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.

rrem

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.

rrem

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.

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.

Everything. At once.

There are a few times in your life when you realise how much stuff you really have. I like to think of myself as straightforward, simple and of few possessions. I fully believed this until I moved house. It was further reiterated over the weekend when I began to sort my kit out for my week away next week.

It’s usually a complex operation anyway, sorting stuff out for the actual hiking, and then the camping too, but this time it nearly blew my head off. I think it’s a gender thing, but my mind can only cope with two maybe three things at once, so imagine me pulling all my clobber out for all of the things I have planned for my four days. I’m hoping to get two hikes in for my mountain leadership qualification (the main purpose for the trip), so there’s a load of gear for each hike, assuming I’m going to get wet at least once so I have to take two of everything, plus spares. Then I’m planning to do a dummy run of the Fan Dance, so there’s everything associated with that, like the boots, Bergen, extra clothing too. Add on all the camping stuff as well as food, and campsite equipment. Then on top of it, I’m hoping to squeeze in a mountain run.

By Friday evening, I couldn’t see the floor for bags, clothes, shoes, and other paraphernalia. I have made lists over the years that I can go to for different scenarios to ensure that I pack everything. This trip is somewhat different though, it is everything, all at once. Four whirlwind days.

All this is actually fun though believe it or not. It’s one of those things that keeps me on my toes, like a midget at a urinal. The easy thing would obviously be to have pre-packed bags that I can just grab and go. This has been considered and is almost achievable except it has the potential to be very expensive, with doubling up of kit and equipment, which I’m not in the position to be able to do. But where’s the fun there??!

Dan Fance

From reading previous blog ramblings of mine, you’ll probably see a few references to me running with a weighted military backpack (Bergen) and why I do it. Not sure if there’s a better reason to go back through my posts and feast your eyes. I’ve probably mentioned that it’s largely training for an organised event called the Fan Dance, which is a civilian version of one of the key test marches for the UK Special Forces.

It is called the Fan Dance because it is held, like the real thing, in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, and involves summiting the mountain Pen Y Fan twice, which is the highest peak in the south of England and Wales. Typically, the course is 15 miles (24km) and is out and back (along the same route each way, not circular). Recruits are given 4 hours in which to complete the march and pass it. It is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not keen on the muddy obstacle courses. They’re fairly boring and most allow you to skip some of the obstacles if you can’t do them, usually with a penalty. There is no choice with this march. You either complete it – or withdraw. No halfway house.

I have completed this event twice, in 2014 and 2016. The closest I have got to 4 hours is about 4 hours 15 minutes. Close but no vape. I’ve said on numerous occasions that I’d keep doing it until one of two things happened: One, I pass; two, I die. I don’t intend on trying number two anytime soon so let’s try number one shall we?

Having trouble sleeping the other night, I took the plunge and entered the event. I did quite a lot of training before Christmas, but haven’t done a hell of a lot since, so the effort level needs to be ramped right up. Possibly until it’s flipping vertical. I always forget, I was younger when I did it last and it’s harder to train these days. I train for so many different events I think I probably spread myself a little too thin across the disciplines.

Yesterday morning, instead of doing my customary Tuesday hell-for-leather 10k blast, I put my boots on, grabbed my Bergen and went out and did some hill repeats. It’s a start. I think getting inspired is a huge push to help you to get motivated for anything, so this will be no different. I’ll be hoping to get that click where it all drops into place and becomes easier. I also need to sleep better. It’s dangerous for entering races I’m not quite ready for.

The word ‘failure’ fails me

In my last post, I introduced you all to the world of tabbing, if indeed you didn’t know what it was, and covered how it was introduced to me.

The post ended with me signing up for the gruelling Fan Dance, a civilian version of the SAS test march over Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons.

Training for it was tough. Being a runner, the heaviest thing I’d ever had to carry was a hydration pack of about 5kgs. Now here I was plodding around the countryside with 12kgs to begin with (eventually tabbing with 27kgs in 2016). I mixed up the training a bit, having varying the many factors like weight, distance and terrain. Ultimately the actual event was all three turned up to the max – muddy and rocky paths, two giant mountain ascents, and around 22kgs Bergen weight. Some days I’d run 5 miles carrying 15kgs, other days 12 miles cross country with 12kgs, chopping and changing and gradually building up weight and fitness.

Eventually in the July, it was race day. We rocked up at the start for an informal gathering. There was no loud music, no group warm up like you get at large events, not even a claxon to signify the start. Everyone just started off up the mountain in single file, no whoop-whooping, no fanfare, just the shuffling of feet.

To cut a long story short, I fell short of the mark. Notice how I don’t use the word failure. In this sort of environment, there is no such thing. There is a four hour benchmark that is the hallowed SAS pass time. I came in eighteen minutes over that. I know there were stretches where I could probably have pushed harder, and an incident at the halfway point set my mind in a downhill spiral of self doubt.

The halfway point is an unremarkable car park, where you join a queue to tell the DS (Directional Staff) your name and number so they can track your progress. This particular day was getting fairly hot, despite an overcast and drizzly beginning, and the staff were keen to make sure everybody had enough fluids to keep them going for the next half. Twelve months prior to this, the Brecon Beacons, and the SAS regiment in general, attracted a sudden burst of interest, as usual, spurred on by a negative event. Tragically, three recruits died on a similar exercise to the Fan Dance in very hot conditions, so partly due to this, hydration was being given a lot of attention. There I am in this queue, thinking ahead from an admin point of view, like getting into a dry t-shirt and transferring water from one of my bottles to my hydration pack etc. Then along comes the DS and stops right by me, looks me long and hard in the face and says, “Are you ok?”. “Yeah”, comes my reply. “Got enough water?”. “Yeah” was again the unambiguous reply. “Show me”, he insisted. So I did. “Well make sure you keep hydrated”, then off he walked. It may not sound like a terrifying exchange and in all probability was out of routine care and concern, but in those conditions, where I was already starting to feel like I was flagging, it set off doubtful thoughts in my mind. Was I ok? Would I be sufficiently hydrated? Would I finish the test? Would I collapse? I’d been slowly slipping behind my mate towards the halfway point and now I decided to let him carry on at his own pace and I would sort myself out and limit the damage.

Now, I’ve thought about that day a lot since and I maintain I made the right choice. I finished in a respectable time and learned a lot. Oh, I nearly forgot. I did promise blood.

Two years later, I was back. Finished below par again, but quicker than the previous attempt. I’m planning to go back next year and finish it once and for all. Oh, I nearly forgot. I did promise blood. On both attempts, after runningin my military boots, I bruised my toes so badly on the downhills that my big toe nails fell off. Not nice.

In the September of that same year, I attempted the Paratroop Regiment version of the test, on different terrain, lighter weight and shorter distance, but by no means easier. I fell short that time, but returned three years later and kicked its arse. Determination is clearly a major factor!

Whilst I fully expect to be visiting a chiropractor at some point, I don’t regret the day I first put on my Bergen. It’s opened up a whole new plateau of self discipline, determination, fitness, belief and confidence. It does leave me thinking though, what would be a bigger challenge if the day came where I got too comfortable with it? A day to relish.

Carry that weight

I’m going to start by introducing you to a term that features heavily in my life. TAB. This is a British military term, and is an acronym for Tactical Advance into Battle in case you were wondering. Put more plainly, it is moving as fast and efficiently as you can across mixed terrain, usually a long distance, carrying your kit. Depending on which regiment you are in depends on what is required of you. In some outfits, a long distance forced march (another way of saying TAB) is part of an annual fitness test, kind of like the bleep test, but more fun. The regiment you are in also determines how much weight you should be able to carry but is usually between 15-25 kilogrammes.

This type of exercise has been a part of my life for nearly five years and has affected me positively in so many ways. I’ve never been in the military, but I’ve always admired the camaraderie, fitness regimes and discipline.

I got in to this tabbing lark accidentally. Back in 2013, I was doing long Saturday shifts at the printers where I worked. A guy would walk through twice a day and in a few weeks the conversation ramped up from “Alright?”. “Yeah, you?”. To running, via cycling (I used to cycle to work, so did he). One day, one fateful day, he asked me if I knew any decent cross country running routes in the area. Luckily for him, I did. I shared a route with him which he wasn’t too sure about, so I suggested we run it together one day. Fast forward a few weeks and I’m running on my own down the canal near my old house and who should be coming the other way, but my mate. We stopped and chatted and I noticed he was carrying a backpack. Of course I asked him what it was for, and after correcting me over the name (military backpacks are called a Bergen), he said it was for an event called the Fan Dance. I asked him what it was and he just said “Google it”. Before I could get home and indeed search online for it, we parted. No sooner were we twenty paces apart did he turn around and shout “Don’t tell anyone about this, ok?” Now I was intrigued. It must be good, this Fan Dance malarkey.

When home, once I sifted through visually pleasing images of burlesque dancers, I came to a website explaining the Fan Dance. It is a civilian version of the UK-based SAS regiment’s much fabled fitness test in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. 24 kilometres (15 miles in proper money) over the highest peak in southern Britain, Pen Y Fan, TWICE. Easy? Try doing it in military boots, carrying around 25kgs on your back and a 5kg rifle. The civilian version omits the rifle. You have four hours in which to complete it.

To be honest, I looked at it and felt sorry for my mate that he had to do it. I saw it as something out of my gamut as a road runner and something I’d never be able to do. How could someone slim like me carry 25kgs all that way? No chance. My mate played rugby, was ten years older than me and was pretty fit.

Nonetheless, I had to bear his secret too, and assist in training runs. We did one where he had his Bergen at 12kgs and I was just me (clean fatigue). It was embarrassing. I kept having to wait for him while I leapt and bounded like a rutting stag over gates and fields, he struggled along. At the end he suggested that I get a Bergen next time to even it out. Like a tit, I did. I had a rucksack big enough for 12kgs, so I weighed out 12kgs of garden soil into a bin liner and off we went. It was hard, but interesting all the same. Then the mind games started:

“You should sign up for the Fan Dance too.”

For anyone who knows me, especially in this capacity, one thing I rarely miss is the opportunity to take somebody up on a challenge, or to disprove doubters. It didn’t take long for me to find my way to the entry form online.

I was in.

In my next blog, I’ll cover more of the gory details of training, the event and what’s happened since. There will be blood!