On the weekend of 20th January 2018 a two strong team being Chris Gibson and Michael Menzies-Baird for SSAFA East Yorkshire Branch took to the mountains for the 24km Special Forces Experience. The march in the Brecon Beacons is infamous within the ranks of all UK Special Forces soldiers.
The Event is now over 50 years old and still today forms the first major hurdle on 'Selection' and is a major indicator of whether a potential UK Special Forces soldier has the physical and mental determination to complete it within the cut off time set by the D.S (Directing Staff).
Michael and Chris, after losing weight on slimming world, chose to load bear with what should have been around 25lbs (over 50’s) Under 50’s is 35lbs plus food and water it appears they took around 34lbs each. Load bearing is a requirement of the course the SAS and the forces do. This means you had to be fully kitted out whilst carrying a set amount of weight and a mandatory kit list within your backpack. The weather was extreme to say the least and rained or snowed for the whole event.
We woke at 5am and was at the car park for 6am knowing how small it was we decided that a doze in the car was better than the stress of not being able to park. Michael decided that a protein bar and a drink was enough Chris had cornflakes covered in a chocolate protein drink, mainly because the hotel overlooked to leave us milk to pour out, he said it was delicious.
Registration opened at 07:30am and the briefing was set for 8am with the race following straight after. Unfortunately, the briefing got delayed for a while meaning the race was also delayed slightly, leaving us standing around in the cold a little longer and getting more stressed as we just wanted to get on with it. We were informed we had until 2:45 to get to the third RV if we didn’t make it we would not be allowed to return. Both Chris and I thought 2:45pm from a 9am start 7.5 miles ‘doddle’ hmm of course its never as simple as that is it, they meant you have just 2 hours and 45 minutes to get to the 3rd RV or your out, aaaargh that’s somewhat much more difficult but it doesn’t sound like it to most healthy fit walkers!
The race started next to the iconic red phone box which is a signature start point for the SF challenge. The weather was perfect for walking - really, cold/foggy/ drizzly and a little wind.
Heading to the first mountain, I could feel it quickly getting windier and colder on my hands and face with ice and patches of snow around. After a thousand feet or so we were on top of the hill and at our first check point with the cloud / fog down to around 50 metres visibility.
Due to strong winds and low visibility we had to shout our numbers to the Marshall for them to write down we checked in. He pointed us the best he could in the right direction to head down a very icy Jacobs ladder.
The conditions were bleak as we made our way straight down Jacobs Ladder, should we stop and put on our spikes, oh no we were already too mentally and physically tired to consider that so we both struggled terribly slipping and sliding as we went down it precariously. I lost Chris after this and got passed the 2nd marshall who was hiding inside a little tent getting warm, he directed me to the right and off I went.
I passed the many competitors as they passed me we were running and walking as the time in our heads of 2 hours and 45 minutes is far from easy in such tough territory and bad weather. With just short of a mile to go to the third RV and timed checkpoint I was running and tripped myself up on my walking sticks on a descent on part of the route, I crashed to the floor what seemed in slow motion and found the biggest rock to stop me hitting my right hand and rib cage really hard. As a child we all remember winding ourselves and that tearful moment when you can’t get your breath well that was me. After the humiliation, in front of another runner who with a smirk on her face said ‘are you ok that lookd sore’, yes I am fine, a bit like the answer you give to a waiter in a restaurant ‘is the food ok’ when they walk away you complain to one another. I was in a lot of pain, winded and pride dented terribly. I felt to see that my legs and arms were still intact and got my breath and brushed myself off, took my glove off and noticed I had a knuckle dislocation of my little right finger. As well as that all over hand tingling sensation when you are cold and you’ve hit your skin. I quickly sorted myself out and set off to get to the third RV on time. I made it with at least 20 mins to spare but I was exhausted. My next task was to walk back on the same route as we came desperately looking for Chris to hope he would make the check in time. After just 200 metres and 10 mins the giant Chris came around the corner looking how I felt bleeting out f’s and Jeffs have I made it I was delighted to see him and let him know he had made it on time. I knew then we would both finish the event it was just the time back which was no easy feat.
Our goal was to finish the Fan Dance in around 6 hours. The fact Chris and I only saw glimpses of each other on the walk back was mainly because it was really quite impossible to do the event together due to the fitness differences. But we both were aware of that and made our way back. Slowly picking off competitors who like me had tired themselves out getting to the timed target and others coming past me with the same effect on me I expect it was truly mind shattering and physically hard. Jacobs ladder on the way back up is absolutely soul destroying. I stopped every 10 feet or so on the way back up at one point stopping for 5 minutes to put on my boot spikes so I could get up the 50 feet of ice on Jacobs. I was glad I did but it didn’t make the climb any easier, safe it prevented as many slips.
I eventually got to the final RV at the top of Pen Y Fan with the wind, ice snow and vision blurred by the fog was even worse with what appeared to be a Windchill of -10. My woolly gloves were useless as were Chris’ gloves we learnt a big lesson on that front. The marshall looked at me and asked are you ok I said I will be when I get to the end but at the moment, no I am exhausted.
After what I had hoped was a very long walk downhill my legs and feet were very sore, I came to a river which I forgot I had crossed to reach the next climb, sadly, I saw another steep climb was necessary and my mind began to play tricks on me being the bad angel on one shoulder go on keep going the demon on the other saying oh just give up. But somehow you just keep going. I ended up reaching the red phone box in a time of 5 hours 30 not bad. We oddly in a very twisted way really enjoyed our first fan dance on the mountain and we are already looking forward to a long rest as 7 months of training every Saturday has taken its toll but I expect we will both be back to undertake a summer event perhaps in 2019. Hats off and well done to everyone that took part, I am ex-military so I know the head down, backside up and one foot in front of the other Chris on the other hand who made the event within the 6 hours has always been a civilian so I stand in awe of him and people like him.
We raised near to £3000 for SSAFA – the Armed Forces Charity which was amazing so thanks to all who donated every penny will be spent looking after our local forces, regulars and reserves, their families and dependents when they need our help as we need theirs in dark times of wars or terrorism – such a great feeling now its completed.