Pen Y Fan

We best know Jonathan Albon for his victories at Survival of the Fittest, Dirty Weekend, Spartan Beast and Nuts Challenge but he does a fair amount of running outside of obstacle racing. Only a couple of months ago he completed the 90km OMM (Original Mountain Marathon) and also came second in the Redbull Steeplechase.

Yesterday Jonathan continued his successes in mountain races by storming to a resounding victory at the winter Fan Dance Race!

Fan Dance is part of the selection phase for British Special Forces personnel and is a 24km march in the Brecon Beacons of Wales. It’s a gruelling load-bearing exercise that is a true test of the candidates’ physical and mental determination. It involves hiking up and descending Pen y Fan (a 886 meter high peak), before turning back and doing the route in reverse.

Jonathan swung by Mudstacle HQ after his victory yesterday and, as you’d expect, he seemed quite unphased by his achievement. He’s a confident athlete that takes everything in his stride. It’s quite a refreshing attitude – there’s no dwelling on how tough things are – Jonathan just gets stuff done without pomp and ceremony. It really is damn impressive, I’m sure if I’d just been through what he had I’d be at home with a hot water bottle licking my wounds.

Jon Albon Fan Dance winner

After a bit of probing, I managed to at least get Jonathan to acknowledge that it was hard work… I think…

I know that you are constantly active and in preparation mode Jon, but is there anything that you did differently to prepare for this race?

I spent my Christmas and New Year over in Norway and did a lot of cross country skiing and snow shoeing, which was excellent preparation. Especially the snow shoeing, as you have to put in a massive amount of effort without traveling very fast; kind of like running up a mountain. So that really built up the power in my legs ready for running with a sack.

I live in London, so it’s quite hard to train for the amount of hills I’d be facing, so I had to build up leg power in different ways and artificially create the pain that you feel when you’re climbing a mountain. Training with Judgement Day and BMF, as well as doing lots of squat jumps in my regular runs has really helped, and last weekend I did a final training run with a full 18kg pack.

What did you fill your pack with on the day?

The organisers state that you need to have a 35lb pack and then add your essentials on to that (like food and water), so that your pack still weighs at least 35lbs by the time you finish. Fandance has a very military feel to it and a lot of people stayed true to the roots of the event by wearing large packs.

Having competed the OMM (Original Mountain Marathon) a couple of months ago, I decided to take a slightly different civilian twist at Fandance. With OMM I learnt to adapt the rules to give you the best possible advantage, whilst still keeping the spirit of the competition.

I took a far smaller backpack, in which I had the necessities stipulated by the organisers: a change of clothes, rations (energy gels and crackers), head lamp, first aid kit, water and a bivi bag. None of that weighed very much, so I wrapped a 15kg lump of lead in a towel, and that was the bulk of my required weight.

Do you think that gave you an advantage?

Yes, definitely. Especially with the wind up there. I found it hard enough to stay on my feet and even fell over a few times but wearing a large pack would be like having a kite on your back. I saw people wobbling around a lot.

I’m expecting a fair amount of abuse about it from the purists though!

Tell us about the start of the course.

Pen y Fan phone boxWell there was a bit of a mix up – my fault – I ended up getting the start time wrong and turning up 15 minutes after the race had started. I got myself registered, did the bare minimum to get ready and just started running clasping the map in my hands. I ended up setting off 21 minutes behind the others and I was told I would be able to take that off of my finishing time.

I passed the famous red phone box starting point and headed up a steep hill, which wasn’t great considering I hadn’t warmed up. It was all uphill for about a kilometre but then there was a steep descent to a river, which lulled you into a false sense of security about the race and encouraged you to pick your pace up. But the main climb was yet to come on the other side of the river.

Did you have to use your map to navigate?

Not much really. By the time I reached the river, I was starting to overtake people, so I just followed others a lot of the time. There were also some big blue arrows on the path to help. Later in the race I ended up on the wrong path for a 100 yards or so, but I realised soon enough and cut across to the right track. I do a lot of orienteering, so I’m quite used to reading maps while running.

What was the weather like?

Awful! And it got worse the further you got up Pen y Fan. The mist came down, so the visibility was really bad and the rain was sideways with incredibly strong winds. I think it was only my pack that was stopping me blowing away. If it was any stronger I would have been a goner.

Thanks to UltrPlodderdotcom for the video.

What were you wearing to combat that?

I wore boots (as enforced by the organisers), running trousers, compression shorts, thermal long sleeve compression, a T-shirt (Ramones – standard), an OMM jacket, a buff, windproof buff and a cap with woolly ear covers. When the rain was sideways I would just turn the hat around to protect my face. The best thing to do in situations like that is grit your teeth and get on with it. The quicker you move, the quicker you’ll get to shelter.

What was it like running in boots?

I’d only bought them the Monday before, so I didn’t really have much practice in them, but to be honest I didn’t want to get too used to them and weaken my ankles.

They had nowhere near as much grip as my trail shoes, so they were useless on mud and grass. At quite a few points you had the option of going over bumpy up-stood rocks or grass to the side. The boots wouldn’t grip on the grass, so I had to go for the rocks. Without wearing boots, they were the kinds of rocks that you could twist your ankle over easily. So in some respects the boots were necessary, but if I wasn’t wearing them I probably could have taken routes that would have meant that they weren’t.

Wasn’t it odd running in the boots though?

A little. They felt like they filled with water and I’m used to minimal shoes so they felt a bit more bulky and had a larger heal to toe differential. Everything’s just a bit slower than normal.

What was it like at the top of Pen y Fan?

Jacobs ladderIt was a massive relief! But from there it’s straight down Jacob’s Ladder, which starts off with big uneven rocks with drops of half a meter. It then becomes more of a staircase and then eventually an uneven stone road. From there you’re on an 8km track where you’re descending the whole way, traversing down towards a lake, through some woodland and eventually hitting a roman road. That’s where I picked up a lot of pace. I’m a technical runner, so felt at home and managed to put in a few 4min30 kilometres.

Then eventually you reach the turn-around point, which is just a guy standing with a land rover. When I reached that I asked him how many people were ahead of me and he pointed and said “just those three ahead”.

So you had made up 21 minutes by the halfway point? How far ahead were the three guys?

Yes! They weren’t far, I went past them in a few minutes. Once I got past them though, I just took it steady. I was retracing my steps in the opposite direction, so it was a long run up hill. I’m a big believer in keeping moving. As soon as you stop it’s hard to get going again. So I kept a steady sustainable running pace right up until I reached Jacobs Ladder. That was impossible to run up but I just continued putting one foot in front of the other.

How did it feel carrying the pack at that point?

My back had been aching with it since the first kilometre. On the way up the ladder I was walking but had my arms behind my back trying to support the weight of the pack. My technique of climbing with a pack is really poor. I start hunching straight away, which is what made my back ache I think.

So you must have been on your own for the whole way back, did you get lost?

Yes, I was on my own, but I just retraced my steps. It was quite hard with the visibility being so bad but I managed it okay. I slipped over a couple of times on the descent from Pen Y Fan, but that was okay really. The final accent after the river was really hard and I ended up walking it. If there was somebody else there I might have forced myself to run it though!

What was it like when you crossed the line?

There were just a couple of guys sat in a car trying to keep warm but they got out and congratulated me. I then had my ruck sack weighed and it was 41lbs (6lbs heavier than it needed to be). Ken Jones, the organiser shook my hand and congratulated me, as he did to everyone, which was really great to see.

What time did you finish in?

It was 2 hours 38 mins by my watch. It was hard going. It was a hard race but incomparable to what the special forces must have to go through. They have to do that after being beasted for a couple of weeks and they have a heavier pack and rifle to carry!

I just went to give it some as a civy. I attacked it with the same mind set as I do obstacle races. Sometimes people give OCRs too much respect and don’t give them 100% from the off because they want to keep something in reserve. I say just go for it!

Did you win anything for coming first?

Yes I got a framed section of the map, which is really nice, a Nite military adventure sports watch and a badge (which everyone got). I also picked up a couple of Fandance Ales and a book written by Ken Jones (the organiser) about how he survived an avalanche and spent three days dragging himself to safety with a broken leg, shattered pelvis, frostbite and internal bleeding.

Wow, that makes Fandance sound like a walk in the park. Thanks Jonathan and massive congratulations!

Fan Dance Race happens twice a year. If you’d like to know more visit:

Thanks to Dave for the Pen y Fan pictures (not shot this weekend - the weather was much worse!)

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  1. as if I didnt have enough respect for Mr Albon, he goes and does this!! WOW, you should try it with a proper Bergen next time and show the purists its not what or how you carry it, its the man that carries it!!

  2. Fair play John.. I was there with a full on 41lb bergen. And can vouch that Jacobs ladder is Nails. 80mph winds driving rain.. What an awesome experience

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