If you're going through hell..........

.........keep going! Winston Churchill said that! Personally I tend to approach it thus, if you're going through hell, do so with a big f**k off grin on your face! 


When I look back at the Fan Dances I've taken part in (3 up to this winter), one thing has always been evident, that I've had to rely heavily on sheer guts, determination, grit and a very big grin to get it done, the fear of failing playing heavily on my mind. Even last Summer, when I'd been the fittest I'd been for some time, I struggled badly with cramp and blisters and recorded a time that took me a long time to get over. 

This Winter I really wasn't sure what would be the outcome, I hadn't been able to train since coming off the Point to Point March back in mid-November, and by train I mean run and tab. I had been able to use the bike and in the last couple of weeks before the Fan Dance use strengthening exercises to try and get the left knee stronger and ready for the rigours that the Fan Dance throws at you. Generally I felt ok and had managed to maintain a decent fitness level, it was just going to be a question of how the day panned out and how the knee stood up during the descent of Jacobs Ladder. 

As is always the case, the week building up to the event becomes 24hr a day nervous excitement, my phone constantly vibrating with messages like a nymphos dildo. I never had any expectations when I started taking part in these sort of events, other than raising money for some wonderful causes and paying tribute to Lloydy, but without fear of repeating myself (as I often do), it's given me some incredible friends. Sadly some of them weren't able to be there for this one (Skipper, Tim, Kramar, Bear, Phil, Matt, Emma and Limby to name but a few), although a lot of the 'Originals' would still be there, although again, some I would miss (Mad Nick, Baldy and Olly) as they were down to do the Sunday. Such is the popularity of the event now, that two days for the Winter Fan had to be put on to cope with those interested in taking part in the event, this bred a new kind of Tabber/Maverick, those that would take on 'Back to Back' Fan Dances.

I would like to suggest I wouldn't be daft enough to contemplate doing 'Back to Back' Fan Dances, however, that would be a lie. I did however make the decision that considering how little I'd been able to do since 'Point 2 Point' and with the London Marathon just over 3 months away, it wasn't sensible that I should do it. Add to that, that I should just count myself fortunate that Mrs R hadn't pulled rank on me and really I was lucky to be doing it at all! So much is the draw to be there, for Lloydy and to bask in the friendships I've made, there is no way that I could consider not being there. I even cancelled my physio appointment on the Wednesday evening just in case she insisted I shouldn't be, Zoe would have probably been right of course, but wild horses wouldn't have kept me away for the Saturday at least!

Wednesday and Thursday were spent getting kit and admin sorted and getting my tribute for Lloydy put together. The routine is always the same now, I go and sit with him at the Pilgrims Gate and have a chat for a little while, before I head to Brecon and then when I get to RV1 on the march, I always lay a pic of him with a message at the Summit.

It's become second nature now packing kit and getting the bergen up to weight, the only difficult decision I really face is if I'm going to wear Lloydys battered PF t-shirt or not. Part of me doesn't want to wear it because I want to preserve it from completely falling apart, but a bigger part of me, wants to wear it because it seems appropriate to do so, another way I can honour his memory. There always seems to be a fine line here though, between 'Walting' and paying tribute, and I must admit I haven't quite got my head around that yet! By Thursday night everything was packed, food and fuel all prepared, everything checked, a little message for Gerald created and route map fabloned, and it was just the inevitable sleepless night to get through.

Friday morning arrives and I'm working from home, that allows me not to panic, get the last minute faff sorted and spend some time with Caz and Charlie before setting off. I set off at 1430 and head for Hereford, arriving just after 1700. As I get out of the car at the Pilgrims Gate, it's pretty evident how difficult the conditions are going to be, it's absolutely blowing a hoolie. I sit there and chat with Lloydy for a while, my words disappearing on the very strong wind, laying a kiss on his headstone, I say my goodbyes and ask him to keep us safe.

I pull up at the Storey Arms three quarters of an hour later, you can often forget how 'black' this place can be when the sun has gone to bed. Too lazy to get my torch out of my pack I rely on my eyes adjusting quick in the darkness, not quickly enough though to recognise my mate Billy and Andrew Heller, luckily they recognised me as I strode past. This is what is so amazing about this event, that even though there were many friends who could not be there, this event as I've said before, has created a 'family', and there is always a chance the first person you're gonna bump into is 'family'. Billy and I had struck up a friendship prior to 'Point 2 Point' and like everyone else I've only known but for a short while through taking part in these events, it's pretty evident, we're going to be friends for life. He's larger than life, has a massive heart and is a relentless trainer, he was made for doing crazy shit like this! Andrew I'd never met until that moment, but we'd been throwing some serious banter about during the build up to this Fan Dance, and there was no way we weren't going to be kindred spirits, after all, that's the type of character this event attracts, greetings and man hugs done, they give me SOP on getting registered.

The queue for registration is already long and resembling a theme park ride formation. I head up the steps to the weigh station and in the darkness; all I can make out are two very long shadows with red head torches on. Standing outside, Ken utters the words "you come to weigh your Bergen mate?", I pop my head inside and I reply "Good Evening Mr Jones". He greets me warmly, again another reason this event is so special. Sure, I have my very own personal reasons for doing this and I guess on some level that resonates with the guys, but it feels like you've been welcomed into the fold. From my own experiences of Hereford after Lloydy's passing, it's a special place to be, you feel looked after, and that's no different when I turn up at an AEE event.

We weigh my Bergen on the first set of scales and it's under, which surprises us both, to which Ken gives it a bit of good news and suggests it's been playing up a bit. So we try it on the other set, and the Bergen is bang on weight. "I knew you wouldn't let me down" he says. We talk for a while and it's great being in his and Jason's company, just chatting normally, talking about the build up to the event and Ken 'selling' Ironman to me! There has also been an intention on Ken's part to make a presentation to me on Fan Summit (RV3) since last Winter's Fan Dance. The winds were brutal up there that day, and in the Summer, I think by the time I'd got to RV3, Ken had got bored and gone back to Base camp. He suggested, as in all likelihood, the conditions on the Fan in the morning, would be just as hazardous as last winter if not more so, that he was going to take the weather out the equation and hide whatever it was he had for me in my Bergen. He opened up the top pouch and placed the item in my little personal kit dry bag, whilst I'd turned my back so that I couldn't tell what it was. I bid both Ken and Jas goodbye as others began to arrive at the weigh station and joined the lengthy queue to register.   

In the queue I'm joined by the legend that is Mr H (John Hunter), absolute nails, an absolute machine and probably everything we all aspire to be. A great guy too, and one of the originals, he's had a tough week (and that's an understatement) and it's hard seeing friends hurt, but he's in the right place for the weekend at least. Out the corner of my eye I spot a majestic beard and blow that beard a kiss! Fordy, thankfully, isn't looking too weathered from his night in the hills, despite the story of his night he probably should be though. Fordy I can't wax lyrical about enough, he like everyone I've met in the last two years on these events, is an absolute star and my life would be less rich for him not being in it. As I move along the queue more familiar faces and friends arrive, the Essex Linehans, Adam and his lovely wife Lisa, my 'Point 2 Point' team mate Stu Massey, the better looking and less folically challenged Massey brother. My very good friend Rob 'Superman' Paine, Mick 'Scarface' Henderson and Dave Ellicott, and a guy who does nothing but grin (even in the face of mortal peril), James Allen, quite possibly one of the nicest people you could ever care to meet. Warm greetings and man hugs administered, and a cwtch for my lush Welsh buddy Darren Hutchings and registration is done. Race No. in hand (No. 778) Billy hands me two Fan Dance Ales, I protest a little, but there's no point arguing with a Scotsman, even less so when he's buying the beer.

The original intention for me was to be at Nant Ddu with Caz and Charlie, but Caz and I decided because of the unpredictable weather and an even more unpredictable Hurricane Charlie, they would stay at home. That meant cancelling Nant Ddu and me kipping out in the Jag, until Mick put his bunk at the Storey Arms up for grabs, so grab it I did. When I checked to find out where I was staying I was in 'Cribyn' with Bobby Willis and his mate Billy, I didn't know who they were when I looked at the list and they weren't in the room when I bagged a bunk. I went and collected the rest of my kit and on the way back bumped into more fantastic people, Pierre, Steve Moore (who was on MST duty and would play a massive part in my day on the Saturday) and Big Mike.

Kit deposited, I drove myself, Andrew and Billy (or more the point chauffeured Andrew and Billy) to Nant Ddu for some scoff. We joined Dave, Mick, Adam, and Lisa, and admittedly as nice as the fair was, it didn't feel enough. The banter flowed though and got the weekend started in the proper fashion. Back at the Storey Arms, I made my excuses, and took myself off to the room to faff with my kit, to get the last bits of prep sorted. Half way through faffing and I'm joined by Bobby and Billy, introductions made, the conversation soon flowed, we swopped stories and it was pretty clear that they were pretty serious Fan Dancers and great guys. They noticed the pic of Lloydy in his sandy beret, laid out with my kit, we talked about him and the units he served in, talking about his time in the PF (Pathfinders). Bobby said he'd been talking to Billy about the PF on the journey there and that had been prompted by Bobby watching the doc Sky did on the 'Pathfinders in Afghanistan'. "About 7 mins in" I said, "Lloydy in his North Face Jacket doing press ups", obviously that's not the only time he's visible in the doc, but that's the moment that I watch over and over, and probably a moment many people will remember if they have seen it. It was no different for Bobby and it gave me a real lift.

Mid call to the wife I pass Pete Lavelle in the corridor and then Jamie H and Kate appear, warm greetings done, I continue checking in. Back in the room, and a man I regard as a brother calls me, firstly in my excited/nervous state, I look at the number and think that's home, and when I ring the number back Tim answers. It wasn't a voice I expected, but it was a voice I was relieved to hear when I realised in my confused state it wasn't home. Tim and I got chatting before Catterick Paras'10 in September 2012 and we've been friends ever since, it's a real big miss that he's not here, but again as the conversation with Bobby and Billy about Lloydy, speaking to Tim had given me another 'chest out' lift. I told him that Ken had told me the flag we'd had done for Ken would be on the gate at the Phonebox and I promised I'd get him a picture of it.

Bobby, Billy and myself agreed on a 0600 alarm call, I assumed that 0600 would come around all too quickly with not a lot of sleep had. A quick chat again with Jamie and Kate and a disturbance of the peace before bed and I laid there in my green maggot, listening to the howling wind outside, I must have drifted off to sleep quite happily. Before I know it there's an alarm going off in the darkness.

Administering myself I'm ready to go, I say my goodbyes to Billy and Bobby and wish them well, outside it's still dark, it's wetter than an otters pocket and the wind is only showing us a fraction of its power that we'd be subjected to that day. Nevertheless, the morning light is beginning to take hold, and the buzz in the huddle is the same as it always is. The first person I'm greeted by is Nick Hore, we'd had a bit of good banter in the build up to the event, and for some reason although he's a 'Master' was laying the blame at my feet for him carrying full weight. I know I can tend to 'over egg' the fondness I have for people, but unless you've been part of these events, and this group of people, it's hard to express the relationships you forge in any other way, Nick has become someone I always look for and hope to see on these events (especially when's he's handing me jelly babies as I pass him coming back up the Forest track).

In the huddle I spot Jimifer, Jamie, Kate, James, Adam and Lisa, luckily Jim is wearing a jacket that is resplendently orange in its luminosity it could be spotted from just about anywhere on the march, ironically Jamie's beard is glowing the same colour too. The huddle begins to creep forward on Ken's command and we gather round to be addressed for the safety briefing, I'm standing with Stu, and I tell him I'll stick with him as long as I can. On 'Go' my watch says 0820 and that first climb begins and before I know it we're at the kissing gate, it's the quickest I have ever got there, despite starting in the middle of the pack.

Standing by.........
Normally I struggle badly with the approach up to Corn Du, I just find the slog hard, but there's nothing shouting at me as it has in Fan Dances past to stop and take a breather. There's also the distraction from 'Monty' Tim's favourite dog from P2P, literally trying to drag a sheep by the neck back down the hill. Whilst it was funny to watch, because of the sheer audacity of it, you can't help but remember Tim's 'Hitler Sketch' and think on some level Tim wasn't right, especially when the dog in question can't be controlled, I remember him trying to take the cows on going up the last climb on P2P, he is plucky I'll give him that.

I reach the turn in 40 minutes (and within 50 I'm on the Fan summit), despite the winds ferociousness and determination to throw a few of us from the path. Seeing Dave Humm trying to stay planted at the path junction, could only give you a small indication of how ferocious the gusts were as you made your way up to the Fan. Guys were being 'lifted' off their feet, myself included, on that last stretch up I remember looking behind me to see Jim and just as we set upon the Fan summit we linked arms to keep ourselves grounded. There was something comforting about holding on to a buddy, we must have looked like we were skipping in the school playground, but we didn't care. On reaching the Summit marker, we were greeted by Steve Moore, armed with warnings about keeping safe and staying right going down Jacobs. My intention was to place my tribute to Lloydy, but the gusts were so intense, I handed the tribute to Steve and asked him if he could try to lay it for me if the winds drop. He said he'd try, and off Jim and I skipped to Jacobs.

At the edge, we spot DS Stu and he's shouting into the wind 'Stay Low', so I took him at his word, and went down on my arse. It wasn't comfortable and by the time I was off the ladder my trousers were hanging around my arse, but I wasn't making a parachute with my Bergen and my arse was still intact. I always tackle the descent of Jacobs with a fair amount of caution anyway, but I've never known it to be that hairy coming off there. On the path Lisa bounds past me followed by Adam, I don't know how people come off there that quick, at that point my knees f*****g hate me. Just before the crap at the bottom, I stop to readjust myself, and off I go again, catching Stu up. On the way around to Windy Gap Jamie and Kate put a bit of a spurt on and go past me, I assume to catch Adam and Lisa up who were going like trains since coming off Jacobs. 2 mins later the Ginger Bearded Warrior has stopped for a pit stop (a brave man in the very cold biting wind) and catching Kate up I bound on towards Windy Gap.

At Windy Gap we're greeted by Fordy, checking in and giving him a grin I crack on, just hitting a steady run pace, my intention to get as far as I can before I run out of gas. By this point I know I've left all the guys behind me and I'm tabbing on my own and for the first time on a Fan Dance I start to think about a time with a '4' at the beginning! I hadn't really thought about a time up to that point, for me there had been little point, but coming off the Fan in 50mins I realised that was 25mins quicker than I ever had managed previously. By the time I hit the forest I was still running, and that's when the 'elite' had begun to pass me from the turnaround, chief among them Rob, going like a train, but for me that felt massive. In the past, I would have been at Windy Gap still by the time I'd seen my good friend making his way back to the Fan. That gave me a huge lift and by the time I saw Young Charlie, Billy Boy, Pierre and Dave coming the other way I was still going and thinking about hitting the turnaround inside 2hrs. The return up the Roman road and forest track looked tough going as the guys came back up, but there was still smiles and greetings as we passed one another.

I hit the turnaround at bang on 2hrs, again 25mins quicker than I ever have previously, but there's a big backlog and Jas the DS is having to deal with radio traffic from other RV's, I get away from the RV after 10mins, enough time to see Bobby and his mate Billy come through the gate. Not long after turning around Billy goes sailing past, and I pass most of the guys coming the other way heading towards RV2. They give me great encouragement and I try and crack on, but it is hard going as expected, but I'm still grinning enough for a photo call from James. As I get to the end of the track before hitting the Roman road I pass Mark Hughes, after he recognises me, I stop for a quick hello. Mark is someone I've come to know from Twitter, a man tireless in his pursuit of trying to make a difference for a little lady called Charlotte and part of the firefog team. A great guy doing great things and I only hope I get to bump into him again. 

Photocall - James Allen
By the gorge I must admit I was beginning to feel a little spent and needed some company, luckily I got some as Bobby was coming out of the gorge just behind me. We tabbed together all the way up the Roman Road and carried on getting to know one another, pretty much carrying on where we'd left off, the night before back in the room. This event does that better than any I know, in so much it throws strangers together and creates friends. Half way up the track my mind drifts back to times, and I reason that if we can hit Windy Gap in 3hrs 15, then there's a real chance of hitting around a 4hr 30 finish. We hit Windy gap at 3hrs 10 and after getting Fordy to load me up with Reese's and Gels I cracked on around to Jacobs. Adam and Lisa had gone flying past us about half way up the Roman Road, but I could see them as I began to climb Jacobs, I'd lost Bobby at that point and again could probably have done with climbing that bastard with someone beside me.

SOP up Jacobs for me used to be to get to each rill have a breather and go again, and much like the climb towards Corn Du, I just kept going, stopping far less frequently than I ever did before, don't get me wrong I was beginning to hang out and I could feel cramp beginning to take hold in the abductors and calves, but getting on the Fan summit in 4 hrs had become the the target. By the time I reached the first part of the shelf my legs were beginning to cramp badly and the wind was beginning to grit it's teeth again, you could literally feel it trying to pull you away from the face, I went up on all fours, thinking fcuk it, I don't care what I look like and who's got my arse in their face, I'm staying as close as to the face as I can. I clambered on to the plateau bang on 4hrs and I was absolutely buzzing, but that didn't compare to the sight that greeted me at RV3.

Steve had managed to lay my pic of Lloydy on the summit marker and secured it so well it wasn't going anywhere, despite how much the wind huffed and puffed, he knows what that meant to me, I'm sure he must have seen it in my face, it was a gesture I will always be grateful for. I also remembered at that point that Ken had put something in my bergen but there was no way I was playing about up there. So I looked at my watch and thought 4hrs 40, that's the target now, it's time to leg it. So I did, again setting little targets along the way, 10 mins to the path up to Corn Du from the junction, and then a further 10 mins to the gorge and therefore aiming to be at the kissing gate at 4hrs 30. About half way towards the gorge I looked behind me to see Bobby coming down the path, so after the gorge I waited for him, it seemed like the perfect way to finish the Dance, so we banged that last bit out together.

Coming down that last hill I just zoned out, just concentrating on my foot placement and the watch bezel set at 4hrs 40. As I approached the DS I shouted "778 Staff", 4:37 came the reply. Approaching Ken to receive my patch seemed very surreal, it was a proud moment for me, I'd never received my patch from Ken before, again confirming I'd given a half decent account of myself out there, as he's normally done prizes before I arrive! My previous best 'official' time was last Winter at 5:23 so I'd knocked 46 minutes off my previous best effort. Luckily there were a few people to hug it out with.

Ken then reminded me about the item he'd put in my bergen the evening before, back at the bunk I opened the top pouch and found a 'special' patch that he'd had done especially for me, a number of them, intended to be left at Lloydy's grave, on the Fan Summit and a couple to keep. Most know that I'm a big bucket of mush at the best of times, but that got me in a big way, a small gesture on the face of it, was a massive gesture for me, and it resonated with the guys too. I had to go back to the phone box and thank him again, I was so very humbled by idea he'd go to that trouble for Lloydy. 

I guess that means though, my business with the Fan is still not done, as I need to lay Lloydy's patch at the Fan summit and now that I finally have a time that's half decent, I've got to aim for a sub 4, the Summer Fan will so come around. Before saying my goodbyes to Ken at the gate I remembered I promised I'd get Tim a picture of 'our' flag, to remind him although he may not have been there, he was still thought of! For you buddy.........

I checked in at home, to let Caz know I was off the march safe and well and proceeded to devour the hog roast and to say my goodbyes. Once again I was huddled among fantastic friends sharing in a feeling that is truly unique, sharing a bond that is everlasting. It's a tough gig to pull yourself away, especially knowing some of them, are set to go at again the following morning (for that I can only salute them, despite Dando calling me gay) and some of my friends wouldn't be taking on the Fan until the Sunday. As I dump my stuff back at the car my mate Billy presents me with a bottle of red, labelled up specially for the event, again it's a gesture that gets me, he has a massive heart and despite the fact I haven't known him long, I know we're gonna be doing this together long into our 'Masters' years, even though he looks like he may be already there. 

I said on my Facebook page that "I am completely and utterly staggered sometimes (although maybe I shouldn't be) by the sheer awesomeness of people, especially those I've never met until an event throws us together". It is beyond humbling, and this blog is dedicated to you all, all the friends I've made in the last few years, those I shared the hill with, those that couldn't make it, and those that make it happen: Billy Boy Mckie, Andrew Heller, Mick Henderson, Dave Ellicott, Mr 'Machine' Hunter, Rob 'Superman' Paine, the soon to be Mr & Mrs Horgan (?), Adam & Lisa Linehan, Pete Lavelle , Fordy, Mark Lundqvist, Jonathan Dando, Jimifer, James & John Nicholson (who I must reserve special mention for, for creating something so incredibly special for me), Pierre, Young Charlie Martin, Steve Moore, Matty Lawson, Big Mike, Daz H, Mark Hughes, James Allen, Bobby Willis and Billy, Nick Hore and Stuart Massey. And not forgetting Mad Nick, Baldy, Olly, Skipper, Tim, Kramar, Bear, Phil Williams, Matt Walby, Miss Munday and Limby, you have all played a massive part getting me here, and I can't thank you all enough, big love! x

And of course KJ, Jason, Linda, Stu, Dave H, Matt, and all the friends among the MST, the team that make it possible for us mere mortals to walk in the land of giants! Here's to you all, there's some big love for you all too!

I would also like to mention Rob, because he is someone I admire greatly, I know he's been through an awful lot in the last few years and I know that it drives him. I'm so incredibly happy and proud that he's got his reward from the Fan Dance, he's worked so very hard for it, you're mum and dad would be so proud of you buddy! x

My last thanks as always are for my gorgeous wife and littleman, without who, I'd be lost, always there to ensure in my darkest days, they light my way and support me no matter what, love you both to the depths of forever xxxx

And Lloydy for always being there when I need him the most, even if most of the time I'm talking to myself, blue skies little brother and big love, you are missed more than you could ever know - you may be beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow, but my heart walks with you always xxx

See you in the Summer, if not before...........


Popular posts from this blog

It's been emotional.........

Beyond the last blue mountain.....

30 days to go (no need to paniccccccccccccc)