‘When a Twitter Message Isn’t Enough…’

‘When a Twitter Message Isn’t Enough…’

She’s lost her daughter.

However which way you say it, using as many euphemisms as you like to make it sound less gut-wrenchingly desperate – it isn’t. It doesn’t get any worse than that.

It just doesn’t.

I don’t know that pain. I can’t possibly know it. But I have a heart, and I have a daughter, and the two together can paint a picture of a kind of horror that I can’t even allow myself to comprehend.

And she smiles. She still smiles. I think about that and I wonder how. I wonder where she goes to find that smile. Some days, she must have to dig so deep to locate that smile, it must feel like she’s burrowing with bare hands right through to the burning centre of the earth. And it doesn’t even look like just a feigned, painted-on smile either. How does she do that? I just don’t know.

She emails me, and the email is titled “A Twitter message isn’t long enough.” I read it, and it stops me in my tracks. I actually reply with a message saying, “I’m going to have to process this, Cheryl, because there’s so much I want to say, and I don’t know what that is just now.” Is that the email equivalent of speechless? There may well be a text message emoji to reflect the same – I don’t know. I WAS speechless.

On Sunday, she ran the Blackpool half marathon. We were there, and let me tell you, NO part of that race looked easy. The weather felt to be battling with itself – the wind clashed with the waves, which battered the shoreline, and barraged its way inland. It looked – and felt – like they were all in the midst of a huge domestic, where no one was willing to back down.

I’ve done that race myself before, and it feels like running on a travelator whilst being sandblasted from six inches away. For 13.1 miles. Of all the half marathons that love to boast about their “ great PB potential” – this is not one. It’s a feat of endurance. Literally, to endure it and to get to the end is a mission in itself.

And so back to the email. This is the part that did actually stop me in my tracks. (I have sent this to Cheryl for her permission to ‘cut & paste’ it before this goes live.)

“I’m not exactly sure where it happened, but somewhere in Blackpool I found this part of me that knows she’ll never give up on this.

I plodded along thinking about my little running journey that stopped for a holiday to have two children.  I realised I needed to be a kinder to myself about what I’m doing. I’m so hard on myself. I need to remember that I may have been quicker, thinner and in general fitter before (only just mind but still!) But since then my body has grown 2 children, had 2 c-sections and the recovery that comes with all of that. I only started running again in January.  And in with all this we lost Edie and have to live with that everyday. If I was hearing about someone else doing this I’d be telling them how amazing it is that they can do it.”

What do I say to that? How do I tell her that it’s impressive enough that she can SMILE again, let alone put herself in the midst of the wildest, bleakest half-marathon in the North West. How do I say to her that if it took her a WEEK to complete the course, that it’s STILL faster than I could run it in, because I’d be struggling to find the strength to fasten my laces, let alone anything else?

And then, SHE THANKS ME! For what? What on earth do I do with that? How do I tell her that – in one sentence – she has made me realise how utterly silly and pathetic and unnecessary my malaise about my calf injury and missing out on the London Marathon is? And most other things I ‘worry’ about..

We see her after the race. I hug her, and I say, “let’s see your medal then, Cheryl!” She beams and shows her newly acquired bling to our girls. She’s still bloody smiling!

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She’s STILL smiling!!!

I keep the conversation light. But I know what this means to her. It symbolises her inner strength. That medal shows her just what she can do – what she can achieve – in the most atrocious, nauseating, and heart-breaking of circumstances.

And yet, she says thank you to me. Finally, once my heart has fallen on to the floor and I’ve picked it back up again, there is ONE SENTENCE that I can reply to:

“And those bloody gels. I had one in Blackpool for the first time ever and it made me feel a bit sick. Will I get used to these?”

My response:

“No. They’re shit. It’s a means to an end, but I’m sure you’ve swallowed worse: I know I have ;-)”

*Cheryl, for so, so many reasons, you are – and will continue to be – my hero.

Cheryl and her husband, Tom, will be running in a number of races throughout this year, cumulating in the Yorkshire Marathon, where we will be joining them to raise funds for the charity Edinburgh Sick Kids in memory of their daughter, Edie.

PLEASE help them to help other families. #FlyHighEdie #EdinburghSickKids @EdinSickKids

The Fitness Test and The Plan

A plan? Follow a plan? As in some kind of structured thing put together by an expert? Don’t be so ridiculous.

It was October 2014, and I was on a roll. I’d just surpassed any possible running fantasies I’d ever had, and got my marathon PB of 3:16:29. And if truth be told – it felt pretty easy. It wasn’t laboured. I floated round the entire 26.2 miles. I mildly hate myself for sounding so glib, but it’s true.

“Where do I go from here?” I mused to myself. “How can I possibly better this – or even match it?” And worse still “What if this is just a fluke – a freak of nature, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence? What if this was my one moment in time, never to be repeated?”

As elated as I was with my dream marathon – plus dream marathon time – it pushed me into a corner. I was terrified.

I hadn’t planned it. I hadn’t followed a plan. I’d just run, and then run some more, and entered races, and turned up on the start line, and taken home the medal, and woken up the next day, and run again. And so on, and so forth…

Groundhog day had nothing on my non-existent running plan: I was Bill Murray.

So what did I do? Well, I just kept running, of course. I did what I’d always done.

Christmas came, and I opened my present from Gav. It was unreal. An artist had captured my One Moment In Time on a canvas. I was hand-drawn – albeit with slightly hefty thighs – alongside my 3:16:29 time. I couldn’t get my head around how this guy could paint like that. How is it even fair for one person to have so much talent? Was it the best gift in the world? Quite possibly.

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Artist: Richard Everett. Runner: Rachel Cullen. Race: Yorkshire Marathon 2014

And then I opened my card from Gav. Inside, there was a printed email.

“Dear Gavin and Rachel,

Thank you for booking two full physiological assessments at Loughborough University Sports Science Performance Centre, with our Sports Science Manager, Rhona Pearce.

Instructions for the day are attached. We look forward to seeing you then.”

Shit. What’s this? A full physiological assessment, you say? What, as in a fitness test? And what will that achieve, exactly? I wasn’t ungrateful so much as shit scared. Surely they’d discover that I was a complete fraud. It was a fluke that I’d run 3:16 – they must know that!

[Gulp] “Thanks Gav, that’s…erm, ACE!” I looked in the diary and was comforted by the few months reprieve I had until The Test Day would come.

February turned up, as it always does. I willed it to be somehow delayed, to cling on to January for a bit longer, but it wouldn’t play ball.

We travelled down to Loughborough, a car ride of weird, nervous apprehension. Gav was excited. “This is going to be AMAZING!” he gushed.

”Yeah. Do you want another Percy Pig?” I offered, as I tucked in to my bag of sweets. I’d got a BOGOF deal at M&S.

We arrived, and were taken to what looked like the fitness epicentre of the world. I’d never seen a treadmill that big. “There’s a bloody harness on it, Gav. What the hell is that for?” All of a sudden, that second bag of Percy Pigs didn’t seem like such a good idea as nausea arose from the pit of my stomach. Shit. This is happening. Right now. I fucking hate February for turning up.

I warmed up on the ‘other’ Land Rover Discovery-sized treadmill whilst Gav underwent his assessment. I kept glancing over. They stopped him every few minutes to take his blood, and then he was made to run like his life depended on it. Again. It seemed to never end.

When he finished, I could see what the harness was there for.

And then it was my turn. I felt weak and limp, scared to death, and way out of my depth. “This is completely unnecessary. It’s wasted on me. I’m a fraud, don’t you know? You’d be best testing REAL athletes.” This was the message I was telepathically transmitting to Rhona as she and her assistant managed their polite, pre-arse-kicking chitchat.

They put a mask over my face. It was Hannibal Lector / Fierce Dog mouth guard. I was only standing still, yet I could barely breathe.

“Are you ready, Rachel? We’ll take your blood every 3 minutes, and the pace will increase incrementally. Do you understand? Are you happy to proceed?

I’m starting the treadmill in 3,2,1…”

I nodded, my mouthpiece already irritating me as I commenced running with a tubular piece of plumbing sticking out of my face.

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“They’ve muzzled me, Gav! They’ve bloody muzzled me!”

If truth be told, and joking aside, my downfall I’m sure had been the BOGOF double bag of Percy Pigs on the journey down. I knew I hadn’t performed to the best of my ability, but hey – on that day, after copious amounts of pig-shaped sugary shit – I did what I could.

We travelled home, and eagerly awaited the results and subsequent report from Rhona. She was lovely, and didn’t treat me like the non-athletic fraudster who had somehow found herself on the Land Rover Discovery treadmill.

The next day, our reports came through. They were incredibly detailed, and told us EXACTLY what we needed to do in order to progress and move from point A (Percy Pig eating, fraudulent running) to point B (perhaps – just possibly – improving.) Mine was very clear:

VO2 MAX NEEDS WORK; RUNNING ECONOMY PROBABLY AS GOOD AS IT’S GOING TO GET, SO FOCUS ON IMPROVING VO2 MAX.

Rhona went into some detail regarding how I could improve my VO2 Max – some speed interval sessions (she’d even given me the exact paces I should be running at), and how to improve my lactate threshold. It was all in there.

That was February 2015. What did I do? I read the report a couple of times; I did a handful of the ‘prescribed’ speed sessions on the treadmill (the Reliant Robin ones at Sowerby Bridge gym) and then, before long, I turned back into Bill Murray. I reverted back to my “Just run, and then run a bit more, and – without any particular goal or purpose in mind – go out and run…” It was Groundhog Day once more.

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That’s me, holding on to the wheel.

Stupid is as stupid does.

So, since my epiphany over the past few months, when it has become very apparent that Rhona is in fact the expert, and I am not – I’ve dug out her report again. I’ve had a re-think of my running, my training and my purpose. There simply HAS to be a purpose.

I’ve come back today from a ten mile tempo run. I knew EXACTLY what I was trying to achieve, and why. I know EXACTLY how much recovery I have until my next session, which will be speed work on Tuesday.

Knowing all this is giving me great comfort on the very weekend when I SHOULD be running the London Marathon, and I’m not – because I stupidly thought I knew better.

I didn’t, and Rhona did.

*Oh, and I haven’t touched a Percy Pig since.

The Clown Shoes Dream… And The Vale Of York Ten Miler

THE CLOWN SHOES DREAM AND THE VALE OF YORK TEN MILER

[I APOLOGISE NOW FOR THE SELFIES WITHIN THIS BLOG.]

“Shit! The race has started, Gav!’ We were sitting on a random couch in the middle of a field somewhere near the start line, watching Breaking Bad.

“We’ll have to go NOW… They’ve bloody set off already!”

We got up off the couch and made a mad dash for it, eventually catching up with the back of the pack.

I looked down at my feet. My trainers were clown shoes. My running motion was laboured and exaggerated as I struggled to lift the bulbous front ends of my shoes off the floor. I glanced down at my Suunto. “Bloody hell – I’m struggling to stick to ten minute miles here”

I woke up in a cold sweat.

Last night, we had to shoehorn ourselves away from yet another episode of Breaking Bad (we were late starters.)

“We’ve both got races in the morning Gav, come on.”

“Yeah but Hank’s just sussed Pollo Chicken, Rach.”

“Well you can watch another one if you like, but I’ve got to get a decent night’s sleep before tomorrow’s race. Anyway, do I run in those new Boosts, or send them back?” I quizzed Gav, tying and untying my laces fifteen times.

My new adidas boosts arrived in the post yesterday. They were half a size bigger than I’d ordered.

I honestly didn’t know what to do. 

***

Today’s race was everything I needed.

I headed over to York where I’d take part in the Vale of York ten-miler. Gav’s race was closer to home, and a different animal entirely – the Overgate Hospice 10k. We both wanted different things from our races today, and so we made our plans accordingly.

I knew what I wanted from today: a good, well-paced tempo run. I’ve had a complete change of thinking recently about my training. It feels purposeful, planned – even exciting.

My ego wasn’t invited to the party, and so I didn’t have to worry about PBs or kicking my own backside around some village in York, like a tired donkey being flogged for slowing down with it’s heavy load.

My goal was to achieve ALL of the following:

  • Not fly off like a bat out of hell (…and then die some time later, hating every subsequent step)
  • Stick to my ‘prescribed’ Lactate Threshold training zone – anything between 7.09 – 7.43 min/mile (I had a physiological assessment at Loughborough University last February, and haven’t listened to any of the advice within it. It’s about time I did, and I will be writing a separate blog post on this.)
  • Stay relaxed
  • ENJOY IT!

I set off in my Juke mobile with the heated seat turned to ‘high’. With my bum warming nicely, and the feasibility of supping my travel mug of hot sweet tea a reality, I could sense it was going to be a good day.

 

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BEFORE…IN MY JUKE MOBILE, BUM WARMING ON HEATED SEAT

Pulling up at the Rufforth Gliding Centre was easy, with (unsurprisingly) PLENTY of parking, and good marshalling.

I got out of my car, and tentatively coerced my legs in to a warm-up trot (they seem to hate warming up more than the race itself.) Two old blokes were hobbling towards me. They’d taken their warm-up routine from The Ministry of Silly Walks.

“So, these compression socks, Bob. I’ve heard they’re designed for wearing AFTER a run, and not during it…”

“Oh, is that right, Ken?”

“Yeah, apparently so. They’re NO USE WHATSOEVER during a run. Only afterwards – so I’m told.”

“Ahh, I see.”

Ken was particularly loud. I ran past them… in my compression socks.

The gun went off and I set off deliberately slower than normal. “DO NOT RUN SUB-7s. DO NOT RUN SUB-7s. DO NOT RUN SUB-7s.” played on constant repeat in my head.

I felt good. Relaxed, comfortable, beautiful day, sun shining, birds singing, holding my pace back: Happy days.

And then at 7 miles, my left calf cramped like it’s never done in a race before.

“Shiiit NO!” I pulled over to the side. The cramp was so bad it stunned me. Like those you sometimes get in the night, which force you to sit bolt upright in bed, screaming for the invisible clamp to loosen it’s grip.

A guy ran past and gave me the “come on girl, keep going” mantra. It made me cross. I wasn’t even tired. I almost shouted back “If it wasn’t for this bloody leg I’d chase you down, mate!”

I felt robbed. I was barely out of breath. “I’ve got SO MUCH more I can give here. PLEASE let my leg relax. I want to run again!”

I hobbled for a quarter mile, and thought about relaxing as much as possible. My calf was still tight and sore, but it was at least allowing me to put one foot in front of the other again. I carried on, and even managed to pick up a bit of pace, and I wondered – Perhaps this is what the clown shoes dream was all about!

I crossed the line and I wasn’t spent. I had plenty more in me, BUT I was ridiculously happy, because:

  • I HADN’T gone off like a bat out of hell
  • I HAD stuck to my LT training threshold (7:14 min/mile)
  • I’d stayed relaxed
  • I bloody loved it.

*I was 4th F35 too, which ain’t all that bad, either.

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AFTER…HAPPY DAYS!

The Dentist

THE DENTIST

I arrive at the dentists with seconds to spare. The waiting room is packed. Eventually I’m in. “This will be a quick in & out” I say to myself. I’m glad: I’m starving, I stink (gym earlier), and I need a shower. My hair is stuck to my head and my plaits are limp with sweat.

Here’s the conversation between my dentist, Mrs A, and myself.

Mrs A: “…So we’ll X-ray it, and if there’s anything to report, I’ll give you a call this aft. Otherwise, try this (hands me a small tube of Sensodyne) and if it doesn’t behave, give me a call next week. It’ll need to come out.”

Me: “Great, thanks for squeezing me in. Appreciate it.”

Mrs A: “No probs at all. How’s the running going? You got any more marathons coming up?”

Me: [slightly taken aback] “Erm, have I seen you since Dubai? I’ve had to pull out of London, unfortunately – I’ve put quite a bit of running stuff on my blog about it all. Got the Yorkshire marathon later in the year, and a couple of halves before then…”

Mrs A: “OOOh – no I don’t think so. Was it hot? How hot? In the 30s? And you’re writing a blog? That sounds interesting. Is that about your marathons?”

Me: [feeling like a bit of a dick] “Oh, erm I guess it’s just about my journey with running and starting from nowhere really when I was in my teens. I was – ahem – a bit overweight and had low self-esteem and stuff…”

Mrs A: “Really? I never knew that about you! I thought you were just one of those people who’d always been into running?”

Mrs A: [she shouts towards the door] “Gemma! Come in here. Listen to this!”

Gemma comes in. She’s the dental nurse. I’m fiddling about with my bag, conscious of the fifteen people waiting downstairs to have their molars checked.

Mrs A: “Rachel’s just saying she was overweight and unfit when she was younger. We’re thinking about trying a bit of running aren’t we? And my niece really needs to do something. I think her weight is holding her back. I’ve said to her: “Come to a Zumba class with me” but she won’t. She’s not gone to university either, which is a real shame. What made you start running then?”

Me: [I don’t know where to begin. I have approximately 15 seconds to tell her my life story] “Oh, well it’s been massive in helping me with my self-esteem, to be honest. Far more important than the weight loss or aesthetics, I guess. Just proving to myself I could do something I never believed I was capable of. It’s been huge for me. Opened up so many other doors of possibilities…”

Mrs A: “Wow! Write down this blog address, and we’ll be having a read later, won’t we, Gemma?”

I write down the web address on a scrap of paper.

Me: “Listen, you’re busy, so I’ll head off coz there’s a full waiting room down there!”

Checking my teeth: 30 seconds.

Conversation around running: 10 minutes.

[I hope you’re reading this, Mrs A, and thanks for the chat.]

The Painting

It hangs on my bedroom wall. I see it every morning, and umpteen times throughout the day.

I walk right up to it every time I need to get a pair of running shorts from my drawer.

Most of those times, I don’t even notice it anymore. It’s just there – a splash of colour against the equally beautiful old exposed stone.

This morning, I noticed it for the first time in a long time. Why? Why have I noticed it again now? What does it mean to me?

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Chas Jacobs’ image of Cross Bay Challenge for Cancercare.org.uk

Take a look at it. It may be to your liking, it may not be. It’s my favourite artist’s depiction of a race I did for the very first time back in 2011 (see chasjacobs.co.uk) I was feeling experimental that year. This one was a real leap into the vast unknown, and something I never imagined I would comprehend: a half marathon across sand. The Crossbay Challenge was that race. We would run across the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay from Hest Bank, in Lancashire to Flookburgh, in Cumbria.

I was open to all possibilities. I wasn’t crippled with fear, or consumed with ‘what if’s.’ I wasn’t chasing a time, or worried about outcome. I was free in every sense of the word. I felt a strange calmness about the possibilities that lay ahead. Could I run across sand? I’d never tried before. Could I run a half marathon across sand? No idea. I didn’t even know what to wear. Do I need a snorkel?

And so I rocked up – free of mental baggage and anguish, and I just ran. The sky looked exactly like it does in the painting (well, almost – other than the big puffy cotton wool clouds. I love them: artistic license.) The sand was like that too. Honestly. It was incredible.

I remember the vast pool of runners setting off, and then dispersing to form a long, meandering snake of silent, sandy footsteps for the next 13.1 miles. I’ve never known peace like it. There was no slamming of tired, heavy feet on tarmac. There was no traffic. At times, there were no voices. There were no roads. At many points, only the sand and the sea surrounded us for miles and miles. The textures of the sand changes throughout the race: in places, it was hard and compacted with deep ridges which I could feel though the soles of my sodden trainers. In others, it was light and ‘sea sidey’: I had all on to stop myself from making an impromptu sand castle complete with flag and moat.

We ran through tiny streams and waded through waist-deep tidal pools. And I remember the peace. On that day – back in 2011 – I knew there would never be another one quite like it. It was a very special moment in time that would never be repeated. Not ever.

Back to the painting: I love it for so many reasons. I love the vibrancy of the colours; the simplicity of the shapes; the lack of complex, self-indulgent, thought-provoking bullshit. I love it because it makes me feel light, and happy and full of joy. Just like I did on that day back in 2011.

But it doesn’t stop there. Take a closer look at the painting. You won’t spot it – nobody would.

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It’s me!

Can you see me? I am IN the painting. I was a PART of that day. I SAW the sky so ridiculously blue that a child could have painted it. I FELT the different textures of the sand, and I HEARD the peace: the overwhelming sound of absolute tranquillity.

I am wearing race number 464. Chas Jacobs can’t have known what it meant to me: his offer to include me in his magnificent scene. The photo below is the one of me from the race, from which Chas added me to the other faceless, carefree runners.

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Happiness is…

This painting reminds me of a time when I wasn’t blighted by fear of outcome, when I was open minded enough to risk failure in the pursuit of life experiences, and trying new things: In life as in running. It reminds me that, as much as I can celebrate my achievements, my times, PBs, medals, even bloody crowns on Strava (!!) it isn’t actually the result that matters – it’s what happens along the way.

So, when I pulled out my running shorts from my top drawer this morning, I was reminded to love the journey and not fear the outcome. Always.

*I have done the Crossbay challenge another three times since that magical day in 2011, and – as predicted – I have never experienced it in this way since. Think Armageddon and headwinds on a sinking travelator moving in the wrong direction…