The Yomp

Since Ironman my mind has been focussed on the Yomp. Yomping Since 1664 is a charity hike the whole length of the South Downs Way non stop, mainly fundraising for the Royal Marine Charitable Trust, but for me also making money for Autism Hampshire. As the Royal Marines were inaugurated in 1664 the length of the South Downs Way was extended to 166.4 kilometres or 103 miles.

Friday afternoon saw my friends Kramar and Alan arrive at mine full of excitement and anticipation of what was to come over the weekend. We decided a good feed was in order so we polished off a tasty three courses at a local village pub. For once there was no guilt in the sticky toffee pudding, we would burn thousands of calories over the following days. We all went to bed early, but before not much sleep at 03.10 my alarm rang and Yomp Day had arrived. I’d laid all the breakfast out the night before which saved valuable time. Porridge, bananas and bacon sandwiches, all washed down with a mug of tea.

In no time we were in the car heading to Winchester. Although I’d been a steward at this event last year I was still a little nervous at what was ahead. In training I’d done a few 30 mile hikes but this was over three times that distance. My plan was to just take each 30 miles at time and try not to think of the distances as a total. The start point was already buzzing when we got there. Last year there were only few brave enough to take on the yomp, but this year there were over 60. Including serving Royals from 40 Commando and a whole team of wives and girlfriends aptly names The Bootneckettes. Film maker and honorary green beret holder Chris Terill was there to not only complete but also to film. Also present to start the event was Cassidy Little, the winner of the people’s Strictly Come Dancing for Comic Relief.

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Winchester Saturday morning

05.30 and we were all called forward to the start and after a few wise words from yomp mastermind Robin Hollington and Cassidy we were off. The start of what was to become an epic and life-affirming challenge. Our team was now complete with Max and Dominic and although we were told we didn’t have to stay as a team we decided we’d do our best to stick together. The first few miles flew by. We were all still fairly well bunched and the chat and leg pulling was flowing nicely as were the pings from my phone with messages of good luck and support from friends.

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And we’re off!

All was running smoothly until I noticed a chap in front about to head off down the wrong path. I whistled and got him back on track only for him to tell me he’d seen another group go that way. With nearly 100 miles still to go the last thing I needed was extra distance chasing lost souls, but I couldn’t just ignore the situation. I ran down the track eventually catching them quite some way down. It was the team headed by Sian Woodland who raises a huge amount of money for charity and they were very grateful to be stopped before they’d gone too far. I caught up with the team at the first drink stop. Time for a Mars bar and top up our water before moving on. I knew this part of the route well and we were making great time.

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Old Winchester Hill

The first proper hill was Old Winchester Hill. I knew that not far after was the second drink stop and also a chance to get an ice cream. With nearly clear blue skies the weather was perfect. Next stop would be lunch, which we were all looking forward to. A team from 40 Commando had brought a field kitchen to feed us en route and we started making guesses on what would be on offer. It was about this time I felt my first injury, a knot in my right calf muscle was gradually getting worse, more uncomfortable than painful. What I also learned was that to mention any injury would unleash a torrent of abuse from team mates. Best to ‘man up’ and shut up.

Lunch was a very tasty Chicken pasta and an opportunity to sort the first of many foot issues. I’d been advised to get Friars Balsam for blisters. The idea being to pop the blister and spray the Friars in to make use of its antiseptic properties. I’d been warned it might sting a little, let me tell you that was a massive understatement. It’s agony for a few seconds but does a great job. I decided to swap boots for trainers to ease pressure on the feet. A good stretch seemed to sort the calf muscle and once again we headed off to keep ticking away the miles. In no time at all we reached Harting Down, the next water stop. I still had plenty left in my bottle so I started taking bigger drinks only to get there to find no water station and nearly all my water was gone. Now I’d have to ration my water which on a hot day is far from ideal. There was however an ice cream stand, not only is it a morale boost but also full of sugar. Having forgotten my wallet it was down to Kramar to treat me.

By now we were over 40 miles in and much farther than I’d ever walked before. To pass some time we played some daft games, I Spy was a bit of a disaster but the ‘Who am I’ game certainly helped the miles pass and by 19.30 we’d reached the second food stop. By now just about everyone had blisters and the screams and expletives from Friars Balsam had us all laughing nearly as much the walks adopted by people putting boots back on blistered feet. People had already started to drop out and there is no shame in that. Just by crossing the start they had proved themselves braver than most and I challenge anyone to walk 40 miles on blistered feet.

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Exactly half way and the full team still standing.

Our team had a visit from Tony ‘Bear’ Day. A friend, Fan Dancer and Test Week marcher. Larger than life he’d given up a barbecue with friends to come and give a cheer. His smile and banter were really appreciated. Putting boots back and hitting the trail again we plodded onwards but something had changed. The conversation had dried up and apart from the odd very bad joke from Dominic so had the laughter. We were all struggling, constant walking on hard flint tracks was murdering our feet. Kramar had stubbed his toe on a big stone and was really suffering as we walked into the dark. Painkillers and walking poles helped but only delayed what we all feared and at midnight, having covered 60 miles, we were one man down.

The four of us plodded on through the dark, our pace had slowed now as not only did we have sore feet and legs to deal with but mental fatigue too. At 03.00 we hit another drink stop and I took the opportunity to eat a pasty. We’d been nearly contantly grazing on sugary sweets and energy bars and to be honest they were making me feel ill. Our old team mate was also there, sat in the front seat of a car, eyes closed and mouth wide open. Normally this would cause maximum hilarity but all I felt was a tinge of jealousy. He was comfortable and asleep. What I would have given for some sleep.

Onwards yompers, ever onwards! The first glimmer of light started to appear in the sky and I was struggling to stay awake even though I was walking. I couldn’t focus my vision and found myself hoping for breakfast to be late and give me a chance to nap. The Devil’s Punch Bowl North of Brighton was the place we were to have breakfast and as it came into view I got a lift. However, Max was having a tough time. Dominic tried to engage him in conversation with no response. He tried again and again no response. Max was effectively sleepwalking. Eyes open and walking, but the brain had gone to the land of nod.

Stewards, how we loved the stewards. Generally a steward meant a road crossing, drink or food stop. These particular stewards meant food, it was breakfast time. When we got there the bacon was ready but the porridge was still cooking. So much for my nap! Bacon sarnies and two cups of tea and it was time to think about moving. But Max had had had enough and told me he couldn’t go on. Then Alan said the same. I did my best to temp them both to stay but Max was adamant he was done. Alan agreed to go until the next drink stop. At that moment I knew he’d finish, at that moment he got maximum respect from me. To stop at 70 miles has absolutely no shame but to then change your mind and continue takes something extra.

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24 hours in

We were now well and truly doing the hard yards. Every step was a battle, and I could feel new blisters with every mile. A signpost said ‘Eastbourne 33 miles’ but it may as well have been 333 miles in my mind. Fatigue meant that what felt like a mile walking was probably half at most. I’d convinced myself lunch would be near the A27 just past Falmer, but when we got there it was only a drink stop. I was devastated. Lunch was another 6 miles. This was probably the lowest point for me so far. I was hot, sweating, tired and sore. Kramar was there fussing around, filling up water bottles and supplying chocolate bars and bananas. Dominic decided to change back from boots to trainers, but there was no way I would even consider taking my boots off.

The South Downs Way has some of the most stunning views. Although we really weren’t at all bothered by scenery at this point, the hills around Firle were amazing. The village of Southease was the lunch spot. Again another feast cooked up by the 40 Commando guys. Only 18 miles to go. I took the plunge and removed my boots to repair some damage and after taking time to liberally spread some Vaseline to chafing that you really don’t want to read about here, we set off for the final push. I felt pretty good considering, apart from a pain behind my left kneecap, and we decided to up the pace as much as we could to break the back of this final stint.

All went well for 3 miles until a misplaced foot caused my knee to twist. Having had knee cartilage surgery before I knew what I’d done. It was another 4 miles to the drink stop and with every step it got worse. I tried plastering the knee in Voltarol, but it was no use. For the first time the thought dawned on me I may not finish. My Mum was waiting with Josh, my son, at the finish line. I called to say I might not finish and whatever happened I would be a lot later than I’d planned.

The thought of not walking over the line to meet Josh was more than I could take. For the first time fear of failure was added to list ailments. At the drink stop I asked if the medic was around. Organiser Robin phoned him and described the symptoms. I waved goodbye to my team mates. Al was not in a good place himself and just needed to keep going. I could see they were gutted for me but it was important they should finish even if I could not. Robin got to work sorting my knee and a kind man came out of a house with a knee brace in hand, having overheard the conversations. Added to that a yomper who could not continue lent me his walking poles and half an hour later I was walking, albeit slowly.

I had a few miles on forest tracks before reaching the coast. The medication worked a treat on my knee and my speed was building. I reached the Seven Sisters, or as a friend very aptly called them the Seven Bitches – seven brutal hills one after the other before you eventually hit Eastbourne. Crossing the final road I was met by the stewards, and their smiles and encouragement gave me such a boost. I was going to finish, I had about 6 miles to go and I was going to hit it as hard as my body would allow. The walking poles were a real help up the steep hills, easing the pain going down. The effects of dehydration were also hitting. No matter what I did I couldn’t lubricate my throat. With only a few miles to go the plan was just not to stop at all, just keep moving.

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Just keep moving

I counted off the hills and past the stewards at Birling Gap who said they’d seen my team mates only 15 minutes ahead. That gave me another spurt. How amazing to catch them and cross the line together. Reaching the pub at the top of Beachy Head it was all downhill into Eastbourne but tiredness made me make some daft decisions and I ended up taking the stupidest route into town, eased only by swearing at every rabbit I saw, and there were hundreds of them. Finally I could see houses, I knew the finish line was at the far side of Eastbourne and that couldn’t be far at all from here. As I reached what looked like a main road I was approached by a steward, ‘Well done mate. The finish is straight down that way, and it’s only three miles.’

He may as well have kicked me in the balls. Three more f**king miles and, even worse, all tarmac. I wanted to cry, I had totally had enough and was spent. I started walking or more accurately hobbling along. Three miles! I knew I couldn’t do more than three miles an hour so I had a full hour walking on red hot blistered feet to get to the end, but more importantly, to get to Josh. I saw a taxi and I will admit to thinking the unthinkable but those thoughts soon went. I was going to finish and I was going to walk every inch.

One of the 40 Commando lads came off Beachy Head just after me and my mission was now to keep him behind me. I could see the pier in the distance and decided not to look up until I got there and just go as hard as possible. Just short of the pier was a marquee with live music booming out and some drunk guys falling about the road. I managed to get past them, then took a check on how far away from the pier I was. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Only 100 yards in front were Dominic and Alan. I was gobsmacked. I tried to run but it turned into a pathetic wobble and as I reached them I took a deep breath and in the most nonchalant way, trying desperately to sound super cool and not like an excited child said, ‘Well, we started as a team, it would be rude not finish as one.’ I wish I had my camera to catch their faces, absolutely priceless. Now just the matter of the final mile.

The final mile is always the worst. I was shocked at the condition of my team. Big Al was struggling when I left them and was now walking like a zombie and Dominic, who had shown absolutely no sign of fatigue before, could barely keep going. To make it worse, we couldn’t find the finish. I’d resorted to using the sat nav on my phone and even that was taking us the wrong way. Luckily the mother of one of the Bootneckettes spotted us and steered us in the right direction. Turning through a hedge could see the finish gantry and there was my mum with Josh.

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39 hours and 103 miles later and suddenly it’s all worth it

I cannot possibly describe that moment when Josh came running, nearly knocking me over, with tears running down his cheeks. Suddenly it was all worth it and I managed to pick him up and carry him over the line.

So that was that. I had completed the yomp. By far the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I did it with five great guys. What a team we were and although Kramar and Max will be back to finish the job next year I can safely say once is enough for me. A huge thank you to Robin, the stewards and the Royals past and present who helped make it such an epic event. Please check out Yomping Since 1664 and sign up for next year’s event.

And don’t forget you can still sponsor me at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Ianford69

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Iron Man

0315 and I wake to find my room mates all busying themselves. Andrew is in the first wave to set off so his breakfast slot is 0400. Pierre, Tom and myself will be amongst the last to start, so we’re not to enter the hostel dining room until 0430. The previous day’s banter and laughs are replaced by quiet professionalism. A few of us are veterans of the previous test march so we know the routine. Any idea of help and friendship displayed in abundance by the DS (Directing Staff) is now gone. We all have to carry a flask of warm drink but the kitchen we have all been free to use over the past days is now locked. If you want hot water you have to get your stove out and heat it yourself.

We literally throw breakfast down our necks. The pressure is being ramped up plus we have a 30-minute drive to the start point and, let’s face it, who actually enjoys breakfast at this time in the morning. But food equals energy and to miss it would be idiotic.

Quick drive to the start. I know my bergen is packed properly. I managed to blag some hot water for my flask from the breakfast hall without DS Stuart seeing. I already had 50 press-ups as punishment for various indiscretions over the weekend. The gamble for water is worth another 20 or so but the press ups are no way as painful as the crushed testicle suffered as DS Matt, the medical officer, demonstrated on me how to cut off the femoral artery during our first aid lecture. DS Nick is the back marker in the convoy of cars. He’ll double (run) everyone to the start line, and I’ll be picked up last.

20150412_062955No chance for warm-up on these events, it’s bergen on and run, and within 200 metres I’ll be blowing hard. The 52lbs on my back feel really heavy and it’s a relief to find there is a delay at the start which means we have 30 minutes to relax and get our heads in order. There is no point in stressing, so the laughs are plentiful.

The guys in the last car are super fit and fast. The only reason I’m in with them is my navigation, which makes me nearly as quick. My biggest weapon is poor weather, when my confidence makes up time. When you can see for miles navigation is easy, but when visibility is down to metres you need discipline and skill.

I’m called forward and set off at exactly 0700.

RV1

FB_IMG_1428913482110The first hill hits after only a few metres. It’s always hard going for the first couple of kilometres. Starting cold on a hill gets the legs burning in no time. I know this part of the route really well and as I crest the top of the hill I see a line of all other competitors in front. Perfect visibility makes a potentially tricky route look easy.

There is a queue at the first RV! It does however give me the opportunity to do something special for a friend. We all have our own reasons for these events. For me it’s Josh. For my friend Karl it’s his brother Lloyd, who was killed in Afghanistan. Karl always leaves a picture with a message in memory of his brother on these marches. Sadly Karl couldn’t make it so I offered to do it for him, a real honour. From RV1 there is a great view of the mountains, a great spot for a great a man. As I sit his photo so as not get blown away I say a personal thank you and move back to the queue.

Lloydy

Lloydy

A view fit for a hero

A view fit for a hero

 

 

 

 

RV2

Second six figure grid reference given, I know exactly where I’m going, nearly the same route as I’ve done last weekend: a short downhill slope followed by a long uphill drag. Last weekend this was simple, it was twice as warm and I barely broke a sweat. Today is a lot cooler. On starting the climb I’m hit by a terrible feeling of nausea, not that feeling that vomit is imminent but not far off it. It’s been a regular symptom for me since the Commando 30 miler where it hit at about 12 miles in and also on Point to Point where it hit me after VW Valley. Never on training hikes. Climbing up I can see good friends James and Max just up ahead. James is suffering with his own injuries but I have no doubt he’ll get the job done.

The doubts in my own mind however are growing. I can’t believe how bad I’m feeling. In the previous few months I spent days crossing this terrain in blazing sun as well as rain, gales and snow and here I am, less than 10k in, having thoughts of VW (giving up). DS Stuart passes, at his normal speed, making his way up to RV2. I last saw him last at RV1 where I left Lloydy. Turning round I can just make out that spot on the horizon. That means Lloydy can see me. He can see me wallowing in self pity because I feel a bit poorly! ‘Jesus, Ian,’ I shout at myself, ‘man the f**k up!’

Near the summit the clag (fog) starts to come down. Whilst I can, I take some bearings on features around to double check my location and then plot my route into RV2. When I get there it’s cold, really cold, with gale force winds. And another queue! No choice but to get a jacket on before I get too cold. Thankfully DS Stuart is helping to get people moving on.

RV3

No way I’m going to hang around here, time to get down the other side of the hill out of the wind and clag. Again the days spent in preparation pay off: once the visibility improves I no longer need the map and compass, I know exactly where I’m going.

A big part of these exercises is route selection and as I glance back I see my room mate Tom about to make an awful decision. I call to him and suggest he might be better off going my way. He accepts my advice with a smile and we’re a team. Tom is a supreme athlete but not the best at navigation. I really struggle with the nausea but can navigate pretty well. Every hill Tom spurs me on and keeps me moving, and to repay him I get us to the RV.

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Not in my ‘happy place’

RV3 is simple to find and thankfully the river crossing is much easier than two weeks previously when it was waist deep.

RV4

We have a decision to make. RV4 is back in the direction we came from, so we can either retrace our route or head straight up the daunting hill in front and run the ridge at the top. Even though the climbs left me desperately trying to keep the sick down I opt for the latter. I know we can run the ridgeline and make up a little time. 40 minutes later we are on the ridge and after a quick stop to say hello to Dave, the signals officer, we are running – Tom like Usain Bolt and me like Forrest Gump. Then we are re-joined by the rain and clag. The route follows a well used pathway, but the RV is 200m off the track and visibility is about 75m. Stay on the path too long and you’ll walk right past the RV and never see it. I tell Tom to wait while I check the navigation, set a bearing and walk off the track into a sea of white mist. Rather bravely I announce to Tom that in exactly 200 metres we’ll hit the RV. I’ve never been so happy to be right. Keeping up our good drills we stop 20m short of the tent and get ourselves sorted. All pockets done up and our present grid and location double checked.

On to RV5

SAS selection is not just being super fit you need to be mentally robust as well. A recurring theme in these marches is to make you go down a very steep hill when you are extremely tired and then tell you to turn around and go straight back up. RV5 to RV6 are just that, two brutal climbs but at least the clag means you can’t see just how far you have left to go. For the first time I can hear Tom blowing hard and in a funny way it spurs me on to know he is suffering too. Visibility is very poor again, I wish it had been like this all day. I love navigating and in poor visibility it comes into its own. Three guys just in front of us by no more than 50m walk straight past the RV in the clag.

The ever present DS Stuart is manning the RV. Rather than give me the next grid ref he asks where I think it might be and what bearing I am going to take there. I answer. All he says is that there are a few people just in front and I am not to let them beat me down.

The final effort

I know this is the final effort. I also know it is downhill. I wait for Tom. No way I am heading down without him. We have done nearly 30 kilometres with 50lbs on our backs, battled the urge to throw up, brutal hills, freezing winds, hail, rain, clag and bogs. And we are going to run every step of the final 2 kilometres. We pass Kate just as we start to drop down. There are far more men than women on these events, but the ones who go prove they are just as tough as the men. Then we spot a team of three serving military guys, their faces are a picture as Tom and I come trotting past. Finally, with the end in sight, I spot one more person to catch, my friend Jonathon Dando. I shout to Tom that we’ll take a shortcut through some cut forestry and over two fences. Beaten by 10m, but we did it.

I got to finish and in the process defeated the doubts in my mind. A firm handshake from race director Ken Jones and we are done. Iron Man has been conquered.

Firm handshake on a job well done

Firm handshake on a job well done

Back at the car the eating begins. Now I stopped I am ravenous, the nausea has gone and I don’t care how and in what order it goes in. Jelly babies are going in with cold chicken and mushroom pie and crisps. All washed down with water, coke and hot chocolate. In no time I’ve eaten everything I had. Time to head into Brecon for a shower. On route I see DS Matt parked at the side of the road. I stop to say thank you and find out they’ve lost someone on the hill. I offer to go back up but it probably is a daft idea. Thankfully he is found safe and well.

My Iron Man brother Tom

My Iron Man brother Tom

A massive thank you to the DS Ken, Matt, Nick and of course Stuart. To the MST’s Richie and Bryn who did so much to help over the weekend. You only find what life is about when you step out of your comfort zone. The team at Avalanche Endurance Events give you the opportunity not to step out but to leap out.

How many?

How many?

Finally, Pierre and Billy, I thank you for volunteering me for all those press ups. I won’t forget.

 

 

 

 

Please remember why I do what I do and visit my fundraising page http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Ianford69.

Next up the small matter of 103 miles non stop!


Once more into the breach

Iron Man. Iron Man. Iron Man. All thoughts lead to Iron Man and the reason why it takes up so much time is not so much what I know about the event but more what I don’t know.

So here’s what I do know. There will be no need for a bike and hopefully no swimming. This is not a triathlon but a Special Forces march. It will take place in the Brecon Beacons, I have a rough idea where, to within about 50 square kilometres or so, and I know it will be tough. Really tough. What I don’t know is simpler. I don’t know where it starts; that I will find out the night before. I don’t know where the check points or RV’s will be, I don’t know how long the march is, and I don’t know what the cut-off time is. The key will be to go flat out until you are told to stop.

Over the past few months I have paid a few trips to the area. The thinking behind it has been to get an idea of the terrain and to ‘get eyes on’ locations that could possibly make for RV points, be they cairns, rivers, tracks or spot heights. Last weekend I found myself with a bit of spare time so there was only one place to head for.

20150314_162850As usual I’d given the Pit Bull my route for safety, although I knew he was in the Beacons teaching some guys to navigate. I arrived about 4 p.m. on Saturday and with two hours of daylight I made the most and recce’d a route up onto the hill. I’d decided to take my spaniel Sonny along for the journey, it’s nice to have a friend along even he’s a four legged one. The previous day had seen a dusting of snow over the peaks and although there was nothing at the car park it didn’t take long before my boots were crunching through snow. No time to stop and play, bar a tiny snowman.

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Daylight was limited and I wanted to be down before dark, and the wind was incredibly cold on the top. Skirting around a fence that guarded a sheer cliff I started to drop down and I could see by the contours on my map that this was the steepest section I’d done all day.

Stopping to take a quick photo there was a voice to my left, ‘Thought I’d find you here!’ My friend had completed a tough day in the hills navigation training, driven miles and climbed again to find me. No time for a brew on the hill, light was soon to fade and it was getting colder so we made it down in double fast time using some unconventional techniques and headed straight to the nearest pub. There is not much the Pit Bull can’t do, and I discovered eating is his forte, oh boy can he shovel it away. Two full meals and two puddings before he declared himself content, the man is an eating machine.

After dinner I showed him the route I planned for Sunday and true to form I got no response. Pit Bull knows the route, he’s done it for real and he knows the satisfaction that comes from using your own skills to get around the route. There was no way he was going to let anything slip. We bid farewell and I headed to a secluded lay-by to get a few hours sleep in the car. It was cold but the stars were amazing, reminding me why I love the wild places.

Sunday morning dawned cloudy but dry, with good visibility bar the very highest peaks. I reached my first location in no time, marked as some cairns on the map. But when I got there all I could see were some sinkholes. Then on towards a high point passing a small farmstead in the middle of nowhere. I nicknamed this place Roukes Drift and it’s just this kind of location that I can use to confirm my position should I come this way on Iron Man.

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The lowland was snow free but very wet and all intentions of keeping my feet dry went with the first river crossing. All along I made visual notes in my mind of rocky outcrops and other features. Soon it was time to hit the high ground but first there was a boggy area to cross. Experience helps on selecting spots to place your feet so as not to sink too deep. At one point I could hear a fast flowing stream but couldn’t see it anywhere. It turned into a gamble of trusting my ears and taking a leap of faith, a leap which saw me safely over the hidden water course.

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Pushing onwards and upwards it wasn’t long before I was in the snow again. After a really tough climb I made to the highest point of the day. The snow was feet deep in places but I was well aware that this was not the place to stop. The warmth from the climb would soon disappear to be replaced by chills from wet clothes and feet so after a few quick photos it was back to the car for a change of kit before another visit to the pub for a large round of sandwiches and a bowl of chips.

The pub staff were still talking about the Pit Bull’s eating ability from the night before.

 

Please visit http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Ianford69 to support my fundraising for Autism Hampshire.

It’s been a while

I thought I’d better get back to blogging. It hasn’t been a period of total lethargy, far from it. Since November’s epic Point to Point event my focus has been on the next SAS test week march, which goes by the daunting name of Iron Man. Along with it, the massive challenge of walking the South Downs Way in one hit looms ever closer on the horizon. Thankfully they all revolve around fitness, both mental a physical, so the training for one very much benefits the other.

20150110_135001January saw the bi-annual trip to Wales for the Fan Dance Race. Having done the race in both winter and summer conditions, my involvement now is that of safety officer and steward as part of the mountain support team. I get a real thrill out of cheering friends on as they pass my position.

I spent the two days prior to the Fan Dance on reconnaissance for Iron Man. Most people think I’m mad to camp out in early January in the most inhospitable terrain with torrential rain and gales forecast. I love it, despite falling waist deep into a bog after only 4 kilometres.

On that day, I set up camp in a pre-determined location. The joy of getting out of wet cold gear and into a warm dry sleeping bag was only matched by the sheer pleasure of solitude. Solitude can also be your enemy, so I’d given my exact route and timings to an ex special forces soldier and dear friend, Pit Bull is the nickname he’s been given and he’s a man with a fearsome reputation and the heart of a Lion.

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Overnight the wind increased and the rain lashed my tent. A minor leak was soon sorted but sleep was intermittent until I woke at 4.30 a.m. I’d heard a voice. I was miles from the nearest road with my tent hidden in a dip, and for a second my heart raced. I strained to listen over the gusting winds that battered my tent. Shouts and whistles, was it a shepherd calling his dog? At 4.30 a.m. he must be mad. I had a vision on hundreds of sheep crashing into my tent but the gradually the voice got further away and I settled once more. Until after 10 minutes it was there again, not really audible over the wind but very close.

Time to man up and poke my head outside. The words that followed both shocked and had me in hysterics, ‘Ian… Where the f*&k are you?!’ The Pit Bull had driven hours, run across awful terrain and bogs purely to join me for an early morning brew. He wore nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt and a running top – totally bonkers, but a measure of the man. We shared a hot chocolate and early breakfast and with dawn still a good hour away I watched my friend leave my tent… and promptly fall into a bog!

I spent that day traversing hills and getting to know the ground. The wind showed no sign of abating and gave the Fan Dance competitors a real challenge the next day when several people, including myself, were blown off their feet.

20150111_082736It was a great weekend. Back to back events with me stationed at the aptly named Windy Gap, checking all the competitors through and making sure they looked fit and well enough to take on the brutal Jacobs Ladder on the way back. The Saturday was probably the windiest weather I have ever had the the good fortune to be out in. Sadly my tent didn’t survive. The carbon poles snapped under the buffeting. Sunday dawned cold and snowy, what a difference a day makes. This time the ice was the danger, not the wind. All in all a great four days for me spent in my favourite environment with my favourite people.

A month of inactivity followed the Welsh adventure. A pulled hip muscle made it hard to stand let alone hike. It took a trip to the physio to get me back on track. After a couple of weeks of hitting the gym hard, I was ready to get hiking again. A friend who was getting ready for a trip Nepal invited me for a hike along the Dorset coastal path. A beautiful place, perfect for my requirements of constant steep hills, now my favourite training ground.

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So with the body back in order it was time for another trip down to Wales and another chance encounter with the Pit Bull.

 

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Farewell 2014, hello 2015

Between Christmas and New Year is always a good time to reflect on the year gone by. It’s a good sign when lows are massively outnumbered by the highs and for me this has been the case this year.

So what are the memories that stand out for me in what’s been a busy twelve months? I have to start with the most important person in my life, my wonderful son Josh. He’s continued to thrive at school and has developed a love of the great outdoors. Changes in situations and locations can be difficult for autistic children but Josh has loved our mini adventures and embraced trying new things. The highlight of this and probably highlight of my entire year was our camping trip to the wonderful Elan Valley.

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Who would have thought a year ago that I would have the skills to get Josh and me into the middle of the bleakest area of Wales, stay there for a few days and get home again in one piece. One man is basically the inspiration for me and he is Ken Jones, ex special forces soldier and author. His infectious enthusiasm certainly got to me and by spring the idea of just following the well trodden footpaths over the hills was no longer the thrill it once was. So a mountain navigation course was booked with New Forest Navigation and a year of adventures was about to start.

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Navigation course complete I needed to test my skills and Ken gave me some routes to try out in the Elan Valley. Elan is notoriously tough to navigate hence it’s the place that UK Special Forces are tested and call Hell. The only stipulation from Ken was to keep the route secret and not to venture out alone, so my good friends Jim and Jonathan joined me for what turned out to be an epic day full of laughs and no small amount of hard work.

20140601_124929-1Another chance encounter that was to form a great friendship happened in of all places a car park in the Brecon Beacons. It was the day before the Fan Dance race which I was to help Ken by being a member of his mountain safety team. A guy sat in a white van called to me, he’d seen my posts on Facebook and introduced himself as Stuart. A short chap with glasses and a mutual friend of Jonathan. Little did I know that Stu would become a key part of the rest of my summers adventures.

We discussed an Elan weekender which turned into back to back marches across Elan on a brutally hot summer weekend. By now I realised Stu had an intimate knowledge of these hills and routes and I was determined to wean every last drop of information and helpful tip from him. Day one was horrendous with the heat and humidity knocking Jim for six and ending his weekend. The rest of us struggled through day two but it did nothing to deter my love of the place and my trip  with Josh was to be the best and last trip to Elan in 2014.

There is a trait in which at the end of one adventure someone has a mad idea for another and we go for it. I think it was me who mentioned the Commando Shuffle and I knew Stuart would be up for it. 30 miles over the toughest ground in Dartmoor and if I said it was fun i’d be lying. It was horrific. Enough said about that one.

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Standing stones on Dartmoor

The 30 miler took some getting over, but an offer to take part in the Great South Run was too tempting to miss and for the first time Josh came to watch. His face as I ran past was pure magic and despite being agony on my old knees I’ll definitely do it again. That was a great final event before Point to Point, the final serious event of the year and the one I’d been looking forward to for at least 18 months. Often you build these events up in your mind and they ultimately disappoint. Not this one, it was everything I’d expected and more. Added to the mix Stuart was there in his capacity as an instructor, not my friend, a role he relished and the nickname “Pitbull” was very apt.

"Pitbull" weighing my Bergen during Point to Point

“Pitbull” weighing my bergen during Point to Point

So that was me done for the year or so, I thought. A message from a former Royal Marine and another event was on the cards. A nice little 9 mile run carrying a 32lb Bergen over the Aldershot tank testing grounds in December. A hard frost the day before ensured the waist deep water would be chilled to perfection and after the initial shock it really wasn’t that bad but great fun.

Fun in the Grim Challenge

Fun in the Grim Challenge

So that was 2014 for me. A year of learning new skills and putting them to good use. Roll on 2015 with lots of events planned. Thank you all for taking the time to read my blog and I hope you will continue to support my fundraising.

WISHING YOU ALL THE BEST FOR 2015

 

Please visit http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Ianford69 to support my fundraising for Autism Hampshire.

Point to Point – Epilogue

On my brisk walk back to the car park I formulated a plan. I remembered one of the DS’ advice from earlier in the summer. The 20 minutes after a march are vital, you need administer yourself properly. Although still relatively warm, I was soaked from head to toe with a mix of sweat, water and bog mud. Any delay and chill would set in, so the second I hit the car park my bergen was off and all my warm kit pulled out.  At the same time I grabbed what was left of of a sausage roll and unceremoniously rammed it into my mouth. God only knows how many calories I’d burnt, probably mid to high thousands, and now I’d stopped my body would be demanding some payback.

Getting wet and clammy baselayers off wasn’t easy, but it was so nice once they were replaced with dry. Wooly hat and jacket followed, then I cracked open the stove and had a large tin of soup on the go before sorting out my bottom half. I wished the pitbull was there to witness it, the master had taught his pupil well. The final act was talc on soggy feet and dry socks. If I could bottle that feeling I’d make millions. For the first time I could relax a little and reflect whilst sharing my soup with my friend Olly who’d not had the best of days. Slowly small groups were coming of the hill as darkness descended. We headed back to base camp while the white dots of head torches still came down the hillside.

At base camp the refuelling started in earnest. I was ravenous, pasta, bananas, dates, chocolate were all polished off. A shower brought back more life, followed by a damage inspection revealing at least two toenails that had paid the ultimate price. Outside things were manic with people coming straight from the hill and others packing up and trying to get cars out of a waterlogged field. I’d never seen so many shattered faces, each still wearing a smile. An air of pride and satisfaction. Relief on the part of the DS.

I made my way towards Brecon for the post march food and presentations. Plenty joined in, although many had to go home for work the next day. In the knowledge that I still had several hours to drive home, I demolished a bowl of chilli and a pint of shandy. With food consumed, it was time for the presentations. They started with a mutual presentation of pipes, which makes sense when you look at this iconic photo from the 60’s, showing a soldier weighing his bergen. We were honoured to have his son with us all day.

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Then onto the presentation of patches. They don’t seem like a great reward for our efforts, but to us they were priceless. Then the main awards, in the shape of framed maps of the day’s route. The first was given to Charlie – the racing snake who’d pipped me to RV1 – for being the first man home. Ken’s speech was hilarious, no one had expected Charlie to be so fast, it had given them a real headache. Second was Pierre, who had also posted a 23SAS pass time. Then, and rightly receiving huge applause, was Vini, who became the only woman ever to complete the route, and not only that, she did it carrying the full weight.

As I sat there admiring my patch, I heard Ken call my name. My first instinct was, what have I done. Had I commited some mortal sin, like pointing at the map with my finger rather than the corner of my compass? Was I about to be given another 20 press-ups in front of everyone? I don’t remember exactly what Ken said. He mentioned good drills and RV precedures and then handed me my very own framed map. A true grit award. I was speechless. No one does this for glory or recognition, we do it as a personal challenge, but to be awarded in front of your friends and peers was truly special.

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Then the long journey home. 20 miles into the drive and fatigue set in, coffee and a McDonalds were needed, and I was still hungry. My travelling companion was soon asleep. I jabbed the brakes to make him nod like a donkey as he snored the miles away. Eventually, after being awake for 27hrs, I got into my bed at 03.00.

It’s a rarety for an event to outlive your wildest expectations, this one certainly did. I’d shared a truly amazing experience with amazing friends. Life doesn’t get better than this.

As a final note I’d like to mention one of the nicest men I’ve ever had the privelege to meet, a dedicated husband and father. The tradgedy of losing his brother in Afghanistan caused our paths to cross. We never got a chance to make that toast on Saturday so here’s to you KR and LN. Always a little further.

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Point to Point – Prelude

Point to Point

 

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Point to Point

01.00hrs and I’m awake.

The second my eyes open my brain is switched on to what’s to come. My alarm is set for 03.30 but I know there’s no chance of getting back to sleep. I share a dorm with three other guys, one of whom gently snores his way through the night. I wish I could get back to sleep. I’ll need every ounce of energy in the hours to come. I decide to put my time to good use and descend below the duvet for some study time with my map, torch and compass. A semi pointless exercise as I have no idea where we’re going, but I know the start point, so I study every possible route in every direction from there.

The first hum from the alarm and I fly out of bed and hit the bathroom, no way I’m waiting in line. I have prepared everything the night before, including the contents of my combat trouser pockets. Map, torch, call sign matrix, note pad and pen in left. Granola bars, dates, banana and energy gels in right. Even my trousers feel heavy. 03.50 and I’m in for breakfast ten minutes early. First a special porridge and syrup brought over from America by Ken. Apparently it tastes disgusting but will fuel us for hours. It is actually pretty nice. Followed by a full English – a combination that made me feel awful during the Commando Shuffle. But my calorie burn would be counted in the thousands today and I need to fill the tank.

As soon as the last mouthful has gone in I am out the door, time for final bergen checks. The bergen has to weigh a minimum of 40lbs at all times. It’s no good having it bang on because it will be lighter if you take your wet gear out to wear – although if it rains a wet bergen will be heavier. Food and water go on top of the 40lbs with a minimum of 2ltrs and a suggested 3ltr load. I opt for 2ltrs with an empty water bottle pre loaded with purification tablets so if I get into trouble I can get safe water from any stream. Fully loaded I tell myself not to weigh it, but temptation gets the better of me and I heave it onto the scales. 49.35lbs. For those of you who aren’t up on your weights that’s about the same as a small bungalow! I load my kit into a vehicle and we head to the start. The butterflies in my stomach turn into eagles.

What have I let myself in for?

At the start point it was fairly warm even at 05.15, so I ditched the fleece and replaced it with a thin waterproof jacket. Stuart, one of the DS, otherwise known as pitbull, started barking orders left and right. ‘Form up in two lines!’, ‘Turn your bloody head torches off!’, ‘Do you know where you are? No? Why not?’ It didn’t instill fear, I was loving it. We doubled (ran) the 200 meters to the start point. I was already sweating and blowing hard, but I was here and about to start an event that I’d focussed on for the last 18 months. We stood in a group 50 meters up a track, all guessing where RV1 may be. I knew it would not be close or straight forward to navigate to and guessed a prominent feature, memorising its six figure grid reference. On my navigation course in May I’d taken the route to that point and could remember every detail of the route. I said a little prayer, please please let it be there.

RV1

One by one the teams and individuals were called forward to the DS to get the grid reference. Neither wanting to go first nor last I slotted my way in mid pack. Each man did a few minutes of route planning away from the DS before moving off. Suddenly I was at the front of the queue. ‘Next man!’ I ran as fast as I could, red torch lighting my footsteps in the dark. ‘Staff, Ian one eight. My current location is xyz xyz!’ I said confidently. ‘Good. Your next RV is abc abc. Show me on your map’.

I couldn’t believe my luck – just where I’d hoped. I double checked the map just in case, but knew exactly where to go and how to get there. No time wasted route planning, map and compass stuffed into my pocket, I was off, nearly tripping over the DS’s flask in my haste. I couldn’t believe my luck and ran as fast as I could down the road to the car park, ploughing through the next group on their way to the start point.

The first climb was brutal in every sense. I remember thinking in May it was a tough one, now with nearly 50lbs on my back I was blowing hard in no time. As I reached the top I passed the first of the guys who’d started before. I double-checked that he knew where he was going. It was blowing a gale on the ridge and although it was a competitive event we had a duty to look after each other. The first glimmer of dawn was breaking and delivering bad news, fog – or clag, as we call it. It was fairly level on the ridge, so I could run parts. But one slip to the right and you’re over the edge and a sticky end is guaranteed. Through the clag, I passed two more competitors before reaching one of the mountain support staff. He checked that I knew my location and said I was the first one there. Bloody hell, there must have been 15-20 who started before me. Rather than feeling elated, I worried. The teams before me were good friends and, although it was warm at the start, on the ridge it was cold and windy. Six people had died on these hills last year. Onwards down hill now, the RV was meant to be off to the right of the track, but visibility was 20 meters. As I stopped to check my map I was joined by a racing snake called Charlie. He was down to a T-shirt and blowing big time. I knew he was super fast, there was no way I could keep up with him. As we checked our maps a DS appeared from the clag and Charlie was in there, he’d beaten me to the first RV by a matter of feet.

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RV2

After the same drills at RV1, I traced my route back to the top of the original climb where I took a bearing across country towards RV2, happier now as I’d seen most of my friends heading towards RV1. Here I made my first minor error. Anticipating to hit a track which I’d have to cross but was forbidden to walk along, I relaxed my accuracy. Combined with a nasty fall that left me soaked to the waist and with a twisted painful knee, I ended up crossing the track too far uphill and having to struggle through 500 meters of bog. RV2 was at an iconic location in SAS traditions, guarded by another brutal climb starting in boggy ground, moving into slippery stone when reaching the summit. I couldn’t believe it was still only Charlie in front.

RV3

The next section I had walked before but visibility was shocking, a mistake here would have cost me. I happily reached the top of another iconic location, VW Valley, at exactly the spot I’d planned. No photo does this valley justice, it’s incredibly steep on both sides, with a fast flowing stream at the bottom. The downhills were killing my knees, I was tempted to slide down on my bottom. No point messing about the stream crossing, my feet were wet already so I plunged in and crossed as fast as possible, heading up the steep section before cross graining around the hill.

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By now a team of two and another of three were right on my heels but that was the least of my worries. I hit a wall. I’d done three brutal climbs and now while walking downhill I felt like I was about to pass out. To make it worse, I could see RV3 and it was manned by Matt, the medic. If I turned up there looking how I felt I’d be binned (pulled out) for sure. I had to get myself together fast. I let the two groups pass me but stuck to their tails. That way there would be a queue at the RV, giving me a few minutes to eat something and get my head in order. It worked.

RV4

I was given the next RV and the route I HAD to take – to my horror. Never had I ever attempted a hill so steep and imposing. I decided an extra five minutes at the RV would be time well spent, but the respite was short-lived as I started the climb. In places it was so steep I climbed on all fours. The climb seemed to take a life time. Eventually I hit the top. Tiredness caused me to complicate the navigation and make mistakes costing time and distance. I was in my own world of misery, cold and surrounded by a blanket of clag. I’d lost sight of the guys I’d climbed the hill with. Rarely have I ever felt so miserable. The voice of the pitbull DS in my ears was telling me to keep eating and never give up. After what seemed an age I made out the shape of someone in front. What a boost, my race was now with him and whatever it took I’d catch him.

Ascending Pen Y Fan I caught him and we got to the RV together.

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Our next RV was where we’d started, so chances were it would be the end. I ended up walking with the guy I’d caught and was grateful for his energy sweets as we trudged down another famous SAS location, Jacobs Ladder. Over my radio I could hear drama unfolding with a head injury about 5 kilometers behind me. Thankfully all ended well but it took my mind off the intense pain in my knees. We made our way back to the start and in my mind the only thought was not letting my companion do a Charlie on me and pip me to the RV. The final descent was nothing short of agony, the pain in my left knee made me want to cry and falling on my arse just added insult to injury. When we hit the road we had the same 200 meters as first thing in the morning to get to what we hoped was the end. In my somewhat delirious mind I was convinced the guy I was with was thinking the same as me. I was prepared to run if I had to and kept a close eye on his every move. It’s funny what fatigue does to the mind. I arrived first, it was the end, and I got a firm handshake and a well done from Ken Jones.

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I’d done it. That 10-year-old boy who’d watched the black clad supermen on the balcony of a London embassy finally realised as a 45-year-old man exactly what they are, super human. I was privileged to get a glimpse into their world.

Anyone who has ever been on the hills knows it doesn’t end the second you step off. I was exhausted, soaked in sweat and boots full of water. Now was not the time to relax, getting cold now could be a disaster. Admin, admin, admin…

Point to Point – Prelude

Point to Point – Epilogue

 

Please visit http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Ianford69 to support my fundraising for Autism Hampshire