Salisbury-based builder Vernon Mills won the winter edition of the Fan Dance Double Tap race on January 5 and 6, a back-to-back 15 miles trek during two days across the Brecon Beacons in Wales. He is currently training for another challenge.
“It’s a humbling experience, I’m 50 years old but now know I still passed an SAS test,” Vernon recalled in an exclusive interview with Valley News.
The Fan Dance Test is the civilian version of a ‘High Exercise Walk’, a 24km SAS Selection Test established by Avalanche Endurance Events and which takes participants over Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons.
Three soldiers going for the SAS test died in the Brecon Beacons in 2013; now, safety measures are in focus, and during the lead-up to the march and Fan Dance, organisers make sure runners show discipline.
Several events are available, depending on racers’ abilities. Vernon chose the Double Tap challenge, the race in which he finished second last year.
Vernon is familiar with what it takes as he joined the army in 1986 when he was 16, and eventually became a part of the 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. In 1997, at 27, Vernon decided to leave the army but always felt a pull back towards it, and after a friend gave him the heads-up about the race, he realised it was the focus he needed in his life.
Double Tap event competitors must complete, in under four hours, twice, over two days, what is claimed to be the world’s oldest and most famous Special Forces selection test.
Vernon slammed into a wall after he was the first one to cross the finish line – evidence to how demanding the race is, especially since he had to carry a 25lb heavy backpack filled with rations of food – to eat while running – water and a sleeping bag, as a safety measure if he found himself unable to finish the race.
“When you get to the first summit, you’re already exhausted,” Vernon said.
After waking up at 4am and consuming a nice fry-up, it was time for the toughest part of the race, the 7.30am start, where everyone is clumped up.
“I got a good position so there were no people in the way, something I learned from last year,” Vernon said.
Jacob’s Ladder, the part that leads up and over the top of Pen y Fan is notorious for how mentally and physically challenging it is.
“Ten metres from the top, I couldn’t move,” Vernon said.
“I had run out of food and water, had bursting calves and busted knees.”
Luckily, a member of staff found him and got him back up by offering him water, a handful of sweets – and a Snickers.
“He told me I could borrow his water bottle as long as I gave it back to him at the finish line,” Vernon said.
“I never knew if I was in the lead, I just had to stick with the task at hand.”
With the help, Vernon managed to finish the race at 4hrs sharp, and added to his first-day time at 3hrs 52mins, it was enough to get the gold.
For one year, Vernon trained five days a week to build his endurance with help from personal trainer Nathan Dalton who improved his physical capabilities, and he had his sister and his friend Chris taking care of him during the event.
“I want to raise awareness for the event as the organisers support the charities I support, The Pilgrim Bandits and Support our Paras, and give money to the guys suffering on the frontline.”
If you enjoy a true challenge, visit www.thefandancerace.com for more information.