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

Race No. 1:

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

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

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

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

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

Job done. Happy days…

***

Race No. 2:

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

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

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

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

I go home, and I cry.

***

Race No. 3

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

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

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

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

To nothing.

I am heartbroken.

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

***

Race No. 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Email

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

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

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

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

***

Dear Rachel,

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

Gillian

***

Dear Gillian

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

And then I read your email…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With my very best wishes, 

Rachel Ann Cullen

Xxx

 

Giving birth to an elephant Part 2… or is it a giraffe?? #writingabook

It’s a Tuesday morning in early March 2016. I’ve just come off the treadmill at the gym, as I need to keep even the smallest amount of headspace from my attractive bull elephant other half. It was very intense at the beginning of our courtship, but this relationship needs to be sustainable – we’re both in it for the long-haul – and so normality resumes as best it can.

I stroll back to the changing room with the slightest whiff of smugness, having ticked off my dreaded speed session. Phew! Thank God that’s over. Job done. I reach for my IPhone from inside the locker, and without thinking, I click on the ‘mail’ icon in the bottom right hand corner. I find myself doing this on average ten times every fifteen minutes over any 23-hour period (I leave one hour for uninterrupted sleep), just to see how the universe is responding – or not – to the story of me and my elephant. I don’t honestly expect to see anything different from the other 160 times I have already checked since 6am this morning, but this is how habits are formed (having undertaken some light research, I discover that this process is called ‘chunking’ – where the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine.)

I am now a chunker. I chunk.

And there it is. The Email. It reads:

Dear Rachel

We’re attracted to this submission. It has a lot of promise but it also needs some re-writing and re-ordering. On the plus side, it has a fierce energy and a raw honesty, absolutely no preaching, and we relate to a woman who finds and saves herself by running.”

WHAT? FUCKING WHAT?? I take a screen shot of The Email and, with shaking hands, I ping it over to Gav. But I can’t wait the ten nanoseconds for his reply, and so I immediately pick up the phone.

‘They like it!’ I scream to him down the phone, as the woman drying her crotch in front of me with what appears to be a shrunken tea-towel no longer exists in my reality: it is just me, Gav, my bull elephant, and The Email. ‘They fucking like it!’ I repeat, as if to begin the whole process of opening the euphoric email again, just to indulge myself, and relive the precise moment when my relationship with the attractive bull elephant was at least acknowledged by the universe as existing – like it mattered.

I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as the prospect that somebody, somewhere, sees some vague potential in my beloved bull elephant, and that they may think he’s beautiful, too.

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This isn’t the actual selfie, but you get the gist…

Outside the gym, I take a selfie as evidence to Gav, and myself, of this monumental turning point. I check the selfie once more before pinging it across to Gav on WhatsApp. But my ridiculous, euphoric smile isn’t what I see. Instead, an ethereal glow radiates from the photograph. It is the unadulterated joy of potential: of what might be. This person – the one who has typed out the precise words expressing their ‘attraction’ to my submission – is now The Gatekeeper: the gatekeeper to my dreams.

Emails are exchanged, and over the coming weeks and months, a dialogue develops between the two of us.

‘Dear Rachel. We think that maybe your elephant might benefit from a slight makeover. Would it be possible, do you think, for him to work out a little, and to lose a small amount of weight?

Yes, I guess that’s possible. Although I do like his chunky thighs…

‘And he seems a little… grey to us. Would you consider adorning him in some brighter, funkier outfits, perhaps?’

I look over at my elephant who is sitting quietly, reading a book about self-acceptance on the sofa. Hmmmm, I think to myself, imagining my bull elephant dressed up like Timmy Mallet. I happen to quite like that shade of grey…

‘And finally, if we are to proceed with your submission, we will need you to take drastic action with your elephant’s ears. They are too flappy, and there is a small, misshapen chunk missing from the left lobe. Without a doubt, comprehensive reconstructive surgery will be required.’

I look again, and my heart sinks. I love my elephant. I love his colour, and his misshapen, flappy ears. I love the essence of him, and I don’t want him to undergo major cosmetic surgery to morph into a non-grey, neon version of himself that I no longer recognise. That’s not to say that certain improvements can’t be made and aren’t necessary, even (I totally know that they are) but I suddenly realise: it’s not my elephant they want at all. In fact, they don’t even want an elephant.

They want a giraffe dressed up as Timmy Mallet.

With the heartbreak of this realisation, we part ways, and they wish me and my beautiful bull elephant the best of luck on our continuing journey. I sit in the car and cry, because fleetingly I wonder, ‘Why couldn’t you be a giraffe who looks like Timmy Mallet? Why do you have to be a big old lump of grey elephant with misshapen ears?’ I think about the point of our relationship. Where are we going? And why? Do I really love him like I once thought I did? Do I believe in him – and in myself – enough to think that we could make it work? Salty tears roll down my cheeks and plop onto my hi-vis jacket as I ponder our future together. And then my self-indulgent woe is broken by the voice of a small child sitting in the back of the car.

‘Don’t cry, Mummy,’ she says. ‘It’ll be OK. Please don’t cry.’

You see, we have just finished Junior Parkrun, and only now – sitting in MacDonald’s car park at 10am on a drizzly Sunday morning – have I allowed the weight of emotion to wash over me and to temporarily break me, whilst my daughter sits and watches, draining the contents of a blackcurrant Fruit Shoot, from her booster seat in the back.

‘It’s OK, Tills,’ I tell her, half laughing at the ridiculousness of the scene. ‘I’m OK. Honestly I am.’

How can I possibly explain to her how much this means to me; about the Joy of Potential, and the Gatekeeper to my Dreams? She frequently sees me sitting and tapping away on my MacBook Pro keyboard. She sees the Writers & Artists Yearbook 2016 take permanent residency on the small colouring table in our front room, and yet she has no idea that this is all for her. This is her story as much as it is mine; this is her elephant, and she will inherit all of it – whether she likes it or not.

I dry my exhausted tears and I commit once again to finding a home for my beautifully imperfect bull elephant.

We’re back to square one. Each submission is a masterpiece in itself: carefully crafted to the idiosyncrasies of the respective gatekeepers. I haven’t been through this process for a good few months, whilst I tried to bend and shape, flex and contort my bull elephant into the ill-fitting guise of a fluorescent giraffe. But I haven’t sold him out, and I haven’t sold my soul. For that, I am at least grateful.

I’m only at ‘B’ in my Encyclopedia of Hope, and I happen across a publishing house called ‘Blink Publishing’. I do my usual research on the internet, and I am unable to cross this off my list of potentials despite being overwhelmed with magnitude. These are big hitters – the real deal. They publish many incredible non-fiction, autobiographical books for the rich and famous, but I won’t be intimidated. I dig a bit deeper, and I discover a wealth of evidence to support this being a potential loving and nurturing home for my bull elephant. I swallow hard at the prospect of sending a snap-shot of my blundering, grey, scraggy-eared, unpolished bull to the appointed gatekeeper of said publishing house. But I think back to the encouraging words of Giraffe Random House and the early indications I have received of our potential, and I know I must.

It is now early August 2016, and I send my very best effort – an entirely filtered portrait of my bull elephant to the fancy publishing house. He is standing at an angle, thereby disguising the misshapen left earlobe, and the filter I have selected makes him appear to be more of a silvery grey than the miserable, rainy day, murky colour that he is.

I press ‘send’ and I know I couldn’t have done any more. The rest is down to good fortune, and the will of the universe.

One week goes by, and I hear nothing. I’ve hardened up emotionally since the trauma of the MacDonald’s car park pathetic fallacy scene. I simply must accept that this might be a long, or even endless journey. There may be another thousand condescending rejections to contend with, and I may be met with an insurmountable wall of silence (the slush pile is an over-populated, hostile place) so best I get my head around those realities now, before I fall foul of the ‘joy of potential’ honey trap again.

My newly emotionally-resilient self sends a politely worded chase-up email to the faceless gatekeeper at Blink Publishing. I feel nothing as I send the email. My task is now purely pragmatic, and I cannot afford to become too emotionally involved.

But then, I receive it. Another Email. It pings into my inbox, and once again the joy of potential dances around, flirting with me.

‘Dear Rachel

I have indeed received your submission, and I have been reading it for the past few days. I am really enjoying it, and will be able to give some more detailed feedback once finished. Please expect a fuller response by the end of the week!’

I show Gav, and he hops about it the living room, whilst I remain seated.

I just hope they want an elephant, I think to myself, as I look across the room at my bull who is lifting weights over in the corner. He’s just come back from the local tanning salon. What shade of grey is that? I wonder.

He’s already beginning to look rather different…

TO BE CONTINUED…

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AMSTERDAM HALF MARATHON PART 2: RACE DAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sit and wait. And wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dutch Oven – Amsterdam half marathon – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED…

Duathlon Virgin Pops Her Cherry

I’m a road cycling virgin – or at least I was until very recently when I purchased my very first second-hand speed machine from a guy at work. Cleats? Are those like vaginal warts? Derailleurs? French for train track? So, completing the Oulton Park Duathlon yesterday felt like a hell of an achievement. I entered it on a whim a couple of months ago when the realisation hadn’t yet fully hit that I’d have to at least pretend to know what I’m doing on a road bike. Fake it ‘til you make it? Yep. That’s me. 

I chose to enter the Standard distance race. This would be a 9k run + 39k bike + 4.5k run. The alternative was a shorter Sprint distance (4.5k run + 21k bike + 4.5k run) ‘Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound’, was my exact thought process whilst choosing the longer distanced race. If it’s going to hurt for 21km on an uncomfortable, unfamiliar set of wheels, then what difference is an additional 18km going to make? (hashtag: ‘ignoranceisbliss’). 

Gav and I have revelled in some mini-victories in the run-up to this unlikely feat. We have: 

  • Bought bikes; 
  • Equipped ourselves with a bicycle pump and some other basic maintenance equipment which we have absolutely no idea how to use (we have enough allen keys to make all necessary adjustments to the Eiffel tower, and yet raising my seat half an inch is a bridge too far.) 
  • Invested in a fancy bike carrier for the car. One entire Saturday afternoon was recently sacrificed as we wrestled to marry my Nissan Juke with the various wires / arms / straps and contraptions contained within the neatly packaged Thule box. It drizzled mockingly as we stood in hung silence watching instructional YouTube videos on repeat. 

‘I’ve decided I’m not going to wear my cleats on Sunday for the race, Gav I declared to my endlessly supportive husband as he stood in the kitchen trying to work out how to gain access to the fridge which was entirely blocked by my now upturned Scott road bike. ‘It’s not worth the risk, and surely I won’t be the only one pedalling in trainers?’ 

‘Course not!’ he replied, still unable to access the milk. 

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‘Can’t you do without the milk, Gav?’

Once my Scott bike was sufficiently adhered to the car boot, the three of us headed off to Oulton Park racetrack on Sunday morning.  

No sooner had we parked up and enjoyed the relief of our compulsory thank-fcuk-we’ve-arrived-at-destination-and-escaped-from-the-car toilet stop than a tall chap in a hoody approached with a beaming smile. ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he said. I looked nonplussed at the approaching stranger, and then across at Gav. ‘The Deer Park dash!’ he said, as if this would make it any easier.  

Not a Scooby Do.  

‘Oh yeah!’ I lied. ‘The Deer Park Dash!! Of course!’ I said, as though repeating the race back to him were indeed confirmation that I had any kind of recollection of our exchange. ‘I was running with the pram? he continued, as my vacant look didn’t go unnoticed. Lovely chap. Still no idea. 

We stood at the back of our car next to the bondaged bike and the four of us – me, Gav, Friendly Hoody Man and his wife – talked turkey about race tactics. ‘It’s the last run that’s a killer,’ friendly hoody man says. ‘Your legs are like jelly. You want to run, but your legs have turned to mush.’ I didn’t want to tell him that the running parts were the bits I was actually looking forward to. ‘Just keep up a good cadence on the bike, and you can make up a lot of time with a decent cycling section.’ 

Bollocks.  

I looked at my bike, still gagged and bound to the back end of our Juke, and it suddenly felt like an alien to me. In that moment I realised – I don’t know it very well at all. I haven’t worked out how it feels most comfortable, or what gears it prefers. I haven’t taken the time to oil its chain or to lube the intricate parts. It doesn’t know my correct seat height, and the pedals and I muddle along in some persistent misunderstanding. I bought an entire set of allen keys, and yet the seat still chafes parts of me that only my husband knows. We are complete strangers.  

I wheeled my reluctant partner, Scott, into the transition area.  

Could I just safety check your bike please, madam?’ a necessarily efficacious gentleman said as I approached in my gormless state. ‘Do you know that you’ve got an end bar missing? ‘ he went on, pointing to a part of Scott I’d never seen. ‘I’m going to have to tape it up, as I’d hate for you to impale yourself on the course if you had a collision.’ Oh. Right. Yep. ‘And your tyres seem a bit low. In fact – bloody hell – these won’t last nine laps, love. Take it to the guy over there and he’ll sort you out.’ 

I trundled my non-friendly alien, Scott, over to another younger gentleman who winced when he felt the skinny rubber surrounding my wheels. ‘It’s a good job you’re here!’ I joked nervously.  

He didn’t laugh. 

After an informative safety briefing, we were off and I set off running confidently on my own two feet. Yesss! I know how to do this, I thought, as I soon passed a number of pro-looking tri-suited bodies on the first lap of the two-lap section. My pace was controlled but fast, and I felt good. I felt strong. No technical malfunctions possible, other than the obvious shoelaces or legs falling off. With no evidence of either, I arrived into the first transition entirely happy with the first running section.  

Remember to put your helmet on before you take your bike off the rack, I recalled the wise words of Friendly Hoody guy and stuck my Halfords lid* straight on my head before inhaling a gel and pushing my bike out into the traffic lane. Shit. I’ve got to hop onto the bloody thing, now. 

For the first lap, we took some time getting to know one another. It tried to mould to me, whilst I squirmed about on the impossibly narrow saddle and wondered if my marriage would survive nine laps of potentially irreparable damage to sensitive female areas. Fuck! My foot slipped from the non-cleated pedal and the wheels spun round at some speed, catching me on both shins. Fuck, fuck FUCK! I wrestled my Adidas Boost trainers back onto the slippery silver pedals and wrenched the handlebars back under control to avoid face-planting on the race track. I looked around me. No one else was cycling in Adidas Boosts. NO ONE ELSE IS PEDALLING IN FUCKING TRAINERS, RACHEL. Wait! Oh look! A girl over there is, and she’s a shit cyclist too! I felt like cycling over to her and making friends, but she didn’t look to be in the mood for chatting.  

Lap 3 and I felt sure my future was one of celibacy. I could see nothing through my entirely unnecessary Rudy Project sunglasses, and wind whipped snot across my face like a sad, sleeveless child. I looked up and saw Gav and Tilly up in the stand for the fifth time. ‘TAKE HER INSIDE IT’S PISSING IT DOWN’ I hollered across to Gav who stood looking perplexed at the unexpected instruction whilst I attempted to ‘maintain a good cadence’ on my alien bike. For the remaining seven laps, they took my advice, and were nowhere to be seen.** 

There were hills on the course. I couldn’t believe it. Just as I began to think I could manage to remain seated on my ill-fitting bike for what may feel like an eternity, they threw two significant inclines on the track for good measure. And just as I was attempting to lower my gear for the 5th time, I heard an emphatic ‘Keep going, Rachel! Keep pushing!’ from behind. For a millisecond I was transported back to the delivery room of Calderdale Royal Hospital in late September 2010, but a quick glance to my right and Friendly Hoody man came flying past me, clearly making up time on his cycle, just as he’d predicted. Fucking hell. 

The remaining cycle laps were a feat of a certain kind of endurance I’ve never experienced before. Like balancing on a thin, moving beam praying for the moment when it would all end.  

Approaching the second transition, I felt no fear about the second run. Legs tired? Of course. A bit wobbly? Yeah, sure. Desperate to get off the fucking bike? YES! YES. THAT! I hopped off the bike like a slightly drunken vagrant heading off to his last pub of the night. Right: Hang bike on rack? Check. Inhale a gel? Check. Right. Now RUN, RUN, FUCKING RUN!  

‘Wait! You’ve still got your helmet on!’ I heard Gav and Tilly bellow from the barriers as I headed towards the transition exit. Oh, for the love of God. I turned on my heels and handed my No Frills non-aerodynamic Halford’s lid to a very helpful fellow athlete, and ran off, as far away from my fucking Scott bike as was humanly possible. That was motivation enough for me. 

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I. love. tarmac.

‘Great running!’  one semi-limping guy said as I skipped past him on my final lap of the track, feeling the thrill of my Adidas Boosts on terra firma. The last mile felt tough on the final climb up to the finish, but it was over soon enough. 

Approaching the finish line after a cold, wet, tiring and uncomfortable 2 hours and 24 minutes, I could see Gav and Tilly – both perfectly dry and warm – cheering for me as I raised my thoroughly feeble arms in the air whilst attempting to look mildly victorious.  

‘WELL DONE, MUMMY!’ Tilly said, pawing at my medal and blatantly eyeing up my CLIF peanut butter bar. ‘You did REALLY well… But why were you so slow on the bike?’ 

Thanks, Tills. The adoption papers are being processed at the time of writing. 

 

*I can call it this, now I’m officially a #cyclingwanker 

**I subsequently discovered that they were neither cold nor pissed wet through, and my unnecessary hollers had simply caused them to fall about laughing. ‘The other cyclists must have thought you’re mental!’ were Gav’s exact words. 

The Seven Year Itch… Running through Motherhood

I love Marilyn, with all her maddeningly frustrating vulnerability. Some Like It Hot is a personal favourite of mine, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego – the location where several iconic scenes were famously filmed. Once there, I unashamedly sprawled myself across a tartan chaise longue, eating Corn Dogs whilst being hypnotised by the siren herself. Watching Some Like It Hot in situ, knowing that Marilyn had walked – together with her predictably fawning entourage – along those very same corridors, and that she had woken up (no doubt also feeling thoroughly bemused) to the very same sunrise – I felt a kind of solace.

However, I digress.

I am clumsily hijacking this titular phrase, borne of said Marilyn film, and referring to the ever-decreasing interest a person may have in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage. [Don’t worry, Gav. We’re not even at seven weeks.] I am referring instead to the last seven years of my life – marked today* – as being seven complete years of being A Mother. A mum. Somebody’s mummy. Responsible for another person’s joy. Provider of security, reassurance, and Yollies (don’t ask). Professional worrier. Also, professional actress (pretending not to worry). Disciplinarian. Groundhog Day face-washer, taxi driver and social committee chair. Picker upper of dirty pants and invisible fridge-filler.

For the last seven years, this has been me. It will continue indefinitely, for a lifetime.

Today is my daughter’s 7th birthday. It marks not only the moment when my life transformed into being about something infinitely greater than my sorry little self; it also defines the rebirth of who I knew myself to be. A dawning of a new me. A raising of the bar, and a resetting of any previously (arguably shoddy) standards. It was make or break, and fortunately, I chose to make.

Without delving too much into the story from which I have written a book, Running For My Life, (yes, that), about setting myself a challenge to greet me on the other side of motherhood, I decided that I would run the London marathon – my first ever marathon – just 7 months after giving birth to my beloved blood-sucker and nipple-cruncher. From that moment on, and because of that single decision – my life has never been the same. It has been richer, braver, bigger, and brighter than I could ever have imagined, whilst also being at times tougher, darker, and infinitely harder than I might have known.

And as I sit here, post sugar-fuelled giddy Sylvanian Families celebrations, I can look back on seven years that have fundamentally changed the person who I did, once, believe that I was, and who I could be.

As Tilly’s seventh (outdoor) birthday party came to an end, the four of us – me, Gav, Mini Me and Mini Dodd – all meandered back to the car with arms full of fancy gift bags and boxes of leftover Colin the Caterpillar cake. The party was a great success, but why wouldn’t it be? Throw a random group of kids into an unspoiled outdoor climbing rope maze, and watch them fall over logs in hysterics.

Back at the car, I gulped down a mouthful of jam sandwich whilst wriggling out of my jeans and wellies, and miraculously transforming into Running Mum (courtesy of my running shorts and fancy new Adidas Boosts.) We’d planned it all meticulously, and within 90 seconds I was Eric the Bananaman – ready for action. Tilly and Ava already nodding off in the back of the car; Gav grateful for the silence.

And I ran. I ran, and I felt free. I ran, and I felt joy. As I headed over the glorious Yorkshire hills, I felt to be a part of the beautiful landscape I could see all around me in every direction – a moving, living cog in a wheel of gloriously vibrant life. To be a part of the landscape. Read it again, because how often do you feel to be a part of the beauty that you see? As I ran over the hills today, I knew that I did. I knew that I was. And I thought, THIS IS WHY. THIS IS WHY I RUN.

For those seventy-nine minutes – the time it took me to run ten miles up and over the tops of Mount Tabor… dropping down and running through the quaint old village of my childhood, Warley Town, working my way to eventually meet the canal… I was free of knicker-picking, bean-stirring, school bag-packing and present wrapping. Free from the school drop off and polite chatter at the Big Blue Gates; free from hand-holding and shirt-straightening. I was spared the “Mum… can I just…?” random questions, and the search for answers I cannot provide. Free from over-tired tears and vain attempts to make broccoli taste infinitely better than it actually does.

I was free from it all.

And in that seventy-nine minutes of freedom, I also knew that I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t swap the regimented bedtime routine and the alarm for brushing teeth; I wouldn’t change the endless pile of washing or the arguments about wearing tights (although I’m with you on that one, tills. They suck.) I can handle the ridiculously early mornings, and the cartwheels in the lounge. I can pair the socks, and painstakingly de-knot the hair. I can apply the Sudocrem where the sun don’t shine, and administer the Calpol, watching as a sticky pink blob lands on the carpet, as it always does. As long as I can have my seventy-nine minutes to ponder, collate, process, cogitate and digest all the madness of being a mother, I can do it all. And I never ever thought that I could.

So, happy birthday, Tilly, happy birthday motherhood, and happy birthday the Me that emerged out of the delivery room a stronger, happier and infinitely better person.

Here’s to the next seven years of running through motherhood… (Cue Mazza’s rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’. What a woman.)

(I got myself a sneaky Colin the Caterpillar cake and blew out the candles on my own, in the kitchen like a right sad bastard. Luckily, there was a BOGOF deal in Morrison’s. Winner. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO (THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLD NEW AND IMPROVED) ME… 😀 )

*Written on 22nd September, 2017