The day has started early. I woke up at 1am and sipping lava hot coffee I was making my last checks for half an hour or so. Much later I went to pick up Pat, who was going to be my comrade during this trip.
We both had a mission to accomplish. Mine was to move as quickly as I could over the hills and Pat’s was to make an interview with Ken Jones, he asked him to draw a winner in our raffle and make some photos.
All the way to Wales the weather was tactical. The rain was intensive and it didn’t stop even for one minute. Nothing new for Wales. Discussing about everything and nothing we finally arrived at the Storey Arms.
I have to mention here that the Fan Dance is the most unlucky event for me. There are always some disasters affiliated with this run. I didn’t get there on time for the first one because… electric installation in my car had burnt out near Swindon. The car never came back from there. Despite Anna’s immediate rescue mission I got to the Storey Arms just to give ovation to the last tabbers crossing the finish line. On my second attempt I had bad leg and I started late behind all the other participants. I had to overtake many people on the narrow path which was not good for my time at the end(9peakschallenge.com/the-fan-dance/). I was hoping that this time it would be different.
It started on the registration. My name was not on the list. Linda there was great. We had a quick chat, few words of explanation and I was clear to go. Next step was the pharmacy which is weighting rucksacks. I had a few extra pounds. I was kindly offered to take them out from my rucksack, but I refused saying that I should be fine. This decision saved me, but that’s later on.
Meanwhile Pat was having a chat with Ken Jones and asked for his autograph and personal dedication to be put in his copy of Ken’s book ‘Descending darkness’.
When I ticked all the boxes of pre-start procedure, we went with Pat to the car. I was talking all the time about what I’m going to do and he was too. We also had a chat with a few people from the cars nearby us. We were all positively alerted and focused of what was ahead of us.
Suddenly someone shouted and a few hundred people put their bergens on and went through a narrow gate. Quick word from Ken Jones and without being to dramatic about it he let us go. Off we went this time I had a good starting position. I was at the beginning of something called the train. Imagine yourself a few hundred people trying to climb the hill on the narrow path and you know why it is call like that.
At this stage I knew I should focus only on a few meters in front of me. Looking at the top of the hill far away it was discouraging and it doesn’t make the job easier. Sometimes I was overtaking someone and sometimes people were overtaking me. It also is a mental ability to stay in your own pace when less capable people overtake you. It is so temping to speed up and show what you really can do. Not at this stage. Not yet.
I was then just walking uphill being focused a few meters in front of me. Suddenly I saw one of DS in the distance standing by his tent. People were passing by catching air loudly and this guy just stood there watching us. No one, literally nobody said anything to him. When it was my turn I said simple ‘Thank you DS’ (DS- directing staff) and showed thumb up. He nodded, that’s it.
I did not know who he was or what he did. All I know that if he was standing there he was chosen by Ken Jones. If he was chosen by Ken, he wasn’t no ordinary person. He was spending his precious time to look after some runners so he deserved at least a thank you from us. If anyone, anywhere who reads these words will be running, walking or cycling and you will see a volunteer/marshal – tell him/her thank you, show a thumb up or nod. Show some respect. You are not an Olympic athletes and it doesn’t hurt.
Soon after I was on the top of the Pen Y Fan. I stood in the queue and waited for my turn. Then I gave my number to the DS and answered a few simple questions like am I ok and do I drink a lot? Answer for all was ‘yes’ so they didn’t keep me there for too long.
Meanwhile on the parking Pat was setting his camera and tripod up to do an interview with Ken Jones. Equipped with a list of questions he was trying to overcome his fears. It was his first interview ever! Both men sat down in front of the camera and started to talk. They both did a brilliant job!
On the hills descent started slow. Jacob’s ladder is the steepest part of the course and by far the worst. Both directions it takes about half an hour to get through it and believe me – it is torture. Surface is uneven and you have to be really careful where you stand. Especially running downhill one bad step and you can fall. This can transfer you spending from dentist to dental prosthetic. Nothing fatal but definitely painful.
Meanwhile Ken drew a winner in our raffle. Congratulations Brenda!
Then I hit a few kilometers on a long path called the Roman Road. This was pure joy comparing to the rest of the course. Gentle descent is like doing a little jog and once I started I stopped down in the parking. This was a turning point. I had a short conversation with the DS again and I decided that this is a good moment to have some water from the bottle this time not from the bladder. After a minute I was on my way back.
Meanwhile Pat decided to take a walk to the stream. He had a short taster of a Pen Y Fan and decided that today the hill looked much better from the bottom than it was from the top. Then he came back to the parking.
Other way round Roman road is good enough for a jog but not all the time. I started my jog but after 3 minutes I felt like I was putting too much effort in to it. I walked for 2 minutes and started jogging for 3 minutes again. It took a few intervals like this before I got to the point where Jacob’s ladder starts.
It was clear for me that this is the place where everything decides. Steep slope seems to have no end when you look at it from the bottom and you already have some kilometers in your legs.
Over two decades of running I learned something I call ‘lactic acid’ feel. I just know when my legs starting burning out and I know my limit. As long as I do not cross this point I can keep going for hours.
‘It’s gonna be a tough one’ I thought and should focus on 2 meters in front of me. ‘left, right, left, right…’ This was all what was going through my mind. Soon my legs and lungs were burning, sweat was dripping from my nose and my coordination was gone. I was trying to isolate myself from pain and any distraction. ‘…left, right, left…’.
After about ten very long minutes I noticed that ground was flatter and I can see a little bit further. Relief came as I thought I have just finished Jacob’s ladder. ‘That was fast’ I thought and I was amazed with my own toughness then I looked up then down. This feeling was like a kick in the stomach. I haven’t done even 30% of Jacob’s ladder!
Few seconds I didn’t know what to do. Stop and catch some breath or keep moving. I chose the second option and started my slow tab again. ‘…left, right, left…’. I was angry but determined and positively aggressive. Nothing could stop me. When I get to the waist high rock I couldn’t feel my legs I was trying to catch my breath and my steps were not longer than 30-40 cm. I was trying to climb this 1 meter high rock but I wasn’t strong enough. I laid flat on it, than on my elbows, than on my knees and slowly on me feet again. Suddenly, just over my head I heard someone say ‘Well done mate’. It was some older man sitting on the edge of the Jacobs ladder and just enjoying the sight. This was it. I did it and now all what was left was to get down to the parking.
All my uniform was soaking wet and sticking to my legs. ‘Jesus, I had never sweat like that!’ I thought.
It took a few hundred yards before I could jog again. Then I was just running down this was easy again. All I had to do now was to keep the pace up and don’t stop. I don’t know how long it took but soon I was on the parking. Ovation from people and Ken’s handshake finished my misery that day. The very last element of the run was weighting my rucksack again. I had more weight than necessary.
Instructor asked:’You haven’t being drinking too much? In your rucksack you have a few pounds more weight than required’. Some young para standing nearby waiting for his turn said ‘It has to be the sideburns, sir. There must be some weight in them!’
I took off my Bergen and changed myself. When I opened my rucksack to remove the bottles of water which served me as a weight I discovered that one of them burst inside the rucksack! I was not sweating that much, I was wet from that water! This time I realised that if I would remove this extra few pounds from my Bergen as advised by Ken I wouldn’t have enough weight on my back when I finished. This was my first lucky moment I had this day. Then I went to have my portion of roast hog. First time in my life I was eating pig, jam as one dish. Delicious!
Soon after we went with Pat to the one of the most beautiful spots in Wales. We set a little barbecue. While eating meat and vegetables we were sharing our experiences. What else can I write? It was a good day!
Some of the photos used in this article were stolen from Avalanche Endurance Events facebook