“Hello Mark”, a low voice out of the shadows of the admin area. It was Karol, the thickset Pole, instantly recognisable by his magnificent sideburns. I’d flown passed him going down Jacobs’ Ladder during the Summer Fan, and he’d returned the favour by steaming past me on the way back up. I thought “my God, how can anyone sustain that pace up this hill?”, he seemed completely driven, his steps sure and mechanical, pushing further and further ahead of me until I realised I would never catch him again. Jacob’s doesn’t lie to you, all of your uncertainties, doubts and insecurities are realised right there on its slopes. If you’re not headstrong enough, it’ll erode your confidence in a creeping, insidious manner, as slow and agonising as each step up its dreadful gradient. It’s a counsellor, motivator and demon all in one.
But that was back in July.
Here I was, in Wales again, with November’s attendant gloom shrouding not only the starkly beautiful Brecon Beacons but my mood as well. I’d arrived back in London that afternoon from a business trip to Paris that was full of the excesses that I should’ve been wiser to avoid, considering what I was about to attempt. The four hour drive in rush-hour traffic to reach the Danywenallt youth hostel hadn’t helped my morale either, nor had the quagmire that greeted me as I was directed to the parking area in the lower field.
I immediately felt out of my depth, and even though I would be in the company of like-minded people, some of whom I knew by sight from previous events and others by way of social media, I felt completely alone. Perhaps it was the gravity of what Point to Point represented; perhaps it was the sheer size of the hills surrounding our accommodation, but I had the distinct impression of being dwarfed by it all.
I’d experienced every conceivable kind of anxiety in the preceding weeks; do I wear the Gore-Tex boots or not? Had I done enough hill training? Why couldn’t I find a bloody crusader-type cup anywhere on the Holborn Road? Will the clash of DPM and MTP be a catastrophic sartorial faux-pas? What if I actually die doing this? How much over my allotted lease-car mileage is this trip going to push me? Does it really matter that I can’t read a map at all?
But now I was here and I’d have to face up to it all – sure, I’d volunteered; I’d paid a lot of money to be part of this – but I was scared to death. But that was the point. It was one of the reasons that I entered these races; it was why I put myself through hours of boring, painful repetition up and down Yates Meadow while everyone else slept off a Saturday morning hangover. It was why I was the one doing the ridiculous man-twerk looking exercises to strengthen my quads, as suggested by my gym instructor missus. And it was why I was persevering with the high-carbohydrate, high-protein diet that made me spend more time on the toilet than with her, it seemed. It was because I was frightened of doing Point to Point; surely it wasn’t the place for me because I was scared cold.
Chuck Palahniuk said, “Find out what you're afraid of and go live there.” So there I was.
I asked Karol if he was going solo or if he was part of a team, "solo...” he said coolly.”Do you think I could tag along with you?" I asked, acutely aware of my lack of navigational ability. "Sure, but it's at your own risk.” was the laconic retort. I thought, “If only you knew the risk I was carrying anyway, my friend”.
The ensuing odyssey held nothing in the way of pleasure for me, every step was treacherous enough to threaten a dislocation or sprain of some sort and I marvelled at how the selection candidates must move at speed over this terrain. It was pure relief to happen across the relative comfort of any path that was surer underfoot, but such luxuries were not so common. The headlamp-light of those first few hours before dawn played mean tricks on a confused and tired mind still trying to make sense of the unfamiliar. More than once I thought for sure we were about to stumble onto a flat, firm, grassy plateau, only to be faced with yet another disappointingly steep incline, sown with tussocks and treacly mud traps. None of it was easy, there was no respite and each pace had to be calculated and considered to avoid cracking a bone or stumbling and launching the bergen overhead to faceplant in the peat, or worse, the rocks.
The hours merged, the weight of the bergen making for a dead, dull ache, toes mercifully numb...
“It’s probably about another hour to the next RV”.
“Yeah ok, we’ve done six already, so what’s one more?”
It was approaching the summit of Pen y Fan that I noticed Karol69’s eyes drooping and his movements becoming more lethargic - by his own admission he was beginning to fade. "I'm falling asleep mate... get your compass out and go on your own" he slurred. Of course, that would never happen, I'd brandished my compass with confidence at the RVs more so to satisfy the DS than anything else but I really didn't know what to do with it. Karol was a superb reader of maps and terrain, and there was no way I was going to leave him let alone chance it on my own.
We checked in with Jason at the top of the Fan and Karol managed to summon enough of his faculty to deliver an erudite route selection to the FRV, enough so to attract a DS compliment. He was still in a bad way though and needed to eat if he wasn't to tumble down Jacobs Ladder in a vortex of Polish camo and facial hair.
So I gave him pretty much all of the food I'd carried and made sure he ate it, despite his protests. But it wasn't just about keeping my navigator awake and switched on. I would've given him the smock off my back if he needed it... I would've carried his bergen if he couldn't manage. Because that's just what you'd do. That bond that forms through shared hardship doesn't take long to cure, and it cures strong. I would've taken any burden for him in those ten hours on the hills, and I'm sure others felt the same way about their mukkers.
Being enroute to the FRV didn’t lift my spirits, the approach to the final leg held a testing contouring route on already tired and battered ankles and I really wanted it to end. One final stream crossing and we were on the metalled road, a minute later, in the approaching gloom, we saw Ken’s red torch, signalling the position of the final RV. We were done.
The only congratulation we allowed each other was a stoic, macho fist-bump. Truth is, I could've hugged him, kissing both those luxurious sideburns, à la française, but this was SAS selection heartland, and real men didn't do that sort of thing in these parts...