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 Dream Stealer

The Dream Stealer 

What does anxiety feel like?

It’s a daily battle with the Dream Stealer.

It rears its head like one of the ugly, mean giants sprawled across The BFG’s hillside.

It’s a cat pawing at a cornered mouse; a bully taunting the vulnerable kid at school. It’s always there, lurking in the background, ready to rouse and pounce, paw and taunt. You just don’t know when.

It laughs and says, “You can’t!” when otherwise, you might have – just possibly – dared to consider that you could.

It prepares you for the worst, even when the worst is unfeasible.

It paints a picture of a scary, doomed outcome on even the brightest and sunniest of days.

It makes you fear the outcome, kiboshing the journey to even get there.

It’s your heart suddenly beginning to race in a supermarket aisle; your chest pounding when sitting motionless, that nobody sees.

It’s fight or flight that won’t switch off – on constant repeat. Only there is no one to fight, and no need to take flight.

It’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off. But jump where? Into some invisible, non-existent place where only fear lives.

It’s standing, sword drawn, opposite an invisible opponent. A permanency of ‘en garde‘.

***

It’s all these things, and a million more. And it can never, EVER win.

Here’s why it never will.

***

The silent, daily battles; the mini-victories.

Pushing yourself out the front door when it would be so much easier not to.

Refusing to allow the world to shrink, whilst the Dream Stealer feeds on the remnants of your joy.

Smiling, and faking confidence when you’re terrified inside.

Starting a conversation with the quiet Mum in the school playground.

Saying ‘Yes‘, when every ounce of you wishes it were a ‘No‘; saying ‘No, thank you‘ when compulsion and obligation try and steer you to go.

Standing on the start line with a dry mouth, wishing it were the finish.

Entering ‘Destination: Unknown’ into your internal satnav, and revving up the engine.

Pressing that ‘send’ button, and risking rejection.

Clicking ‘submit’ because there’s ever such a small chance that you might win.

Taking part when you doubt you have much to contribute;

Walking into a room when it feels infinitely safer to stay outside.

Picking up the phone when you’d rather switch it to silent.

Asking the question you’ve tried hard to swallow;

Not listening to the small talk, or the ones who just gossip. Or to those who are jealous because their dreams have already curled up and died.

Walking past the crowd, with your head held high.

Meeting up for a coffee, regardless of the panic rising inside.

Asking for help when you can’t face it alone, despite the only comfortable place being inside, on your own.

***

All these are what will keep the Dream Stealer away from your door.

I know, because I’ve done them all many, many times before.*

*including today, when I had my arse kicked at the Bingley Show Trail Fell Race. But victory was mine, for all of the above reasons.

 

I DON’T HAVE TO CYCLE UP EVEREST…

It all began a few months ago, when I dug my old 2010 Trek mountain bike out of the cellar and heaved it into Halfords for a service (and by this, I mean checking that the wheels were still round – the back one was suspect) pumping up the tyres, and making sure the brakes still work. And as much as I’m no cycling connoisseur, the name ‘Avid Juicy’ (a brand of cycling brakes, for the unenlightened) had stuck in my mind. To my knowledge, they may well have run out of their magical avid juice.

Wheels round? Check

Tyres pumped up? Check

Brakes working? Check

Gears working? Kind of. Well, not really, as they keep sticking, but just about manageable. Plus, I’d forgotten how to use them, so no bother.

It was the start of a new era. Not some Kick Ass, Dream Big! plan to cycle round Peru (that comes later) but my own personal plan to start off small, and set myself some tiny, incremental goals.

CHALLENGE # 1: CAN I RIDE A BIKE?

ANSWER # 1: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

My first challenge was cycling down to the gym from home – a five-mile route consisting of a couple of main roads (Gulp. Cold sweat.) followed by a traffic-free canal section (better, but it’s got plenty of bumpy, cobbly bits, and low bridges. Fuck.)

So, I set off one day on my now circular-wheeled Trek mountain bike, with grips on the tyres large enough to tackle even the most mountainous regions of the Alps, and headed on my way.

WhatsApp message to Gav: I’ve made it! I’m here in one piece! [elated-looking selfie attached]

I locked my bike up outside the gym with my daughter’s £5 fluffy unicorn-pink child’s bike lock (yes, I did) and trotted off to my class. Surprisingly, it was still there when I came back out, and so I cycled the 5-mile route back home again. But there was a small incline en route. Fuck, fuck FUCKKKKK. I managed to crank the gears down to the speed of a slug steadily progressing from the garden to the empty bean tins in last week’s recycling – stopping three times on the way – and eventually made it to the top.

YESSS! VICTORY IS MINE! I’d proven to myself that I could get on my bike – after 5 years of abstinence (even back then I was shit) and navigate roads, traffic, wanker lorry drivers, canal cobbles, clueless dog-walkers, piles of dog shit, low bridges, crossing roads, and pedestrians. If this were a jigsaw puzzle, it would have been a simple 6-piece affair for target age group 2/3yrs. Possibly in Peppa fucking Pig design. Anyway, I cracked it.

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…baby steps…

CHALLENGE #2: CAN I CYCLE TO MY MUM’S AND BACK HOME AGAIN?

ANSWER #2: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

Having never been formally diagnosed as appearing on the OCD spectrum (highly likely but am now too long in the tooth to find out) the simple task of cycling on another route to another place was a significant enough variable to increase this to stage 2: a 49-piece Paw Patrol jigsaw, target age group 5/6yrs. There were more roads involved, and therefore increased exposure to wanker white-van-man drivers and other imbecilic fuckwits on the move. Less canal, so fewer bumpy cobbles, dog walkers with mile-long leads and steaming piles of excrement. All things considered, it was progression.

WhatsApp message to Gav: I’ve made it! I’m here in one piece! [elated-looking selfie attached]

I sat drinking a brew on mum’s sofa, feeling disproportionately chuffed with my little self, whilst my Trek bike waited patiently for me on the ground floor. We (the pair of us, myself and Trek) cycled home exactly the same way as we’d come, only this time, I only stopped twice on Granny Gear hill. Result!

Text from Mum: Have you arrived back OK, Rach? I was watching you from my window. You didn’t look overly confident on the roads, love. Let me know when you’re back safely.

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So yeah, thanks, Mum. I may have looked like I could cycle up the back end of a Skoda at any given minute, of have a close shave with a Corsa, but I made it. Another mini victory in the small-fry book of minor achievements in my life. Job done. [tick box emoji]

CHALLENGE #3: CAN I CYCLE A 6-MILE LOOP FROM HOME, THE FIRST HALF BEING UP A BASTARD 2-MILE HILL?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

The answer would be simple enough: I either could cycle 2-miles up a hill, or I couldn’t. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll have to get off my bike and push it. So fucking what? I’ll give it a whirl…

I geared myself up for the grind (awful pun, I know) and settled in, pushing steadily and consistently in as high-a-gear as I could manage to enable me to still have some torque (see! Who is this absolute wanker I have become?) It worked. I dug my off-road trainers into my pedals and I pushed. There were a couple of fat blokes on road bikes just ahead. As I approached AND PASSED them, I was suddenly aware that I didn’t look at all like a cyclist, but here I was, gate-crashing their party – without cleats (#wankerism again. Sorry about that.)

Once at the top, I stood on my pedals and lifted my bum high in the air for the most incredible downhill section, and I felt a kind of elation that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I CAN FUCKING DO THIS! I shouted to myself, as the wind blew rain and snot sideways into my face. Such was the increase in my confidence, I even took one hand off the handle bars and wiped the snot from my top lip/chin area which had been dangling there for approximately 15 minutes. This, my friends, is progress.

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I got wet.

CHALLENGE #4: CAN I CYCLE A 15-MILE LOOP FROM HOME INCORPORATING 3 OF THE BIGGEST LOCAL CLIMBS, AND BE BACK BEFORE 10AM TO START WORK?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

I had my sights set on this one. I’d even bought a new lid (#wankerism for cycling helmet) jazzy cycling gloves, and dug out my old padded shorts and cycling jersey. This is happening, Rach. You know what to do.

I pictured the route and saw myself grinding up the first hill climb to Norland, and then standing up for the long descent down into the far side of Rishworth, following country lanes I know well from miles of running around the area. Stop 1: a selfie outside our favourite pub, sent through to Gav approximately 30 mins into the ride, with the words, ‘look where I am!’ typed underneath my gormless grin.

The second climb was tougher. Up and over from Rishworth to Baitings reservoir, involved many more climbing sections than I’d remembered from the last time I’d run the same route. Bloody hell, my self-doubt chimp began to chunter. You’ve got Ripponden Bank to tackle after this! WTF!

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Beautiful Baitings Reservoir

With a few pauses for breath (and to inhale a Peperami) I made it to the other side of the reservoir, and once again stood high on my non-cleat pedals and rolled at speed down the 2-mile descent – the calm before the unholy shit-storm of Ripponden Bank.

Now then, kids. We’re on with a 1000-piece 101 Dalmatians jigsaw, here. This ain’t easy on a road bike, or on any friggin wheels of any description. My 3rd and final climb of the morning would involve the infamous Tour de France Stage 2 route climbing past The Fleece Inn, and over the top dropping down into Barkisland – and finally, back home.

My steel-framed Trek cranked and groaned as I pulled the gears back to the slug-trail speed, and pushed again with my cleat-free shoes on the non-clip-in pedals. And fucking hell it was tough, but I made it to the top.

Free-wheeling the final few miles back down home, I almost sang with joy. I’VE DONE IT! YESSSS! I’VE FUCKING CRACKED IT!

You see, as my jigsaws have increased in pieces and complexity, so has my confidence and my self-belief that I can take on new challenges and tackle them head on. They don’t always have to be ones with a big shiny medal at the end, or ones that other people even know about, but they are my personal challenges, and I know what they mean to me.

CHALLENGE #5: CAN I CYCLE 20 MILES UP AND OVER THE TOPS TO HEBDEN BRIDGE AND BACK THE DAY BEFORE A TOUGH 7-MILE ROAD RACE?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

That was Saturday, and the #kilburnfeast road race was yesterday. A step too far? Perhaps. I fell and whacked my shoulder whilst cycling under a low cobbly bridge* (it was either that or fall into the canal.)

And the race? My legs were battered at yesterday’s race, having cycled 45 hilly miles on my beloved Trek bike in last 3 days, and so no PB for me, today. But do you know what? I couldn’t care less. I did it anyway, just because I could.

You see, I don’t need to have grand ambitions to cycle up Everest. Ripponden Bank will do.

*Maybe I’m back to a 500 – piece jigsaw of kittens all playing with balls of wool.

**At the time of writing, I am exploring the possibility of cycling 511km from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas in 2018. Yes, I am.

The Birthday Weekend Part 2: The Three Yorkshire Peaks Challenge 24th June 2017

We set off walking and immediately got stuck behind slow moving traffic, not unlike the roundabout approaching Birstall’s IKEA which narrows into one lane for all those planning on purchasing self-assembly beds. ‘(Ahem), excuse me, please… Could I just… Would you mind if…’ I asked one, and then another steady ambler who seemed to have settled into the idea of queuing to hike up a mountain. How very British! My repeated apologies and embarrassed coughs grew in frequency, and were mostly met with a sudden shuffle of walking poles and then a step to the left, akin to a Rocky Horror Show dance move.

The landscape was littered with people. People and poles; people with poles. Many, many poles. I sped up, and almost began a slow trot. Not that I harboured any burning ambition for achieving a time of glory, but just to escape from the relentless stream of bodies… and poles. I looked behind, and Gav was stuck. Wedged between a group of tired looking teenagers and a bleary-eyed corporate crew who appeared to have woken up only seconds earlier. Push past them, Gav. Make a bid for freedom! I telepathically transmitted to him, wondering if we would ever see past the parody on the hillside before us. Shit. He’s too polite, I concluded, as he remained jammed in between Cool 6th Former and Corporate Ken. Is this what Wainwright envisioned? I wondered, as the snake of bodies trundled slowly onwards and up Pen-Y-Ghent as though in some never-ending Starbuck’s queue.

Nearing the top of Pen-Y-Ghent, the steep, rocky climb became ever more difficult courtesy of the unanticipated human congestion. A mother waited patiently to climb further up the ragged rock face with her young daughter in hand – perhaps 7 or 8 years old – no more. The girl stood alongside her mum looking completely unflustered by the wind pummelling her little body against the now fully exposed hillside. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman clung on desperately to a jagged, jutting edge and wept in terror as she wailed, ‘I can’t move. I CAN’T MOVE!’ I looked down, and couldn’t blame her, not being one for heights myself. Wanting to get the hell away from the juxtaposed climbers, I took the advice of a kind chap who was volunteering to help Wailing Woman overcome her frozen fear. ‘Just barge past people love,’ he instructed me. ‘Move round them. You’ll get hypothermia otherwise!’ I took his advice and circumvented the queue, gulping hard whilst my heart raced in the knowledge that I was going ever so slightly ‘off piste’.

Shortly afterwards, I reached the top where thankfully, the congestion had eased. A well-built marshall who was tasked with ticking us off a laminated list came immediately into view. He was digging about to retrieve his sheet, whilst at the same time wrestling one arm into a wind-battered hi-vis. ‘You’re the first here. That’s pretty fast, to be honest,’ he said with a smile and one brow slightly raised. I waited a few minutes, and then, like a meerkat poking his head out of an underground burrow, Gav appeared.

We spent a few minutes chatting to brick shit-house Marshall Man, who confidently informed us, ‘You’ll be able to run the ten miles across to Whernside, no problem.’ Perhaps – naively – we took him at his word. I was desperate to run, away from people and poles, and down the hillside on the long trek across to peak number 2: Whernside. No sooner did we begin to descend the opposing side of Pen-Y-Ghent than it became very clear that we wouldn’t have the easy, flowing, downhill section we’d dreamed of (there is a reason why I love tarmac.) This quickly began to feel like a long, technical cross country run. Loose, rocky paths meant that our eyes were fixed only on the few metres in front of us. Gav – with only one remaining tendon supporting his left ankle – did his best to navigate his way down the rough terrain. Off road, we surmised, is perhaps not our bag. Meanwhile, I was terrified of tripping over my own feet and impaling myself on a sharp, dislodged Russian doll Tupperware lid. Could there be any worse way to go? All that aside, we did manage to do a fair amount of running, and people were dissipating. For that reason alone, I would happily continue attempting to run down the rocky, scree-covered path.

Halfway between Pen-Y-Ghent & Whernside, our support van came into view. We were the first there, by their reckoning. Offering us top-ups of water and chalk-like protein bars, the three crew members kept us chatting for slightly too long, giving us additional ‘challenges’ that we could choose to undertake over the remaining 14-or-so miles (and two peaks) that we yet had to tackle. That they even considered we might be looking for any ‘additional’ challenges over and above getting our arses around the 3 peaks and back to our car safely remains a complete mystery. But we were simply too polite to say, ‘Thanks, but no fucking chance!’ This cost us a good few minutes, but typically, British etiquette and courteous chit-chat prevailed.

Just around the corner, and the majestic Ribblehead viaduct came gloriously into view. We’d ticked off around ten miles by now, and it was a welcome sight. How the hell did people build that?’ I wondered, comparing the toil and workmanship of yesteryear to the IKEA and self-assembly of modern day. Just before I felt my heart sink with what we’ve all become, I rallied myself for more running as the paths became easier underfoot. There was still a long way to go.

The Whernside climb started off gently. Initially, it didn’t feel like a climb – more of a long, meandering path barely rising at all. That said, I felt like a mountain goat. Having got a definite second wind from somewhere, I powered along the footpath onwards, and upwards; onwards, and upwards. Gav’s second wind hadn’t arrived yet, and instead he was on a mini slump, not enjoying the trudge. I kept looking behind for him, and as the meandering road turned into a steeper climb, the mist descended. To accompany this, the wind picked up massively. I secured a buff over my Inov8 cap to make sure it stayed in place.

I passed one hi-vis marshall, but he was waiting for another group. Is this the top? I couldn’t tell. Wind and mist encircled us as I kept up a good pace despite being unable to see anything at all for the fog. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. Where’s Gav? I looked behind. No idea. It was flat on the top, with no discernible summit. Have I passed it? Should I wait for him? How far back is he? I decided to sit down and shelter by a wall and wait for him. A good few minutes passed. ‘Are you ok?’ a couple of walkers asked me as I sat down, having only just stridden confidently past them moments earlier. ‘Yes! I’m fine! Just waiting for my other half…’

Eventually, he showed, like a scene from Guerrillas in the Mist. We continued together to the summit where the lady marshall was just arriving and setting up, putting on her hi vis with KUTA OUTDOORS thankfully emblazoned on it. We recognised the logo and so were the first to be ticked off her laminated list. It was now around 12pm, and I asked how long she was likely to have to wait up there, at the summit of Whernside. ‘Probably until well after 3pm,’ she replied. I noticed a droplet of snot about to fall from the end of her nose. Bloody hell.

Whernside was a horrible descent. Steep scree; random rocks; and large indecipherable steps. A couple of dogs ran around wildly, being hollered at by frightened owners. One woman stood on a dog’s toe. It yelped. For one who isn’t great with heights, and with an unhealthy fear of falling, this couldn’t be any worse. We couldn’t run any of it, and our pace dropped to that of terrified snails as we nervously inched our way down the worst descent. Some braver folk flew past, whilst we continued to tip-toe down like toddlers on a polished spiral staircase.

Towards the bottom it levelled out, and became runnable again. Paths were chopped into chunks with a series of never-ending cattle grids. Signs on display evidenced the opportunistic rural community cashing in on tired trekkers: ‘500m to fresh orange juice with ice.’ … and further down the path… ‘250m to cold juice with ice…’ Before long, our support vehicle and crew came into view again. The well-built marshall tasked with checking people off his list at Pen-Y-Ghent was in action once more, this time preparing to climb Ingleborough for his second laminated list duty of the day. But he hadn’t set off, yet. The Organiser bloke asked, ‘Do you think you can get there before him?’ We knew we would – or we hoped we could.

 The Ingleborough climb felt like an extended cardio session on a travellator / Jacob’s ladder machine – climbing massive chunks of stone carefully laid out all the way up the sheer hillside. This was a cardiovascular workout. It felt vertical as there was no meandering this time; just up. Thick fog began to set in again. A slow-moving older guy said, ‘Nice legs but I bet they’re getting cold!’ as I marched past. They weren’t. Getting to the top, it was unclear where the summit was. I felt my entire upper body now soaked in sweat, but my hands were cold – with sealskin gloves on… in June. A couple of weathered old-timers directed us to the summit. There was no sign of Well-Built marshall. No laminated sheet to be ticked off. ‘Will we still be counted as completing it?’ I asked Gav, stupidly. We took a selfie at the summit as photographic evidence, just in case (it’s the legal training.)

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Guerillas in the Mist

As we headed back down Ingleborough, a bloke had lost his dog’s ball. ‘Someone’s nicked off with it. Must be a bloody southerner!’ the Yorkshireman shouted. We laughed. 3 peaks were now done, but the journey wasn’t over. Feeling tired and disappointed with what seemed to be so many un-runnable non-paths, we tried to run wherever we could. We’d also lost everyone. At times, there was now only me and Gav. At some points, we stopped in our tracks, wondering where the path even was. In one earlier, more positive moment, we had considered the possibility of going for sub-7 hours, but this seemed increasingly unlikely as large grass-covered boulders stuck out of the land like a badly-fitting carpet. We hopped over bogs and grassy mounds trying not to lose Gav’s one remaining ankle ligament through sheer carelessness. But we were getting tired, and increasingly clumsy.

20 miles seemed to take forever to come. Gav’s Garmin lost battery. He kept asking me how far we’d gone, and didn’t believe the miles were going so slowly. ‘Are we at 21 yet, Rach?’NO,’ I barked back. He didn’t believe me. I wrestled with my own frustration with tired legs and simply broke away, willing myself home like Dorothy clicking together the heels of her red shoes.

A family was approaching from the bottom of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, just setting off on their Saturday afternoon walk. ‘Please tell me the village isn’t far,’ I desperately asked the glamorous-looking mum with her kids hopping about on the hillside like spring lambs. ‘No, not at all. It’s taken us lot half an hour to get here at our snail’s pace,’ she replied, smiling. ‘Only down the hill now.’

 The field came into view, and I legged it. I could see the banners marked both ‘START’ and ‘FINISH’. I was home.

The KUTA crew were ambling about, only just starting to put out bottles of water and boxes of salty crisps / chalky protein bars. No one rushed over, as time – it appeared – was not of the essence. I stopped my Suunto. 6 Hrs 54 mins. Still no one came over, and so I asked for a bottle of water and helped myself to a bar of chalk. A guy dressed in what appeared to be faded military gear came over to congratulate me. ‘Only one runner has come in ahead of you… in 5 hours. You’re the first back from the FMN group. Bloody good time!’ he said.

Gav arrived shortly afterwards, and we headed off to the Pen-Y-Ghent café where we’d clocked in at 7.25am that morning.

‘We’re in the Three Yorkshire Peaks Club, Gav!’ I said to him, as we sat and drank our pints of hot sweet tea. ‘Under 7 hours. Is that any good?’ I quizzed. How do you measure these things? I had no idea other than the clear evidence of my own exhaustion, plus my recollection of 8 years earlier when I’d completed it in well over 10 hours. I guess in the 8 years since, being three stones lighter and three hours faster isn’t a bad effort…

‘Are you going to order a Three Yorkshire Peaks Club silk tie?’ I asked Gav as we pondered over our souvenir options. He said he wasn’t fussed for one of those, strangely.

‘Nah. I’ll go with a sew-on badge. What a weekend. Happy birthday, Rach!’

THE END.

Q: When is a race not a race?

A: When I couldn’t give a Fat Rascal about anything other than finishing it.

‘I think I want to enter into a race again, Gav.’ I said. ‘It’s time to get over the fear.’

What’s the worst that could happen?

We chose the Ilkley Trail race on Bank Holiday Monday. It worked around the delicate orchestrating of childcare arrangements courtesy of two broken homes (sob*) having successfully amalgamated into one complete madhouse**

Regardless, it wasn’t an obvious choice for a tentative first race back since the debacle of the Dewsbury 10k back in February, during which I’d been forced to make the Walk of Shame back to the start after only 1.5 miles of purgatory (before being picked up by the Unfortunate Bastards Sweeper Bus.) That was my last race: it hurt my legs, my Achilles, and my pride.

I’ve written a lot recently about race anxiety. I’ve been known to have sleepless night before Parkrun. Yes, seriously. I’ve woken up with palpitations in a goose-bumped, fuzzy-headed clammy sweat, cleaned the fridge, and set off a good two hours before the marshals have even pressed ‘SNOOZE’ on their teasmade.

And why? I have no answer. It doesn’t really matter: none of it does. Nobody ultimately cares how I do, or what time I drag my carcass across the finish line. I used to think that it matters, and that it proved something about who I was, and who I could be. But it doesn’t. Successes are fleeting. They’re like the yellow marzipan around a Battenberg: a nice-to-have. Would you still enjoy the pink and yellow sponge cake squares without the yellow marzipan encasement? Yes, you would. Or I would, at least.

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A loss of form, however, separates the ego from the true self. It strips away the protective marzipan comfort of glory, and the pseudo almondy mask of acknowledgement. Injury; illness; life events. Any one of them can suddenly derail even the most cock-sure of egos, and have it tumble from the gilded perch on which it has merrily swung.

Q: What’s left then?

A: The pink and yellow sponge cake squares.

I woke on the Bank Holiday Monday having thoroughly processed and digested my ‘who am I?’ Battenberg analogy (I can only apologise for inadvertently stumbling across this clumsy pun.) I’d slept, and I’d slept well. PHEW! This was a good start. No heart racing, no palpitations, and no reaching for the proverbial mushroom bag. It’s all under control, Rach. And it was.

Resting heart rate: 54.

Kit on, bags packed, myself and the other half of me, commonly known as ‘Gav Dodd Fax’, headed out under a heavy sky in the direction of Ilkley. ‘I don’t feel nervous, Gav. Do you?’ I ventured.

‘No, not a bit,’ he replied. And he meant it.

‘But I don’t feel anything! No butterflies, no adrenalin, no tension. No nothing! I slept like a baby and haven’t taken to grinding my teeth, or cleaning out the fridge at 6am. It feels strange, that’s all.’ I continued, talking to myself as much as I was to him.

‘It’s the furthest we’ve run in months, Rach’ he replied matter-of-factly in his pre-8am tired tone, ‘And we’re only just starting to build our fitness back up. What can we expect?’

He was right.

We were – true to form – a good hour too early on arrival at the Ilkley Lido. With the heated seats on low, I slurped the remnants of cold coffee from my favourite Heisenberg travel mug, whilst Gav took half a dozen attempts to pin a small square of paper onto the front of a vest. It felt like coming home.

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Do these look like faces that could give a fat rascal?

‘Are you feeling nervous yet, Gav?’ I asked, as he stabbed his thumb yet again with a pin.

‘Nope. Not at all,’ he replied, shortly followed by, ‘is my number straight?’

And then the already slate-grey heavens must have remembered that it was a national Bank Holiday, and so began to spew relentlessly. For fuck’s sake.

‘I guess we’d better warm up, then’ we appeared to say in unison as the car clock nonchalantly indicated that it was a quarter past the hour.

Once our trainers had been replaced by the more unfamiliar off-roadies, we stepped out into the incessant shower pouring from a monochrome sky, and began to jog – no, hobble – up the grassy banking towards the start of the race. We continued slowly up the offensive hill in some kind of torturous pre-race dress rehearsal of what was about to come.

It’s quite possibly the worst start to any race. A measly hundred metres of flat followed by up, up, and then some more up.

‘Jesus, Gav. I’m fucked.’ I panted, stopping my pathetic attempt at a warm-up jog only a quarter of the way up the offensive hill, and stared at him, blankly. ‘And this is just the warm up!’ I could tell from his expression that my words echoed his exact thoughts.

Back down at the start line, we hung around at the back like a pair of shy teenagers trying to smoke menthols behind the bike sheds. ‘Start off slowly, Rach. And remember – it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.’

He was right.

We set off slowly, as Gav suggested, towards the back of the pack. My legs relaxed thanks to the entire absence of any pressure, and they took off slowly up the hillside. Steadily inching past a fair number of runners, they made it to the top. What had seemed incredulous whilst tottering about on our anxiety-inducing warm up was – in fact – perfectly feasible. My legs handled it: they were (just about) up to the job.  The climb continued, and – unbelievably – my legs were still turning over. A couple of miles in, and I’d pulled ahead. But lack of racing fitness kicked in, and I took the opportunity to pull over and wait for my Gav Dodd Fax who was sticking to his guns and approaching at a consistent, steady pace. I was thankful for the rest.

I’ll spare you the minutiae: I stopped a bit, and I started again. I felt temporarily beaten, and then mildly triumphant for fighting back. The rain was cold and cleansing, washing away any worries about performance, PBs or lack of form. I’m here, and I’m back running… No, I’m back RACING! Only racing in a different way. Free from heaviness and pressure; stress and worry. Racing on my terms, and running as well – or not – as my body could, on this day, today.

Crossing the finish line I was 5 minutes slower than the last time I’d tackled the very same beast back in 2015, when – entirely without injury, illness, life event or force majeure – I was happily swinging away on my merry little perch. But I didn’t care. I’d happily nibble on the pink and yellow sponge cake squares – minus the (admittedly delicious) yellow marzipan. Today, I was grateful for the squares.

Gav came over the line shortly afterwards, visibility having been an issue whilst having no wipers on his face furniture.

‘Bloody hell, that was tough, wasn’t it?’ he said, attempting to peer through his now entirely opaque spectacles.

‘No shit it was. Do you fancy going to Betty’s for a Fat Rascal?’

They don’t sell Battenberg.

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*not really

**hashtag smiley face

Keeping the faith: The Bastard Chimp of Anxiety comes to Parkrun

If only it were as easy as Jon Bon Jovi purported it to be back in 1992, when I used to listen through my crackly Walkman headphones how he had suffered for his anger and there were wars that couldn’t be won. Shit, I thought to myself whilst screeching tunelessly along to the ruggedly sexy New Jersey-born soft rocker: he must have been through a really tough time – although when I saw him perform live that same year, he did look to have been melted down and poured into his canary yellow leather pants, so maybe that was the catalyst for his angst? (I wore elasticated waist jeans: it was a much easier option.)

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What a spectacular metallic number. Crown jewels, you say?

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

Saturday morning was looming once again, and I’d made the same mental bargaining with myself as the previous weekend:

Get up (early),

Go to Parkrun,

Run my arse off,

Recover,

Come home – entirely thankful for it to be over – and resume normal activities.

So what? What’s the big deal about that? Thousands of people up and down the land – and far beyond this egocentric little rock – turn up to Parkrun every Saturday morning. Vast armies of fantastic folk push their backsides out the front door and challenge themselves, seeing where personal limits can be thrashed, bashed and smashed week, after week, after week.

I’m no different.

I woke several times during Friday night riddled with fearful, anxious, stomach-churning thoughts. I was terrified. What if I can’t do it? What if I’m shit?

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What if I have NOTHING to bring to the kick-ass PB-chasing party? What if all I can do is to get myself around the godforsaken 5k course?

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Where have I gone? Why am I panic-stricken about a bloody Parkrun? And why am I eating bourbons at 4am?

 Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

6.30am came, and I woke to the sound of birds having a brawl outside my bedroom window like two drunken youths having been kicked out of a nightclub in the early hours scrapping over a kebab.

Tiredness from my broken sleep meant that my eyes took longer than normal to focus. I wasn’t even sure they were looking in the same direction, or at the same time. My bleary-eyes clocked and eventually focused on the small pile of shorts / vest / socks laid out neatly on the chair and I knew – there was no way out. Fucking hell.

‘Right. I’m heading off, Gav,‘ I declared, after creeping about the house at some ungodly hour doing goodness-knows-what for an indecipherable length of time. I looked at my watch with my heavy, unfocused bog-eyes. It was Saturday morning. The time? 7.30am.

I pulled up into the entirely desolate Oakwell Hall Parkrun carpark. It was 8.10am (only 50 minutes early, then.) There were no marshals, no hi-vis vests, no runners, and no other overly-anxious, bleary-eyed nervous freaks anywhere to be seen. Just me, sitting in my car having audible heart palpitations whilst playing Pet Shop Boys greatest hits on repeat. Fast forward half an hour, and it would be a very different scene. The place would be swarming with hi-vis race marshals, regulars adorned in ‘I’ve completed 50 Parkruns!’ apricot T-shirts, and little old me, going nowhere other than pacing around in ever-decreasing circles wondering how I could tame the Bastard Chimp of Anxiety who’d accompanied me to Oakwell Hall Parkrun.

Once all of the above crew had arrived and were predictably swirling around the carpark in small, high-visibility clumps, I decided to head out of my car for a token gesture warm-up.

Oh fuck. My legs feel stiff like two bread sticks left out on the side overnight. They won’t bend. How can I do this?

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

After congratulating Betty for her 50th birthday, and Ken for his 100th Parkrun (‘There’s CAKE afterwards, Parkrunners!’) one final nervous gulp and we were off. My stale breadstick legs powered off up the slightly uphill start, and – unlike last week – I managed to overtake the offensively fit nine-year-old boy who was (thankfully) too young to appreciate how crippled with anxiety this bog-eyed lady running next to him had been only moments earlier.

The first mile was fast: too fast. As the course undulates around the beautiful – if challenging – Oakwell Hall grounds, it turns into a series of mini obstacles. Sharp corners force a sudden drop in pace, as does slaloming down a descending-level zigzag path. The faster downhill section is loose under foot, and is only too soon replaced by a gravelly uphill pull. Once at the top, the sinking reality of facing it twice suddenly seems daunting.

Halfway round the second lap and the classic nauseating 5k sensations rose in my throat, accompanied by burning in my chest, as though if I breathed out hard enough flames would shoot out of my mouth like Zog, the accident-prone dragon.*

Shit. I can’t do this. It’s 5k and I can’t do it. How can I not do this? Why is this so fucking hard? I pulled over for a millisecond as the Bastard Inner Chimp of Doom temporarily beat me, and I willed the entire thing to be over… But, I CAN do this. I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I CAN finish this. Fuck the time. Fuck the outcome. I’m trying my bastard best, and I can finish this. I’ve done MARATHONS that have felt easier than this.

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

As I began to run again, I felt the anxiety, the fear, and all the other entirely disproportionate and melodramatic nervous chatter disappear as I focused only on getting myself over the finish line. Despite the temporary ‘blip’ which caused me to pull over in discomfort and despair, I beat the chimp. Coming 12th overall, I was the 1st lady over the finish line, and I beat my time from the previous week by 20 seconds.

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But the real victory came in wrestling with my own anxiety, pinning it down in some Hulk Hogan-style** headlock making it squirm and thrash around whilst I raised one arm to the crowd, shouting ‘EAT DIRT, LOSER!’ to my ungracious opponent.

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Victory ride on the ram

You see, the Bastard Chimp of Fear can – and does – accompany all runners, at all stages, over all distances, and at all levels. It came along for the ride with me on Saturday morning, and almost chundered all over my trainers (and no doubt it will do so again, and again after that.)

But the comforting words of my favourite 1990s soft rock band came back to save me:

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

*A reference perhaps only familiar to parents running away from young children. It’s worth a read even without kids, to be fair.

**Yes, I was a teenager of the early ‘90s… I also have no idea what kind of insult would have been appropriate in 1990s professional wrestling circles.

Getting back on the horse: Well, riding along on a donkey…

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in bed with a cup of tea and a cluster of custard creams (is there a collective noun for custard creams?) after completing my first Parkrun in over 4 months.

When the wheels fell so spectacularly off my running at the beginning of this year, I knew that I’d gone from a Volvo S60 (nothing too flashy, but extremely good economy and a decent performer) to cruising around town in a Flintstone-mobile. It happened, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. So, I decided to take my arguably small-fry, mini dollop of adversity and turn it into a positive: I decided to Get a Life. I could barely remember what else I did other than running. Where do I go? What do I do? And… why?

And here’s how I went about proving to myself that there was a life for me over and above the endless miles trudging up and down the valley and gearing up for A N Other race for the already over-trained-yet-in-denial runner that I had somehow morphed into.

  • Becoming sociable (within reason.)

Do you fancy coming for a walk sometime, Rach? Normally, my answer would have been ‘Oh, erm I’d love to (gulps hard), but… [cue list of endless excuses]’ Running was my priority. If I wasn’t racing I would be chasing miles on Strava and simply unable to excuse myself from any given opportunity to thrash my own arse. So, I would politely decline such invitations. Friends? Who needs those? I’ve got my trainers, and my race medals. Hmmmm…

  • Being brave (i.e. doing things I know I’m shit at.)

Right, Gav. I’m off out on my bike.’ Really? Really? My inner bastard chimp (“IBC”) would bleat. But you’re shit on a bike! And not even just a little bit shit. You’re absolutely shit! You can’t take one hand off the handlebars to indicate, and have no traffic awareness whatsoever. You’ve fallen off at a roundabout before, narrowly missing a Nissan Micra. Are you even safe to be on the roads?

And IBC is right: I am thoroughly shit on two wheels. But if you take my four-wheel-luxury Volvo S60 away from me, then of course I’ll take two shit wheels over a Flintstone-mobile.

But wait…

Can I cycle half a mile uphill from my house and remember how to change gear without falling down a pot hole?

Turns out that I can.

Can I navigate my way down the main road and avoid getting flattened by passing a heavy hauler?

Unbelievably – as it happens – I can do that, too.

Can I RIDE to my mum’s instead of driving over there, successfully traversing the nasty little cobbled bridge crossing the canal?

Against the convincing protests of my IBC, Yes…Yes! – I bloody well can!

  • Experimenting

I’ve already written about my aqua running exploits, and my experience of jogging in the deep end of the pool wearing a ‘special belt’ whilst old ladies float about, gazing at me with a combined look of pity and intrigue. It’s character building stuff.

There’s a water aerobics class on a Monday evening, love, if you’d be interested?’ one kind OAP suggested as I ran like fuck whilst going absolutely nowhere in Sowerby Bridge pool.

‘Ahh, thanks! I might give that a go!’ was my enthusiastic reply: the truth of the matter being that I’d rather drink the entire contents of the overly-chlorinated pool through a straw.

  • Doing more of what I love

YOGA YOGA YOGA! Yoga has nurtured me when nothing else could. It has calmed my mind when the IBC threatened to run rampant like a ferocious case of foot & mouth disease amongst otherwise happy livestock. And it has strengthened my body: not in some kick-ass high dramatic display of epic proportions, but in an intelligent, and mindful* way.

*Both of these may be buzz words for ‘Fitness Bullshit Bingo’, but they’re true, nonetheless.

  • Setting *new* goals… other than [the next] half marathon (my default race distance of choice.)

Fancy the Three Yorkshire Peaks in June, Gav? We could walk / run / hobble / clamber / trudge / slide it?’

You see, we don’t need to run it. We can hike. We can walk. YES, WALK! And still experience something amazing, in a beautiful part of the world. IT IS POSSIBLE!

And so, all of the above things have brought with them many brilliant, funny, beautiful – and at times, entirely unexpected – experiences. They have enriched my life. I’ve made new friends; I’ve discovered new ‘fun’; I’ve found my balls, and I’ve discovered that I am – in fact – enjoying the journey. Hell, I even managed to navigate my mental state through the #VLM2017 preamble and race day whilst not even being tempted to go and lock myself away in my car and lick the windows in a solitary protest of self-pity. I succeeded in NOT GIVING A SHIT about being unable to take part in this year’s VLM. I’ve had some amazing experiences crossing that finishing line, but this year, others needed to experience it – it simply wasn’t my turn.

But now, like an ex-boyfriend from 1992, running is lurking around the corner again, throwing stones up at my bedroom window and asking me if I want to go down the park. It’s said ‘sorry’ for dumping me so rudely and abruptly. It thinks we can make it work. Initially, I gave it the V’s and pulled my bedroom curtains shut, but it’s since written me a little love letter and has posted it through the front door: I still really like you, Rach. Can’t we just go out a few times and see what happens? I’ll be at the park if you want to come down.

Well, today I skulked down to the park in my hooded top and dungarees, armed with my skateboard. I turned up at the Oakwell Hall Parkrun. I smiled nervously at the equivalent of my teenage ex, and he – kind of – smiled back.

‘I’m sorry’ he mumbled, as I willed myself through 5km of hard work.

I felt awful. Cumbersome and heavy-legged, with breathing to match. Are my Achilles hurting? I couldn’t tell. I wondered if I did still want to do this. ‘Great pace!’ some nice bloke shouted as I ran past him. ‘Good lass. Keep it up!’ another one yelled. ‘Third lady! KEEP GOING!’ a ridiculously over-excited marshal bellowed as I dragged my tired self around the twisty-turny Parkrun course.

And then, I knew. Yes – I can do this again. I can learn how to do this again. I WILL learn how to do this again, because – as much as all the other stuff has enriched my life – I still love running. My 1992 boyfriend is back.

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So, I guess I’m officially ‘back on the horse’ Although, to be fair, it felt more like riding a donkey through the streets of Nazareth, today.