Time for change

Readers forgive me, for I have sinned. It’s been two months since my last blog post.

My last posts covered the events of my ultra marathon, as well as my third Fan Dance, an achievement that, to be quite honest, hasn’t sunk in yet. Before I know it I’ll be lining up for the next one. Did I just actually write that??! We’ll see.

Yes it’s been two months, and even before that it was a good six weeks since the previous one. It hasn’t been so much out of laziness, or lack of inspiration. It’s just that life took over. To say this year has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. Gladly now I can say things are looking more positive and hopefully moving in the right direction.

It’s just as well that it is now that I attempt to get my proverbial faeces together as it is that time of year where I am most sensitive to the changing of the season. It started this week. Monday morning, off the train, walking through the city streets, feeling the subtle drop in temperature in the breeze. Generally it has been a great summer. I have done a lot, achieved a lot as well. With my life changing, I haven’t yet settled into a new routine, so it’s been a summer of different days out. Another reason for this change of routine has been for the fact that I’m officially injured. A niggling pain that started back in April has got worse. I did mention it in my last post. I said then that I thought it was my hamstring. As shocking as it is, I was wrong. Now you’ve picked yourself up off the floor and revived, I can tell you that yesterday evening I visited a sports therapist and got a formal diagnosis, as well as acupuncture, and, well, mauled. The best news is that I can reasonably continue running with it, so thumbs up. I’m not particularly relishing the thought of running 102 miles with it in two weeks though. Still, let’s call it character building shall we?

This autumn will be a time of transition for me as I’m moving to a new town in a few weeks, so my outdoor routine will change too. Probably for the better I hope, being closer to an area of outstanding natural beauty. I can picture ideal winter walks, pub lunches, and everything in between. Reality might dictate rain, stepping in dog muck and soggy sandwiches.

In the meantime however, it’s prep time for a busy weekend this weekend. I have another Paras 10, where I’m hoping to go under the cut off time again, to complete three for the year (two Paras 10 and the Fan Dance). Retirement now perhaps? Then on Sunday, just what my body needs, a 10km road race. It’ll be a case of suck it and see as to what pace I go at, depending on the legs following Saturday. I’m not sure what state I’ll be in come Monday morning, but that’s what makes life interesting – the test.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.