Descending Jacob's Ladder

Last week I happened to watch a documentary about military recruits in the Second World War. They showed many of the challenges that were faced during the training and selection process, with 45 foot cargo net climbs, brick wall obstacles and marches across the most brutal terrain in the UK. It hammered home that the concept of obstacle racing and endurance challenges are far older than the recent swarm of events. Even Tough Guy, with a 25 year history, is a young buck in the scheme of things.

On Saturday I had signed up to take on a historic military challenge, known as Fan Dance, which has been part of SAS and SBS special forces selection for over 50 years. The concept is simple, you must ascend and descend Pen Y Fan (the UK’s highest peak south of Snowdonia), then turn around and do the same in reverse. However, in practice, the 24km route is most definitely not “simple”.

Here's a video of my experience, before I continue the ramble...

When military recruits take part in the challenge, they carry a full burgen and rifle, so for those taking part in Fan Dance race who want their experience to be as authentic as possible, there is a load bearing category (35lb pack for men and 25lb pack for women). I, however, opted to go for the “Clean Fatigue” category, where you only have to carry basic survival aids, including a compass, torch, whistle, food, extra clothing and three litres of water. Initially I saw it as a stepping stone and a way of working up to the “main event” in the future, however, since taking part, I view it completely differently. Without taking anything away from those who opted for load bearing (massive respect to them), running with a lighter load at a faster pace came with a whole different set of challenges.

Apart from the peak of Pen Y Fan itself, one of the most iconic images of Fan Dance is the start and end point - a red phone box outside the Storey Arms and, as I joined the rest of the group huddling around it, I was hit by the magnitude of the moment. After nearly signing up to the last three Fan Dance Races, I had finally made it. This was a legendary challenge and I had no idea whether I would make it through without crumbling. I’ve certainly had my fair share of uncomfortable experiences at races over the last couple of years and this had the potential to be up there with the worst of them. I attempted to think positively though. Maybe by limping my way through the likes of Man Vs Mountain and Man Vs Horse, I may have hardened myself to the evils of Welsh hills enough to pass through this unscathed. Only time would tell…

Red Phone Box Storey Arms
The red phone box outside the Storey Arms

Event Director Ken Jones presented the challenge ahead. He really is a fascinating man, who adds to the legendary status of Fan Dance Race. Having served in the Parachute Regiment, Royal Marines and various elements of the special forces, Ken oozes authenticity, but that’s only half of his story. In 2003 he was blown over a cliff by an avalanche in Romania and was left completely isolated, separated from his supplies with a broken pelvis and leg. For three agonizing days he crawled through the wilderness to safety.

Seeing Ken in the flesh was a strange experience. Sometimes when you build somebody up as a legend in your mind, it oddly comes as a bit of a surprise when you meet them and realise they’re just a normal human - flesh and blood like the rest of us. I find it inspiring whenever I have that kind of realisation - it reinforces that we are all capable of great things, if we can just instruct our bodies to obey, and Ken is testament to that. Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent here. Seeing as we’re six paragraphs into this “race review”, I should really start talking about the race but, if you'd like to know more about Ken's story, you should check out his book: Darkness Descending.

First Ascent

From the word “GO!”, we were heading up hill. Ahead of us was a huge 1km slog with 150m of vertical gain. Sensibly, the majority of people decided to pace themselves, which made the start less rushed than it sometimes can be. I trotted upwards as best as I could, trying to find space to pass on the narrow footpath.

Within a couple hundred meters the path turned from comfortable gravel into jagged rocks. It was still a man made path but the rocks were fitted together very unevenly, making it very uncomfortable to run on. Little did I know that a large sections of the 24km route ahead would be over paths like that, so I had better start getting used to it.

As I ran down hill on the other side of that initial climb, I concentrated heavily on every footstep. I wanted to pick up my pace but knew that if I put a single foot wrong I could risk turning my ankle on one of the uneven rocks. Already this was very tiring work, both physically and mentally.

Pen Y Fan and Corn Du
Corn Du to the left and Pen Y Fan on the right

After the short taster of downhill running, we crossed a stream and started on a 2.5km slog uphill to the summit of Pen Y Fan (310 vertical meters above us). On the way we skirted around the edge of Corn Du, the second highest peak in South Wales (behind Pen Y Fan). As we crossed over to its southeast slope, the views turned from stunning to breathtaking. For a moment I put the race on pause and allowed a guy that I was pursuing to get ahead, as I pulled out my camera to capture the moment.

The final climb to the summit was fairly mellow, as summit climbs go, and I made the most of it because I knew that the return climb would be a different story. As I crossed through the checkpoint and headed across to the far side of the summit, the most notorious part of the course came into view - Jacob’s Ladder.

In contrast to the relatively flat top of Pen Y Fan, Jacob’s Ladder dropped away suddenly, with a 230 meter descent in just one kilometer. At first the path dropped down through mountainous boulders. As I hopped down them, I tried to avoid glancing over to the left hand side of the slope, which was basically a cliff edge. By concentrating on what my feet were doing rather than allowing my mind to wander, I managed to trundle through the most treacherous section with relative ease, and soon I was back on to that familiar rocky path.

Jacobs ladder
Looking down Jacob's Ladder (on the return journey)

Eventually, as the gradient started to mellow, I started to pick up some pace. It was by no means easy going. My eyes and brain were working on overdrive, trying to process a safe route ahead through the rocks and finding a safe landing spot for each foot several times every second. I’m guessing that I took around 25,000 footsteps over the course of the race, which felt like I was tackling 25,000 mini obstacles, and you can’t get a more obstacle-heavy course than that!

Over the next 5km I was feeling great and was happy that the halfway point was approaching. I started passing more and more of the load bearing competitors (in both directions), as they had set off an hour before those of us who were Clean Fatigue. Many of them were looking very tired already, and no wonder at it, some of their packs looked huge. Lugging them up these hills would be hellish I’m sure.

Picking up some pace on the descent

After checking in at the halfway point, I set back out to retrace my steps in the opposite direction. At first I felt positive about my energy levels but I soon started to realise that I was going to face a long drawn out slog. The 5km of “mellow” terrain that I had run on the way to the turnaround point was actually a gentle hill that, when tackled in reverse, was a relentless and soul destroying climb.

My thighs burned as I forced myself to carry on trotting but it was my feet that were really starting to capture my attention. Most of the load bearing racers were wearing thick-soled army boots, which seemed to make short work of the rocks path, but my relatively thin-soled trail shoes were no match for them. I could feel that my feet had started to swell and blister. I needed to loosen my laces but I didn’t want to stop moving, I was on a role and I would rather try to forget about the discomfort than lose any time readjusting.

Load bearer
A hellish ascent for the load bearers

Eventually Jacob’s Ladder came into view. It was strangely a relief, as I was really having to force myself to run and I knew that I would have to drop back to a walk when I reached the steeper terrain. That was a stupid way to think because, when the steeper terrain came, it was horrific. With already burning legs, I tried to push on through the ever steepening climb. I resorted to concentrating on “putting one leg in front of the other”. I’ve rarely micro-managed my movement to that extent before but it definitely worked. Every footstep in its own context seemed achievable, whereas if I thought about the entire distance to the summit it would dishearten me. So I just continued staring at my feet - “left foot boom, right foot BOOM! Have that Jacob’s Ladder!”

I really felt for the load bearers that I passed on that slope. If my thighs were aching, I can’t imagine how theirs were feeling!

I was excited as I crossed over the summit of Pen Y Fan for the second time. Apart from one more short assent, it was all downhill from here. As I’ve learnt before though, steep descents can be almost as uncomfortable as climbing up. Before long my thighs were burning again, as I constantly fought to put the brakes on. I would have used far less energy by just letting go and traveling faster but I was too tired to concentrate on footing at high speed, so that last 4km was one of the most uncomfortable parts of the race for me.

Pain selfie
A pained selfie on the Jacob's ladder approach

Eventually the crowd around the red phone box came into view and, as I crossed the line, I was greeted by Ken Jones, who chatted to every finisher, which is a really nice touch. He handed me my Fan Dance finishers patch and pointed me in the direction of the free hog roast - bonus!

Since crossing that line I have been buzzing. Even writing this review has been an absolute pleasure. I loved everything about this race! The distance is achievable but made far more brutal by the sensational terrain.

More than any other event I’ve signed up for, Fan Dance Race had a taste of authenticity throughout. It was run with military precision, which to the average civvy (like me) might have seemed a little excessive at times, but I welcomed it open armed, knowing that there was absolutely no room left for error.

Climbing Jacobs ladder

I’m really pleased that I chose the Clean Fatigue option and, now that I’ve experienced it, I think I’d want to do the same again. I’m a runner at the end of the day and, if I was wearing a 35lb pack, I know that I’d spend most of my time walking. It would undoubtedly be a bigger test of strength and endurance, which I hope to sample one day, but I loved testing my heart, lungs and fast-thinking concentration.

I can’t recommend this race highly enough. Their next event is taking place in January, which will be an entirely different beast, where the weather will no doubt play a far bigger part. It’s a challenge that will most definitely be getting to the top of my “to do” list though.

Find out more about future Fan Dance events at:

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  1. Great write-up Pete! I’m right with you in terms of being on a real high ever since this event. The spirit of all the competitors and DS was brilliant. I’ll certainly be there in January.

    • You really captured the feel of the event Pete. I too have been buzzing. I couldn’t get to sleep last night as I was thinking about the race and about the Winter version. I, like you, am a runner and I don’t like walking at all, even when the going gets steep, but I’m planning on trying out the Load Bearing option in January

  2. I am doing the 2015 Summer Fan Dance in 2 days. This was inspirational and helped remove the fear of the unknown. I am attempting Clean Fatigue as a tester. I am neither a walker nor a runner, so might as well do both! Thank you for this.

  3. Sounds great… Will be clean fatigue as I”m 4 months out of disc surgery… But then I’ll come back for the load bearing.

    Also my dog is in training as he gets a patch too

  4. Great write up & video. I’m already looking forward to the Clean Fatigue event on 1st of July!

    Do you need to pack everything on the equipment list they send? Specifically the bivi bag? It’s not something I’ve got (or can see using again) so would need to buy one if its mandatory.


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