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Race Review: Avalanche Events Winter Fan Dance


On January 18th 2014 I and two other guys (Gareth and Simon) partook in one of the most gruelling challenges that I have done to date.

The Fan Dance

If you haven’t heard of the Fan Dance I think the best way of summing it up is the description taken from the Avalanche Events website: thefandancerace.com

This infamous route has long been a part of SAS (Special Air Service) and SBS (Special Boat Service) Selection and is considered the yardstick of a candidate’s potential to perform well on Test Week and ultimately pass the Special Forces Selection programme.

Starting at the Storey Arm’s car park, the race goes straight up to the summit checkpoint of Pen Y Fan and, after descending ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, continues along an undulating stone vehicle track (the ‘Roman Road’) to the second checkpoint which also serves as a tea stop and turnaround point. Then, taking the route in reverse, racers climb back up “The Fan” via Jacob’s ladder and pass through the summit checkpoint a second time before legging their way back down to the finish at the Storey Arm’s car park.

Quite an appealing description and the opportunity to even have a small taste of what is involved in selection was something not to be missed, I am pleased to say that the day didn’t disappoint.

Registration

Arriving at the Storey Arms for race registration (after a quick breakfast on the go) we collected our race number and map. It appeared that due to the severity of the weather the route had been amended slightly so we missed out Corn Du. Clearly although it was grim down at the base of the mountain the conditions were far worse up top.

As we were doing the load bearing event (for authenticity) we had to go and get our rucksack’s weighed to make sure that we met the minimum required weight. I had weighed it the night before and was certain that it was above but I was a little nervous that for whatever reason it would be under and I really didn’t fancy trying to get more weight in. As it was my bag was  44lb (19 kg) so 10lb over the necessary weight. I was told I could drop some weight out but I really didn’t want to mess with my pack so just stuck with it.

The Race
A more detailed hill profile
The Hill Profile

After the race briefing, which being at the back we didn’t hear much (other than the word treacherous, that got through) we set off. I and Gareth had opted to start out with poles, I previously had severely sprained my ankle and it now is pretty weak and over the rough terrain with the added weight I didn’t want to risk a repeat of it.

The first two miles is pretty much all up and the weather was already making it tough going, the rain had started and the wind was picking up. We had already done part of the route on a training run but the conditions were far better, so although we knew what we were in for we weren’t prepared for how different the mountain was going to treat us.

I had decided to try to record as much of the event as I could on my GoPro and managed to capture a clip of us as we were just about to summit Pen Y Fan, at this point we had already taken the alternate route cutting out Corn Du and had been shielded from the full strength of the wind up to this point.

From the top of Pen Y Fan to Windy Gap (how appropriate), the wind was  totally unrelenting and was c. Checking in at the RV1 we then headed down the Roman road. It was a gentle descent so we tried to pick up the pace, me folding my poles up. About 100 yards later I had twisted my right ankle so the poles came back out and the pace slowed again. The rain continued and although my torso was remaining dry everything else was soaked through.

Getting to RV2 it was an opportunity for a quick loo break and then back off the way we had come. Starting up again it became I had pushed my GoreTex boots to the limit and they had let in water, the problem is that once its in there is nowhere for it to go so I had to resign myself to the fact that I would be walking in a permanent puddle for the 7 miles back.

Coming back up the Roman Road with its gradual incline wasn’t too taxing but the mood was low. The weather was taking its toll more than the terrain, there was no respite from the wind and rain and this was causing us to really start feeling the cold.

Checking in at RV3 at Windy Gap before the start of the climb up Jacobs Ladder any plans for a quick time were out the window and it was about getting back safely and in one piece.

It was slow going up, the wind had gone from behind us to a cross wind. Simon had a settle to score with Jacobs Ladder so had picked up his pace and Gareth and I were a short distance behind. On several occasions on the way up Gareth’s poles were getting caught in the rocks, the last one causing the pole to extend past its lock and getting stuck (and therefore unusable)

We paused while Gareth attempted to fix it but he wasn’t having any joy, the cold was making things very tough and I think it was affecting us more than we realised. After another failed attempt he threw it to the ground in frustration and said to leave it. I decided to have a go at sorting it as he had only bought them a couple of days before.

It was while I was messing around with the pole (and eventually fixing) that Gareth said he was getting really cold and needed to put a warmer jacket on. This was quite a task as the cold had meant our hands were barely functioning so it was a team effort to get his bag off and jacket on. He later said that he had stopped shivering at this point which is not a good sign, if he hadn’t of packed that extra jacket things could have gone south very quickly.

Photo's taken by Gareth, still smiling
Photo’s taken by Gareth, we are all still smiling

Once he was sorted we set off again, this was a good thing as the cold had started to get to me, I could no longer feel my hands at all and I could see frost forming on the outside of my gloves.

We were moving comparatively slow but as it has been in other hilly events in the past the hills are a strength and we were still catching and passing others, usually with one of us checking if the person we were passing was ok.

Getting up over Jacob’s Ladder was a big milestone, as it was (nearly) all downhill from there onwards Meeting up with Simon we headed down Pen Y Fan battling on. My feet were now starting to really feel soggy and I was getting worried that when I took my boots off I would be presented with something horrific, but I had to put that to the back of my mind and press on. Gareth had started to get warmer as we lost altitude and the wind had eased off so spirits were starting to lift.

The pace was steady as we continued towards the red phone box with each step bringing us a little closer. Crossing that line and receiving the finishers patch I felt a great sense of achievement, it had been a war of attrition and we had succeeded.

The Fan Dance in 13 minutes

I have tried to edit the video footage down into one video, the batteries on my GoPro didn’t last as long as I would have liked due to the cold so I have some bits missing but you should be able to get a feel for it here

Update: There appears to be an issue with the end of the video and some of the cuts, I will try and upload a fixed version soon

Would I Do it Again?

I have to, I need snow!

In all seriousness I probably will do, we are already thinking of doing the summer Fan Dance, albeit clean fatigue and I would like to experience a winter ‘dance’ with snow if possible. Avalanche Events offered up a really good experience, great organisation and authenticity. The Fan Dance has a huge amount of mythos surrounding it and to capture a small element of the experience is something very special indeed.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is looking for a challenge and experience, summer or winter, clean fatigue or loaded, either way you are in for a treat!

The finishers badge has been added to my more precious memoroabiliea
The finishers badge has been added to my more precious memorabilia

A summary of the Fan Dance detailing time, distance and hill profile

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It’s all gone wrong!


Gutted, that’s the only way to describe it.

It had been a fairly good month, with the NDW50 coming up I had run 10 miles on the 1st, cycled a total of 23 miles on the 2nd, a 2.25 mile running speed session on the 3rd and a reasonably paced trail run of 5.5 miles on the 5th. The plan had been to run a 10 miler on the 6th and continue to cycle for the rest of the week, tapering down for the 50.

I set out on my run on the Monday, with the weather perfect and feeling good. I had run out to a 5 mile point, taking in a section of the North Downs Way and was heading back to complete my run.

Such a good day for a run
Such a good day for a run

At about 6.5 miles I rolled my ankle, when I say rolled my ankle I mean ROLLED it. I was floored instantly, but I have rolled my ankles before and the pain subsided to allow me to jog slowly on. A few yards down the trail it rolled again and if the first time hurt, this was something else. I had to sit down, physically shaking with the pain and I knew that I had to call it a day and walk (the 3 miles) home.

Floored after the second time
Floored after the second time

Like buses these things come in three’s and about a mile into my trudge home it went for a third time and again I was floored. I eventually picked myself up again and grabbed a nearby stick and slowly got home.

My makeshift crutch to get me home
My makeshift crutch to get me home
The Damage:

Below is a sequence of photos showing the progression of the swelling and bruising on my ankle

The swelling can be seen straight after it happened, but no bruising
The swelling can be seen straight after it happened, but no bruising
Waking up in the morning and being presented with this was not good
Waking up in the morning and being presented with this was not good
Heavy bruising and still swollen, a trip to the doctors and hospital for an X-Ray was in order
Heavy bruising and still swollen, a trip to the doctors and hospital for an X-Ray was in order

I went to the hospital today and had an X-Ray and my ankle prodded and poked. The good (great) news is that it’s not broken, which is a huge plus. The nurse said there was a lot of tissue damage and was prodding to find any pain points but other than a little twinge it was pretty painless. She was moving the ankle through its range of motion and was pretty surprised that something which looked this bad didn’t cause more pain, hopefully indicating that the damage is not as severe as it could have been.

I have been given some crutches to keep the weight off it but I am actually able to walk on it, hold my foot flat on the ground and stand with weight on it. Despite these positives it’s not going to be a quick fix and will take 4-6 weeks before I can run again. Knowing this I had to withdraw from the NDW50 (hence being gutted).

It’s not all doom and gloom though, I have more desire than ever to get that 100 miles under my belt in August and am going to make sure I do everything to help me achieve that. So it’s now a full course of RICE then when able to some re-habilitation exercises and cycling and swimming.

I will be back up and running in no time!

Training this week – Things are going much better


The last post I wrote on my training I was a little down on the lack of running and worried about the ultra in May, as of today I am feeling much better in myself.

This week I have done something (either cycling or running) every day and despite feeling a little sore as I sit here and type, am feeling in good shape. Monday through to Thursday it was the usual cycle commute to and from work, with me covering a total of 94.66 miles for the week. The wind throughout the week added to the challenge of this, in the mornings it was behind me on an essentially down hill route but in the afternoon it would be blowing in my face the whole, uphill return journey (by Thursday evening my legs were battered)

Friday saw me try out running in my lunch break. As time is limited I opted to do a 2 mile speed session, running this in 14:41 with an average pace of 7:16/mi which for me is quick and given my lack of any speed training so far something I was pleased with, this set me up well for the long run on Saturday.

My long run started early with me getting up around 06:30 to get my kit ready and head out as soon as possible. My plan for the day was to run around 20 miles with the minimum kit required for the NDW100 in August. My reasoning for this was in part to get used to the weight of the stuff needed, but also to test out the Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Race Vest that I would be using for the event (and the NDW50)

This picture shows how much stuff the pack can carry
This picture shows how much stuff the pack can carry

I will go into more detail on the race vest in a separate review, but suffice to say after the unimpressive first run in it last week, I am sold on it now (why in my review)

Setting out at around 07:25 I headed out to join the North Downs Way following my usual route, picking up the NDW just before Gravelly Hill.

Me at Gravelly Hill wearing the SJ Vest
Me at Gravelly Hill wearing the SJ Vest

From Gravelly Hill I headed East along the North Downs Way, stopping as and when to grab some photos not worrying too much on the timing, just enjoying being outside in the sun.

Spring is most certainly here
Spring is most certainly here
Great views, this is why I trail run
Great views, this is why I trail run
Not a cloud in the sky, you could see for miles
Not a cloud in the sky, you could see for miles
Just a phot of some cows
Just a photo of some cows

I carried on east just past what would be Botley Hill checkpoint on the NDW50/100 until I reached just over 10 miles (around Tatsfield), turned around and reversed my route to bring me in a nice 20.

Positives

  • Pace wasn’t terrible
  • North Downs Way has dried out significantly
  • SJ pack with a full load in it is awesome
  • Hoka’s didn’t give me blisters on my insteps since taking out the insoles
  • I wasn’t completely shattered at the end

Negatives

  • Hokas gave me blisters on my big toes instead
  • Could have done with more gels or some solid food
Sore toes from the HokaOneOne Mafate
Sore toes from the HokaOneOne Mafate
With stops excluded the pace was 12:02/mi and a time of 4:04:34
With stops excluded the pace was 12:02/mi and a time of 4:04:34

Wanting to finish the week on a high and get another run in, I went for an easy paced 7 mile run in the mid morning which although still a bit achy from the Saturday wasn’t too bad

Despite not doing a massive amount of running it seems that the cycling and shorter runs have allowed me to maintain the capacity to still do the longer runs, which is comforting. I am not going to rest on my laurels and realise that the 50 in 27 days is still going to be a challenge, but one I am going to give my all to.

Training Update


So those who read my last post will know that training hasn’t bein going that well and I am quite significantly off my running plan. I could list the runs that I have done (it wouldn’t be long) but I think it is easier to give a visual comparison of where I was at last year and where I am at now.

I have generated a report from Good Run Guide showing the June and July 2012 (NDW50 was August) and February and March this year (NDW50 is in May), so the same comparative timeframe in relation to the race.

Period 1 is June-July 2012. Period 2 is Feb-March
Period 1 is June-July 2012. Period 2 is Feb-March (ignore the pie chart for Period 1, I didn’t edit the type of runs back then)

It’s quite stark seeing the difference in distance and number of runs and the reality has hit home, mentally I am not in the same place that I was last time. Prior to the previous run, although the weather was a hell of a lot better, I was also more mentally focused that I am right now.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, although the runs have been shorter and less frequent, I haven’t just been sitting around doing nothing. Looking at my cycling from the same time frame as Period 2 this is the mileage so my legs are getting some work, although I appreciate it’s not quite the same.

I only starting logging on GRG mid Feb
I only starting logging on GRG mid Feb

I am not going to dwell on the lack of runs though, I need to get my head back in the game. I ran today following the disaster yesterday and it felt really, really good. I was running at a good pace, felt exhilarated as I travelled over the trails and felt some of the magic again.

While I was running I was thinking (as most people probably do) and have decided that the NDW50 will be an experiment to answer a question, “can you run an ultra with extensive cross training?”. I don’t expect to beat my 11:19 of last year, but I want to finish and finish within the cut off.

An attitude shift, that’s what I need, half the battle is in the head so get that in the right place and I am in with a fighting chance.