Moments before 0830, Saturday morning. Once again I’m standing by the Old Red Phone Box on the A470, ready to test myself on The Fan Dance. Since the operation on 31 January I’ve been focusing on this moment. It’s been the reason I’ve dragged myself out of bed at 0530 to run to work, why I’ve been interrogating ingredients lists and why I’ve been ignoring the pain in the bit of me they cut off and incinerated 6 months ago.
My pace was good, my mood was good, even the weather, unexpectedly, was good. As we sat chatting in the BBQ shelter that served as a temporary HQ the night before, one of the DS asked me ‘What time are you aiming for tomorrow?’ I said something suitably modest about only wanting to get my patch from Ken knowing I couldn’t have done any more. Bollock(s). For a while I’d been telling myself I could do it in four hours. How that unspoken thought has haunted me since.
I realise something has gone horribly wrong when I first try and drink. Bite on the valve, sook. Nothing. Bite harder on the valve. Sook harder. Still nothing. A knot ties itself in my stomach when a few things click in my mind. At the weigh in I had been surprised, and a little embarrassed when I told the DS I had 3lt of fluids on top of my obligatory 25lb of kit only to be told I was under. Quite a bit under. I assumed it was the scales I’d been using and ‘borrowed’ a rock from a wall at the front of the centre and having made the weight off I go thinking little of it. It is now clear to me , as I run up the initial slopes of Corn Du that the wet Bergen wasn’t due to sweat, or drizzle, but the hydration bladder had leaked all my fluids. I was underweight because my Bergen wasn’t carrying any water at all, never mind 3lt. There was no source to replen until RV1, the summit of Pen y Fan.
I’m embarrassed to say I was rattled, firstly by the thought of no water for a tough ascent and secondly, and probably much more damagingly, by the thought that this has been caused by my poor admin. To do as well as I should have I would need every shred of self belief I had. Instead, poor admin had leaked it away with my water.
I dug out, manned up and cracked on. Seeing friendly faces at the ‘Fan summit- with supplies of water- saw me heading down Jacob’s in a bit better nick. (Thanks Ian and Jas) and I managed to Windy Gap, down the Roman Road pacing with a first time Fan Dancing one time RAOC Driver (no name, good bloke). I checked in at the turn around in a respectable 1.50. After being gently told off and having my rag order tee shirt sorted by the time inquiring DS of Friday night, I headed off for the second half. (The DS wasn’t being a James Hunt. If he hadn’t straightened out my tee I was doomed to much more Bergen Burn than was necessary.)
Then I stopped. I fished my trusty Jelly Babies out the lid of the Bergen, gobbed a few and passed a few encouraging words with my friend, training partner travel buddy Chris D who had caught me up. I chased him on as I knew I was only going to hold him back. I was spent. Stopping had been another terrible mistake. Why the Jelly Babies weren’t in an accessible pocket is a mystery to me. Again, poor admin bit me, hard.
Each step seemed harder than the last. My calfs were knotted rope and hurt like blazes. My shoulders, having never troubled my in months of training were agony.. and I could feel the burn of blisters on my feet for the first time since buying the Magnums a year ago. What a state! More, my spirit was as raw as my feet. Ghost Gooley was almost beyond bearable. I sobbed. (Inwardly of course, it’s The Fan Dance FFS!)
That was the story for the rest of the route. I was in a dark, dark place and hurting. Jacobs Ladder took 37 minutes, bad enough on the clock, but in my head it felt like a lifetime. I honestly thought it was time to strike up my death song and set sail for Valhalla. Summiting Pen y Fan the second time, contouring Corn Du and descending back to the Storey Arms? All a painful blur. I have vague memories of an old woman hiker and her Black Lab keeping pace with me for a while. I’d prefer it was a hallucination but am afraid it was all too real.
Receiving January’s Winter Edition patch from Ken was a moment of utter elation. This time all I could think of was ‘Don’t spew on his (rather nice Inov8) boots’. I had taken four and a half hours.
What have I learned? Preparation is everything. I’m not unbreakable. I’m a flawed human being the same as all you flawed human beings.
There was a casualty out on the hill (dehydration) and during the prize giving ceremony, a group of Fan Dancers and DS Tabbed off back up the track to sort him out. Awe inspiring stuff.
The journey home was a time for reflection, interrupted by numerous stops to try and untie my insanely cramped calves. Chris D was a stoic provider of coffees. I dropped him off and was home for midnight.
The journey from January to July, The Western Infirmary to The Storey Arms Centre, to the depths of my soul and back, has left me wondering what kind of man I am. I have shown a toughness and resolve I didn’t think I could find yet undid myself with schoolboy errors when it mattered most, At the moment I am far from certain I’ll do another load bearing FD. Theres the small matter of Catterick Paras’ 10 in August. I’ve booked a place on the Aviemore Half and Glencoe Marathon in October and am looking at a few local Hill Runs to keep me focused. I’m torn between the deep respect for all that Ken, Linda and the broader Fan Dance family has given me and the realisation that the price I pay for those patches, wonderful as they are, may be beyond my physical and spiritual means.
On the left, Western Infirmary, Glasgow, Valentines Day 2014. I’ve been re-admitted following complications from my op on 31 January. (delayed that op so I could do the winter FD.) Ken and Linda sent me the tee shirt as a welcome morale boost. On the right, the same tee shirt, 5 July 2014, The Old Red Phone Box.
So what now? Clean Fatigue Fan Dance? Perhaps. Glencoe Marathon? Yes. More running? More mountains? Absolutely! I titled my blog ‘Fight Back to Pen y Fan. I’ve fought back, perhaps not as triumphantly as I would have liked. All I know is like I said in the BBQ shelter on the Friday night, I arrived at that finish line having given my all. I am immensely proud to have earned a Winter and now a Summer patch. To have trod the path taken by men I hold in the highest regard is an experience I will always remember.
I may yet return, but what ever tomorrow brings I’ll stay low and move fast.