The Dubai Marathon Part 3: Where are you, Gav?

I sat still for a good ten minutes and watched the finishing line obsessively, expecting Gav to come across any moment. Male in a red vest? Not Gav. Another one? No again. He didn’t show. The marshals were moving us on, away from the immediate finish line area. I creaked my body up to a standing position and inched my way to the tent where I’d collect my medal, water and some food. There were some chairs laid out and I sat down gingerly facing the entrance, quietly sobbing as the relief overwhelmed me. I was still on the lookout for Gav. As I reluctantly nibbled on a banana, a kind man walked past and noticed my tears. He gently put his hand on my shoulder. He didn’t know I was equally upset as the thought of Gav having a hard time as I was relieved that mine was over. I smiled back at him weakly. I moved on again – this time to collect my bag. Maybe Gav’s pulled out! Maybe he’s tried to contact me to let me know! Good plan – get to my bag, and check my phone. Right. Legs, you’re on again. A steady limp this time, that’s all you need to do.

I inched my way slowly through swarms of bloody 10k runners to the baggage bus. Where did they all come from? They were like flies lingering around a discarded old kebab. Shit. My phone has no signal. Shit shit shit. What now? Even if he wanted to contact me, he couldn’t. I went back to the bus. “Has number 387 been collected yet? No? Oh, OK. If he comes for his bag, please would you tell him I’m sitting on the curb just over there? Thanks”. So, at least I knew he hadn’t been for his bag. Bloody hell, he’s still out there. It’s getting hotter and hotter, and he’s still running.

I sat on the curb side for another ten minutes. Shit again. Where was he? Is he ok? What can I do? My bloody phone is useless and I have no way of knowing if he’s alright. As panic rose inside me, I turned to a guy sitting next to me who had a mobile phone. I tried to speak but I couldn’t, so I cried instead. I muffled something about my phone not working, and tearfully pointed to his. He got the message and I called Gav. No answer, so I left a sobbing voicemail message for him instead. Think, Rachel. Think.

Next plan: head across the road to McDonald’s. Surely they would have WiFi (they do in Salterhebble!) From there. I could make my phone work and try and make contact with the elusive Gavin Dodd. On dragging my aching limbs across the highway, there was no WiFi. I stood outside and I cried again. Real, heartbroken, frightened tears. It must have been well over half an hour since I’d finished. Where the hell was he and what had happened? A couple of girls saw me and came rushing over: “Hey, are you ok? What on earth is the matter? Have you lost someone? It doesn’t matter what it is, we will help you. Calm down and tell us what’s happened. We will sort it”. Once I stopped hyperventilating, I managed to squeak out a few key words and show them a picture of Gav in his race vest. “I’ve…(sob)…he’s…(sob)…my phone…(sob)…I can’t…(sob)”. They pieced together the missing details and handed me a phone. I rang Gav’s number. HE ANSWERED! Thank god, he answered…

I’d long since stopped caring about what had happened to Gav’s race plan, and only concerned myself with him surviving to tell the tale. Times and PBs very quickly disappear into the black hole of nothingness when somebody you love has a question mark over their whereabouts, and their welfare. Hearing his voice on the other end of the phone felt like the first gasp of air after an uncomfortably long stint under water. The relief isn’t even conscious: it’s primal. Without wanting to melodramatise the possible horrific scenarios that were whirling around in my head, let’s not forget that I have seen people die in races. And not just once, but twice. I’ve actually run past poor individuals who never saw the finish line. Once at the London marathon in 2012. At mile 25, a girl had just collapsed and was receiving CPR as I ran past. The medics hadn’t even reached her. She was later named as Claire Squires, and she subsequently died. Also during the Humber Half marathon in 2011 again – so close to the finish. At mile 12, I ran past a guy this time who was again on the receiving end of CPR. It was a scorching hot day. After suffering from heat exhaustion, Matthew Good didn’t make it either. So, I’ve witnessed tragedy at races. It’s horrific, and it happens. Sometimes it all just proves too much. Considering the fact that this was a full marathon, in the desert heat, I felt justifiably panicked.

We met up on the same bit of curb that I’d been nervously perched on almost an hour since. He was a wreck. The heat had kaiboshed his marathon, and he’d hit such a dramatic decline in pace by 19 miles that it literally was a crawl home. A lesser man would have pulled out. My ego may well have done the same. He was bigger than that, and he made me the proudest partner in the world by showing me what real guts are all about, and what having ‘inner-strength’ means. As for the training he’d done – without a doubt his form was better than mine. His training had been far more consistent than mine. No illness, no overtraining, well-paced long runs, fast short ones. Remember the hilly 16 miler I’d pulled out of just after Christmas? He hammered the hills; conversely, they ruined me. It was his marathon for the taking. But (why does there always have to be a but) we hadn’t accounted for the heat. We knew it would be hot – we’re not THAT stupid – and there was precious little we could have done differently to handle it any better. We didn’t have the luxury of acclimatising before the race: we had one day – with jet lag. Could we have done any more? No. I genuinely don’t think we could. As with any marathon, on the day, we did the very best we could given the unique set of circumstances and every variable factor possible.

I couldn’t have been prouder if he’d won the bloody thing: it was the lessons he taught me – and others – about having strength, determination and an absence of ego in adversity. I can’t help wondering what the rest of our holiday would have been like if the tables were turned, and I was the one who’d had that same experience? I’d love to imagine that I would have coped in exactly the same way, but I know that’s not true. My ego would have been bruised, my fragile confidence smashed to oblivion. And knowing that truth makes me feel weak and a lesser person than my Gav is.

One day, I may well have to learn the very same lesson. When I do, Gav you will be my inspiration, and I love you for it.

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The Dubai Marathon Part 2: The Race

Marathon1I set off at a reasonable pace, slightly ahead of Gav and wanting to make sure I didn’t push too hard too early on. I’d coached myself into avoiding my usual trappings of flying off too fast and burning out with a decent way still to go (London marathon 2015, for example.) As we turned the first corner at around 4 miles in, I could see where Gav was as he approached on the other side of the road. So far, so good. We were both sticking to our ‘comfortable pace early doors’ respective race plans. I wasn’t overly worried at this stage. That said, I wasn’t exactly comfortable or happy with my legs either. They felt heavier than I would have liked, and I had an inkling that this would be a pretty long and arduous day at the office. Still, I kept my 7:30m/mile pace up for just about the first half of the race. Again, I knew in my gut that this would slow down sooner rather than later. It was gradually becoming harder and harder to maintain pace as my legs felt heavier. I was also dropping off the small pack I’d been running with up to that point, and tellingly, I chose not to try and stay with them.

I remember saying to myself around the 13-14 mile point “​Jesus – this is getting tough far earlier than I’d have liked. What’s my plan now? How am I going to tackle things from here if this is already a low point?!”​ I thought about it in stages: miles 14-17, then another 3 to reach 20 miles, and then breaking the last 6 into 2 X 3 mile chunks. Mentally, I would tackle each 3 mile block in stages. Once one was done, move on to the next one. And so on…

Around mile 17, we turned another corner (there are precious few corners on the Dubai marathon route – in fact it was as close to a treadmill marathon as I’d ever wish to experience. One long, endless, arduous concrete road. That is all. For 26.2 miles, albeit for two corner turns.) From there, I could look across at the runners who were a good few miles behind me as they were approaching the turn, and see where Gav was. I looked across, and he wasn’t there. I kept looking. Where was he? Finally, he appeared. Further back than I expected, but he didn’t look to be struggling. He gave me a smile and waved. Perhaps he was running a clever race and his pacing would pay dividends later down the track. He had plenty of time to catch me up, which I thoroughly expected him to do. By this stage, I was firmly in the damage limitation zone for my own marathon. It was in hanging-on territory once more, only it was happening far earlier in the race than I’d predicted. I’d been here many times before – at least I had that small comfort.

As my legs increased in density with every step, I was grateful that they continued to tick over at a reasonable pace. Arguably, they should know what to do on a flat, straight course. Also, with the mileage already accumulated in them, it offers a kind of fall-back position for such times. They just assume default position which is simply ​‘continue to run until I say stop’.​ Nothing more complicated than that.

But I was struggling. I stopped for a gel and a drink. Any excuse to briefly pull over and have a word with myself. I quickly set off again, remembering my plan to deal with 3-mile chunks at a time, and not to worry about the next one until I was in it. Ok – deal made with myself, I could do that.

It hadn’t really dawned on me that we were now running in the Arabian heat which had crept up on us like a stealthy Dickensian pick-pocket: we hadn’t really noticed it was there, such was the subtlety of its arrival. I was mindful to take in at least a sip of water at every available station. There’s almost as much rubbish spouted about staying hydrated as there is on carb-loading. People take it to the extreme, in both cases. Whilst it’s crucial to avoid dehydration of course, it’s just as dangerous – if not more so – to take on too much water. Little and often is the key, as in life generally. I was OK on that front. I knew I had enough water, and I was also fine for carbs, having managed them well over the duration of the course.

I felt to be losing grip of my pace around the 20 mile stage. It didn’t help that all the markers were in KMs rather than miles. I couldn’t see up ahead where the next one was coming, other than obsessing at my Suunto watch, which had the downside of also displaying my pace: I soon realised that staring at it didn’t make me run any faster. I kept chugging away, ticking off the painfully slow last 6 miles. I thought about Gav. Where was he? Could he see me? Was he keeping me in sight, and preparing to go past me? I expected him to run up behind me, and I hoped desperately that he would. We could surely help each other to finish this thing together far easier than we could alone. For a moment, I considered pulling over and waiting for him. Surely he wouldn’t be too far behind me, and we could be each other’s support to the end. I’ve no idea why, but I soon dismissed it as a bad idea. If I had to stop for too long, my legs just wouldn’t get going again, and I had absolutely no idea how far behind me he was. It was a gamble not worth taking. Plus, I just had to get this finished. I needed to get to the end and for it to be over. Any diversion from this was not an option. So, with my desperate idea out of the window, I straightened my head out once more. Sometimes, when options are taken away from you, it helps to regain clarity. It helped me in this case. My only option was to keep running, and to finish it. Focus on that – nothing else.

Miles 22-23 were difficult for me mentally. I knew then that I was way outside my PB of 3:16. It just wouldn’t happen today. I readjusted my expectations and figured I could be OK with a time around 3:30. As disappointed as I knew I would be, it was still a respectable marathon time and I could at least be able to say that I couldn’t have done any more today. Nothing at all. Trying to remain logical and focus on the positives instead of my internal compass for ‘not doing well enough’ ​I hung on and crossed the finish line at 3:34. My legs almost immediately gave way. That hasn’t happened so suddenly since my first ever marathon (Gav has subsequent told me this can be one effect of running in heat.) I remember sitting down at the side of the road literally just beyond the finishing line. I felt OK other than my legs. My legs! Jesus, my legs.

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The Dubai Marathon – 22/1/16 Part 1 – The First Hurdle: Getting There

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Our marathon began last night, in real terms. We went to bed around 11pm Dubai time, hopelessly unable to sleep. It would only have been 7pm back in the UK, and so our bodies were still in that time zone and nowhere near ready to switch off for the night. Regardless, we knew we had a 4am wake-up call in the morning, so we really had no choice but try and get even a few hours sleep before our room service breakfast delivery would arrive at 4.15am precisely. We both shuffled around and stirred until we jointly admitted defeat, and agreed to switch the lights back on. We had a snack and read until around midnight – there was precious little else we could do. Even whilst purportedly asleep, my mind was alert and fully aware of all my thoughts. I felt calm and restful, but it wasn’t what could be described as any kind of real sleep.

As planned, our alarms blasted us out of our semi-slumber at 4am. I leapt out bed like I’d been connected to jump leads. I was insanely awake and alert. Adrenaline, I think they call it – that and sheer panic. Our breakfasts arrived right on cue at 4.15am – this resort is run on military precision, and it’s a good job too. Danish pastries were about the last thing we felt like tucking into at that ungodly hour, but with only two hours until the start of the race, we were left with no choice.

Quick change into our race gear, baggage packed and labelled, we did one final check before heading off for our 5.15am taxi. So far, so good. The highways of Dubai were thankfully empty of virtually any other traffic. There was something strangely satisfying about knowing we were up and off on our marathon adventure whilst most of the city slept. On arriving at the drop-off point, it was still dark a real novelty as diamante dazzling street decorations lit up the central reservations – we would expect nothing less of Dubai, of course. Already it was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. Once our bags had been dropped off, we headed to the start of the marathon. Thankfully, there was hardly time to dwell on what was to come. By the time we were settled in the starting area, it was time for off. They do things on time around here, we discovered. Like clockwork, in fact.

We would begin the marathon in the dark, at 6.30am precisely, and the sun would rise shortly after, around 7.15am. Standing in the darkness, yet with sunglasses on my head, waiting for the punishing sun to rise over the desert (which is what this place is!) I remember thinking to myself how utterly bonkers it was. I’d never experienced anything of the kind. Obviously, it was organised this way to avoid running in the midday sun. Ignorant bliss meant that we wouldn’t know what that heat would feel like until there was no escape from it. It would happen gradually, over the course of the marathon, but we didn’t know when or how the heat would affect us. And that, it most certainly did…

The Power of a ‘Thank You’…

Thank youWe all appreciate thanks and verification that we’re doing a good job – or even just some good – whilst going about our day-to-day, ordinary lives.

Now and again, it comes back to repay us. And when it does, it can feel incredible.

As days go, I’ve excelled myself today. I scored a hat trick…

Firstly, a good friend of mine (who I rarely see) reminded me how much just a five-minute catch up means to her. Crikey – if even that snatched, briefest of conversations can make such a difference to somebody’s day, then how amazing is that? By my reckoning, I could make a hell of a difference to LOTS of people’s days just by being bothered enough to have a chat with them… for five minutes. I can spare that.

Secondly, my new website went live today. I received such lovely feedback, and one message in particular really touched me. A friend – an old client of mine actually – posted:

“Shamelessly plugging this BEAUTIFUL lady’s website. One of my most favourite people with ‘get up and go’ and an inspiration to many through just about any walk of life! Love you lots Rachel…”

Wow. I haven’t seen this particular friend for a good few years. Yet, that is what she thinks of me. And it meant such a lot.

…And finally. I run and manage a project up at a very special place in North Halifax. The Centre at Threeways is a hub of positivity and possibility. The Volunteer Plus project I run – alongside my partner-in-crime Dave – is intended to give individuals who are out of work the skills, confidence and belief they need to get back on the horse, and back into the workplace.

This afternoon, one such individual – who was on our very first V+ course back in Summer 2014 – came in to see us… to say thank you. From a place where he once barely had the confidence to even look us in the eye, where he questioned his right to take up even a square inch on this crazy planet – he found himself, and he found his worth. He discovered that he had skills, and that he was valuable, after all. We knew this of course, but he took slightly longer to figure it out. Even better, on the back of spending the best part of a year with us at Threeways, he eventually found a job. Not just any old job but a really important job. He is now a Support Worker for adults with learning difficulties. He told us today that he’s now tasked with running group dance sessions, even karaoke and massage classes for the groups he works with! This coming from someone who previously struggled to say his name out loud – let alone jump on the karaoke machine.

Dale – we are so proud of you, and we thank you for being so generous as to thank US for doing our job.

So, in conclusion, let’s all say THANK YOU a lot more… it really is the small things that can make such an incredible difference.

Hello Blogging World…I’m back!

Well, it’s been a long time in the making, but this is the Return of the Blog for me, together with the launch of my new ‘Rachel Cullen Writes’ website. Happy days!

There is no master plan or world domination in the pipeline here (!) only a place where I can demonstrate WHAT I DO (as nobody seems to know) and where I can write about things that I find interesting.

I’ve called this ‘My Ramblings’ for that very reason: it may be that I write about my work, marathon training, having adventures, or any other random subject matter which grabs my attention – including writing and publishing my first book.

So, welcome to my world.

You are very welcome to have a browse, and make contact at any time if you feel you have some comment to add to my ramblings!

Im Back