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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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