing to let it break me. It will be an interesting battle.