After reading a couple of blogs about the Winter Fan Dance 2014, I decided to write my own contribution, trying to tell the world, or at least my readers, how I felt during this traditional SAS march in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. (sorry for any spelling mistakes, it was late =))
The Fan Dance is the latest highlight in a process of changing my life. Everything began in 2010 when I decided to change my life by leaving the town I lived in for almost 10 years, where I went to school, studied and met a bunch of awesome friends. Not everything in life was perfect though and therefore I moved to Auckland, New Zealand, in order to do my Masters and make friends with even more incredible people. After two years, I came back to Europe and found the next intellectual challenge at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, I became a PhD student. I continued to the change by starting to run and to join BMF. I promised a good friend to run a tough mudder with her one day and so I needed to get in shape. Secondly, I was 29 when I started my PhD, knowing that when I turn 30 it is the right moment to give the change a stereotypical push into the right direction. In September 2013 then, I did a Spartan Sprint as a test to see how fit I was. It turned out to be a great race and despite being injured I managed to get a good time.
The question then was: What comes next? I don’t remember how but I came across the Avalanche Endurance Event page promoting the Fan Dance Race Series. I was instantly interested and a few days after discovery me and my fellow PhD researcher Mike registered for the clean fatigue Winter Fan Dance 2014, which would be exactly four days after my 30. birthday. What a present!
A couple of month later, after two sport injuries and a lot of training, the day came. I turned 30 on January 14th. Mike and I were both pushing our anticipation to its limits. On January 17th, he picked me up in London, where I attended a PhD workshop but was hardly able to concentrate. Thanks to the traffic around London we arrived late in Wales, too late for the registration on that Friday. Finding our B&B was not a problem and after a quick dinner we went to bed. The next morning we had a great breakfast and drove to the Storey Arms for registration and the race itself. Unfortunately, the strong wind slammed the door of Mike’s car so that it locked itself with the keys and his gear inside. He called a locksmith who was able to open it and retrieve the keys, yet we started 21 minutes behind the other clean fatigue racers. With this delay, we thought we might at least be able to catch up with the slowest, not finishing last!
The start itself was hard, a steep incline right from the beginning, the heart-rate went up fast and my breathing became heavy. I was asking myself how I was going to finish this if the race continues like this. However, after a while we had a first relief as the route leveled off. Down into a valley, through a small stream and back up again. At this point my socks were soaked and remained that way for the rest of the race. On top of Corn Du, we met this old guy who had a race number on his back telling us it was windy, and he was right. Passing the ridge, the wind and rain hit us hard from the right side. It was almost impossible to walk in a straight line but I really started to enjoy this weather. Coming from an North Sea island in north-west Germany, I was used to stormy weather during winter. A 21 km training walk at home, only through the dunes and along the beach, gave me a first impression of such weather on the final 3 km. However, it made this race so much more fun! We then approached the summit of Pen Y Fen and the wind started to blow the water through my windproof and water resistant jacked and gloves, so much about that. There was no chance finishing this race without being soaked in water. After we had a short talk to some DS members on the summit, we headed down Jacob’s Ladder. I’ve read about how hard this part is and I realised how painful this will be on our way back.
Then we made our first and only mistake, thanks to my poor map reading skills (sorry Mike). We took the wrong way and went up Cribyn, the normal route would have taken us around. This meant to climb another two peaks before we came down to Windy Gap and the RV tent. From there we followed the Roman Road to the turning point. On that road we finally met the main bulk of clean fatigue racers. On the final bit towards the turning point we started to run a bit. The ground was even but thanks to the weather and the other racers a single area of mud. We arrived at the RV2 after approximately 3 hrs and I had a few energy bars, a few cups of tea and I put on a second pair of socks so that my boots remained tight around my feet. The water made them loose and my feet slipped around inside, causing pain in my toes every time I went down a slope.
Walking back on the Roman Road was, quite honestly, boring. It was not raining nor was it really windy. The Roman Road was slightly going uphill but it was nothing compared to the slopes of Pen Y Fen or the other peaks. At that time I started to feel my legs a bit and I was hoping that this won’t turn into agony once we were climbing Jacob’s Ladder. Back at Windy Gap we took the right route this time, as I saw people going this way earlier.
And here it was that something remarkable happened. Mike and I were both walking around Cribyn not knowing that we would escape the slopes of this peak we encountered on our detour. When the route got steeper and steeper, our speed slower and slower and the pain in the legs bigger and bigger, we thought we still had to face Jacob’s Ladder. With visibility of around 20 meters I was looking for a peak or something, telling myself not to stop until I reached it. “You won’t stop, you’ll stop on a peak, sit down, rest and then go for Jacob’s Ladder” was my inner monologue followed by the voice of my BMF instructor telling me to “suck it in”, and later after talking to Mike he said he had about the same thoughts. Then it happened, a rock formations emerged from the clouds and I realised that we were already on Jacob’s Ladder fighting our way up. I turned around and screamed at Mike, telling him the good news. A rush of pure relieve and excitement went trough my brain. I think this was the happiest moment in the whole race, when I saw these rock formations. Just a bit of climbing and we were back on the peak of Pen Y Fen and the pain in my legs felt minutes ago was just gone.
Members of the DS approached us and asked if we were OK and how many people were behind us. We actually managed to catch up and leave several clean fatigue runners behind despite our delay and detour. What followed was almost a sprint down Pen Y Fen to Corn Du and further to the stream we crossed in the beginning. The final slope was tough but we did it and soon after it we could see the red phone box waiting for us. On our way down we passed several other racers, thus achieving what we planned; not finishing last! I don’t remember our time but it was bit more than 5 hrs official race time, not considering our 21 minute delay. The last thing to do was to get the Fan Dance patch and the handshake from Ken.
I was soaked in water but happy as hell, with Mike I had a great team mate at my side. I also kept thinking about this old guy we met quite early in the race. If he was OK, if he gave up or made it. I never saw him again. Also, I feel a deep respect towards those who did the load bearing and of course the soldiers from SAS who run the Fan Dance with even more weight on their back and at a faster pace. We met a couple of them up there, I think, and they were just smiling and saying “good morning”. I think a smile always helps. When I registered, I asked whether I will be the first German to participate and at that time the answer was yes, with the exception that another guy from Germany had registered as well. So I’m still hoping I was one of the two first Germans doing the Fan Dance.