The Ghost of Amanda Walker

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

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

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

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

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

And so it goes on…

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

He has no answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I think to myself: Maybe it has…

***

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

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

Rachel x

 

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Running For My Life… the birth of the baby elephant, 11th Jan 2018

It finally happened. After a 22-month gestation period, and some early complications -including a routine scan when it was questioned whether the elephant was in fact a giraffe (*ref earlier blog) – at 00:01 on Thursday 11th January 2018 I gave birth to a healthy, bouncing baby elephant. Or, to cut my now slightly overstretched analogy short – my book, “Running For My Life” was finally published.

The anticipation and build up to this event has been something akin to that of the European Space Station’s £80m investment into the human space programme. Weeks, months, and years in the living, writing, editing, re-writing and re-editing… and some more writing. Oh, and then a bit more editing…

And that was the easy part. Honestly.

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You see, back in 2015 when I began writing the book, and for the subsequent two years, I hadn’t quite factored in what might happen if and when my literary masterpiece ever made it out of the slush pile, and onto the shelves. That wasn’t anywhere on my radar. Simply writing and telling my story in the best way that I possibly could was my only goal / obsession. That was my focus and, it’s fair to say, it was my only focus.

So, in the very early meetings with my (admittedly amazing) publishing team, where there was some vague notion of a ‘marketing and PR plan’ closer to the publication date, I paid little attention. ‘Oh, that’s MILES off!’ I would reassure myself, and ‘We’ve got AGES until we’re anywhere close to all that stuff kicking off.’ Whatever “that stuff” was…

But just as day follows night, we crept ever closer to the Big Day. And as that happened, my levels of sheer terror began to build. I looked forward to Christmas, whilst at the same time waiting for it like Cinders counting down the seconds until the clock strikes 12 and her fancy glass slippers turn themselves back into God-awful Crocs. Christmas 2017 was my midnight hour. No more frolicking around with Prince Charming in an expensive little number from LK Bennett (ref. Prima magazine photo shoot); No more time to muse on these so-called ‘marketing and PR plans’ from afar. Along with the birth of Christ came the birth of all my fears: putting myself out there… whilst wearing Crocs.

I write in the book about introversion, and my natural tendencies towards this, and away from drawing any attention upon myself. That is, I’d suggest, reasonably understandable given the nature of my own experiences, and the gladiatorial inner battle with self-doubt vs self-acceptance I have warred over the past twenty years.

The whole idea, then, of going against my natural inclination and putting myself in myriad different guises of feigned self-confidence is as grotesquely warped as it is comical, considering the increasing levels of ‘social media whoring’ I may well be accused of over recent weeks and months. Like when Dustin Hoffman’s failing character actor Michael reinvents himself as ‘Tootsie’, the all-American female television actress, and then hits the big time with her fake teeth, tits, and dazzling red dress.

This is me. I am now Tootsie.

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PR:       “Right. We’ve got a photo shoot in London, Rach. Late November. You OK with that?”

Me:      ‘Yeah! Sure!” [I do a quick Google search for therapists within a 10-mile radius, whilst praying for the scabs to heal on both knees and elbows from Costa Rica, and the cold sores to vanish from my face…]

***

PR:       ‘Can you do a live interview on Radio Leeds next Tuesday, Rach?’

Me:      ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I run across to the sink and think I may vomit the Vienetta I had as a post-run treat over an hour since]

***

PR: ‘Look North want to interview you live on the day of publication, Rach. Are you OK with that?’

Me: ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I run across to the sink and actually vomit, just as soon as I’ve pressed ‘send’ on the email confirmation.]

***

PR: ‘Radio 2 have asked you to come down for a live radio interview, Rach… That OK?’

Me: ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I don’t even get to the sink before vomiting, this time.]

***

I have sleepless nights. One day, the fear consumes me, and I send Gav a text. It simply says, ‘I think I’m going to pull out of Look North. Can’t do it.’ He tries to ring me, but I don’t answer the phone. The fear consumes me, because I am still that person who looks in the mirror and wants to hide away. I am Part 1 of my book – the 4-year-old little girl in the wretched pink ballet leotard who feels like a round shape amongst the rectangles.

But then I think of all the times when I’ve felt exactly the same trepidation and terror. I think back to the start lines of the hundreds of races when I’ve lined up questioning my right to be there, or my sanity in possibly making a monumental fool of myself. And then I know – I can do it again. This time, it isn’t on a start line of a race, but this is just another kind of start line. And running has given me the strength and the courage to know that I can – and I will – push myself out of my introverted, introspective comfort zone again. Because I’ve done so many, many times before.

‘So, Rachel. What’s the main message you’d like to give people, from reading your book?’ the glamorous female Look North presenter asks me, as we reach the conclusion of the live television interview.

‘It’s to be brave enough to try,’ I reply, as all my fears have now gone, melted away in a heady combination of adrenalin and hairspray fumes. ‘And not to worry about making a fool of yourself,’ I continue, on a roll. ‘Because we all have done, at one time.’

The live television interview is over, and I can’t believe that I even enjoyed it! I watch it back, and I realise – I have running to thank for giving me the strength to do this. Not only that, but I’ve had the most incredible experiences over the past week, and I have felt as proud of myself as I have running in any marathon.

Perhaps there’s another book in this, somewhere…

“Running For My Life” is available to buy now on Amazon, in paperback or kindle… Link here.

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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Why writing a book is like giving birth to an elephant. Part 1 – The First Dates

It’s almost here. It’s booting me on the insides making my ribs ache, and the acid reflux is now so bad I’ve started adding Gaviscon Extra Strength to my tea instead of milk. I can’t sleep in any other position than on my side, propped up at a 45-degree angle with an expensive tubular pillow wedged between my crotch.

I am about to give birth to an elephant. The due date is 11th January, 2018. 

It all started back in April 2015, when a rather fetching bull elephant caught my eye across a crowded room. In writing terms then, this is where it all began. Lying in the bath the day before the London Marathon 2015, I began to write about how I was feeling. And I began to wonder… what if? Those two simple words: What if? What if I could tell my story… by writing a book? I was curious about the possibility.

Me and the attractive bull elephant exchanged numbers.

Our romance was a slow-burner. We went on many, many dates. We regularly met in a local coffee shop, where he read whilst I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote – and wrote – and I didn’t stop writing. Sometimes, he would up and leave as he had a train to catch, but I would sit there and carry on pouring my story onto the MacBook Pro, as though my life depended on it. Maybe it did? I don’t know.

It was a quiet, unspoken thing, our relationship. I knew we were casually ‘dating’ – that I was courting an elephant – but what do you say to people? ‘Oh, – I’m busy writing my – erm – (embarrassed cough) my… book.’ And sound like some arty farty literary wannabe wanker? Not likely.

Then the standard, polite response comes back. ‘Oh! That’s nice!’ complete with pitiful smirk as if to reiterate that:

  1. a) you won’t ever finish writing your (ahem) ‘book’; and
  2. b) even if you do, only your mum will ever read it after you’ve paid £500 to get ten copies printed for close Family & Friends.

Nope, it’s easier to avoid telling anyone that you’re dating an attractive bull elephant than it is to be the recipient of the quietly judgmental, mildly condescending looks and comments from those who genuinely do think you’ve lost the plot, and should go and get a ‘real job’ (I do have one of those, BTW)

But the feelings are already there. You care about the bull elephant. He matters to you. A great deal. There isn’t a day that goes by when you don’t think about him, or want to spend time with him. He needs you, and you need him. The naysayers have – thankfully – arrived too late to intercept the budding romance.

It’s game on.

Weeks roll into weeks, which bleed into months. Words don’t just appear on a page. They are crafted. They are placed there – every single one of them – until you begin to see the vague, shadowy formations of a book. A story is emerging, although it will take many more months until it even resembles a book as you know one to be. But somewhere, through the word blindness, the story is taking shape and morphing into something… you’re not quite sure what yet, but you will keep going. Because you will finish the book. You will continue to date the attractive bull elephant.

Because – you realise – you are falling in love with him.

The dates continue. Nothing much changes. We meet at the same time, go to the same place, and order the same drinks. Sometimes (in fact most times) we tell each other the same old stories we’ve told a thousand times before. We repeat anecdotes and laugh in the usual, predictable places. The writing follows suit. I write and re-write the same chapter 14 times. I chop this part and place it there; that once ‘hilarious’ section stopped being even remotely funny after I read it for the hundredth time. The words sometimes frustratingly dance on the screen as if to deliberately provoke a migraine.

Sometimes, I wonder if we will ever go somewhere different, the bull elephant and I, or even order a chai latte instead of a regular cappuccino…

A year goes by, and things have progressed to the point where we need to venture further afield. There is just enough meat on the feeble, literary skeleton to believe it could grow into something strong and beautiful. I believe in the story – I have lived and breathed the story. I also happen to believe that somewhere in the universe, another person will believe in it, too.

It’s time.

 

I know it’s not perfect. It’s a million miles away from being perfect, but the essence is there. The story – my story – is there. I do my research and buy a copy of the Writers & Artists Yearbook, 2016. I start at the beginning of the doorstop voluminous authority on all things publishing-related, which makes The Bible look like a pamphlet on ‘Keeping Warm through the Winter’. I conscientiously wade through the alphabetic list of potential publishers and agents who might – just might – be interested in the barely formed body of a story I have spent the last year piecing together. My inner perfectionist winces as it knows that much work is still to be done, but my desire to give this thing a heartbeat thankfully overrides any perfectionist terrorism which would otherwise kill my dream.

I spend hours and hours putting together carefully constructed synopses and example chapters, each requested in specifically onerous formats by individual publishing houses:

‘…Will consider unsolicited MMS (first three chapters only); include covering letter and SAE and allow 3 months for response. If possible, find an agent first…’

‘…Include SAE and allow 3 months for response. For novels, send 3 sample chapters and synopsis only. Max 10,000 words. Do not send MMS via email. Original documents will not be returned. If you do not hear from us within 6 months, you can assume your submission is unsuccessful…’

‘…Go straight to jail. Do not pass ‘GO’. Do not collect £200…’ [sorry, this one’s from Monopoly, but is a hell of a lot more straightforward…]  

‘OH F*CK OFF WANKER RANDOM HOUSE!’, I scream out loud, but then immediately regret it, as I know full well that they are the gatekeepers to any chance my fledgling relationship might have to succeed.

Meanwhile, my bull elephant sits and waits patiently, watching Strictly on the telly whilst I ignore him completely and wade through my publishing bible. It’s late on a Saturday night, but I can’t rest. I must send in just this one final submission which I’ve been working on for the last four-and-a-half hours. My daughter wakes up from her sleep, and I only pause briefly to go and tuck her back in bed whilst my subconscious mind continues to hunt around in the universe to find a home for my story. As I send out my thousands and thousands of carefully, individually crafted words into the vast unknown, I wonder: Who will read it? Where will it end up? Will anybody even bother? I’ve heard a lot about The Slush Pile. It’s commonly known that the majority of literary submissions end up there many, many times before they might be mercifully plucked out and defibrillated into life. Precious few make it.

That night, I don’t sleep.

The bull elephant is relegated to the sofa. And I wonder. What will happen to us? Will we survive? I’m desperate to know the answers, but I have none. I’ve done all I can.

The rest is down to the universe…

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 

 

 

 

WTF: Rachel, you’ve just cycled 480km across Costa Rica and no blog??

This feels weird. I can’t blog about this one. It’s too big, and too good. Like glimmering nuggets of pure comedy gold sifted from tonnes of dust and rubble… and I’m so sorry about that. I feel like I’m letting my eight fans down, and short-changing you few, special people of possibly the blog of the century, but I am under strict instructions. It breaks my heart not to share what I’ve already written about this epic adventure with you, but you’ll thank me in the long-run.

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So, we cycled 480km across Costa Rica. It almost broke us, and it brought me to my knees (literally, it did) from start to finish. As I sit here on our comfortable sofa with a cold beer to my right and the wounds beginning to heal on my ribboned flesh, I have a king-size bed waiting for me to sink into upstairs, and thankfully my arse no longer resembles a Domino’s Deep Pan Pepperoni from all the bastard mosquito bites which had me overdosing on Piriton for the best part of a week (I was crushing tablets and snorting them through a rolled-up fiver in the hotel at San Jose only a matter of days ago.)

And now it’s business as usual. I’m mum again, back to work again, and I can run again. The word ‘bike’ is a dirty expletive in our house, and any mention of cleats, derailleurs, chains, Udderly Smooth anti-chafing cream or bastard Cliff Crunchy Peanut bars is rightfully met with the scornful contempt they deserve. It’s just too raw – too soon to be on speaking terms with those things that inflicted such vast amounts of pain on us over the ten days of this Takeshi’s Castle challenge we have just endured. My therapy hasn’t even started, yet.

Instead, I have put together a story board of our trip, and I hope this goes some way to providing a mere glimpse into the mire of juxtaposed joy/misery that will be the fodder for some serious writing binges in the weeks, months (and possibly years) to come.

I hope you enjoy.

Terminal 4 – The Delay

The Beginning – at the Pacific Coast

The Heroes – a cast of legends

The Bus – our lifeline

The Camping

The (daily) Route Maps

The Hills

The Views

The Meals

The Fall

The Bridges

The River crossings

The Man from Del Monte

First sight of the Caribbean

Victory is ours! The end…

ALMOST HOME…

AND FINALLY.

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ONE DAY MAYBE YOU’LL GO ON A TRIP LIKE THIS, TILLS. ONE DAY… LOVE MUM. xxx

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…