A Tale of one race… told over four years: The Village Bakery Half Marathon years 2015-2018

Race No. 1:

It is early February 2015, and I am in the form of my life. I don’t realise it though, as my Bastard Inner Chimp constantly tries to beat me down with his infuriating chants of ‘Nope. Must try harder!’ ‘Still not good enough, Rach!’

Just 4 months ago I achieved a marathon PB of 3:16, and I am now in training for the VLM 2015. I am convinced that my result from the Yorkshire Marathon was just a fluke. How can I possibly repeat it in just a few weeks’ time? I seriously doubt that I can. But fortunately for me, there have been no bumps in the road, and I am running like a cross between Forrest Gump and Seb Coe’s love child. Nothing can stop me – I am FLYING!

We turn up to the Village Bakery Half Marathon race car park at some nondescript industrial estate in Wrexham, and turn off the car engine. There are just a handful of other hatchback family saloons dotted around – most likely the race marshalls – because we are a good hour-and-a-half early for the race. This is not uncommon for us.

I have the usual pre-race anxiety without any justifiable reason: I have no injuries, no illnesses; and no recent life events have hampered my training, or caused me to deviate from my Fast Track to Fastness plan. I am on it, and I’m steamrollering ahead.

The gun goes off and I run like I’m being hunted by a pack of famished wild dogs. It’s a fast start, but I can handle it. I have no idea what the course is like, but I motor on anyway. Because why wouldn’t I? Run hard or go home… I choose to run hard, and – entirely unaware that Gav has dropped out with an injury at 4 miles – he whoops and cheers me across the finishing line in a time of 1:31. A spectacular new half marathon PB. SHIT! I didn’t even know I was capable of doing that! I think to myself, as I inhale half a loaf of Bara Brith (a Welsh fruit loaf for the non-Welsh / low-carb fans amongst us) within milliseconds of crossing the finishing line.

Job done. Happy days…

***

Race No. 2:

It is early February 2016, and just 3 weeks since I hauled my sorry arse over the scorching finishing line of the Dubai Marathon in a time of 3:34. Yes – it was hot. Very hot; Yes – my legs are still broken from my monumental efforts; and yes – I am perhaps clinically insane for even putting myself on the start line of this year’s Village Bakery Half marathon race.

We park up in the same industrial estate car park, but this time it feels vastly different. I know that I shouldn’t be here. My legs are shot. I gave them all of 1 days’ respite after the mammoth effort in Dubai, and I am now paying a price. So why have I turned up to today’s race? I don’t even know the answer, and I haven’t yet learned how to be honest with myself for my reasons.

The gun goes off, and I run. Just like last year, I set off fast, but this doesn’t feel like it did the year before. My legs aren’t bouncing along the country lanes, and the fast early pace is just too hard for me to maintain. I know that I can’t keep it up for long, but I belligerently try to, anyway. As the miles tick painfully by, I can feel my speed slowing down further and further, until eventually, I must stop running. I pull over a few times and want to cry. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? WHY AM I NOT RUNNING LIKE I WAS LAST YEAR? Writing these words now, I feel a level of stupidity that I am ashamed to share. This is how it feels when running turns into the very thing you never imagined possible – it is a big old shitty stick with which I am now beating myself. Why can’t you keep up, Rachel? Why are you so slow? What’s wrong with you?! My inner chimp has a field day, trampling over my still fragile sense of self-worth, whilst my inner peace is all but destroyed.

I crawl over the finishing line in 1:37 and I am heartbroken. I wish I’d never put myself on the start line, today. My legs didn’t want me to run, and perhaps I didn’t want me to race, today. Not if I was being honest with myself, but I am not. I raced anyway, because I couldn’t say STOP. ENOUGH.  I will pay a price for my misconceived ‘commitment’ which is – if we’re being ‘honest’ – just self-flagellation wrapped up in fancy packaging.

I go home, and I cry.

***

Race No. 3

It is early February 2017, and I am not sitting in the industrial estate car park in Wrexham, but I so desperately wish that I was. I am supposed to be there, watching the hi-visibility race marshalls setting up around us for a good hour-and-a-half before the race starts.

Instead, I am sobbing on Gav’s shoulder at the sea front in St. Anne’s, with tears plopping into my polystyrene take-out cup of hot chocolate, because I am unable to run. I CAN’T RUN. NOT EVEN 100 METRES. How did I get here? I wonder. Why has my body simply stopped being able to run? I ask myself. Where have I gone?

I feel lost. I think back to the previous two years’ juxtaposed Village Bakery half marathon race experiences as I hold on to Gav’s arm and we plod like slightly subdued pensioners back to the car.

Talk about a fall from grace – this feels spectacular. From flying… to pained, forced efforts… to this.

To nothing.

I am heartbroken.

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THIS IS NOT A PHOTO OF ME FROM ST. ANNES. IT IS SYMBOLIC OF MY BEING – how do I say this nicely – FUCKED.

***

Race No. 4

It is early February 2018, and we have just parked up at the nondescript industrial estate car park in Wrexham. We are by no means the first car in the car park this time, but we still have a good hour-and-a-half to watch the Boy Scouts direct a now steady stream of mainly dark coloured family saloons into orderly rows.

Of course, I have the usual pre-race anxiety, but this time, it is with justifiable reason. I think back to the memory of my sorry self weeping at the seaside exactly a year ago to the day, when I was simply unable to run for 100 metres. I remember so vividly how that felt, and the memory still hurts me now. It has taken me the best part of a year to get myself into the position where I can even dare to put myself on the start line again. I’ve been nowhere near my 2015 self for such a long time, that I can’t imagine how it feels to bounce along the country lanes as I once did – on this course, on this day, just a few years ago.

But I am here, now. I am back, and I can run again. THANK GOD, I CAN RUN AGAIN! I play this mantra on repeat, over, and over in my mind when my Bastard Chimp threatens to interject with his usual shitty little jibes. I AM HERE, AND I CAN RUN. That is all I need to keep reminding myself as we step away from our Kia heated seats and into the Baltic Welsh air for our 2-mile warm-up.

Gav has been training hard over the past 6 months. He deserves to do well, today. We are both mid-marathon training, and I am willing him to emerge victorious. In years gone by, I have taken more than my fair share of the racing glory: now – I say hopefully – it is his turn.

The field of runners is much larger than it was just a few years ago. Word seems to have spread that this is a relatively fast course, and the start is packed with club runners all gunning for PBs. But I am not chasing a PB today – not by a long way. I am not my 2015 self who bounced along these same country lanes, and went on to beat that time again just 3 months later in Edinburgh. I wonder if I will ever be her again.

But thankfully, I am also worlds away from the sad, sorrowful figure who was moping around St Anne’s seafront with globules of tear-induced snot dripping into a lukewarm Cadbury’s hot chocolate, because she had pushed herself to the point where she was simply unable to run.

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IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK!

It is difficult for me to align the two extremes, and I honestly don’t know where to place myself, today. As my ego struggles to accept that I am not my 2015 running self, so my inner peace remains intact, safe in the knowledge that I am thankfully not my 2016 self-flagellating version, either. My legs have come to trust me again, and they have healed sufficiently to run – and to still run well.

I set off deliberately controlled – or at least I feel to be controlling my pace. I don’t want to burn my legs up within the first few miles, only to repeat the tortuous experience from 2 years ago. So, I try to bring a small amount of intelligence to the proceedings, which is most unlike me.

My pace is good, and it feels controlled. THANK GOD I AM HERE. I AM HERE, AND I CAN RUN! At mile 10, I begin to feel the tightening in my hamstrings increasing – they are now burning and it feels like clamps are being steadily ratcheted causing me to have less movement with every step. My pace slows, and I am simply unable to keep my 7:10 average min/miling.

I wonder where Gav is. I hope he’s having a good race, today.

Mile 11.5 and I pull over briefly for a drink, a word with myself, and to work out what’s happening with my legs. They are protesting again. It’s happening again! Gav runs up beside me. ‘Let’s do the last mile and a half together,’ he says, looking infinitely fresher than I feel.

We run the next mile side-by-side, and I smile knowing that he is running well, today. I also momentarily hate him, because he doesn’t have my broken legs, and he has springs in his shoes (literally, he does: some Nike 4% things costing nearly as much as a 4-year old Corsa.)

He does the right thing and in the last half mile, he motors on ahead – I can’t stay with him, but I’m OK with that.

I cross the line and stop my watch: the time on my Suunto says 1:35 and some seconds. I am perhaps 30 seconds behind my Gav.

I collect my fancy medal, a bottle of water and a packet of Welsh cakes, and we walk slowly over to a clear patch of tarmac where we can debrief. And before my Bastard Chimp can interject with his taunting jibes of ‘yeah – you’re still shit, Rach…’ and so on, and so forth, I tell him in no uncertain terms to FUCK OFF. Because:

  1. I can run again!
  2. I have been able to put myself on the starting line again;
  3. I have beaten my time from the dreadful 2016 Village Bakery Half Marathon experience;
  4. I have beaten my best half marathon time from 2017 (I struggled in the Amsterdam heat to a 1:38 finish);
  5. I am 11th F35
  6. Gav has had a good race;
  7. I CAN RUN AGAIN!
  8. I CAN BLOODY RUN AGAIN!!!

I inhale 2 Welsh cakes as we sit and watch the other runners throwing themselves over the finishing line, and chat in branded clumps about PBs and sore feet. And I think to myself, ‘Don’t even start with me, Chimp. I am here… and I can run.’

 

 

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The Email

It arrived in my inbox just as I’d returned home from this morning’s Dewsbury 10k road race. It was my intention to write a running blog based on today’s race, and the ‘unfinished business’ I felt I had in going back to the very place where I’d been forced to pull out through injury this time last year, and which was the start of a surprisingly difficult journey back from another form of lostness – one without running as my daily ‘fix’.

But The Email blew that plan out the water. You’ll see why. Names, ages, and places have all been changed to protect the identity of ‘Gillian’ – but the rest is exactly as it was sent to me, at 12.57pm today. My reply follows…

For the avoidance of any doubt, this is every reason why it was worth bearing my heart and soul in 337 pages of a book.

Oh, and it looks like I may well be running this year’s Great North Run… with a new friend 🙂

***

Dear Rachel,

My name is Gillian, I’m a 28 year old living with my parents in Coventry and I’m suffering with depression. I have always battled with daily anxiety, and feelings of always failing at life and that I’m nothing but a disappointment to myself and those around me. 
Six years ago I ran a 5k race for life in memory for my Grandad, and two years ago completed the British Heart Foundation’s May marathon. I completed the marathon equivalent in miles in a month. 
My mental health since had gone incredibly downhill, I have gained two stone, and badly depressed and struggle with every day life and have suicidal thoughts. I try to find a fight for my family and then I found your book…. I don’t think I have ever read a book so quickly, and actually I’m not someone who even reads. My best friend laughed at me when I told her I was reading a book. 
From start to finish I loved it, and cried at the end as you completed and continued your marathon journey. I relate to you in your book so much with my daily struggles, as I too suffer with that bad voice in my head. But yesterday as I came close to completing your book, I took a step forward.
Yesterday morning I had a meltdown, hysterically crying feeling like I’m in physical pain and can’t go on, my parents are struggling to cope with me and don’t know what to do, and they begged me to find an internal fight. 
So, while slumped on the sofa feeling sorry for myself reading your book, I took a break and I entered the ballot for the great north run. I think I’m mad, and If I’m successful to get a place I don’t know how I will do it, but I wanted to thank you.
Thank you for helping me to take a small step forward, even if it is just entering for the ballot I feel it is a start, and as you know it’s a long road to go, I know it is and it terrifies me but thanks to your book I have taken that step, I have taken my first step to fight these demons I face every day. Tomorrow, I plan to take my new running shoes and go out, even if it’s just a walk, it’s a start. You have inspired me and I just wanted to take the time to thank you! 
Thank you, Rachel Ann Cullen, I too will now begin to run for my life.
Kind regards 

Gillian

***

Dear Gillian

I have so much to say to you as I sit here – in tears – on my living room floor having recently come back in through the front door after putting myself on the start line of a race (it was the Dewsbury 10k today) for the umpteenth time since that initial marathon journey you have just been reading about. I’m the usual cocktail of post-race emotions: tired, yet full of energy; self-berating (Bastard Chimp always tells me I should have done better) yet reasonably happy with my efforts. But most of all, I feel proud. Proud of facing up to those horrible, toxic thoughts that tell me I shouldn’t even bother turning up in the first place, because I have no right to be there. Once again, I’ve won. 

And then I read your email…

Your email doesn’t feel like a ‘book review’ to me. It’s so much more than that. It is you seeing the tiniest chink of light in a very dark place; it’s you knowing that you have a friend in the world – even one whom you have never met. It is somebody reaching out and holding your hand in the loneliest of moments, and telling you that you are, and can be stronger than you ever imagined possible. It is every single reason why I wrote my book, and – although I’m afraid I don’t have any miracle cures or answers for you – it was always my hope that somebody just like you would pick up my book, read my story, and know that recovery can be possible. 

Please know that running ISN’T and MUSTN’T be seen as a ‘fix all’ for mental health demons. In the very early, darkest days of my own struggles, I needed help. As you know by reading my book, I was prescribed anti-depressant medication, and I fully believe that at that time, it helped me and was absolutely vital in keeping me from being swept of a cliff of hopelessness and despair. I would urge you to go and seek similar help, and to do it now. You don’t have to struggle alone, and you don’t need to isolate yourself from the world. It’s a different place now to when I was at my lowest ebb. Please tell me you will do that. Book in to see your GP, and discuss with them your thoughts and feelings – even if it sounds muddled, confused, and you don’t know where to begin. Just start somewhere…

Secondly, I applaud you for taking those other incremental steps towards a brighter, happier place. You have already felt the positive effects of completing the Race for Life 5K, and you can do that again. It is so fucking possible for you to do this. In entering the ballot for the Great North Run, you have chosen what I realise must seem like a big, scary, and intimidating goal but it IS possible. You CAN get yourself to the start line, and you CAN run / jog / walk / crawl over the finish line. 

What’s more, I will do it with you. Obviously, I can’t possibly join every person who gets in contact with me after reading my book (!) but you’re Charlie Bucket on this occasion, and you’ve won the Golden Ticket (or the opposite, depending on your viewpoint!) You had the balls to email me, and to tell me your story, just as I have had the balls to write mine and publish it in a book. I respect you enormously for doing that.

Although there are no guarantees for either of us, it is my hope that we can run / jog / walk – or crawl – across the finish line of the Great North Run 2018 together. 

You have just made a new long-distance friend, and she will support you on your journey.

So, thank you for getting in touch with me, and for being brave.

I look forward to hearing your progress, and know that I am championing you daily from my Yorkshire home. Take the steps I mentioned above – see your GP, and keep reaching out for the help and the support that you need, just like you have done by contacting me. 

All being well, I will see you in Newcastle on the 9th September.

With my very best wishes, 

Rachel Ann Cullen

Xxx

 

Bullies, Trolls, and other Pond Life…

It was bound to happen. If you raise your head far enough above the parapet, there will be some outraged, small-minded wanker hovering there with a Home Bargains bazooka just ready and waiting to shoot you down. And I’ve just caught the back end of some shrapnel.

That this particular Troll may think that I am a self-absorbed, egotistical wanker on some quest for personal glory by virtue of bearing my entire soul in the pages of a book for all to see is their opinion, and they are entitled to it. However, had they taken the time to read my book and even begin to get any sense of the person I am, then they may have reason to question those initial judgements about me. But sadly, whether by sheer laziness, ignorance, or a mixture of both, they have chosen not to.

I haven’t taken a hit at this point. I realise and fully understand that people are people, and for every ten-thousand lovely, kind-hearted empathetic, supportive souls out there, there will always be one amoeba floating about at the bottom of the pond.

But the really painful, upsetting blow comes with an accusation from said Troll that I am somehow ‘cashing in’ on the fact that my old friend, Ness, took her own life. That fills me with a sickening mix of sadness and fury, on so many levels. The fact that I am sitting here, compulsively writing this at 5am after an entirely sleepless night goes some way in explaining the depth of my feelings on this.

You see, dear, ugly Troll, I spent many hours, weeks and months deliberating over whether to even refer to Ness in my story. I consulted with her lovely Mum, and asked for her thoughts. Ness could have remained anonymous. She could have just been ‘A Friend’ who had taken her life. Would that have been more acceptable to you? If she hadn’t been given a name, and remained without identity, would that have met with your approval?

And you throw a further hateful question into the mix. You ask, ‘where was I when it mattered? Where was I back then?’ And – clearly – you haven’t even bothered to read my story, to know that I was nowhere. I wasn’t there, as you quite rightly assert. But – if you’d taken the time to find out or even ask – it was far worse than being nowhere. It was a place I hope you never have to go. Throughout those desolate years, I was hoovered so far up my own backside living a fake life, that I couldn’t see daylight. Inching myself from one day to the next as though crossing stepping stones perched perilously across a gaping crevasse, whilst on a heady cocktail of Prozac and booze to numb the pain. That’s where I was. And I’m sorry for that. If I could have pulled myself back from that place, and been there for Ness, do you think I would have chosen not to? Do you think it was my choice to lose an entire decade of my life to mental health misery, whilst watching other people living life from the distant side-lines? Or are you simply too ignorant to care?

And – FYI – it wasn’t just my friendship with Ness that was impacted throughout that godforsaken time. EVERY relationship was affected. I didn’t go to see my own sister with her two young children in Portsmouth, because I was too entirely satiated with my own sorry little life; I have cousins I don’t know as adults, because a ‘vacant’ sign hung from my window for such a long period of time. I didn’t go to their weddings. I don’t know their children. I walked away from university without one single friend as a direct result of my mental health battles. It was all just too painful to even put into words.

So, you dare to ask me where I was? The pit of hell is where I was.

My friendship with Ness was different to yours. We don’t share the same memories. You weren’t there when she drove us up to Newcastle in her Peugeot 105, with N-Sync blaring out whilst I questioned why the birds would all build nests in one tree and not spread out a little, given that they had the choice. You weren’t there when she drove us the wrong way around a round-a-bout in Newcastle city centre, following our trip to the tattoo shop (mine means special fried rice.) You weren’t with us when we walked through town on our lunch break and a bird shat on her face outside Greggs. You didn’t come on the awkward double dates; and ‘MALCOLM’ socks means nothing to you. You didn’t receive 14 missed calls and 4 voicemails from her when you’d walked out of a temping job, because your anxiety had become too overwhelming. You didn’t drive over to my dad’s in Leeds with her one time for my birthday, when I thought no one cared. Ness did. She cared.

Because I don’t share your memories, as you don’t mine, then does that make mine any less valid?

Let’s talk about grief. My grief is and was different to yours. I didn’t cry the loudest, or go on charity walks. I didn’t join you in your own suffering, and collectively mourn as others did. I vanished back to my own insular prison where I would remain – still on Prozac and booze – for a good few years, whilst all of the shock and the impact hit me in my many quiet, solitary moments. You weren’t to know, and I wouldn’t expect you to. But does that make your grief any greater than mine?

And, I should remind you, that this is my story. It is about my life, and my journey. It isn’t about Ness. I don’t know what caused her to be swept along the tsunami of hopelessness from which she couldn’t return. I have no idea what took her to that place, or how / when / where the monsters began to consume her from the inside out. That isn’t my story to tell, and it isn’t my journey. That Ness played a part in my life for however long, and that I have so many lovely, crazy, happy memories of a beautiful girl I once called my friend, I am honestly grateful. But my story is not the same as hers.

Finally, Troll, I would ask you this. What are you bringing to the party, today? What are you contributing to even begin to help another person to feel less alone, or more supported in this mad old crazy world? What’s your legacy? Is it to stand at your morally defunct gates and guard them with your Home Bargains bazooka? Is that all you’ve got? Because surely you can do better than that. Are you going to be continually outraged when you see other people – other good people – trying to make a shit of a difference? Are you going to continue to judge them, and project your own self-defeating, minimalist standards onto them? Because on that, my friend, we differ. On that, I’m glad we don’t share the same memories of either joy or grief. I’m glad that you didn’t come to Newcastle with Ness in her tin can Peugeot, and that you weren’t there when the bird shat on her face. I’d hate to share those memories with somebody so small minded and ignorant as you.

So, crack on and be outraged by me, ugly Troll. Be appalled that I dare to tell my story, and be disgusted that I am living the happiest life possible, today.

Crawl back into your hole and fire your bazooka.

Hopefully, it will backfire.