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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

 

There’s a party in Limassol… but you’re not invited.

THURSDAY

We’re on the plane to Limassol. We are supposed to be running the Limassol half marathon on Sunday – but we’re not. Because I can’t run.

Last week, we emailed the organisers and asked if we could swap events to the 10k race. In this ever-changing sea of ‘revising my expectations’ (the word ‘revising’ being a handy euphemism for ‘lowering’), our thinking is that there is infinitely more likelihood of my running 10k (6.2 miles) than 21k (13.1 of the bastards.) This seems to be a reasonable conclusion to make, and, in line with the constant requirement for me to ‘revise my expectations’*, notice that the simple completion of said distance would be some achievement at this moment in time. We’re no longer discussing ‘going for a time’ (it was only 3 months ago that I achieved my 10k PB of 42.11. A lot can happen in 12 weeks.)

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All set for the race then? Erm, nope.

I’ve already processed as many thoughts as it’s possible to process around the why’s and how’s and the other myriad questions I have surrounding my inescapable and irrefutable loss of running. I’ve asked all the questions, and I’ve cried in frustration at the apparent lack of answers. I have none.

Did I push myself too hard, too soon, for too long? Yes, I did.

Did I balance my running with other activities to strengthen and support my body in allowing progressive overreaching, and yet prevent overtraining? No. Not really. Or at all, actually.

Did I rest adequately, making an effort to refuel properly after hard training sessions and races? No. I didn’t.

Did I race too much? Yes, I did.

Did running feed my demanding and incessant egotistical bastard inner chimp as it bounced up and down in front of me shouting “You’re still not good enough, or fast enough, or just… enough! TRY HARDER,” Yes. It did.

Did I manage to tame the bastard chimp as it bullied me into bashing out more miles and races than my body wanted to run? No. I didn’t.

The chimp won.

Is this the result? Yes. I’m pretty sure that it is.

So now, as I sit here in my airplane seat, my legs fizzing with unexplained, endless aches, I am on my way to a race that I can’t run.

Two guys sitting behind us are (purportedly) discussing all things running / training related. They’ve been talking shit whilst barely pausing for breath for the best part of two hours. Me and Gav sit with our headphone on. We’re not arsed about listening to music, only drowning out the dulcet Mancunian tones of Arsewipe in the row behind who’s intent on telling the entire plane about his *expert tips* for treadmill running. Except no one – including his poor travelling companion I would hazard a guess – gives even a tiny bit of a shit. I feel like telling him.

As we walked through the airport earlier today, I had flashbacks to some of our previous running adventures.

  • Exploring Barcelona on broken legs the week after the Yorkshire Marathon in 2014 after a dream race and probably my greatest ever personal running achievement (after achieving a marathon PB of 3:16, we ran over 50 miles across Barcelona in the subsequent days. I ran on legs made of glass. How did I do that? I have no idea.)
  • Running up hills in Font Romeu with ease on the best birthday I’ve ever had; discovering the Paula Radcliffe trail, and exploring 5k flat routes around Lake Matemale; spotting Mo Farah and watching him fly round the otherwise empty track at the Altitude Training Centre; Sitting down to watch him chat to Gav whilst inhaling an obscene Danish pastry (we had just run 12 miles…)
  • Our 6 x half mile nauseating speed sets along the sea front in Mallorca, and the time Gav took the girls on a bus whilst I set off running alongside like a bat out of hell, to the fascination / amusement of the other passengers. “Is she really running into Porta Pollenca?” A mystified lady asked Gav. “ Yes she is,” he replied. It wasn’t a big deal at the time – only a part of mine – and our – normality. We just run: we just ran.
  • Taking on the Dubai Marathon last January, and its endless highways. Still precisely how we managed it after a long-haul flight and a 2.30am get-up escapes me, but we did, and we emerged victorious over the 26.2 miles, whilst running under what felt like a repressive heat lamp with a dodgy thermostat.

They have all been a part of our running adventures. And yet, here we are on the plane to Limassol and I don’t even know if I can run anywhere, over any distance. Let alone enjoy it. And I continue to ask myself, how? And why? The tape begins to whirr yet again with the questions listed above. It’s on ‘random shuffle’ at least, which makes it marginally less mind numbing than it would otherwise be.

How will I cope? What will I do? How will I feel? What will this next few days be like? Why am I so melodramatic and egotistical? But why does it feel so real, and like something has been taken from me that I want back? How will Gav put up with me? Will I ruin his break? Will he wish we were running when I can only walk along like some youthful pensioner, ambling along the front without purpose? What about the hotel? Will it be swarming with keen, excitable marathon runners? Will they ask if we’re running on Sunday, and how can I respond without emotional trauma or flat-lining as though I’m a shell of a person who should have been there at the party, but wasn’t invited to this one?

 Will we walk for miles? Will we cross train? Will the gym feel like some soulless pit that I have to crawl in to execute my cardiovascular training, whilst my heart pines to be outside, running by the sea? Will I spontaneously combust into frustrated tears on the sad recumbent bike, or will I feel happy that I’ve done SOME training, at least?

 I simply don’t know. I’m becoming increasingly familiar with not knowing…

***

FRIDAY

WE’VE WOKEN UP IN 1985. WHERE’S DOC? MARTY?

The place is a shit hole – I won’t lie. We discuss how it feels like we’re on board The Love Boat from 1988. People are wearing shell suits. I look up and see what I believe to be ‘Minge Topless Bar’ across the street, but the swirly, neon letters don’t quite work and it actually says ‘Mirage.’ Minge works far better.

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That’s a big nut your beaver’s holding.

We set off walking, and chatting. ‘Let’s walk a mile, then run a mile,’ Gav sensibly suggests, after we’ve allowed our eyes to adjust from BEIGE BLINDNESS.

‘Ok, but I can’t promise I can even ‘run’ for a mile,’ I respond, like a broken record. Every time I’ve tried to run over the past eight weeks it’s felt like my legs could burst into flames, my Achilles pop, and both calf muscles roll up to my knees like overly-keen kitchen blinds. ‘But I’ll try…’ I say, DESPERATE not to be in this state.

After a mile of walking and talking (mainly about the Minge bar), and having counted at least 35 diseased cats all slinking around the 1980s Love Boat set, we begin to jog. Not run – that’s too strong a word. We jog. I’m talking ten-minute-miles *no offence intended. It’s all relative…

One mile comes to an end, and I am a) (relatively) pleased to have completed one single, measly mile; and b) even more pleased to have stopped jogging.

We walk and talk again. ‘Why does the sand look like a badly tarmacked car-park?’ we ponder. A second mile commences, and – again – we jog. At the very least my legs will allow me this concession. They wouldn’t let me run 50 metres only a few weeks ago, at the sea front in St. Anne’s. Maybe they feel happier out here in the 80s?

This time, they feel slightly free-er, as though some clamp has been marginally loosened. For the first time in eight weeks I feel as though my body isn’t battling with me. GAV! MY LEGS ARE FEELING A BIT… LIGHTER… THEY’RE LETTING ME RUN! I shout to him, as I feel my pace pick up to more of a trot and less of a hobble.

‘That’s ACE, Rach!’ He shouts back, ‘But you’re still stopping after this mile.’

 He’s right. I can’t get giddy about it.

When will I be back? I simply don’t know. I’m becoming increasingly familiar with not knowing…

*and in line with my constant revising of expectations, I decide I’m unable to put myself in to Sunday’s 10k race without risking further injury.

 So, we’ve walked over 25 miles over the past two days, mainly tracksuit-spotting instead. It’s been ace.

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***

SUNDAY

It’s race day. Real-life heroes will be waking up offensively early in this 1980s Minge Topless Bar sunshine resort to carb-load before their monumental efforts. We’ve had a lovely few days, and my inner bastard chimp has finally been put in his box. I’m now excited at the prospect of going and supporting the runners racing today.

Feeling eternally grateful that our alarms didn’t need to be set for a 5:30am start, we head out onto the course. There is no sign of any marathon happening from where we are, only a distinct absence of the usual stream of endless traffic, and a few water stations dotted around with enough water to supply, well, perhaps thirteen runners, not the 13,000 as it’s claimed are in today’s race. ‘Have we got the right day, Gav?’ I ask him, as we begin to walk away from our hotel and in the direction of the race epicentre. To be fair, we are located some distance from the hub of the action, but still – where is everybody?

A few miles of ambling along, past the jubilant youths manning the pop-up mini water stations, and we see the turnaround point for the half marathon. Brilliant! Here’s where the action is! There are runners! It’s all happening down here! But this is also the place where those tackling the full marathon break away and head out along the long, lonely road to a place where the only supporters will be… themselves – and me & Gav, apparently.

 We stand at the half-marathon turnaround point and WHOOP! as the first two men approach the clumsily-placed cones. They shout and hold their hands up at the officials, clearly unsure where to go. Have these two elite Kenyan men really just had to weave their way through the packed field of half marathon runners? They are LEADING in a full marathon race!

We can’t believe it.

The marshalls are just standing around. They don’t clap, or cheer, or whoop! They are about to move the cones and allow a small car to drive through the half marathon course full of runners just because they shouted enough obscenities.

We can’t believe it.

A third male runner approaches and we WHOOP! again. He is not a Kenyan, and is some way behind the leading two men. He motors on at a terrifying pace and out to the lonely part of the marathon course. He is very much on his own. Some while later he is still in THIRD PLACE as he returns to the marshalled area on his way back in. We whoop! again. But wait! One of the marshalls shouts at him, angrily. He stupidly thinks this guy is a very average marathon runner who has turned at the cones by mistake (taking the half-marathon route, when in fact he should have continued on the full marathon course.) He shouts back to the ignorant official. THIS GUY IS IN THIRD PLACE IN A FULL MARATHON! Me and Gav are speechless.

We can’t believe what we’ve just seen.

We see some runners we kind-of recognise from the virtual world of Twitter. My hands ache from clapping, but I don’t want to stop. Every single runner deserves those claps and whoops! For some, unknown reason, I have been hollering ‘Allez, ALLEZ!’ to runners as they go past. I have no idea why. Gav laughs at me. I can tell that for some folk, our excitable whoop-ing and numbing hand-claps matter. They make a difference. And so I keep on clapping and whooping.

After an hour and a half, we start to amble back towards our hotel. We’re still whoop-ing and clapping, only we’ve called in at an off-licence and both now have the most ridiculously large Cornettoes. It feels offensive to draw attention to this fact whilst runners are going through some of the most painful, desolate marathon miles.

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I’ll swap my Cornetto for your pain… No, seriously.

But I’d swap places with them. I’d trade my XXL Cornetto for their pain in a second.

I feel myself go quiet, and I turn to Gav. ‘Do you think I’ll ever be back, Gav?’ I ask him, like some insecure child seeking reassurance. ‘OF COURSE you will, Rach! You’ll be back stronger than ever!’ he replies.

I smile at him, but I simply don’t know the answer myself. I’m becoming increasingly familiar with not knowing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Injured Runner’s Non-Running Diary … Rest Days ROCK!!

Fri 24th Feb – Rest Days ROCK!!

Today is a ‘rest day’ in the traditional sense. I have no structured activities planned, and instead have an entire day to spend with Mini Me. And I’m excited about it.

I make our days together as active as possible. I’m heading over to her Dad’s on the train early this morning, and taking her for breakfast in our favourite Hebden Bridge café. We love walking together. Even little jaunts from his house to the café, then on to the train station. We love the fresh air and the feeling of movement. Her little legs have been used to walking perhaps further than is entirely normal ever since she was three, when I would power-walk up the hill to collect her from pre-school, and we would amble the mile and a half back down, sometimes stopping on a bench to have a sandwich or read part of a story book. Her legs grew strong, and three years later she can now walk for miles without fuss or fanfare (not to mention Junior Parkrun – we’re on #31 and heading towards her Ultra Marathon Band :-D)

We chat in the café as she waits patiently for her fruit toast. One of her front teeth came out whilst she was at her Grandma’s. She looks like a cross between an angel and Steptoe. She grins at me, poking her tongue through the new gap. ‘I can fit a straw through this, Mum!’ she giggles to herself.

My beautifully prepared flat white has a heart shape in the foam, and I smile as every cell in my body floods with warmth. I feel happy… REST DAYS ROCK!!

Ahh, that’s great, Rach. It’s lovely and sweet and every other sycophantic sentiment felt by most mothers most of the time, but what’s any of this got to do with running / not running?

I hear you. And it’s a funny, because it feels as though now running has been forced to shrink back to fill a smaller place in my heart, there is more room for other joys to come flooding back in. I’m noticing that my enjoyment and appreciation of other things, people, and experiences is growing. I’m feeling grateful for them – and I’m feeling happier. My days are filled with other lovely things that my head and my heart now have the space to appreciate. I’ve found this happening a lot over the last month. Tiny, insignificant things I’m beginning to notice. Perhaps before, I was either focusing on my ‘next’ run/race, or still pondering the last one. Maybe I was caught in the ‘What’s happening on Strava’ bandwagon instead of enjoying a simple walk with my Angelic Steptoe. But all these things are coming to me, and I feel them as strongly as the taste of ground coffee beans in my flat white. Why has it taken this for me to see it?

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We enjoy our train journey and have a mini adventure getting home. I’m having a quick flick through The Metro whilst she sucks on a foam banana penny sweet at Hebden Bridge station. I’m not one for reading my stars, but I glance at mine for today. ‘An activity that had seemed stable may not be. Having poured energy into a key goal, you could feel your efforts might come to nothing but it may simply be time for a rethink as new options could unlock a fresh door for you.’ CRIKEY. Bloody hell! I take a picture of the small paragraph and send it through to Gav. ‘You’re not reading your stars, are you! HA HA HA’ is his reply.

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Hmmm… I ponder for a moment: I wonder if the message is there. It could have been WRITTEN for me; about me. Running was my activity that seemed stable; the #vlm2017 WAS my key goal. Both of those have now gone to shit, so maybe I need to rethink my options? Maybe I already am? I get Gav’s point about the horoscopes, though. ‘You may or may not come into money, and a relative may or may not let you down…’ THAT’S MOST PEOPLE, MOST DAYS!

I put the paper down and remind myself that Russell Grant isn’t in fact the next Messiah.

Anyway, me & Tills have a full day planned, including bike rides, farm shops & baking.

Rest days ROCK!!

 *** 

Tues 28th FebThe Magic of Yoga

I’m not sure if my mind is adapting to not running, or my body is enjoying the change (I would say ‘rest’ but that isn’t strictly true), or a bit of both, but something inside me appears to have given up the fight. Not in terms of not wanting to run (I always will), but perhaps simply not wanting to run right now. As if my body knows it’s not meant to be doing that. Perhaps the change of routine is suiting me, and I’m enjoying the newness of my cross-training activities, and both my body and my mind are now convinced that, Hey, you’re right! There ARE other things we can do! And these things feel good, challenging and interesting! I’m beginning to believe that is the case. Something is feeling far more positive and beneficial in my new regime than it was before – perhaps even prior to the ‘leg issue’. Had my running become stale? Was my body tired of it long before my mind realised, and joined in the party? Did I simply ignore the signs? (I know I’ve done this – arguably quite successfully – many, many times.) Anyway, I’m on a new course – following a new route map, and it feels good. Well, TODAY it feels good, anyway.

 I go and wait upstairs about ten minutes before my yoga class, and take my usual spot on the virtually floor-level windowsill overlooking the canal. I feel happy. One of Lianne’s regulars turns up and comes to sit with me. I find myself more open to a bit of mindless chatter than normal, and we discuss how a change of routine is sometimes exactly what we need.

‘I honestly don’t think I’m missing running just now,’ I tell beautiful curly-haired lady. But am I instead telling myself? ‘I’m really enjoying doing some cross training and getting back into yoga,’ I continue. She tells me that things became a bit stale for her, and that she’d become too regimented about the classes she goes to. ‘I’m enjoying mixing it up a bit, too,’ she replies, smiling. I feel happy that I’m in a more sociable mood. What has lifted my spirits? Would I feel like this if I’d been out running – or trying to – today? I can’t help but think not. I’d have felt dejected, heavy-legged and burdensome. Instead, I feel free and light and – well – happy!

Another one of Lianne’s regulars turns up and joins in our pre-class banter. She’s a fitness addict herself, and I know that she completely understands my running. I’ve seen more of her just recently with attending almost every yoga class that I can shoehorn into my diary. It’s been nice to have some human interaction. It’s good for me, and – I’m even enjoying the occasional banal chit chat.

The curly-haired lady interjects our conversation. We somehow get onto the subject of weddings. ‘Did I hear somewhere that you’re running a marathon for your honeymoon?’ she asks. It takes me back a little, and my ego feels slightly flattered, but then she qualifies it. ‘I just overheard you chatting with one of the other ladies – Debbie – I think it was, last week. Maybe that’s where I heard it?’ I tell her about our (ambitious) plans to run the very first Tanzanian marathon in October for our honeymoon. ‘That’s if I’m even ABLE to run, by then.’ I gulp as I struggle to comprehend my statement. HOW will I get there, from where I am, right now?

During the yoga class, I feel strong. I know I feel strong. My body works hard holding the poses, it straightens itself up and lengthens otherwise limp, unused muscles. This is EXACTLY what my body needs! I think to myself. I feel the moves filling me with strength as I breathe in, and then back out again with focus. I’m getting used to the effort. The moves are as easy or as hard as you make them. I try hard (no shit). I think about the areas I’m working. I feel the contraction in the muscles in my upper back. Prior to this current circumstance, when was the last time I even gave a shit about my back, or my core strength? I look at my arms in the mirror as I work to hold them taught and long, pushing my fingertips away from my body. I can see definition. SINCE WHEN! Really, since WHEN do I even HAVE any muscles in my arms? But now, I do. And I love the feeling.

On the downsize, I am still mithered by my runners’ legs. My hamstrings are so overdeveloped that I struggle to straighten them for certain moves. They shake like a shitting dog when I push them into a ‘flatter’ line. I look around the room. 9/10 of the class aren’t having such difficulties. This is a by-product of the years of hammering mileage. Stretching wasn’t for me. I knew better. Hmmmm. Lianne looks over and gives me a wry smile after the worst of the hamstring tracks. I lie back on my mat and sigh with the effort I’ve put in to even attempt the moves. It has exhausted me. And she knows it.

The relaxation at the end of the class comes like a cold beer after a hard day. It is soothing, relaxing, and makes me convinced – if I wasn’t already – that this class is sent to touch the parts that others just can’t reach. I always say ‘thankyou’ in my relaxation. I don’t try to – it just comes naturally. I am always thankful to be there, and to have that moment. It feels like a gift. Every time.

Thanks, Lianne,’ I say, once we’re all back in the room and no longer in our zen-like state. I never leave without thanking her, but I’m not sure she understands how grateful I am to her. She is like a serene, spiritual, Amazonian warrior who has descended on Sowerby Bridge to make it a happier place. I am so thankful that she’s been plopped here, with us.

Thank you, thank you ,thank you.

 [LATER] I still feel entirely light-hearted, and it’s now 4pm. Normally, I’m a right grumpy bastard by now. Yoga must actually work miracles. It’s official.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

Goodbye, #VLM2017, hello recovery…

It’s five weeks since I’ve been able to run.

I’ve only just acknowledged that I will have to pull out of this year’s Virgin London Marathon, and I’m clinging onto my sanity whilst the waves continually try to bash me from the rock face. And I’m keeping a diary: a diary of my rehab, my recovery, and the lessons I’m learning about myself as I wade through this mire. In the big scheme of things, it’s no biggie. People have real problems. But the thing is, running has been my Prozac, my therapy, my lifeline, my sanity, my solace, my friend, my quiet time, my escape route, my place-to-go, and my default setting for some six years now. I’ve written a book about it, don’t you know? ‘Running for my Life’ will be published in Jan ’18.

How ironic then, that for however long (and I honestly have no idea) – I can’t run. My body won’t let me. It’s a painful experience. I feel vulnerable; insecure; not quite right; off-kilter. I feel like a piece of me has – if not died – then been put into a deep coma. That piece of me brought me joy. And I want it back.

So what am I going to do with all of this? Am I going to wallow and wilt whilst sobbing on my sofa eating Pringles? (*yes, probably… I jest.) I’ve cried irrational, melodramatic tears. I’ve spontaneously combusted at the frustration of my running being taken from me without explanation; without cause (well, this isn’t entirely true… #overtraining)

I love running. I love MY running. It pulsates through my being and makes me feel alive. But this is a journey that I am going to learn from. This is one that – despite my tears of frustration, my ‘Tilly, you’ll have to help me to run Junior Parkrun today, because I don’t think I can run 2k’ pleas to my six-year-old daughter – I need to turn into something strong and positive; something that I can use to grow and build from, and as a fuel to propel me rocket-like into the next phase of my running life.

I am learning; I am evolving; I am trying. And I am going to share some of my daily diary entries of both my progress, and my setbacks. Some days I feel mentally strong and defiant. Others, I feel like at the slightest nudge, I could crumble into a pit of mental health woes and outrageously disproportionate fears.

All of this is now a part of my journey, and my reality. And at the very least, I can share the ride…

Thanks for your company. Hold on tight!

 Mon 13th Feb

I’ve been fixated on reading Amelia Boone’s blog ‘When it all comes crashing down’ and her subsequent recovery from no less than TWO fractures in her femur (the strongest bone in the body) whilst at the very peak of her elite obstacle racing career. In my own mini, pathetic soap opera of a personal disaster, it’s helped knowing that someone else has been hit a hundred times harder, has fallen from a far greater platform, and has managed to pick up the pieces from a broken heart of shattered racing dreams. It is possible. And here I am, with a slight niggle to my calf (plus permanently dead legs) from which I am – at times – inconsolable.

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Thanks for the hint, Amelia. Loving this book…

Today was bad. I did my rehab – first session at 6.15am whilst the rest of the house slept, and I was barely awake enough to work out my left from my right. Hoping beyond hope that what I was doing wasn’t entirely pointless, I gave it another shot whilst on my usual lunchtime gym visit at work.

But my BIG goal for today was to run… TWO MILES. Engineering logistics in place to make the whole debacle feasible, Gav duly collected Mini Me and her last remaining Chicken Pox scabs from school, whilst I planned to park up in Copley village next to the canal. I’d get changed surreptitiously whilst in the driver’s seat, making every effort not to reveal all to innocent passers-by, and head off one mile out, and one mile back. Sounded easy. Fucking hell, how hard can that be?

I parked up and was soon swamped by School Mums walking past my car pushing prams, whilst I sat in my pants, wrestling myself into SKINS. Others sat waiting for talented & gifted offspring in the comfort of their 4x4s. I deliberately avoided eye contact.

A few contortions later and I was ready to run. Nerves were building as I asked myself, ‘Am I ready for this? Is my leg ready?’ In my gut, I already knew the answer.

I set off. My left leg struggled to push itself off the ground, the right one having to do what it could to mitigate for its distinct lack of effort. Every step was laboured; the pain in my left calf now precisely that – no confusion with tightness.

Back at my car, I wept. ‘I think my running is over, Gav’ I sent him by Whatsapp, as I sobbed in solitude at the wheel. ‘Don’t be silly, Rach. You’re catastrophizing again. You know that…’ he replied, being as rational as he could without sounding offensive.

I knew I was being melodramatic, emotional, and lacking any sense of logical reasoning, but in that moment, it’s precisely how I felt: I felt to have lost a part of me, and I couldn’t even imagine getting it back.

Once mercifully back home, I pulled myself together for the sake of Tills who had made a successful return to school braving any comments about her remaining chicken pox scabs. A few well-timed sobs on Gav’s shoulder in the kitchen whilst out of earshot later, and I finally calmed down.

Later that evening, once Chicken Dipper was in bed, Gav decided to give me his Valentine’s day gift. I knew he’d planned something special, and he wanted to give it me when I wasn’t otherwise occupied making breakfast or finding clean pants for a scabby child. He made the right choice, but I was still emotionally fragile.

I opened the large A4 envelope, and inside was the most stunning card, dotted with our gormless selfies from the past few years. I looked again, and I felt my tears well up. ‘That photo was taken from XX race…’ ‘… and that one when we were running in Barcelona!’ RUNNING IS HAUNTING ME AGAIN! I felt a wave of anger as even my beautiful Valentine’s card taunted me that I can’t do the very thing that I – and we – love to do the most. Fucking hell, pull yourself together, Rach.

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Soppy Get 😉

‘It’s beautiful, Gav,’ I said, gulping. And I meant it.

Behind the card was another envelope. This time there was a typed letter informing me of a spa afternoon he’d arranged, prior to the half marathon race we had planned for Sunday. It also told of a consultation with an International elite athlete, who could advise me with tweaks to my training for coming marathon plans… Training? What fucking training? I can’t train! I can’t even run a mile! I wept again as running once again seemed to usurp the kindest, most thoughtful and generous gift and kibosh it PRECISELY at the time when I least of all needed a kicking.

‘I don’t know if I can go, Gav’ I sobbed. ‘I can’t even run, so what’s the use of me sitting down talking about VO2 max and marathon training drills with some elite athlete?’ My mind had a meltdown with the pity and the frustration of it all.

‘It’s OK, Rach. Just think about it and we’ll make a call tmrw,’ said the ever patient, long-suffering Gav, whose heart must have been breaking seeing all of his thoughtful plans come crashing down in front of him.

He slowly walked up the stairs to the bathroom. And then, at that moment I had an epiphany: FUCK IT! I’m not going to let this bloody injury rob me and Gav of our plans for the special day he’s planned. NO WAY! And, I’d LOVE to speak to a ‘real’ athlete about some of the times when she’s struggled with injury or illness. And she’s an elite athlete! What the hell must THAT pressure be like?

Almost instantly my tears dried up and I felt excited. Excited at the prospect of meeting some sage-like running guru, and – more importantly – excited about the prospect of spending some time with my gorgeous, thoughtful, infinitely patient Gav regardless of any running plans that may have, at one point, been involved. So, fuck you, leg. I can’t WAIT for Friday!

*PS today is the day that I put my trainers in the bin in a fit of rage. Gav took them out, but I’ve got a MAJOR grudge with them after my horrendous 2 miler, and so they quickly went back in the bin.

 Fret not, I have others.

TO BE CONTINUED…