Rachel Cullen Rides… #imback

So, I’ve been getting out and about on my mountain bike a bit a lot over the last few months. Rach the Runner has, over a relatively short period of time, morphed into Rach the Rider. And I am absolutely loving my newfound BFF – my 8-year-old Trek Hardtail – which is escorting me to everything from hair appointments to work, to dreaded ‘open week’ at my daughter’s school, on 27-mile round trips to see my counsellor / therapist in Hebden Bridge (*not really sure how else to describe her, other than “A PERSON WHO IS PAID TO LISTEN TO MY SHIT”) – and even hypnotherapy sessions (Look into my eyes… The jury’s out on that one.)

And, with plenty of exciting cycling adventures planned, together with a BRAND NEW Scott Scale 720 waiting patiently in the front room (I daren’t offend him by even attempting to ride his gloriously untarnished frame just yet) I thought I’d look back to the epic adventure myself and Gav Dodd Fax undertook late last year which may well have kick-started this newfound love for me.

Because just as running saved me once, so riding is now helping me to manage the carnage going on behind the scenes, and to dodge the curve balls life continues to throw at me in some kind of warped Takeshi’s Castle-style obstacle course.

And I am LOVING it.

I’m loving the feeling of growing in confidence with every single ride; I’m loving the increase in fitness I feel on every hill climb which once seemed impossible to conquer; I’m loving the bravery I feel with every tricky off-road downhill I manage to navigate with increasing speed; I’m loving my ever-expanding wardrobe of Lycra cycling attire, and familiarising myself with the Wiggle website (££!!!); I’m loving the fact that I have no option but to learn new skills – I now know the difference between a Presta and a Schrader valve – and I love knowing that I will learn how to maintain my bike, and how to fix a broken chain. All of it interests me; it challenges me; and it frees me from my own thoughts which previously only running has ever been able to do.

So, HELLO to this – a new and exciting chapter in my life. A chance to learn again, to challenge myself again, and to live life to the fullest, again. Because what else is there?!

***

November 2017

We’ve really gone and done it this time,” I say to Gav, my husband of three months, as we both sit cross-legged on our living room floor and finally wade through the sizeable information pack we were sent some weeks ago relating to our forthcoming ‘honeymoon’ trip, mountain biking 480km across Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean. A large A4 envelope has been lying unopened on the sideboard for what seems like an eternity, tucked in amongst my 7-year-old daughter’s scrawls purporting to be a Christmas list, and a print out of her school itinerary for the next 16 weeks* (*I feel proud of myself for being ahead of the game, until I notice on closer inspection that it dates from 2016.Bollocks.)

It still doesn’t seem real.

What’s all this about needing a friggin visa?!” I bark, suddenly perturbed by Item Number 2 on the suggested List of Essentials, just one behind ‘Passport’. I gulp hard as the words YOU PAIR OF FUCKING IDIOTS ring in my ears at this potential glaring omission. It was only last week I received confirmation that I don’t have my requisite tetanus vaccination… and it’s now too late to get one.

Don’t worry about it, Rach,”says Gav – Mr. Tranquility himself. I glance over and notice him google searching WHERE IS COSTA RICA? on his iPhone.  Shit. It’s three days before we set off on a challenge which will blast us so far outside our middle class, corporate comfort zones that we won’t know our saddle sore, padded arses from our grazed and bruised elbows. ‘It’ll be fine!’he assures me, as he scans down a Wikipedia page on Costa Rica, thinking I haven’t noticed.

We still need to take the seat and pedals off my bike,” I remind him, as I sit staring at a once neatly piled selection of unworn padded cycling shorts which have been unceremoniously strewn to one side by the recent arrival of a Sylvanian Families camper van. They all look alien to me.

You see, I’m Rach the Runner – I’m no cyclist.

My stress levels have been unusually high of late. And it’s not entirely relating to the arduous task we will face of mountain biking 480km across all kinds of terrain, possibly hot-stepping volcanoes (excuse the pun) and avoiding sloths in the road (yes, they have those.) I am equally terrified of almost every other aspect of this trip – the mountain biking is merely the cherry on the anxiety management cake. The other ingredients are akin to a travel itinerary rivalled only by Tim Peake’s Principia space mission in December 2015. The worry list includes – in theory:

  • A 2-hour drive to Manchester airport, plus half an hour navigating our way to the correct parking location (we have fallen foul of this before and had to call for assistance at the barrier’s emergency intercom)
  • A 40-minute flight from Manchester to London Heathrow which will in reality take circa 4 hours, with an intravenous drip pumping Costa Coffee into our bloodstream before being stripped half naked at check-in for a gentle frisking… No! I am not wearing a fucking belt!
  • Once at Heathrow, finding our hotel which looks to be another 45-minute bus ride away (Heathrow is the size of our home town, Halifax, it would seem.)
  • [the next morning] Boarding a shuttle bus from our hotel to London Heathrow Terminal 4 before 6am, most probably whilst still asleep;
  • Another four-hour wait and flight from Manchester to Amsterdam;
  • Hanging about for endless hours at Schiphol airport waiting for our connecting flight to San Jose, which I soon learn is the capital of Costa Rica (I had no idea);
  • An 11-hour flight to San Jose with my knees wedged up against the permanently-reclined seat in front, whilst the restless toddler behind me kicks my seat for 10 out of the 11 tortuous scheduled flying hours;
  • Collapsing in a heap in a hotel before a 4-hour bus transfer to the start (ahem) of our “adventure” the following morning.
  • And then – she says without any hint of irony – the adventure begins.

The above is what isSUPPOSED to happen. I don’t know it yet, but it won’t happen like this. Not at all…

It’s a good job I don’t know.

We’re in the queue to board the plane from Manchester to London Heathrow. I’ve already consumed my requisite three litres of airport Costa coffee and arsed about in WH Smith’s with my fake book – a cover-only proof copy of Running For My Life* – placing it in amongst the best sellers and posting photos on Instagram in a vain attempt to amuse my editor and agent. It’s worked, but has sadly meant that we’re now late in locating the correct gate for our flight, and so we rush along the mile-and-a-half travellator to Gate A54 where a grim looking snake of people has long since formed. I can feel the early onset of mild bruising on my lower legs from where my badly designed wheel-along travel bag has repeatedly bashed into my ankles.

We’re virtually last in the queue, and about to board the 40-minute flight to Heathrow. The only couple left standing behind us are smiling in a kind-yet-mocking manner at me holding my pillow. It’s not a compact travel pillow… no, no. It’s the big fluffy one from my bed which I sleep on every night. The man comments, “At least you’ll be comfortable on the 40-minute flight to Heathrow!” I laugh in acknowledgement of his accurate summation that I’m not a seasoned traveller, and this unequivocal evidence that I’m also fussy about my sleeping arrangements. Pillows are a tricky one to get right: too hard and it’s head on a brick; too soft and I risk face-planting onto an inch-thick scotch pancake. Mine is just right: fluffy and supportive whilst not overly officious. And it’s coming to Costa Rica with me.

The most worrying thing is,” I laugh, acknowledging that I look like an unseasoned Travel Wanker, “… that this is my most essential item!” Clearly, I’m joking… but little do I know that my big, fluffy pillow will be my saviour over the coming 10 days.

Friendly Mocking Couple are on their way to visit their teenage son in Toronto. He is apparently some young ice hockey prodigy. Aged just 15, his mum tells us, he’d reached the pinnacle of his potential over here in the U.K. and so it was that – still aged 15 – he left the comfort of his safe British nest and flew to live in a new city, in a new country, where he would see his parents just once every 6 months (I’m guessing that was the upside.) He doesn’t know it, but he’s my new hero. Aged 16, I was too busy melting Mars Bars against my bedroom radiator whilst tearfully examining my latest hormonal outbreak in one of Mum’s pressed powder compacts to concern myself with independent living or dream-chasing.

And I wonder about my own anxiety levels relating to this Costa Rica trip. I am 39 years old. I’m travelling with my (new) husband, and we are a team. I’m fretting about having a too soft/too hard pillow, and the effect of mild sleep deprivation following a 2-day journey to reach our ‘adventure destination’; I’m worried about missing our girls for the next ten days, and my 72-year old mum being home alone until a week on Monday (although that’s not exactly true – she’s got a better social life than me.)

But the story of Friendly Man’s teenage son has made me momentarily get a grip. I’m not 16. I’m not on my own. I’m not going away from my family and friends for 2 years to have the shit kicked out of me by young Canadian ice hockey players. For all the above reasons, as I sit here cuddling my oversized fluffy pillow the night before a long day of travel, I’m thinking to myself – I can fucking do this!

To be continued…

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