An MH editor embarked on a 15-mile march designed to eliminate special forces soldiers
A magazine reporter, three former Special Boat Service (SBS) officers, one of Britain’s most successful Olympians, England’s most capped prostitute and a Swedish trance DJ met in a red phone booth of South Wales. The location marks the start of the Fan Dance – a 24km journey to the Brecon Beacons’ highest peak, Pen y Fan, down the dizzying Jacob’s Ladder on the other side, then along a Roman road to a parking lot. Once you’ve done all of that? Well, you turn around and go back, of course.
For British special forces, the road looms at the end of the first week of the first phase of selection, a filter for those who do not cut the mustard. This is a timed march led by the Directing Staff (DS) that you must complete with a 27 kg bag and a mock rifle. To pass, you have to finish before the DS, with them or as close as fucking after. The time allotted is three hours 20 minutes, although on rare occasions it may be slightly longer, if the weather is particularly unfavourable.
“The Fan Dance is synonymous with Special Forces and it’s probably the most well-known march we do,” says Anthony “Staz” Stazicker, former SBS sniper and co-founder of performance apparel brand ThruDark. . With a compact frame sporting visible muscles from head to toe, very little body fat and lots of tattoos, he is the definition of Level 1 fitness. Staz
is quick to smile, quick to laugh and a happy storyteller.
“The fan dance has always been there, since the old ones had their ups and downs. They never changed the route or the weight. The DSs have about 20 steps to choose from for the rest of the route here. But you know, heading into the selection, you go up to 100% Pen y Fan. It’s written in the hills.
Staz and Louis Tinsley, co-founder of ThruDark and former SBS agent, met in 2006 at 40 Commando Royal Marines, when they were part of the same unit and troop. Louis is the other side of the Special Forces fitness coin. Longer, leaner and steely, you feel like he could run for days and probably did. He’s calmer but just as warm, and it’s clear that the ease he enjoys has been hard-earned. He is also covered in tattoos.
They immediately bonded when tinkering with the standard kit to make it more suitable for the different environments they found themselves in. Once they both progressed through SBS, the process of optimizing their gear for performance on the pitch only accelerated. After logging 13 and 14 years of service, respectively, Staz and Louis left the military and, as self-confessed “parasites in kit form,” the transition to clothing went smoothly. ThruDark started like many brands: scribbled on a whiteboard in a front room. Both men chose private security jobs to help fund the production of their first sample collection.
“Fast forward four years and we’re in a 5,000 square foot unit and doing just fine,” Staz says. “We had the knowledge and the experience, and we could design, develop and test the kit ourselves. It was a self-licking lollipop!
Staz’s energy and Louis’ determination are in action a few kilometers away. The climb up the western slope of Pen y Fan looks fine, before dropping into a small valley and the real ascent begins with its incessant burning. The third former SBS operator in our group is ThruDark Ambassador Jason Fox. A truck of a man with cinder block biceps (partially tattooed), he trots happily up the hill as if out for a morning stroll.
After some much more stoic effort on my part, my legs start to relax and on the final stretch to the top of Pen y Fan, I look around for the first time in a long time. The weather was fine and the hills and valleys around us are quite spectacular. I already know that those selected into the special forces wouldn’t have the time or energy to savor the sights. I eat a snack and sip a hot flask of coffee.
And back again
From the top, the route takes you to Jacob’s Ladder: giant stairs carved equal parts into the side of the hill, a slippery stone path and loose cobbles. Staz confidently leaps from boulder to boulder and through streams, as he chats with whoever is following at the time.
Once on the Roman road, the only obstacle to progress is that Foxy and Staz have to stop repeatedly to take photos with groups of teenagers on a Duke of Edinburgh excursion. Foxy, an outspoken mental health advocate, takes the time to talk to a wide-eyed young man, who tells us about his own psychological struggles and was inspired by Jason to walk the Pen y Fan. He frolics, beaming and shaking his head in an effort to calculate the encounter with the person who inspired him to be on this very road.
I ride this section with the second of ThruDark’s ambassadors, Olympic and World Championship medalist cyclist Victoria Pendleton. She’s lightweight, with the kind of visceral, sinewy strength that’s the hallmark of the hyper-elite athlete, and penetrated with the same steel as Louis. Her arms are covered in black tattoos. To maintain the powerful muscle mass needed to compete, VP says she had to squat constantly, even the days leading up to an event, while Chris Hoy unloaded for weeks to make sure he wouldn’t be too heavy. on the bike.
After a break for pasta and water with electrolyte tablets in the parking lot that marks the turning point, we begin to retrace our steps. As always, the return goes faster, with replenished energy, smooth conversations and the sun now warmer than the cold rays of early morning.
Then we arrive at the foot of Jacob’s ladder. From the east it clings to the clear blue sky, the cobbles and rocky outcrops only serving to soften my quads for the stairway. Each step feels like a weighted lunge, the varying sizes and depths of the huge steps stealing the gift of rhythm. In a reckless attempt to impress, I lead the group alongside VP, without whom, I’m not ashamed to say, I would have repeatedly stopped and sat down.
At the second summit, I feel like the Fan Dance is over. But it’s not. On the miles downhill through the rolling hills, I walk in the back with the latest of the ambassadors, former England rugby international and Northampton Saints stalwart Dylan Hartley. He has no tattoos as far as I can see, incredibly. After forcing his body through the mayhem of playing front row at the highest level, he walked with the added burden of daily knee, hip and back pain without a single complaint.
It is this ability to smile in the face of the specter of pain and fatigue that is the true power of ThruDark and its ambassadors. Although carrying half the weight of those selected, I reach the phone booth in nearly double the time: six hours 20 minutes. My Whoop fitness tracker reports burning 2,585 calories with a daily fatigue rating of 20.2. I had always thought that the maximum possible was 20.
We spend the evening wild camping next to an old reservoir with Pen y Fan watching over us. As we devour a delicious BBQ dinner concocted by Dylan, Swedish trance DJ Sven Gudvunsun (real name Paul and who’s brilliantly Welsh) races around a Land Rover waving neon lights like lightsabers while blasting the partition of the force awakens. (For a change, her legs are tattooed.)
ThruDark’s motto is “Endeavor Through Adversity”. That’s what I learn going there and back on the Fan Dance and that’s what I take with me on the long drive home. You don’t have to be in Special Forces or running a timed march with the weight of a big kid on your back to benefit. Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes, in all spheres of our lives. And it seems to me that striving to overcome it is more vital today than ever before.
“It’s not about branding,” Staz says. “It’s a philosophy that we’ve all championed in SBS and that permeates everything we do. There’s so much to do outdoors to challenge ourselves and find that invaluable connection between the physical and the mental that you only achieve by pushing your limits. You don’t have to fake something if it’s real.