A magazine journalist, three former Special Boat Service (SBS) operatives, one of Great Britain’s most successful Olympians, England’s highest-capped hooker and a Swedish trance DJ met at a red phone box in South Wales. The spot marks the beginning of the Fan Dance – a 24-km route up the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons, Pen y Fan, down the vertiginous Jacob’s Ladder on the other side and then along a Roman road to a car park. Once you’ve done all that? Well, you turn around and go back again, of course.
For the UK Special Forces, the route looms at the end of week one in the first phase of selection, a filter for those who don’t cut the mustard. It’s a timed march led by the Directing Staff (DS) that you must complete carrying a 27-kg pack and an imitation rifle. To pass, you must finish before the DS, with them or as near as dammit after. The time allotted is three hours 20 minutes, though on rare occasions it can be slightly longer, if the weather is particularly inclement.
“The Fan Dance is synonymous with the Special Forces and it’s probably the best known march that we do,” says Anthony ‘Staz’ Stazicker, ex-SBS sniper and co-founder of the high-performance apparel brand ThruDark. With a compact frame carrying visible muscle from top to toe, FA body fat and a lot of tattoos, he is the definition of Tier 1 fitness. Staz is quick to smile and laugh, and a storyteller.
“The Fan Dance has always been there, ever since the old boys were up and down,” he says. They’ve never tweaked the route, or the weight. The DS have 20-odd marches they can choose from for the rest of the course here. But you know, heading into selection, that you’re 100 per cent going up Pen y Fan. It’s written into the hills.”
Those on selection do not have time to soak in the views.
Staz and Louis Tinsley, fellow co-founder of ThruDark and former SBS operative, met in 2006 at 40 Commando Royal Marines, when they were in the same unit and troop. Louis is the other side of the Special Forces fitness coin. Longer, leaner and steelily lupine, you get the sense he could run for days and probably has. He’s quieter but equally warm, and it’s clear that the ease he enjoys has been hard earned.
They immediately bonded when tinkering with the standard-issue kit to make it more fit for the various environments in which they found themselves. Once they both progressed into the SBS, the process of optimising their equipment for performance in the field only accelerated. Having logged 13 and 14 years of service respectively, Staz and Louis left the military and, as self-confessed “kit pests”, the transfer into apparel was a seamless one. ThruDark started as many brands do: scribbled on a whiteboard in a front room. The two men cherry-picked private security jobs to help fund the production of their first collection of samples.
“Fast-forward four years and we’re in a 5000 sq ft (465 sq m) unit and doing really well,” says Staz. “We had the knowledge and experience, plus we could design, develop and test the kit ourselves. It was a self-licking lollipop!”
Staz’s energy and Louis’ resolve are in action within a few kilometres. The walk up the west slope of Pen y Fan seems fine, before we drop into a small valley and the actual ascent begins with its unrelenting burn. The third former SBS operator in our group is ThruDark ambassador Jason Fox. A truck of a man with breeze-block biceps (partially tattooed), he happily trots up the hill like he’s out for a morning stroll.
After some far more stoic trudging on my part, my legs start to loosen up and on the final stretch to the summit of Pen y Fan, I look around for the first time in a while. The weather has been kind and the hills and valleys that surround us are quite spectacular. I already know those on Special Forces selection would not have the time nor energy to savour the views. I eat a snack and sip from a flask of scalding coffee.
“At The foot of Jacob’s Ladder, each step feels like a weighted lunge’’
MH is instructed to take on some fluids.
There and back again
From the summit, the route leads you down Jacob’s Ladder: equal parts giant stairs hewn into the side of the hill, slippery stone path and loose shingle. Staz surefootedly hops from rock to rock and across streams, as he chats with whoever is keeping up at that point.
Once on the Roman road, the only impediment to progress is Foxy and Staz having to repeatedly stop for pictures with groups of teenagers on a Duke of Edinburgh excursion. Foxy, a vocal advocate for mental health, takes the time to speak to a wide-eyed young man, who tells us of his own psychological struggles and was inspired by Jason to walk the Pen y Fan. He gambols on, beaming and shaking his head in an effort to compute meeting the person who inspired him to be on this very route.
I walk this section with the second of ThruDark’s ambassadors, multiple Olympic and World Championship medal-winning cyclist Victoria Pendleton. She is slight, with the kind of visceral, sinewy strength that is the mark of the hyper-elite athlete, and shot through with the same steel as Louis. Her arms are snaked with blackwork tattoos. To maintain the powerful muscle mass needed to compete, VP says she had to squat constantly, even on days directly before an event, while Chris Hoy would de-load for weeks to ensure that he wouldn’t be too heavy on the bike.
It’s the climb
After a break for some pasta and water with electrolyte tablets in the car park that marks the turnaround point, we start to retrace our steps. As is ever the way, the return leg goes quicker, with energy restocked, conversation in flow and the sun now warmer than the chilly rays of the early morning.
Then we arrive at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder. From the east,
it grasps upwards at the clear blue sky, the shingle and rocky outcrops serving only to tenderise my quads for the staircase. Each step feels like a weighted lunge, with the different sizes and depths of the huge treads stealing the gift of rhythm. In a rash attempt to impress, I lead the group alongside VP, without whom, I am not ashamed to say, I would have repeatedly stopped and sat down.
At the second summiting, it feels to me as if the Fan Dance is done. But it’s not. On the kilometres of descent into rolling hillocks, I walk at the back with the last of the ambassadors, ex-England rugby international and Northampton Saints stalwart Dylan Hartley. He has no tattoos as far as I can see, unbelievably. Having forced his body through the mangle of playing in the front row at the highest level, he has hiked with the added burden of the daily aches he experiences in his knee, hip and back, without
a single complaint.
It is this capacity to grin at the spectre of pain and fatigue that is the true power of ThruDark and its ambassadors. Despite carrying half the weight of those on selection, I reach the phone box in nearly double the time: six hours 20 minutes. My Whoop fitness tracker reports the burning of 2585 calories (10,815 kilojoules) with a Day Strain rating of 20.2. I had always thought the maximum possible was 20.
‘‘The shingle and rocky outcrops tenderise my quads for the climb to come.’’
Going against the flow: ex-SBS operatives push MH through an uphill battle.
We spend the evening wild camping next to an old reservoir with Pen y Fan looking over us. As we devour a delicious barbeque dinner cooked by Dylan, Swedish trance DJ Sven Gudvunsun (whose real name is Paul and who is brilliantly Welsh) runs around a Land Rover waving neon tubes as lightsabers while blasting the score of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (For a change, it’s his legs that are tattooed.)
The ThruDark motto is “Endeavour Through Adversity”. It’s what I learn going there and back again on the Fan Dance and it’s what I take with me on the long drive back home. You don’t need to be in the Special Forces or running a timed march with the weight of a large child on your back to benefit. Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes, in all spheres of our lives. And it seems to me that, with everything going on in the world, endeavouring to overcome it is more vital now than it ever has been before.
“It’s not brand-speak,” says Staz. “It’s an ethos that we all stood by in the SBS and it bleeds into everything we do. There is so much in the outdoors for us to challenge ourselves with and find that invaluable connection between the physical and mental that you only achieve by pushing your boundaries.
“You don’t have to fake something if it’s real.”