In the southern half of Wales there is a range of mountains that has taken on an almost mythical status in the world of outdoor challenges. The mountains aren’t as high as their neighbours to the North in Snowdonia, and they don’t offer the technical alpine terrain you might expect from a mountain range. But within their reach they still retain enough character to put even the burliest of men on their backside.
The Brecon Beacons are the mountains and the challenge they hide is the Fan Dance- the infamous run taken on by potential members of British Special Forces as part of their selection process. Since the end of the Second World War, the Brecon Beacons have served as the proving ground for Britain’s elite soldiers, with the SAS in particular basing a large part of their selection process in the hills. The essential elements of the “Selection” program have remained constant and unchanged since 1956, a series of back to back self-navigated, heavy load-bearing test marches, wearing boots and carrying an assault rifle over arduous mountain terrain, whatever the weather condition. Throughout four weeks of physical assessment there are a number of standout tests, “The Fan Dance” is one them. The infamous 24km route over both sides of Pen y Fan at the end of Week 1 has always been considered the yardstick of a candidates potential to reach Test Week and ultimately pass the Special Forces “Selection” program.
Although more than 50 years old, the original challenge route is still used as a real test for all potential SAS recruits. It’s not too hard to spot them with anyone running in tiny shorts with a fridge-sized pack on their back being a likely suspect.
What exactly is The Fan Dance?
In the true military sense, The Fan Dance is essentially a TAB (Tactical Advance to Battle). What that means in essence is covering a lot of ground quickly, whilst remaining self-supported and carrying everything (essential personal equipment, weaponry and ammunition supplies, radio communication devices and food and water) you need across all terrains. That is why, during the ‘official’ military Fan Dance, participants are required to carry such a heavy load on their backs. Official military entrants also complete the dance with a rifle in hand too. Of course, that isn’t strictly necessary, and perhaps a little distracting for everyone else out in the hills too.
View The Fan Dance in a larger map
The 24km route takes on the highest peak South of Snowdonia, Pen y Fan. Twice.
Traditionally the actual SAS selection route of the Fan Dance is something of a guarded secret, but the route we have here is the one taken by Avalanche Events in their summer and winter organised Fan Dance races and is the purportedly closest to the actual route used by British Special forces during ‘selection’.
Almost immediately from the start beside the A470 at the (in)famous red phone box beside the Storey Arms outdoor centre the route climbs. In the first two miles the route gains around 2000 feet (600 metres) of ascent ticking off the summits of Corn Du at 2,907 ft (873 metres) before topping out on Pen y Fan at 2,907 ft (883 metres). From there the route heads down sharply on the rough ground of Jacob’s Ladder before joining up with a the Roman road (it’s probably no tactually Roman). From there the route levels out into a long drawn-out descent to the halfway turn around point at 1200 feet of altitude.
After a quick time check and drink it’s time to spin around and retrace the route of the first half. A long drawn-out strength-sapping slog for the first section and then an incredibly steep final push on loose ground to the peak of Pen y Fan once again. All in all there is around 4-4500 feet (1200-1300 metres) of total ascent over the course of the over and back route. That may not seem too much, but added in weight and speed elements and then you’ve got a hell of a day out.
Of course the challenge doesn’t have to be completed in a mammoth run carrying the equivalent of your own bodyweight on your back, but in keeping with the unique historical significance of the route, we feel it’s best taken at speed with a side of gut-wrenching pain and sweat thrown in.
The Fan Dance
Route: Across the Brecon Beacons from the Storey Arms to Taf Fechen forest and back again.
Distance: 24 km (15 miles)
Ascent: 1200 metres (4000 feet)
Record Time: N/A
Estimated Finish Time: The official cut-off for Special Forces recruits weighed-down with army kit is 4 hours.
On it’s own, 15 miles in the Welsh countryside is actually an enjoyable thing, and you are likely to see a range of people out walking the hills. Team the route up with a run loaded with gear and you’re set-up for a challenge.
When to go:
You can take on the route all year round, but in winter the route is likely to be in winter condition with snow across the entire route. Avalanche Events run two organised races across the route, once in summer and once in winter conditions.
What do I need?
Decent trail running gear for an unladen speed attempt on the route and decent walking gear for anything else. If considering a proper military-style weighed attempt, good boots and a decent large capacity pack are essential. You should also carry the kind of hill essentials with you too (plenty of food and water, waterproofs, map, compass and mobile phone)
How to Prepare:
Get out there and work on your cardio. Hill reps and pounding up hills will certainly help. If aiming for the fully-weighted attempt, practice carrying heavy loads on your back at speed.
Yorkshire 3 Peaks: Less military in history, it’s still a big day out in the hills, although slightly further North in the UK.
The Derwent Watershed: 42 mile circumnavigation of the (Dark) Peak District – and if you do this in the form of the High Peak Marathon you do it in winter and overnight too!
The Bob Graham Round: More men have walked on the moon than completed this Lake District circuit … (well not really, but it’s truly hallowed ground for skinny runners who think a layer of Lycra is enough to equip them to the top of Everest and back).
Paddy Buckley Round: Similar to the Bob Graham, but in Wales. The 61-mile route takes in 47 peaks on the Carneddau, the Glyderau and the Moelwynion ranges and 28000 feet of ascent.
Charley Ramsey Round: The Scottish mountain run. This one should take less than 24 hours, top out on 24 peaks and 28000 feet of ascent.
True Grit: For a tale of what it’s like to actually take on the Fan Dance as part of SAS selection, you can read Avalanche Endurance Events race director Ken Jones’ account, of his time battling it to join the service.
Avalanche Endurance Events: Are the people to speak to if considering a go at a timed, organised run at the ‘dance’. They are ex-Special Forces and so know their onions when it comes to beasting people over hillsides, having succeeded at the Fan Dance themselves.
Keeping with the military tradition, Avalanche run a winter and summer version of the Fan Dance.
Summer: 20th July 2013
Winter: TBA Although it was run on the 19th January in 2013.