The Ghost of Amanda Walker

It’s early Friday evening and I’m lying stretched out on my living room floor, with newspapers and magazines in which I am featured scattered all around me. I am sick of the sight of my own face. Fortunately, I have a small and (sadly) ever-decreasing pile of Cadbury’s Mini Eggs to my right, which is offset by the little pot of M&S Supergreen Salad to my left. The juxtaposition seems both crude and predictable, but I’m OK with that.

My life hasn’t been normal for approximately one week now. I’ve already written about the challenges of being a reluctant social media whore, and my initial apprehension at facing this inevitability. But the shocking thing is the degree to which I am successfully pulling it off.

‘You sounded so relaxed during the Marathon Talk interview, Rach. Great job!’

‘This interview is brilliant, Rachel! Well done!’

‘You were fab, Rach! Totally nailed it.’

And so it goes on…

In between Twitter messages congratulating me on my various PR performances, I turn to Gav and ask him, ‘How the fuck am I doing this, Gav?’

He has no answers.

I’ve heard from old school friends, ex- child-minders, long lost cousins, and work mates from two decades ago. I’ve been spoken to by the one mum in the school playground I had hoped wouldn’t acknowledge my existence, and quizzed loudly about my PR schedule in a Halifax nail bar, where an old lady sat listening in bemused silence, only to interject with, ‘some bloke threw himself off the motorway bridge last week, didn’t they? Poor soul.’ Although clearly spot on with the Mental Health theme, it did bring the mood in the place down to a point at which even a ‘Feeling Hot-Hot-Hot’ flame red couldn’t raise our spirits.

But on a manageable scale, and in a very small way, my story is impacting on people. As those who have (and haven’t) known me read my words on the page, and hear my voice on the radio, I get the distinct feeling that I’m not alone: I was never alone. And I can’t tell you the joy that brings me. To know that all the years of sadness, madness, and quiet, invisible lostness didn’t count for nothing; that my efforts to pull myself back from the brink of despair, and to watch my own mum grapple to do the same mattered. Hear that again: TO KNOW THAT IT MATTERED – means everything to me.

I sit opposite my mum in a coffee shop in town, and in between sips of extra hot skinny mochas (*again – the irony) we speak about the past week, and how it has felt for the pair of us. And as I look across at my lovely, endlessly selfless mum in her charity shop padded jacket and (what appears to be) a child’s headband keeping her mass of thick white hair from her dainty-featured face, I tell her about one particular question I was asked in a radio interview just a few days ago.

“So, you discuss you mum’s mental health issues in the book, Rachel. How is your mum now, and what does she make of your success?” one well-informed Northampton-based interviewer asked me whilst we were live on air.

I thought for a moment, and then it struck me that this is our story, and our success. You see, all those years ago, we wouldn’t have been sitting together chatting over our chocolate-sprinkled hot drinks in a busy place where people meet and talk. It wasn’t a part of our reality, back then. Just to sit and chat. It didn’t happen – it couldn’t happen – because the demons running amok in my mum’s mind held her captive, and they had pulled the curtains shut tight to avoid any hint of sunlight creeping in. The lightness couldn’t reach her – it was simply beyond her grasp.

“I’m pleased to say that my mum is really well, now,” I answer the male radio voice at the other end of the phone. “She has friends, and they go places; she chats to people she knows in town, and stops to have a quick word with a lady she knows from the knitting group, because it would be rude not to.” I’m now on a roll, pouring over all the remarkable changes that have happened in the years since my mum slayed her demons, and wrestled back the curtains.

“But most of all,” I continue, “This is our success. It is hers as much as it is mine. She showed me that she could find a way to accept help, and discover her joy in life – and she believed that I could do the same. So, the book and all it stands for is not some passive thing that she has observed from the distant sidelines. She has lived and breathed all of my struggles, and cheered for my success. She has cried quietly at times of despondency, and whooped loudly for every mini victory. All the races, all the medals; the first-place Breville Juicers and the no-place Christmas puddings. She has been there for it all, and – as I say in the book – I am as proud of her journey as she is of mine,”

 I glance across to another table in the very same coffee shop, and who is sitting there? None other than Amanda Walker, the girl whose mother inspired me when I was aged just 9 years old (Chapter ‘The Foil Blanket’) and who perhaps sowed the first ever seeds of marathon running in my young mind. I don’t even look twice: I know it’s her. She looks lost and alone. But then again, she always did look lost and alone. I wonder what the last thirty years have held for her, and I wonder why – and how – she is sitting in the very same coffee shop as me and my mum, today. Before I can find out, she has silently disappeared, as though a ghost has just vanished from a room.

And then I think to myself: Maybe it has…

***

It’s amazing to see photos of people (and pets) enjoying my book! You can buy Running For My Life by clicking here

Thanks for all the support, and the INCREDIBLE reviews we’re seeing on Amazon. Keep them coming!

Rachel x

 

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AMSTERDAM HALF MARATHON PART 2: RACE DAY

We both sleep well and wake up to the most beautiful blue-sky morning. I check WeatherPro on my phone: a great big childlike sunshine stares back at me, and a temperature of 23c is predicted for today. Our race doesn’t start until midday, when arguably it will be at its hottest.

We know we’ve got ages to wait. I shower, and then deliberately waste time messing about with my race kit. Gav sticks his new nipple tape over his freshly shaven areolae. He bought them from the expo – not everyone suffers with painful, bleeding nipples, but my Gav does. I’ve seen them look red raw – like he’s breastfed teething triplets – after races. He’s hoping this Magic Tit Tape will minimise the chafing.

It’s approaching 10am when we mosey on down to the cool cafe / bar next to our Oosterpark loft apartment. I know what I’m having for brekkie – a simple croissant and a black coffee. The buzzer goes and Gav goes to collect that and his Dutch beans on toast. I feel relaxed; chilled out, even. Far more so than yesterday when we were traipsing past the fat whores texting (or “sexting”) in their shop windows. I don’t know why, but it feels nice to be free of anxiety. That will come later, I’m sure.

A pleasant looking girl approaches and excitedly asks if we’ve done the marathon, this morning. “No” I tell her. “Our race is later this afternoon.” She smiles, looking ever so slightly disappointed, and says “good luck” anyway. I don’t want to tell her than even the Kenyans won’t have finished, yet. Not that she should either know, or care.

It’s time to go, and we head off for the tram. But wait! A notice is stuck to the entirely (excuse the pun) Double Dutch tram timetable. “Tram numbers 3 and 24 are not running due to today’s marathon,” I roughly translate from Hurdy Gurdy. Ahh shit. Problem solver Gav instinctively approaches a heavily set, grubby-looking man who is standing close by blowing wafts of Silk Cut high into the otherwise toxin-free air. “Do you speak English?” he asks the filthy vagrant. “No” filthy vagrant replies. Ah. Ok. I can’t help but admire the lack of apology from smelly, toxic man. I laugh as Gav turns to me, stunned by his direct response.

An infinitely cleaner and far more accommodating young woman looks like a far safer bet. She walks across, looks intently at the Double Dutch tram timetable and map with us, and tries her best to help. It is comforting and reassuring to be back to the friendly, helpful vibe of the place, like the apple-rubber from yesterday, and girl in the cool cafe, earlier. Fortunately, Amsterdam’s initial shiny reception hasn’t lost its sheen.

With the help of friendly immaculate girl, we board the next tram. A large, uniformed woman sits behind the clear plastic screen in the middle of the four carriages. She wants to help us, and sees it as a personal challenge to make sure that we arrive at our destination – the Olympic Stadium – despite the obstacles of closed roads and tram diversions. She is efficient, but not smiling. Stern, yet kind. She writes down the exact metro stations we must locate, and the various tubes she is convinced will get us there. I repeat the instructions back to her like a child learning a new language. She nods, still looking focused and ever so slightly fierce. I’m glad she wants to help us. I say “thank you very much” but she isn’t interested in our fawning gratitude. She just wants us to get the fuck off her tram.

Her guidance is good. We arrive at the first destination and I go through her instructions again in my head. I glance across the platform and see a tall Viking-looking chap wearing trainers. “He’s doing the race” I say to Gav. On that basis, we cross over to the other side of the platform and sidle up next to him. We begin a direction-based conversation, and yet again we are in the company of an entirely helpful, Zen-like warrior who is only too happy to chitchat in pigeon English about races and the weather. We don’t get much further than this due to the language barrier, but his eyes are warm and kind. Another female arrives in trainers, and we know we’re safe. I look and smile at Zen Warrior: he smiles back – we both know why.

An influx of vest-numbered runners are suddenly all around us. The tram is crammed, as though we’ve all just arrived from another planet. I see a female runner eyeing me up and down, as though trying to work out my running pedigree and aligning that with her own. Either that, or she fancies me in my short shorts.

Before long we are seated on a circular bench just outside the stadium. The sun is warm and comforting on my skin. I feel the heat, and I bask in it like a reptile on a mountain top. It hasn’t yet dawned on me what it might feel like to run in this, today. For now, it is heavenly and I sit happily on our sunny bench and people watch whilst Gav goes for his 14th wee. I could sit here for many hours, but we have to go, soon. Shit! I’ve temporarily forgotten that the hard bit is still to come.

Our trek to the orange starting pen seems to take forever. I’m sure we’ve done an entire lap of the stadium, and time is ticking on. I look at my watch. 12:09 (1:09 in Dutch time).. the race begins at 12:20 (1:20 in Dutch time.) “Shit Gav, we’d best get a move on,” I say as Gav slopes off for yet another urination. I can’t hang about any longer, and so I give him a hurried kiss, and leave him to piss. I won’t see him again for quite some time.

The gun goes off and nothing happens, other than the steady trudge towards the starting line and the timing mats. I still feel relatively calm. Once at the mats, I begin to run and wonder why some other fuckwits aren’t doing the same. I have to dodge people and hop onto curbs to get past those who look like they haven’t yet realised where they are. “Fucking hell!” I say to myself out loud, as I skip around a 5”2 woman who is already walking.

 

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Artistic licence: this is the start of the marathon, not the half. But you get the gist…

The first few miles are steady, and a decent pace. I’m relieved. I check my watch frequently to make sure I’m not overcooking it, and flying off too fast. Gav warned me earlier – it’s easy to burn up in a half marathon and there’s a long way to go once you’ve used up all your juice. With that in mind, I reach mile 7 and still feel kind of ok.

But then it starts. My feet are fucking killing me! What’s going on with my shoes? I can feel searing pains in my toes and on the padded bits to the side of both feet. I haven’t experienced anything like this before – not since the Dubai marathon, that is. My feet feel sore and swollen, as though covered in bee stings or submerged in a tank filled with jelly fish. It’s then I realise – this is going to be a tough second half of the race. I piss in my shorts, and stop shortly after for a gel. If truth be told, I don’t honestly want to start running again, and I could happily pull off the course right there. But I don’t, because I can’t. Because I won’t. My feet still ache murderously with every step, but somehow I manage to keep a half decent pace. I’ve stopped dreaming of a good time now – I’m focused on survival.

The heat feels oppressive, and I douse water in myself at the next drinks station. I wonder where Gav is, and I wonder how his race is going. I miss him and contemplate pulling over for him and waiting, but I know that’s stupid. He can’t help me. No one can help me, now.

Suddenly, the miles stretch out ahead of me like a vast expanse of desert. My mouth feels dry, and I realise – it’s hot. It’s so fucking hot. The internal chatter begins. “How can you be struggling, here, Rach…” “why can’t you do this, Rach…” “how is this beating you, Rach…” and I think back to last weekend’s duathlon. I think back to that first, fast run, and the never ending comedy 24-mile cycle. I think back to how my body performed, and all it did for me, on that day. It was only 7 days ago. My inner chimp is reminded of the fact. “You’re lucky you can do this at all!” It is temporarily muted. “Your legs are still fucked from last weekend,” I say, trying to silence the hurtful, unhelpful mantra threatening to swim into my mind.

Every mile hurts now. “How have you ever managed to run a marathon, Rach?” I wonder. “How on earth can you possibly run one again?!” I don’t know. I just have to keep myself from stopping. My feet throb with pain, as fluid fills the delicate skin around my toes. I haven’t yet worked out that this is largely a result of today’s heat. I just think my trainers are shit and Ill-fitting. I want to take them off and throw them into one of the overflowing bins with banana skins cascading down the sides.

I hate the final miles. My head swirls with conflicting thoughts – thoughts that simply want to make me stop running and sit down.

Finally, we enter the Olympic stadium. There are another 150 metres to go. I look at my watch and I’m on for a fairly average – if slightly disappointing – time. Oh well, it’s almost over. My whirring mind can soon switch into fatigue mode, and then over analysis of my performance. At the moment, I can’t be arsed with either.

I cross the line and feel like I’ve run twice the distance. I limp slowly to collect my medal and half a banana, and I wonder where Gav is. How far behind is he? I stand by the barriers and watch other runners enter the stadium as I did just a few minutes earlier. Will Gav be one of them? I just don’t know. I begin to chat to a friendly Scott called Alan. He’s found the heat to be equally oppressive, and it robbed him of his previous PB of 1:38. He came in at 1:42. I tell him my time, and he looks impressed. I don’t want to mention that I’m disappointed. It seems unnecessarily rude and self-absorbed. He feels lightheaded and I suggest he goes outside the stadium to get some water. We both leave the stadium and I lose him in the crowd.

Where is Gav? I head to the baggage area and pick up our bag. I know he has no phone, money, or any other vaguely helpful items on him. I ask 12 people how I get to the “A” from the giant IAMAMSTERDAM letters we stood next to posing for photographs, yesterday. No one seems to know where it is, and I wonder why – the letters are ten feet tall. How can they go missing?

Eventually I find them. I sit and wait. Just by the A, as agreed. I post a message on Instagram notifying the world of my LOST HUSBAND. I don’t know why. It achieves nothing other than to worry my mum.

I sit and wait. And wait.

Echoes of Dubai 2016 fill my mind. I know the heat will have affected him today, as it did, then. Suddenly, I am worried. What’s happened? Can’t he find the ten-foot tall A? Why not? I have.

My phone dings and it’s Gav’s mum. “MEET GAV BY THE CHARITY TENTS.” I get up and slowly force my swollen feet back into my trainers. I now fucking hate them.

I walk to the charity tent and see Gav sitting on the curb. “What happened?” I ask him. It was the heat.

We head for a beer and sit on the grass. Every ten minutes the hum of chatter is interrupted by the sound of ambulance sirens. And we know then that a lot of people found it hard, today.

Back at the Loft apartment we sit in muted, tired silence contemplating our respective races. I check on Instagram and a few people have congratulated me on my efforts. And I get one message from a girl saying “You did a great time. You’re capable of much better, though.” I want to scream at her through my iPhone and tell her how fucking hard it was, today. I want to make her do last weekend’s duathlon, and then fly out here and race in soaring temperatures, seeing how she fares against her own PB.

Gav laughs and manages to calm me before I post a reply. I delete the selfie I’ve just taken sticking Vs up, and post something vaguely polite, instead.

I sit and take another swig of shit coffee from the little yellow mug I nicked from the Cool Cafe yesterday, and Gav laughs at the memory of me running away around the corner so not to get caught. Maybe that tired my legs…

What a weekend it’s been in the Dutch oven.

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Yes, I really did nick the mug. Shame on me.

The Dutch Oven – Amsterdam half marathon – Part 1

The sun is just beginning to fade as we check into our hotel early on Friday evening, where a 6’2 blonde Amazonian-looking woman welcomes us: “Hey, how goes it?’ she asks, sounding faintly American. “And also – Mr. and Mrs. Dudds – [she pronounces it ‘Duds’] You have a free room upgrade!” I look skeptically across at Gav. I’m too tired for mind games and purported “upgrades” which usually end up in our being allocated a pokey corner room overlooking the staff smoking area and recycling bins. Turns out there is no catch, and we’re shown to a loft studio apartment with our very own sun terrace overlooking the stunning Oosterpark. Result!

After a day’s travelling, and being entirely satiated with beige, plastic food, we head out and buy some supplies from a nearby shop. Amongst the Pringles and Milka chocolate bars (various flavours) is nestled an apple. “Would you like me to wash it for you?” the cashier asks. I slyly glance behind me to check for laughter on the off chance that this is a joke. Nobody is there. “Oh, erm that would be lovely. Thank you!” I say, momentarily stunned. I’d be lucky to get it rubbed clean on a Gregg’s tabard back at home.

Everybody here is so bloody friendly!” I declare to Gav, once back in our penthouse room with a view.

The next morning, the friendliness continues. “Hurdy gurdy” greets us at every corner. And then I realise – Ahh! That’s it, Gav! People think we’re Dutch!

I take it as a compliment – I’m thrilled that we don’t look like Brits. I put it down to my height, hair colour and the trusty plaits. Maybe that’s why they’re being so frickin’ nice… they think we belong here!

Parents look unflustered; mothers unharassed. Couples walk together in a comfortable silence – as far removed from their British counterparts who trudge ironically around Birstall’s Ikea in oppressed, unspoken misery. Cyclists move swiftly but they don’t look lost. They dance with the trams as pedestrians wait patiently for them to pass. There is a busy calm: Zen-like ants scurrying about on bikes with purpose. Are they Buddhist ants? Or just off their tits on pot? Either way, it matters not.

We arrive at the Expo and need to change our numbers from the full marathon to the half. “It’s no problem” says a calm, bespectacled Dutchman. He is entirely lacking in laboured huffs over bureaucratic form-filling necessities. “How fast do you run?” he asks, without judgment. We are over ambitions (especially so considering last weekend’s duathlon) and so Friendly Dutch Guy puts us in the 1:30-1:39 orange starting wave. I’m not sure he believes our predicted finishing times, but regardless – job done. Hurdy Gurdy!

I sit next to a British girl on the tram. She opens up a conversation. “Where have you travelled from?” She’s come from Devon, and it’s her first marathon. She seems chilled out, and we chat about race tactics and times. I feel embarrassed when she asks what times we’ve run marathons in before. Probably because I doubt that I could ever do so again. My response is met with impressed gasps and exclamations. “It was only a fluke,” I say, quickly. “Just had a good day, that’s all.” But then I remember that it wasn’t a fluke: I ran London in 3:17 the following April. Just 45 seconds slower than the 3:16 Yorkshire marathon “fluke”.

Gav is on feed up. He pays 3 euros for 10 tiny little pancakes smothered in butter and dusted in icing sugar. His eyes spin around in his head as the warm fat / sugar combo floods his system. Meanwhile, I’ve had a spending spree. A new racing cap and running vest are now mine. And I couldn’t resist posing for a photo next to the pop-up SKINS stall. I ask the 6”4 genetically superior assistant if he wouldn’t mind stepping to one side whilst I pose next to the cardboard promotional board. “I’ll send this through to my new mate, Jaimie,” I say confidently to Gav, before smiling gormlessly at the iPhone camera for the 50th time this morning. But I wimp out of tagging my new best friend into my self-absorbed propaganda, and thankfully it remains in the safety of Gav’s “never to be seen again” random adventure weekend away race photos.

My new marathon running friend from Devon tells us she’s getting off the tram at the next stop and heading to the Anne Frank museum with her fellow marathon running pals. Gav and I discuss the cultural options, but he’s hell bent on taking me on a walking tour of Chicks With Dicks in the centre of the town, instead. I’m fine with that. I’ve had a sheltered life.

We decide to walk instead of hopping on the tram with our new buddies. After a mile, I get grumpy. My legs hurt. As in, they’re aching to walk. “I’m ready for a sit down soon,” I say, trying to disguise my palpable anxiety at my increasingly painful limbs. How on earth am I going to run a half marathon tomorrow? I think to myself, the questions whirring around in my head on repeat shuffle. I don’t know the answer. I can’t numb the leg aches or silence the fears swimming around in my mind. I don’t honestly know how they can run 13 miles at any kind of decent pace, tomorrow. Last weekend’s duathlon efforts almost broke me, and I haven’t been inclined to run again since. So, what will happen tomorrow? I simply can’t imagine.

After ambling past a handful of fat prostitutes* looking bored in sex shop windows, we finally make it to Anne Frank’s house. I feel my heart sink as it’s plain to see that the corporate world has taken her legacy and shoehorned it into some queue-forming, money-spinning tourist-enticing fly paper. How many of those trudging slowly forward in the meandering, snaking line have read her book? I wonder. How many of them even know what they’re queuing for? We cross the road and walk away dejected, as I take one last look around and muse: is this a view she saw? Surely this must be a view she saw, at some time. “Did the Nazis come and take over the entire city?” I ask Gav. I want to know the history. I want to know what happened. I vow to re-read her book when I get home: rather that than queue up for 40 minutes next to the Anne Frank Waffle House. I think Anne would understand.

We eventually sit down outside a bohemian cafe perched on the very edge of Sexual Deviance Square. I’m relieved to finally rest my aching limbs, and I sit down to write. I tap away quietly on my iPad making observations of the surreal pot-scented surroundings. It gives me some comfort as my whirring mind can focus on the words, and not on the busyness or the tourist-fuelled madness. Gav is happy enough. He’s ordered the largest club sandwich which has come with deep fried crunchy fries just like ones my dad used to get from Birds Nest Chinese take away when I was ten. I sip on a hot chocolate from a small, mustard yellow mug. I don’t know why but I want to take it home as a souvenir. The mug probably costs less than the price I’ve paid for my hot chocolate.

*one of the sex workers is texting on an iPhone whilst flaunting her ample wares in the shop window. I wonder – who is she texting? Her husband, perhaps? “Have you taken that chicken out the freezer?” Or a friend? “Hey, what you up to? Just at work. It’s a bit nippy today.” Maybe it’s to her daughter. “Do your homework, Alice. I’ll be back before bed.” Either way she looks sad and bored. Even her tits sag listlessly as though they’re fed up of life itself.

Anyway, it’s time for bed. It’s race day, tomorrow.

TO BE CONTINUED…

The Deer Park Dash 10k: The non-trail trail race.

‘It’s a 10k trail race,’ I proclaim confidently, ‘around the grounds of some beautiful Estate in Chester.’

‘Sounds great!’ Gav replies. ‘I wonder how “traily” it is, though?’ he continues. We’ve fallen foul of this being used to describe everything from balls-out fell races (Bingley and Ilkely, to name but a few) to more steady jaunts through woodland paths. Ironically, the Trailblazer Half Marathon in Clumber Park falls into this latter category. Hard in its own way, but the trails are at least a) visible and b) not vertical.

Anyway, without further ado – and for no other reason than it is a CFD (a Child Free Day) – we enter the Deer Park Dash 10k. Job done.

A day or so later, a large ‘signed for’ envelope arrives through the post which always generates some level of excitement. What could it be? A cheque reimbursing us hundreds of pounds from Daylight Robbers, the HMRC? A hand-written invitation to meet Paula Radcliffe at her Font Romeu training base, and spend a week discussing how to progress from being a marginally shit runner to a slightly less-shit one? (it’s all relative.) It is neither of those things. Instead, I take out of the envelope the largest neon car parking pass I’ve ever seen. There is no sign of any race numbers. How odd. After pausing briefly to consider whether we’ve in fact entered into a car rally, Gav and I shrug in mirrored bemusement.

As usual, our travel to the race is planned meticulously to factor in a good hour-and-a-half of sitting in the car doing fuck all other than pinning and re-pinning numbers to our vests, and so we set off only slightly after the crack of dawn. ‘Have you got your trail shoes?’ I ask Gav, just before we heave our unnecessary bags into the car. ‘And what about your road shoes, just in case? It’s been quite dry out, so you never know – roadies may be an option.’ It’s an afterthought, but he agrees.

The Sat Nav helpfully directs us towards the middle of a forest and a magical-looking gatehouse, with absolutely no sign of life. ‘We are ridiculously early, though,’ I suggest hopefully, as we glance unconvincingly up at the gatehouse / castle / fortress / somebody’s ‘Grand Designs’-esque home, and then back at each other, with a further quizzical look. Short of Hansel & Gretel tip-toeing past the car scattering Dunkin’ Donut crumbs as they go, it is a rather bizarre fairy tale scene.

‘This doesn’t look right,’ Gav says. And it isn’t. After six phone calls to Bob on Security, and a series of reverse-and-drive-back-down-the-non-recognised-public-highway manoeuvres, we eventually reach the ‘correct’ gate, and queue up behind a ’67 plate Land Rover Discovery which has a polish on it akin to Mr Tumble’s nose (and in the exact same shade of rouge.) Holding our oversized neon car-parking pass proudly at the window, we are ushered through the gates by two middle-aged Hi-Vis vest wearers, and pull up in the event carpark.

The family in front of us open the boot of their Audi estate to reveal a stylish crate filled with a selection of Hunter wellington boots, and the youngest – Jonty – is mildly admonished for straying too far from the expensive corporate saloon. ‘Shit, it’s posh here, isn’t it, Gav?’ I say, as I dig around in my bag for the slice of cold toast I brought along in a plastic sandwich bag (I don’t like waste.)

Gav needs the loo, and so I am left to chew on my cold toast (it’s a Warburton’s Farmhouse crust) whilst watching Jonty and his sisters buzzing about in giddy excitement. They are now adorned in official ‘Deer Park Dash’ race T-shirts, which come down to their knees.

I swallow the last of my cold, claggy carbs, and see that Gav is marching back to the car at some pace, armed with our A3-size race numbers, and expensively-packaged race t-shirts. I already feel guilty, knowing that soon enough mine will be stuffed in the drawer with the rest of the Last Resort Bedtime Wear and/or Emergency Decorating attire.

Gav: ‘So, I asked the guy on the desk what the trails are like,’ he says, with a kind of I-should-have-known look on his face, ‘… and it’s all on tarmac.’

Me: ‘What?’

Gav: ‘It’s on tarmac. All paths. No trails. Did you even read the event info? There is not a single trail in sight. Not even any grass. Just tarmac. All the way.’

Me: ‘Oh. Right.’

Me again [sounding too jovial]: ‘Good job we brought our road shoes then, isn’t it? Ha ha ha!’

Gav: [silence]

I feel like a dickhead.

And it was a good job we’d brought our road shoes along – albeit I am currently in pre-litigious discussions with a certain Sports Shoes supplier about a certain hole which has appeared in my Adidas Ultras within 8 weeks of purchase (and at £129 they can kiss my ring if they even think about arguing that it’s ‘wear and tear’.) Anyway, I digress.

The bloke on the microphone announces that the ‘official warm up is about to commence’ and so, with 15 minutes to the start of the non-trail trail race, we get out of the car and meander over to the action. I say action, but there are a small handful of people doing questionable standing lunges in front of Eccleston’s most recently-qualified Personal Trainer. He does well, and the crowd (eventually) join in.

A tall, blonde woman floats past me, and as she glances over in my direction I immediately recognise her. I point at her and mutter something stupid like, ‘is that you? Off breakfast telly?’ I am momentarily thrown by the sensory overload and so can’t place her name in time, but I know that she is Louise Minchin. She comes across and comments on my striking Zoot! triathlon vest. I wonder how many people must point and stare and not-quite-say-hello to her, as she chats warmly about duathlons and qualifying times. We establish that there is some commonality, and she informs me of a GB age-group qualifying duathlon happening at Oulton Park in October. ‘Oooh, I’m doing that one!’ I say excitedly, and I wonder if I am really having a conversation about duathlons with the lovely blonde lady off breakfast telly.

We move over to the start line, where there is a man dressed as a deer. He’s standing quite near the front, and I wonder if he is a particularly fast deer*. I have no I-deer (sorry.) The countdown from 5 seems to come out of nowhere, and then we’re off. I fly off and I know I’m in second place to the woman who was hovering confidently at the front of the start line. In my head, I’m being hunted down by The Blonde Lady From Breakfast Telly, and so I run hard, not wishing to disgrace myself (because I have somehow convinced myself that Ms Minchin gives two shits how fast / slow I am, and therefore, I don’t want to disappoint.)

But my race fitness isn’t in line with my current ambitions, and so after 5k I’m pretty much spent. We turn at the corner, and I see Gav approaching. He’s not too far behind me. He shouts something lovely and encouraging, but I can’t speak and so I don’t reply. I gulp a drink at the water station, and then set off again. I see my new BBC Breakfast Friend coming towards me in the opposite direction, and I think I hear her give me a mini-whoop of encouragement. I run fast again, but I am running out of steam. When I run, my pace is good, but I want to stop. I want to stop so badly, and I know I can’t keep this pace going. This is only 10k, Rach! What the hell is wrong with you? I berate myself for failing, and for not being good enough. I stop briefly and take a breath. I run again, and some of the slower runners who may have done only half the distance I have look across at me with some confusion, as if they didn’t expect me to show any signs of struggle. It angers me, because I am struggling. I am hurting, and I want to stop – again.

My pace continues to be fast, but I also keep wanting to stop. I can’t understand why, and it frustrates me**. I stop again, and look behind me. I know I’m still in 2nd place (ladies), and I’m half expecting a troop of females to trample me down and leave me for dead. Instead, I see a UKRunChat vest, and he shouts at me, ‘Keep going! Come on, lass, keep going!’ He catches up with me, and I try to stick with him, but I am on my last legs.

I try and I try and I keep fucking trying, and I will it to end. I look at my watch, and my time is disappointing. I try to rationalise with myself the ‘whys’, and I dig deep to congratulate myself for coming 2nd lady, at least. This – I remind myself – means that there was only one other female runner faster than me on the course, today. But, it is of little consolation. I still feel let down by my stop/start laboured efforts.

I sit down on the grass and feel flat.

A few minutes later, Gav approaches the finish line. I can see that he’s worked just as hard as me, and he makes a fuss of ‘how well I’ve done’. I find it hard to believe him, but then I realise that I sound like a pathetic, self-defeating, perfectionist wanker. He puts me straight on a few things, and we head back to the car.

Jonty and his folks are just packing up. The dad looks sweaty from his fun-run efforts with the kids, and they pile themselves and their Hunter wellingtons back into the Audi Estate. I smile as I inhale the remaining half of a croissant I stuffed into my bag earlier, because I don’t like waste.

I drive back home, and I feel a cacophony of emotions: relief, joy, elation, fatigue, pride, frustration, but mainly joy. And I’m wondering when I’ll see my new BBC Breakfast Friend again. And I’ve got a funny feeling I will… #Jan2018

*Gav beat the deer. Just.

**Afterwards, Gav reminds me that I have been injured for 7 months of this year, and have barely run more than 15 miles a week for over 9 months. This – he suggests – may be ‘why’.

 

Ooooh you make me live….*

I’ve just married my best friend. Well, he’s more like an upgrade on a best friend – the deluxe version. He’s the front-facing table seat in quiet coach C on the Grand Central from Halifax – London… first class (of course.) He’s the 12mm luxury underlay as opposed to the 10mm more reasonably priced alternative (yes – we are currently shopping for carpets, and yes – we want the Gav quality “it’ll be like walking on a bouncy castle” option). He’s the Marks & Spencer’s weekly food shop, although admittedly, Aldi do some excellent fresh produce. (And £3.10 for a Pink Lady apple? It does come in a M&S protective polystyrene tray, although I’m quietly confident it would survive the 3-mile car journey home without.)

The last time I had a real best friend was in my teenage years. We did everything together, Jo and I. She’d get on my bus into town and we’d go shopping at Jean Junction for hooded tops; we’d trudge around Sainsbury’s for my Mum during school holidays and make a bee-line for the iced fingers.

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Those iced fingers did me no good…

In later years, that same trudge advanced to the dark and sticky route up and down the stairs between the Coliseum nightclub and Maine St, where she would patiently guide me with my frustratingly poor eyesight, as I chased Fit Rob around hoping he’d notice that I was both alive and available. (I never knew his surname; he had blonde curtains, and he never did realise that I was either of those things.) And then – selfishly – she went and got herself a boyfriend. “It won’t last… He’s from Down South… she’s still at school… what are they gonna do? Commute?** Ha ha ha just wait and see…” **They did exactly that, and 20 years later are happily married with 3 beautiful kids. Meanwhile, I was stuck with my latest Boyfriend of the Month eating pot noodles whilst swinging my legs on the bench under the slide at Warley park wishing I could find another best friend.

Two decades later… I did.

I’ve written about our romantic meeting – some bullshit excuse around him needing a new running club vest “I’m not sure what size, so I’ll take two just in case, and bring one back…”, and the rest – as they say – is history. We’ve melted together in the oppressive heat of the Dubai marathon, and hob-nobbed with Sir Mo whist altitude training in Font Romeu.

We’ve had four years of fun and belly-laughter that make the previous thirty look like tired old sepia photographs. Welcome technicolor! With filters! Life with my – now husband – Gav is X Pro ll on Instagram (it’s a bright one.)


And so our newly married adventures continue…

… he’s got a bike.

I repeat – he’s just got a frickin bike! This was as unlikely as Theresa May waking up one morning to discover that the Bags for Life residing under her eyes had miraculously disappeared (who’d take that job?) And this is a whole new chapter in our CulloDodd adventures. Yes – we’re still runners. That will always be a big part of our lives and our story, but just as the amoebas turned into fish, we are evolving into people who can – and will – choose to have new experiences in life. I’m back on the bus into town with my new best friend, and we’re off to buy a hooded (cycling) top.

And we went out for the first time on our bikes together, this week. Admittedly, I’ve had more practice on two wheels – my progress having been documented in recent blogs referencing jigsaw puzzles and painting by numbers. Gav was last on two wheels when he was chasing 6th form girls around town back in the early 90s with crooked teeth (Gav – not the girls. They’re straight now. Gav’s teeth – and also Gav, I’m happy to confirm.) So, as I flew off up the road ahead, Gav tried to take himself back two decades and remember the basics. “Just keep pedalling!” I shouted back to him. The advice has worked well for me.

I stopped and waited for him at the next suitable juncture, and saw his gormless* smile appear as he approached on his sexy, pristine new Orange Clockwork mountain bike. “It’s fucking ace!” He shouted, as I took a snap of him on his new toy, and we both continued on our 14-mile loop, up and over the beautiful Yorkshire hills from home. *I’m allowed to say this, as I tend to sport the same vacuous look – see Instagram.

And it’s a bloody good job we’re getting some cycling practice in, because for a honeymoon? Well, we’ve just signed up to cycle 460 km coast-to-coast across Costa Rica from the Pacific to the Caribbean in November. Really, how hard can it be?… and then we read the itinerary. Gulp. Shitbags. What the f*kc have we done? (Mind you, our impulsive decision to enter the 2016 Dubai marathon was at best questionable, and we did almost get lost whilst (ahem) “exploring” non-existent trails high on a mountainside in Font Romeu as we ran out of food, water, and daylight, but we don’t need to worry about those things just now.)

Meanwhile, running is coming back to me. More like my love of running is slowly returning after a long, injury-induced absence earlier in the year. So much so that bollocks – I’ve entered into a duathlon for October. Fuck it – what have I got to lose? I’ve even bought myself one of those fancy tri-suits and run the risk of resembling a toilet roll tube on a bike, but I’m flirting with the possibility that it was always meant to be this way. I was supposed to lose running this year in order to try out new adventures, and that’s exactly what I – and we – have done. I had to drop off the mile-chasing Strava Wanker scenario to see that I can still train without it. I needed to lose the races and the places to realise that it doesn’t define me, or my self-worth.

More recently I’ve tackled a couple of trail / light fell races, and I’ve deliberately put myself out of my comfort zone. Not to hone my off-road skills so much (which remain entirely shit) but to test my metal. Dare I go out of my road-running comfort zone? Trail running will never be my first love, but it’s still a worthwhile pursuit in challenging my fears. Skipping over tree roots at pace on a fast, slippery trail descent fills me with a terror I can only akin to the concept of playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey in the middle of the M62.

Our cycling adventures – the Duathlon and our planned Costa Rica bike ride – are exactly the same. Pushing ourselves, trying new things, seeing what we can do. And I love that my husband, Gav, is as up for the challenge as I am.

Now, just remind me. Where is Costa Rica again??

[Gav – we’d best do a Google search…]

*Oooooh you make me live

Whatever this world can give to me

It’s you, you’re all I see

Oooooh you make me live now honey

Oooooh you make me live…

 

‘The Power of Yet’ vs ‘The Curse of Enough’

We’ve been learning about something called ‘The Power of Yet’ today, Mummy,’ she said, tucking into half a sausage roll on our walk home from school. It’s one of the perks of living near a farm shop.

Really? And what exactly is ‘the power of yet’ then, Tills?’ I genuinely didn’t know.

Well, if you can’t do something, then you put a ‘yet’ at the end of it,’ she explained, sounding like a teacher in a child’s body whilst processing her pork and pastry combo, ‘and it means that you just can’t do it… YET… but you WILL be able to do it some time in the future.

Wow! That’s a great way of looking at things, Tills,’ I replied, genuinely impressed with the whole notion of this ‘turning obstacles into challenges’ and ‘stamping out defeatism’ vibe.

She continued, ‘So, I cried when I couldn’t work out why number 9 was the odd one out in maths today, out of 9, 12, 20, 36 and 45, when Delilah could.’ I temporarily switched off from her verbatim and drifted into some dusty old mental arithmetic corner of my mind where I divided and subtracted, and raced through my basic knowledge of prime numbers, before finally coming to the conclusion that this was a test designed for six-year olds. How hard could it be??

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

She continued, ‘But then I thought that I just didn’t understand it YET [she exaggerated the ‘yet’, delivering it slowly and deliberately, as though talking to someone of significantly inferior intellect] and that I would understand it some time.

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

Right, right. I see,’ I replied, still racing through chapters of Algebra for Amoebas in my head, as she continued telling me about her day.

The power of yet. Not making the grade… yet. Not quite hitting the mark… yet. Not understanding the how’s or the why’s… yet. Not reaching the ‘qualifying standard’ … yet. Not getting there – wherever that might be… yet.

Yet, yet, yet. And yet…

It’s a big and generous concept. It stops kids giving up before they’ve really battled with their own internal belief system, and reminds them that sometimes the answer isn’t always easy; it doesn’t always jump out from the page; the qualifying standard might take many, many attempts, and that giving up isn’t the right option: Word on the street is ‘it ain’t cool to quit, kids!’*

Hallelujah! Amen to that. Don’t quit folks! Keep going. Tally-ho! Crack on! Onwards and upwards, and all that.

But then it got me thinking. When is enough ever enough? When does ‘The Power of Yet’ turn on us and become some big old shitty stick with which we can (and do) beat ourselves? What if the right thing to do IS to quit? Move on. Leave it there. Accept our limitations. What happens to ‘The Power of Yet’ then? And furthermore, when are we enough? When are our accomplishments, achievements, feathers in caps and certificates on walls, enough? Are we forever doomed to kneel and worship at the altar of The Power of Yet, deeming ourselves – and any/all of our achievements – to be (offensively scrawled in red pen) ‘could do better’s’ and ‘must try harder’s?’ What if we have tried our best? What if that is as close as we can possibly come to hitting the bulls’ eye?

What then?

You see, I’ve spent years in a silent, daily battle with The Curse of Enough. I’ve spent decades chasing, wrangling, and head-locking a little bastard chimp inside my head which told me that I simply wasn’t good enough… yet. I wasn’t fast enough… yet. Not thin enough… yet. Not pretty enough… yet. Not successful enough… yet. Not GOOD enough… yet. That some illusory, unidentifiable moment in time would occur in my future when I would reach this pinnacle; this mecca of contentment, but that time wasn’t here, and now.

Well let me tell you, fellas (generic term for all readers. We do inclusivity, here) The Power of Yet has been a double-edged sword for me. It has motivated me time after time to try harder. Want to knock an hour and a quarter off your marathon time in the space of 2 years? Use the Power of Yet. It works. Want to write so badly that you spend eighteen months re-writing 80,000 of THE SAME WORDS because you believe in the story? The Power of Yet will help you to get a publishing deal, and a literary agent. Believe me. This shit works.

The medals, the certificates, the contracts, the achievements. The Power of Yet doesn’t know when to stop. What about enjoying the journey? What about luxuriating in the momentary glimpses of joy? What about putting a lid on an endless fascination for desired outcome? Years of being bounced between The Power of Yet and The Curse of Enough like some stunned Wimbledon tennis ball being strewn around Court 1 has taught me to TREAT WITH CAUTION.

This comes in the week when my Good for Age entry for Virgin London Marathon 2018 has been accepted, from a time I ran at last year’s Yorkshire Marathon which was 10 minutes off my marathon PB. At the time, I was devastated, seeing it as a huge personal failure, and a regression away from that elusive moment at some point in my future when it all makes sense: when I am enough.

But I see now that was all wrong. I ran as hard and as fast as I could, on that day. I battled with every cell of my being for the last fourteen miles, and I crawled over the finish line in 3 hrs and 27 minutes. Only a few years ago, this would have been a huge mini victory. Fucking hell! I’ve run a sub- 3:30 marathon! But the Power of Yet combined with the Curse of Enough stole my moment. It won’t get the opportunity to do it again.

So, did you work out the answer then, Tills?

To what?’ She was temporarily distracted by the realisation that her sausage roll was done.

Your maths puzzle. The random numbers and why 9 was the odd one out.’

Oh yeah. It was only because it’s a single digit. The others are double digits. How easy is that?

Of course it was! I was just about to say that!’ I lied.

FFS! Algebra for Amoebas back in its box. There I was involving multiplication, subtraction and square roots. No doubt my six-year old daughter (or clone) was doing the same with her similarly overthinking mind. But the answer was so simple we could barely see it.

I’m hoping that one week she’ll come home and tell me all about ‘The Power of Enough’. Because sometimes – just like the number 9 brainteaser – the answer is very simple: Trying your best is good enough.

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We cracked it!

*Quite pleased with this, having just thought it up. If it were the 60s, I would be Peggy Olson (Mad Men)

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The late arrival to the DREAM BIG! party…

I was a late starter when it came to the whole ‘Dream Big!’ mantra. In fact, I arrived at the party just as they were emptying paper plates with discarded Wotsits into black bin liners and stacking up the fold-away chairs. But, Agadoo was still playing, so I hung around a bit.

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…Push pineapple, shake the tree…

And it’s funny, because even when I DID achieve mini life victories, I explained them away as being a fluke, or a freakish never-to-be-repeated piece of good fortune, or an Act of God (forgive the legal reference.) I never ever took the credit for them. Not ever.

Aged 18:

I passed my driving test, first time. On my 18th birthday – the day itself (oh, the pressure) – and very nearly flunked it. One more ‘minor’ error and it would have been game over. I answered 3 out of 3 of the Road Safety questions incorrectly, one example given below:

Q: What does this sign on a motorway mean?

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My Answer: ‘Erm, three lanes, two lanes, or one lane?’ I stammered, whilst offering up a pathetic little smile.

No, Rachel. It doesn’t. But the slightly aging man in the tweed jacket with a clipboard gave me a ‘Pass’ anyway. It’s because it’s my 18th birthday, today! I reasoned with myself. He couldn’t fail me on my birthday! It couldn’t possibly be because I’d just about managed to negotiate the L-plated Vauxhall Corsa around a corner without wiping out an old lady. I couldn’t give myself the credit for that. It was a fluke.

Aged 22:

I got a 2:1 in my Law Degree – against the odds (seriously, we won’t go there just now.) I’d had a virtual breakdown, taken a year out, changed universities, and returned to find myself Billy No Mates sitting at the back of a Leeds University lecture theatre wishing I’d never started the damn thing in the first place.

When my result came through, I had no Plan B. Pretty blondes floated and skipped around the University Campus telling of their impending next steps to Law School where they would become Daddy’s Little Protégé. I sat with a full fat latte in the canteen and wondered, What the hell do I do now? I wasn’t expecting a half decent result. It must have been an easy paper, this year, I told myself; the dissertation must have been semi-plagiarised. Did I cheat? I couldn’t be sure.

Aged 26:

I qualified as a solicitor – against the odds. (Again, you don’t need a full breakdown as to the disparity between my real, hapless self and the person I portrayed.) How have I even secured a training contract?

I dropped my biscuit in the milk jug during one important client meeting… AND THEN STUCK MY HAND IN TO RETRIEVE IT much to the horror of the Litigation Partner and his very wealthy client (in my defence, it was one of those posh biscuits covered in foil.) How was I not sacked? I qualified, but it was more by accident than by design. An Act of God, perhaps.

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Couldn’t waste it, could I?

(There are many, MANY more such examples, but for the sake of time and convenience we’ll skip the minutiae. And the Virgin London Marathon 2011. That’s in the book.)

***

Aged 36

I ran the Yorkshire Marathon 2014 in 3 hours and 16 minutes, averaging 7:30 min/miles for 26.2 miles. WHAT THE FUCK?! I went into overdrive with the IT’S A FLUKE / HAPPY ACCIDENT / ACT OF GOD apparently logical reasoning. After all, I couldn’t POSSIBLY have simply worked my arse off and achieved that time, could I?

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No sooner had I limped off the York University Campus post-marathon than I was already filled with dread and panic that this was somehow entirely outside of my control – a thing that had (fortunately) happened TO me, and not BECAUSE of me. I feared I would never again run like that, or achieve such a freakish result again.*

Remember, they’ve already binned the plates and stacked chairs at the DREAM BIG! party, and now Black Lace has finished on repeat play, people are slowly ambling outside into the car park. I’m left dancing on my own to The Conga whilst I try and mop up the last remnants of the DREAM BIG! happy vibe – along with a few crusty sandwiches and slightly warm cucumber sticks.

But it WAS my doing. All of it was my doing. I achieved all of those things, despite it appearing as though I am walking, talking anti-proof for the ‘Expectancy Theory’ (i.e. that proposes an individual makes choices based on the belief that there is a positive correlation between effort, performance and outcome.)

Dream big? DREAM BIG, you say? Even when I’ve LIVED the bloody dream, I STILL haven’t believed it!

So here we are. I am now aged 38 years old. The book I have written (‘Running for my Life: My 26.2 Mile Journey to Health and Happiness’ – Blink Publishing) is about to be listed for pre-order on Amazon. It won’t be released for another nine months – not until January 2018. But, I am refusing to allow myself to make up excuses for my dream being a fluke / happy chance / stroke of luck. It isn’t. I have lived that story, and I have written that book. It’s my party, and I own the fucking paper plates.

And as I sit browsing through my back catalogue of Dream Big! party invites, I can take myself within a millisecond to each and every one of those experiences, where – despite my putting in every ounce of effort humanly possible – I hadn’t dreamt about some fantastical, out-of-this-world positive outcome. I found that the effort sort of took care of that anyway.

It can happen anyway. It DOES happen, anyway! It is – perhaps – possible to Dream Big! in retrospect, to realise that simply by continuing to turn up / pound the rock / grind the stone / run the miles / write the words, the outcome is already being choreographed somewhere far grander and more exotic than the Black Lace Agadoo-playing dance floor.

That’s the party I want to be invited to. Hell, that’s the party I’m going to!

See you there.

* I ran 3:17 at VLM 2015. It wasn’t a fluke then, either.

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Dream Big, Tills. Dream Big… (or just work your arse off. Either will do.)