The idea was born in two parts, starting back in 2005; I had recently recovered from a mountaineering accident in which I was disabled and unable to walk for two years. To celebrate being back on two feet again, friends and former colleagues from my old unit organised a little expedition to the Brecon Beacons and the route we followed was the “Fan Dance,” which had been one of the many tests we had faced on the Special Forces testing process. Getting back up Jacob’s ladder in my weak and fragile state that day certainly took it out of me, but following celebrations on the summit of Pen y Fan I vowed to do it all again very soon as well as to revisit some of the other “Selection” marches that had once been my old stomping ground as a young soldier. Ever since then, no return to the UK is complete without running the route of “The Fan Dance” or my particular favorite “Point to Point,” or “What’s the point” as it was affectionately termed by SAS and SBS candidates alike.
The Brecon Beacons have always been a testing ground for me, they are a great leveler and you can always know where you’re at physically and mentally if you have the inclination and ability to suffer. I’m very fond of the old maxim: “You never climb the same mountain twice,” and for this reason, I have never tired of going back there. Besides the challenge, there is some part of my identity inextricably linked to the Brecon Beacons; the outcome of my efforts on “Selection” opened up a whole world of adventure, possibility and opportunity to me and since then I have never looked back.
Following my accident and recovery I lived a year in Colombia where I made an occasional living as a climbing /trekking guide and security consultant. It was an odd mix but made me realise how much I enjoyed working with likeminded people on the lookout for fresh challenges. Upon my return to the UK I worked independently, as a personal trainer with a difference; my sessions were fairly brutal and tailored specifically towards young guys looking to join the Marines, Paras or SAS Reserve. As the clients’ training sessions progressed I found myself spending more and more time in the Brecon Beacons, where I felt more at home than I did in the parks of London and the South Downs. On one particular training session I decided to test myself by playing a game of Fox and Hounds with the guys I was training. At the halfway/turn around point of “The Fan Dance” route I took on an extra 20 pounds in the shape of some of Brecon’s finest rocks and gave my men a five minute head start to see who could reach the summit of Pen y Fan first. The deal was that I would buy a pub lunch for each one of them if I failed to reach the top before all of them.
An hour later, slogging my way up the steepest section of Pen y Fan, I realised it was going to be an expensive day out. My men were fit, well trained and highly motivated to get one over on me after all the thrashings they had been on the receiving end of. It was whilst I was suffering most to close the gap that I thought what a truly great and unique challenge “The Fan Dance” was and there the first ideas of organising an event or race that followed the same route came to me. I made the summit in last place, but only two hundred metres behind the first man, which I was happy to point out wasn’t a bad effort for someone ten years their senior with a metal hip and a few missing and frostbitten toes on one foot. They were having none of it and within ninety minutes we were all enjoying a roast dinner in Brecon town at my expense.
Before my colleagues and I set up our first event we asked ourselves some testing questions and took a good long hard look at what else was out there in terms of events and races. It is fair to say we are running mad as a nation and there are few places better for fell running in the world than the UK, so it was always in mind that if we were to set up something, it would have to be our personal forte, which was endurance based. Fitness wise, a level has been reached where a half marathon or even a full marathon is no longer the holy grail of physical achievement that it once was. Furthermore, they have become mass commercial enterprises where the entry fees are sky high and there are so many people one can barely maneuver through the mass of bodies to achieve a personal best. Looking at what else was out there, obstacle racing seemed to be the latest trend; events like “Tough Mudder” and “Spartan” seemed to have nicked the idea off the original and quite brilliant “Tough Guy” obstacle course and put a whole new spin on it. Without doubt these events look like great fun, but claims to the effect of them being among the hardest events in the world are laughable. A former colleague said to me that if one of the tests on “Selection” had been one of them, it would have been considered a “game’s afternoon” or a mere “Teddy Bear’s picnic.”
Knowing where we stood with regard to our principles and maintaining high standards, we decided upon replicating one of the Special Forces test marches, namely The Fan Dance for our first event. More than anything I liked the idea of having participants carrying weight on their back, which is something very unique in the UK race scene and certainly adds a fresh degree of difficulty to what is already a difficult course, especially in the winter months. I have always thought that there is something very noble about carrying your food and bed on your back and moving from one place to another across a beautiful landscape. It adds a whole new dimension to what would otherwise just be a race to cross a finish line first. At the same time we wanted to be accessible as not everyone wants to carry weight, and I don’t blame them! The Clean fatigue version brings its own unique challenges and hurts in a very different way. There is certainly no easy option! With the Fan Dance, the true essence lies in not only getting to the destination rather than getting there first, but the whole personal thought process and journey of the mind that comes with the challenge and just being there and taking part.
Through the means of our military skill set and adhering to and respecting the traditions of UK Special Forces, we knew we would have a great endurance event that would provide a very real challenge to anyone who took part, no matter what their fitness levels. It is no accident that just the perceived difficulty of the event is enough to put off a good many people who otherwise wouldn’t hesitate to sign up to a marathon, a half Ironman or one of the aforementioned obstacle race, which is something that in many ways suits us fine. The Fan Dance has been used as a test for the SAS since World War two and for good reason, which thankfully serves to put off people turning up in fancy dress or carrying an ironing board or a refrigerator on their back. While our objective isn’t to be elitist, at the same time we want to provide an opportunity for potential participants to face up to what is without doubt a serious challenge that can test both one’s physical and mental toughness.
To host such an event is a privilege for us as we get to share a part of our own personal history; we know from absolute experience what everyone of you will be going through. We do like to think that such an event should only be run by those who can speak and act from absolute experience, it is something vital to the integrity of what we stand for and the grander history of the The Fan Dance and SAS “Selection.” For all those who have registered so far and committed themselves to the challenge, you have our utmost respect and admiration. You really have set yourselves apart from the masses, which in itself is an accomplishment.
The summer Fan Dance has now been running for two years and has enjoyed great success. Following this growing interest we recently decided to go one step further by adhering more closely to the traditions of the UK Special Forces testing procedure and running a winter edition. So this January will be our inaugural winter edition, and no doubt it will bring with it a whole new range of challenges compared to the summer version. If the elements conspire against us we could all be in for a very wet, cold and windy day out. With luck there will be snow on the ground, which actually provides great traction for the right footwear and, if the weather gods permit, you will also be rewarded with breathtaking scenery and a very real SAS experience. We know it will be a hard day out but if it was any easier it wouldn’t be worth it.
Before I close I’d like to say a few words on future events we have in store for you. Before winter closes we will be running the first night time marathon in the UK. Operation Purple Moon will be held on the night of a full moon, or high moon state and will take place across mostly undulating and hilly terrain. For those of you disturbed enough, and there are plenty of you, there will be a load-bearing version along the same route, which will be in line with the SAS and SBS night march on the UK Special Forces Selection process. We will however, unlike Special Forces Training Wing, allow headlamps and the route will be fully marked.
My Directing Staff and I will be in touch again soon with clothing and kit recommendations, training advice and tips on how best to pack a rucksack with comfort and balance in mind. For those of you not on Twitter or Facebook and have not already had access to the following, I would like to share an account of my own Fan Dance experience as a young paratrooper on SAS Selection. I do hope you enjoy it.
I look forward to seeing you all in January and in the meantime if any of you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me or one of our staff.