Rachel Cullen Rides… #imback

So, I’ve been getting out and about on my mountain bike a bit a lot over the last few months. Rach the Runner has, over a relatively short period of time, morphed into Rach the Rider. And I am absolutely loving my newfound BFF – my 8-year-old Trek Hardtail – which is escorting me to everything from hair appointments to work, to dreaded ‘open week’ at my daughter’s school, on 27-mile round trips to see my counsellor / therapist in Hebden Bridge (*not really sure how else to describe her, other than “A PERSON WHO IS PAID TO LISTEN TO MY SHIT”) – and even hypnotherapy sessions (Look into my eyes… The jury’s out on that one.)

And, with plenty of exciting cycling adventures planned, together with a BRAND NEW Scott Scale 720 waiting patiently in the front room (I daren’t offend him by even attempting to ride his gloriously untarnished frame just yet) I thought I’d look back to the epic adventure myself and Gav Dodd Fax undertook late last year which may well have kick-started this newfound love for me.

Because just as running saved me once, so riding is now helping me to manage the carnage going on behind the scenes, and to dodge the curve balls life continues to throw at me in some kind of warped Takeshi’s Castle-style obstacle course.

And I am LOVING it.

I’m loving the feeling of growing in confidence with every single ride; I’m loving the increase in fitness I feel on every hill climb which once seemed impossible to conquer; I’m loving the bravery I feel with every tricky off-road downhill I manage to navigate with increasing speed; I’m loving my ever-expanding wardrobe of Lycra cycling attire, and familiarising myself with the Wiggle website (££!!!); I’m loving the fact that I have no option but to learn new skills – I now know the difference between a Presta and a Schrader valve – and I love knowing that I will learn how to maintain my bike, and how to fix a broken chain. All of it interests me; it challenges me; and it frees me from my own thoughts which previously only running has ever been able to do.

So, HELLO to this – a new and exciting chapter in my life. A chance to learn again, to challenge myself again, and to live life to the fullest, again. Because what else is there?!

***

November 2017

We’ve really gone and done it this time,” I say to Gav, my husband of three months, as we both sit cross-legged on our living room floor and finally wade through the sizeable information pack we were sent some weeks ago relating to our forthcoming ‘honeymoon’ trip, mountain biking 480km across Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean. A large A4 envelope has been lying unopened on the sideboard for what seems like an eternity, tucked in amongst my 7-year-old daughter’s scrawls purporting to be a Christmas list, and a print out of her school itinerary for the next 16 weeks* (*I feel proud of myself for being ahead of the game, until I notice on closer inspection that it dates from 2016.Bollocks.)

It still doesn’t seem real.

What’s all this about needing a friggin visa?!” I bark, suddenly perturbed by Item Number 2 on the suggested List of Essentials, just one behind ‘Passport’. I gulp hard as the words YOU PAIR OF FUCKING IDIOTS ring in my ears at this potential glaring omission. It was only last week I received confirmation that I don’t have my requisite tetanus vaccination… and it’s now too late to get one.

Don’t worry about it, Rach,”says Gav – Mr. Tranquility himself. I glance over and notice him google searching WHERE IS COSTA RICA? on his iPhone.  Shit. It’s three days before we set off on a challenge which will blast us so far outside our middle class, corporate comfort zones that we won’t know our saddle sore, padded arses from our grazed and bruised elbows. ‘It’ll be fine!’he assures me, as he scans down a Wikipedia page on Costa Rica, thinking I haven’t noticed.

We still need to take the seat and pedals off my bike,” I remind him, as I sit staring at a once neatly piled selection of unworn padded cycling shorts which have been unceremoniously strewn to one side by the recent arrival of a Sylvanian Families camper van. They all look alien to me.

You see, I’m Rach the Runner – I’m no cyclist.

My stress levels have been unusually high of late. And it’s not entirely relating to the arduous task we will face of mountain biking 480km across all kinds of terrain, possibly hot-stepping volcanoes (excuse the pun) and avoiding sloths in the road (yes, they have those.) I am equally terrified of almost every other aspect of this trip – the mountain biking is merely the cherry on the anxiety management cake. The other ingredients are akin to a travel itinerary rivalled only by Tim Peake’s Principia space mission in December 2015. The worry list includes – in theory:

  • A 2-hour drive to Manchester airport, plus half an hour navigating our way to the correct parking location (we have fallen foul of this before and had to call for assistance at the barrier’s emergency intercom)
  • A 40-minute flight from Manchester to London Heathrow which will in reality take circa 4 hours, with an intravenous drip pumping Costa Coffee into our bloodstream before being stripped half naked at check-in for a gentle frisking… No! I am not wearing a fucking belt!
  • Once at Heathrow, finding our hotel which looks to be another 45-minute bus ride away (Heathrow is the size of our home town, Halifax, it would seem.)
  • [the next morning] Boarding a shuttle bus from our hotel to London Heathrow Terminal 4 before 6am, most probably whilst still asleep;
  • Another four-hour wait and flight from Manchester to Amsterdam;
  • Hanging about for endless hours at Schiphol airport waiting for our connecting flight to San Jose, which I soon learn is the capital of Costa Rica (I had no idea);
  • An 11-hour flight to San Jose with my knees wedged up against the permanently-reclined seat in front, whilst the restless toddler behind me kicks my seat for 10 out of the 11 tortuous scheduled flying hours;
  • Collapsing in a heap in a hotel before a 4-hour bus transfer to the start (ahem) of our “adventure” the following morning.
  • And then – she says without any hint of irony – the adventure begins.

The above is what isSUPPOSED to happen. I don’t know it yet, but it won’t happen like this. Not at all…

It’s a good job I don’t know.

We’re in the queue to board the plane from Manchester to London Heathrow. I’ve already consumed my requisite three litres of airport Costa coffee and arsed about in WH Smith’s with my fake book – a cover-only proof copy of Running For My Life* – placing it in amongst the best sellers and posting photos on Instagram in a vain attempt to amuse my editor and agent. It’s worked, but has sadly meant that we’re now late in locating the correct gate for our flight, and so we rush along the mile-and-a-half travellator to Gate A54 where a grim looking snake of people has long since formed. I can feel the early onset of mild bruising on my lower legs from where my badly designed wheel-along travel bag has repeatedly bashed into my ankles.

We’re virtually last in the queue, and about to board the 40-minute flight to Heathrow. The only couple left standing behind us are smiling in a kind-yet-mocking manner at me holding my pillow. It’s not a compact travel pillow… no, no. It’s the big fluffy one from my bed which I sleep on every night. The man comments, “At least you’ll be comfortable on the 40-minute flight to Heathrow!” I laugh in acknowledgement of his accurate summation that I’m not a seasoned traveller, and this unequivocal evidence that I’m also fussy about my sleeping arrangements. Pillows are a tricky one to get right: too hard and it’s head on a brick; too soft and I risk face-planting onto an inch-thick scotch pancake. Mine is just right: fluffy and supportive whilst not overly officious. And it’s coming to Costa Rica with me.

The most worrying thing is,” I laugh, acknowledging that I look like an unseasoned Travel Wanker, “… that this is my most essential item!” Clearly, I’m joking… but little do I know that my big, fluffy pillow will be my saviour over the coming 10 days.

Friendly Mocking Couple are on their way to visit their teenage son in Toronto. He is apparently some young ice hockey prodigy. Aged just 15, his mum tells us, he’d reached the pinnacle of his potential over here in the U.K. and so it was that – still aged 15 – he left the comfort of his safe British nest and flew to live in a new city, in a new country, where he would see his parents just once every 6 months (I’m guessing that was the upside.) He doesn’t know it, but he’s my new hero. Aged 16, I was too busy melting Mars Bars against my bedroom radiator whilst tearfully examining my latest hormonal outbreak in one of Mum’s pressed powder compacts to concern myself with independent living or dream-chasing.

And I wonder about my own anxiety levels relating to this Costa Rica trip. I am 39 years old. I’m travelling with my (new) husband, and we are a team. I’m fretting about having a too soft/too hard pillow, and the effect of mild sleep deprivation following a 2-day journey to reach our ‘adventure destination’; I’m worried about missing our girls for the next ten days, and my 72-year old mum being home alone until a week on Monday (although that’s not exactly true – she’s got a better social life than me.)

But the story of Friendly Man’s teenage son has made me momentarily get a grip. I’m not 16. I’m not on my own. I’m not going away from my family and friends for 2 years to have the shit kicked out of me by young Canadian ice hockey players. For all the above reasons, as I sit here cuddling my oversized fluffy pillow the night before a long day of travel, I’m thinking to myself – I can fucking do this!

To be continued…

Advertisements

Going back in time… the University of Hull 1998 vs 2018

It’s a ‘meh’ Tuesday morning in March 2018 (* ‘Meh’ now being a thing, and having full emoji status, of course.) But it isn’t any old Tuesday morning for me. I’m on my way across the M62 to Hull – the University of Hull, to be more precise – and back to the place where my mental health began to unravel so spectacularly some twenty years ago.

IMG_2833

This is one of the very few photos that exist of me, in the years shortly before commencing at Hull University.

When I took myself away from the University, aged just 19, I was so utterly broken, damaged and scarred (literally) that I swore I would never go back to that place. Not under any circumstances. But here I am.

I’m on my way back.

I’ve been invited to go and talk to a bunch of current students about some of my experiences which I’ve written about in my book, ”Running For My Life”. Naturally I say, ‘YES! I’d LOVE to come over and do that!’ But what they don’t know is that I am saying ‘yes’ in spite of myself. I’m saying ‘yes’ because I refuse to give in to the terror welling up inside me, trying to convince me to think of any excuse at all to say NO.

I can’t let that happen: I WON’T let that happen.

I’ve spent some time preparing for my talk. I’ve written a short introduction, and have repeatedly forced it upon my nearest and dearest (although my 7-year-old’s opinion is admittedly dubious) But the emotions I feel during the process of writing and rehearsing it have taken me by surprise. I sit in a coffee shop with silent tears streaming down my face as the memories are allowed to enter a space which has been strictly off limits for two decades; I burst into uncontrollable tears during one opportunistic lunchtime rendition at work. I find it hard to gather myself, and struggle to battle through the final few words. I look up, and I see that Steph, my good friend and work mate is crying, too.

Shit. I wasn’t expecting this.

As Gav and I drive along the M62, the sight of the Humber Bridge causes the frayed circuits in my brain to reconnect. Shortly followed by Princes Quay and the waterfront. I have flashes of that same journey from another time. “Crikey! You see over there? That’s the pub where I bumped into Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South,” I say to Gav, who has already been subjected to similar reminiscences for well over an hour. His love knows no bounds. The closer we get to the University, the flashes increase in both frequency and intensity. That’s the hairdressers who once bodged my highlights… Over there was a small supermarket on the corner, but it’s a Chinese take-away, now… There’s the park a burglar disappeared into who I disturbed as he’d just cleaned out my housemate’s bedroom… The memories crash into each other as my brain struggles to keep up with the tidal wave of visual stimuli.

The University entrance suddenly appears on the right. I remember it being grand, and feeling slightly cheated that ABSOLUTELY NONE of my lectures, seminars, or tutorials would be held in the impressive, listed building that greets newbies on arrival. Nope! We were based in the shit breeze-block 1960s car park around the back of the campus. Perhaps they could have mentioned this in the prospectus?? But I’m once again wowed by the Venn building. It looks spectacular and glamorous. It feels spectacular and glamorous. I feel spectacular and glamorous just standing on the steps outside.

fullsizeoutput_30fa

The Venn Building: Spectacular and glamorous.

I go inside to pick up our pre-arranged parking permit, and nearly burst with excitement as the lovely lady behind the desk talks to me in her genuine Humberside accent. It strikes me that some of the current Hull University students weren’t even born the last time I heard it.

I ask her to say ‘five [“farve”]’ and ‘nine’ [“narn”] again, explaining to her that I’m here for the first time since the turn of the millennium. Her eyes light up as I tell her the reason for my visit after such a long absence. I glance over my shoulder and realise that just around the corner is where I queued to fill out student loan application forms before anybody had to entertain the prospect of paying for their higher education. I only wanted a student loan so I could afford to buy a fancy raincoat from Ted Baker’s. Maybe that was the catalyst of my demise…

We visit the Waterstone’s bookshop on the University campus, and almost immediately I spot Running For My Life faking it amongst the Joe Wicks & Fearne Cottons. What on earth is my book doing hobnobbing with the stars? I wonder, before my mind is jolted back two decades on sight of the entire wall of ‘Law Study Guides’. I remember so vividly standing and facing that very same tower of ‘Short Cuts to Tort’ and ‘Pocket Book of Contract law’. I get a distinct feeling of déjà vu, of being in that exact same spot armed with a scribbled list of compulsory and expensive legal study materials I would be required to buy in order to eek my way through the ridiculous law degree (*it always felt ridiculous, to me.) It does however give me some small comfort to know that today’s law students are still required to hand over vast wads of cash in exchange for doorstop volumes of legal texts, so there is definitely evidence of karma in action.

I have a mooch around the bookshop, and eventually I pluck up the courage to go and introduce myself to John, the lovely sales assistant. I explain who I am, trying hard not to sound like an Author Wanker, and I tell him that I am reminiscing. I wonder if I’m rambling, but I’m enjoying talking to him. He is kind, and the bookshop feels like home to me, in a place that never did.

Eventually, we head over to the main hall where the ‘Hull University Alumni Careers, Health and Wellness’ event will shortly be taking place. ‘People are looking at you as though you’re famous!’ Gav says. I laugh, and assure him that it’s probably because my stripy jacket looks like a deck chair. We’re a little bit early to go into the large conference room, and so I find a comfy seat to settle down in just outside the ‘Rossetti’ canteen whilst Gav goes for an explore. It looks more like a posh service station following the mistimed arrival of several coach parties, or a British Airways domestic flights VIP lounge packed full of well-to-do travellers who can’t get to Edinburgh because of fog.

It didn’t look like this twenty years ago.

I observe people as they meander past. ID badges swing clumsily around necks, and I wonder if this is the only distinction between the students and A N Others on campus. Words like ‘dissertation’ jump out of the otherwise blended pool of chatter I can hear from surrounding conversations, and I wonder where I would be, if I were a student here, now. Would I be standing outside the Rossetti cafeteria, chatting and laughing with my friends about some dissertation I have no intention of starting until the eleventh hour, and complaining about the hundreds of pounds I’m obliged to spend at the Waterstone’s bookshop on dry, uninspiring legal texts? Or would I be stuck in my tiny bedroom facing a mostly unfrequented back street, staring at a disordered image of myself in a small, frameless mirror?

I think I know the answer.

It’s time to head up the stairs to the conference room and listen to the first group of speakers. Four confident, unblemished, successful, and proud Hull University Alumni stand up and talk to the room about their career paths, giving advice to the young audience who are lapping up their every word. Gav and I are seated in one of the front rows, and I simply marvel at the fact that these people appear to be entirely ‘baggage free.’ No issues here!!! Not a single whiff of any mental health disorder. It’s a place of SUCCESS and ACHIEVEMENT. This is about those guys and girls for whom things lined up and made sense; those who didn’t familiarise themselves with the intricacies of their own face at the expense of dream-chasing; who weren’t required to expend inordinate amounts of energy in preparation for leaving the house to go and buy a pint of milk. These were the movers & shakers of their respective academic years.

I momentarily wonder how that might have felt.

Following a short break, it’s time for the ‘wellbeing’ part of the day. We hear from some amazing young people who volunteer their time to look out for the likes of me – back in the day – as ‘Wellbeing Champions’ and ‘Hull University Angels’. I can only imagine what kind of difference this might have made to me, and how different my story might look, had the signs of distress been spotted by a kind, intuitive stranger.

Soon enough, it’s my turn. I walk to the front with my interviewee – John – and sit in my chair. And I read out the introduction that I have written. I am proud that the 2018 version of myself said ‘YES’ to coming back to a place which the 1998 Rachel struggled to be a part of; I am so proud to have been able to sit and talk to the young(er) people about my struggles, and to let them know that not all ‘success stories’ start out that way.

And if my purpose is to be the example of that, then it was worth driving over to Hull back in 1998, and again in 2018.

***

Introduction 

I first came to Hull University as a shy, naive, overweight, introverted, 18-year-old back in 1998. 

It was twenty years ago when I moved in to my student house on Marlborough Avenue with a random and eclectic bunch of strangers, and into a shared bedroom with a horse- lover named Bethany Barnes who had an unfamiliar west county accent, and a (significantly older) death-metal loving, biker boyfriend. 

My heart sank!

It was twenty years ago when I started out on a journey that I could never have predicted.

I came here to study for a 3-year Law Degree. Was it my dream to become a lawyer? Nope. Not at all! Did I have a dream to become anything, back then?? Sadly not. So, I followed the dreams that others had for me, instead. 

I didn’t know what challenges would lie ahead for me as I carried my super woofer CD player together with a god-awful selection of (mostly scratched) compact discs from my dad’s car into the ground floor bedroom I would share with a complete stranger.

I thought I’d just come here to study Law, but how wrong I was.

  • Mental health issues? What are those??
  • Clinical depression? How? When? Why?
  • Eating disorders? Who? Me?!
  • Body dysmorphia? Really? What on earth is that?

I would soon find out about them all.

I was blissfully unaware that I would be about to undergo a major operation to “fix” my delinquent body, or that I would soon suffer the cruel effects of increasingly worrying mental health disorders, including clinical depression and Body Dysmorphia.

I would become imprisoned inside my own mind, inside my own body, and – quite literally – inside my own bedroom – with no idea how to get out.

And as I stand here now, twenty years later, a happy and healthy 39-year-old woman, mum of a 7-year-old mini version of myself, a marathon runner, author of a book “Running For My Life”; and – most importantly – a woman who has wrestled with those bastard inner chimps and won, I’m happy to be able to share part of that journey with you.

I hope you enjoy listening to more about my story… 

Thank you

fullsizeoutput_3119

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

The Dream Stealer

The Dream Stealer 

What does anxiety feel like?

It’s a daily battle with the Dream Stealer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Here’s why it never will.

***

The silent, daily battles; the mini-victories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressing that ‘send’ button, and risking rejection.

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

Taking part when you doubt you have much to contribute;

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

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

Asking the question you’ve tried hard to swallow;

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

Walking past the crowd, with your head held high.

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

Rehab, Recovery, and… Aqua Running??!

Friday 24th Feb

Today has got REHAB and RECOVERY written all over it. Firstly, I’m (fortunately) not working today. Secondly, I have no childcare worries within school hours. Woo Hoo! I’m FREE! And so, I have the following scheduled:

  • Yoga 11-12pm
  • Physio sports massage 1-2pm
  • Aqua swimming (first ever attempt) 4pm

Yoga – once again – is unspeakably therapeutic for me. I chat to my friend Pam as we wait outside the studio. Pam has followed my journey from back in 2014 and the start of my crazy marathon training/ running obsession. She feels for me just now. She knows what running means to me, and she senses my feelings of loss. I enjoy our chat and laughs before the class. It’s made me feel ever so slightly less insular and self-absorbed, as earlier this morning it was a struggle to take myself out of the house – I simply wanted to hide under the covers and wallow in my leg-aching self-pity. I’m so pleased I didn’t do that.

At the end of the class, I say my usual ‘Thanks, Lianne!’ to the best yoga teacher in the world, and added ‘… I’ll probably see you tomorrow!’ She laughs, as we both know she’s seen more of me in the last month than she has in the previous two years.

Then it’s off to Physio. The receptionist seems more friendly today. Perhaps she’s getting used to the frequency of my visits. We have a pleasant – if pointless – chat about the undefinable mystery that is my current non-running condition. I feel myself giving the same tired answers to the same old questions.

‘So, it’s not really a localised pain, then? More of a general feeling in both legs, you say?’ she enquires, as though she may have any kind of helpful answer / comment with which to furnish me.

‘Yes. It’s way more than fatigue, more like fire or electricity shooting down the back of both legs. They literally won’t let me run!’ I reply, managing to control the frustration and emotion building up inside at the difficulty in even explaining how it feels. ‘Not even one mile. Not half a mile. They won’t let me run – it’s as simple as that!’ I conclude, before the sports therapist blunders in through the glass doors and invites me into the treatment room. Shit! I didn’t even have my usual pre-treatment latte! I suddenly realise, feeling slightly done out of possibly the most enjoyable part of my treatment.

He pummels and kneads; digs in and wrings out my leg muscles so it feels like actual bodily harm. I try and get clues as to how my hamstrings and calves seem to him. I’m looking for ANY clue to ascertain what the hell is wrong with them, but he can’t give me much. ‘The lateral aspects (of my hammies) are definitely hardened, but the inner lines are softer. You may well get some bruising,’ he offers, oblivious to my disappointment that he can’t define PRECISELY what the fuck is the matter with my legs. We chat, but I have to pause whilst eating my fist during several tortuous manoeuvres. I leave after 40 minutes of manipulation (euphemism for being physically assaulted) and inhale my lunch in the car park. It’s now 2pm and I’ve been on Mission Rehab since 10.30am.

[LATER]

It’s now 3.30pm. I’ve arranged to meet Gav down at the local pool in half an hour to try my hand at this newly suggested ‘zero impact’ activity I’ve been told about. I’m off AQUA RUNNING! Part of me is as excited as if I’m heading off to a local knitting convention; the other part of me is (bizarrely) semi smug for even being prepared to give it a go. I don’t DO swimming; I’m NOT a water baby. I HATE getting cold and lugging around bags of sodden towels, only to find them in the boot of the car three days later. Which part of that is fun? There is a reason I love(d) running (actually, there are a multitude of reasons) but one of them is the simplicity – the lack of fuss. Got a pair of trainers, pants and a top? Then I can run. I can set off from EXACTLY where I am. I don’t need to drive anywhere (although it’s great to see different places and have mini adventures) but it is possible for me to… just run. Swimming? Not quite. When is the pool open? When is it mental kids’ hour? What about the serious lane swimmers? When should I avoid feeling their wrath as I try to keep myself buoyant whilst making an about turn from their God-awful attempt at butterfly stroke? These are all questions I’ve had to ask in order to prepare for my one initial visit to the pool.

I head into the reception, arms laden full of required kit. I trip over the long, dangly buckle strap on my buoyancy belt as it waves around in front of me like an annoying toddler.

‘Erm, one to swim, please.’ I say to the miserable receptionist, feeling entirely odd as the words come out of my mouth. I’ve been a member of the gym/pool since 2011 and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said those words. Every other time has been solely for the purpose of taking my daughter into the baby pool six years earlier. I’d fake-coo as she looked at me blankly, bobbing about thoroughly bemused in her baby ring whilst I’d feel the early onset of hypothermia. Fortunately, we worked out or respective strengths. Tilly’s Dad took on the swim/cycle rota whilst I focused on Junior Parkrun and hiking Mini Me for miles up and down local hills. It works well.

We’re not even in the changing room and already I realise what a farce it is. ‘You can’t go thorough there in your shoes, Gav’ I say to him, like a smart arse as I take off my trainers and push them neatly underneath a plastic chair. ‘Really? Oh, right.’ He replies and follows suit.

img_7333

Once changed, we wade out towards the main pool. I’m carrying my aqua trainers, fearing that a whistle will be blown at me whilst I walk towards the pool in footwear (I’m unfamiliar with the etiquette.) I put my enormous blue buoyancy belt on and fasten it like a tourniquet on a severed limb. I’ve slipped my water pumps on, and once in the water I immediately try out a running action. My feet are still touching the floor as I ‘run’ in some kind of sub-aqua moonwalk (all I need is a single diamante glove) but I soon get into my stride, and build up enough confidence to nudge up into the deep end. The belt comes into its own and maintains my position whilst I run more freely and my legs pump around in circles rather than slide around Michael Jackson-esq on the pool bottom.

My suggested session is a ten-minute steady warm-up followed by some VO2 intervals.

‘God, it’s hard is this, Gav!’ I say to him as he bobs around by the side of me looking fascinated, wondering what it feels like. I’m only four minutes into my warm-up. Fucking hell, this session’s gonna last a lifetime I think to myself as I ease off some effort on my weightless jogging and leave something for my purported ‘intervals’. Two young girls are swimming / messing around in the pool nearby. They are about Tilly’s age, perhaps a year or so older. One of them looks and smiles at me pitifully. I suddenly think, maybe they think I can’t swim! She looks across at her friend and they giggle, unable to establish quite what the hell I’m doing. I beam at them both as I run fast, but go nowhere in the water. I don’t care what I look like. I’m here, I’m training, and that’s all I’m bothered about.

After ten minutes’ warm up, the intervals begin.

10 x 15 sec on/off

4 mins steady rec

5 x 30 sec on/off

4 mins steady rec

2 x 45 sec on/off

10 min cool down.

15 second intervals? Sounds like a piece of piss! I say to myself, thinking I’ve chosen an easy session to begin with. After 4 x sets I’m buggered, and have all on keeping track of the seconds as I’m ‘on’ again after what feels like hardly any recovery time at all. My legs still ache under the water, but they’re only tired, they-know-they’re-working-hard aches, and not the fire-breathing shooting pains on raw nerve ending ones I’ve been so debilitated by.

Eventually, I finish my set and we both haul ourselves out of the pool. ‘I quite enjoyed that, Gav’ I say to him as we wring out our towels and decide how best to manoeuvre the dripping buoyancy aid back to the car.

I feel a general sense of satisfaction at my efforts, today. I’ve filled my day with various good and productive things, and I’m doing all I can to clamber up, over, around, and underneath this obstacle I’m presented with.

Mentally it’s helping me to be in a peaceful place, as the (hopefully temporary) loss of my running has threatened to pull the rug from underneath my mental health stability. Without any way of knowing how long my safety blanket will be removed, I’m doing everything in my power to cling on to my rock face whilst the waves continue to bash against it. It’s giving me a sense of control over the situation to put these things in place.

I think I’m turning a corner with this… I’ll sleep well tonight.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Goodbye, #VLM2017, hello recovery…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your company. Hold on tight!

 Mon 13th Feb

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

fullsizeoutput_c6b

Thanks for the hint, Amelia. Loving this book…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_7301-2

Soppy Get 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Fret not, I have others.

TO BE CONTINUED…