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.
No 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
RV3 is simple to find and thankfully the river crossing is much easier than two weeks previously when it was waist deep.
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.
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.
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.
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!