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…

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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.

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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.

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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

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

Race No. 1:

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

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

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

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

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

Job done. Happy days…

***

Race No. 2:

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

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

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

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

I go home, and I cry.

***

Race No. 3

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

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

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

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

To nothing.

I am heartbroken.

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

***

Race No. 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Giving birth to an elephant… Part 3. And a very Happy New Year #gettingpublished

SOUND THE CLAXON! STOP THE PRESS! ALERT THE NEIGHBOURS! It’s finally happened. I wriggle myself around, piss on a stick, and there it is: a double line flashing before my eyes. Me and the attractive, mysterious bull elephant are EXPECTING!

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IT’S A BULL!!!

In writing terms, this means that the once unknown, faceless gatekeeper to my literary dreams who expressed an early interest in my submission… loves it. SHE LOVES IT! She believes in my story, and – guess what – she has invited me to travel down to the posh publishing house in a swanky part of London town to MEET HER! OH. MY. GOD. What will I do? What will I say? What will she be like? Will she like me? More importantly, will she like my bull elephant, when she meets him in person? I just don’t know.

It feels like being invited for a personal meeting with Mr Wonka at his infamous chocolate factory – the real one – not some shitty Cadbury World Birmingham-based alternative which doesn’t even have a chocolate river (*although I have been, and it is actually quite good.) This one has an Egg Room with genuine golden-egg producing geese, a full Oompa Loompa workforce, and – she assures me – the world famous everlasting gobstopper. All these could potentially be mine, subject to the whims of Mr Wonka, of course.

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Willy Wonka’s factory… this is not.

I gather up my Yorkshire raincoat and the three of us – my bull elephant, my raincoat and I – pile onto the Grand Central Halifax-to-King Cross direct train one nerve-racking Thursday morning.

I am on my way to the chocolate factory to meet Mr Wonka.

I don’t see or hear anything on the train. I don’t notice the chatter, or where/when the train stops to collect more miserable commuter passengers. I don’t have any interest in the buffet cart, or the on-board restaurant facilities. I don’t even care for the half-price Kit-Kat offer when purchased with an overpriced hot drink. All I care about is getting to London, finding the posh publishing house, and meeting Mr Wonka.

I finally arrive at the swanky destination on King’s Road in Chelsea. I can feel small beads of sweat trickle down the back of my neck as I feign calmness and inform the suited gentleman at the desk of my appointment.

‘Lovely. Just take the lift to the 3rd Floor, Madam,’ he tells me. ‘The publishing house reception is just on your right.’

I shoehorn the three of us into the centrally-placed small glass elevator, and as we slowly begin to ascend, I peer down onto the shrinking reception desk, below. Shit. Did he say the 3rd or 4th floor? I wasn’t listening, and so I’ve pressed the number 4 on the elevator wall without thinking. The doors ping open, and of course it’s wrong. I think I can pick up the faintest whiff of my own body odour as my Yorkshire raincoat struggles to make it back into the lift before the doors close again, trapping a sleeve. Oh, Jesus. It can’t happen like this. No – not like this.

I’m overly sprightly, and vaguely reminiscent of a children’s TV presenter when I introduce myself at the publishing house’s reception. Thankfully, most people are still out on their lunch break. I gawp around me at the funky surroundings, and glance down to my Yorkshire raincoat. It looks dreary and unexciting in the uber-trendy, unfamiliar setting. And I can see the George label clearly sticking out of the collar. ‘I’m standing here in this chic, stylish, literary dream factory carrying a raincoat from fucking Asda,’ I briefly berate myself, wondering if I should slyly dump it in the loo before finally meeting the literary version of Mr Wonka in approximately 25 seconds’ time. But I have my sensible head on – it may be chilly on the long trek back home to Yorkshire. Plus, it was £35, and I’m not one for waste…

Meanwhile, my bull elephant has made himself at home. He has settled on one of the striking Union Jack comfy sofas placed conveniently next to the Jenga-style display of recent glossy publications. He doesn’t seem remotely phased by the fact that these appear to be mostly CELEBRITY non-fiction books. He is unflustered as he sits cross-legged and casually flicks through the pages of a millionaire racing driver’s autobiography. I can’t believe it – he looks to be entirely… comfortable, here.

Mr Wonka eventually arrives back from lunch, and I begin to breathe for the first time since 10.19am this morning. We head out onto the King’s Road high street, and I don’t know which words are coming out of my mouth, or in what order. It feels like a first date, or meeting the Queen, only far more important than that.

We sit down in the exquisite boutique restaurant with fairy lights adorning all available space, and Mr Wonka talks gently and calmly to me and my elephant. He looks kindly upon the bulbous grey mass before him, and makes no mention of the misshapen left earlobe, or his particular shade of grey. He even appears to look fondly upon him, as though I am merely the vehicle by which he has happened across this – what I also consider to be – rather attractive beast.

And it is then that I know.

My bull elephant and I must work with this Editor. We both instantly love her, because she understands us. She sees past our flaws, and to the very heart of who we are, and why we are here.  We talk and talk, and she asks us both many questions. I’m proud of my bull elephant as he sits and holds his own in the swanky King’s Road eating establishment. He’s come a long way since the MacDonald’s car park, where we sat and wept together just a few months earlier.

I have a strong feeling that this is it. I don’t yet know of the two-month nervous wait we will have to endure before an offer for publication is made in November 2016, or the subsequent year – yes, a full year – of a thousand different editing processes. I’m entirely unaware of the journey that will unfold, and the endless hours of reading and re-reading over 80,000 of my own words for the seven hundredth time. I’m oblivious to the fact that I will write and edit the book in Tenerife, Cyprus, Edinburgh, Mallorca, and in myriad Costa coffee shops within a ten-mile radius of our Yorkshire home. In fact, my bull elephant and I will travel everywhere together. We will eat, sleep, and breathe the same air for the next 12 months, until we virtually morph into one another.

Similarly, I cannot even begin to imagine what my bull elephant will become. I can’t possibly know that he will turn heads, and people will begin to notice him. I have no concept, yet, of the amount of love for my bull elephant, as he nonchalantly swings his legs under the table amidst the twinkling fairy lights and sips his San Pellegrino through a straw. He doesn’t know it either, but he will appear in national newspapers and magazines; he will pose for photo shoots; he will be invited onto the television and radio, and asked, ‘Could you please tell us exactly how you have transformed yourself into the elephant we see before us, today?’

But Mr Wonka sees it all. His eyes can envisage the journey long before we can.

As we pack up to leave, Mr Wonka turns to us and says in his hypnotising, soft tones, ‘Congratulations to the pair of you…’

The expected due date is 11th January 2018.

You can pre-order a copy here… Running For My Life, by Rachel Ann Cullen

*And the great glass elevator in the publishing house? I’m planning on busting through the ceiling in it, next time…

All of the above will magically transform into this…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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I remember where I was. Do you?

It was the strangest of Sunday mornings. I woke up bleary eyed as usual next to my pot-smoking numb-nuts of a boyfriend – a scaffolder called Neil from Hull.*obvious caveats here being that there is absolutely no shame in a) being a scaffolder b) called Neil or c) from Hull (well, almost). The fact that he was an unfortunate combination of all three, and also a virulent pot head with the intellectual capacity of a struggling amoeba were all merely unhappy coincidences.

Either way, I awoke in my hungover state to the news that Princess Diana had died. What? What the fuck?! I ran back upstairs to tell him the news, but he simply groaned some ganja-induced nothingness, rolled over, and went back to sleep. Meanwhile, I took my lost nineteen-year old self back downstairs and watched whilst the country – literally – wept. I remember the sky being heavy and dark, spewing rain as though it were filled with a million teardrops, and wondering if that thing they’d taught us in GCSE English called “pathetic fallacy” actually existed.

And I felt the sadness. I didn’t jump on the next train down to London and cling to the gates of Buckingham palace wailing, but I felt the overwhelming outpouring of grief in my own sad, lost, nineteen-year-old way, within the confines of my mum’s living room which felt as dark, empty, cold and lonely as it ever had done.

That was twenty years ago next week. Two decades have passed by. I had just turned nineteen years old – a mere babe. And now I’m here, aged 39, simply unable to recognise myself from that young girl (it offends me to describe my then self as a ‘woman’) I’d drifted into becoming. What would I tell her if I knew then what I know now? Would she believe me if I told her how much more life had to offer than she realised at the time? Whose dreams would she follow? Would she be brave enough to pursue her own?

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I am. I will. I do.

You see, the sadness I felt on that Sunday morning felt to be far bigger than it should have been. I wasn’t even an avid Diana fan, if truth be told. I didn’t follow her fashion sense or try to emulate her coy heavily-charcoaled smoky-eyes look. I didn’t honestly know what to make of the Martin Bashir interview, and if truth be told, I didn’t really care less. In my nineteen-year-old self-absorbed head fog, all I could see (and smell) was my pot-smoking anti-intellectual scaffold-erecting boyfriend (although he did have a cracking body, an immense year-round perma-tan, and he vaguely resembled Jay Kay from Jamiroquai from a distance in a busy, badly-lit nightclub.)

No, the grief that I felt was for waste. The waste of a life – however fucked-up; however imperfect; however flawed. It was as though something inside me knew that I was wasting my life. Sitting there alone on my mum’s fern green sofa with my tub of Pringles and a full-fat coke, whilst my comatose semiliterate other half was still dreaming of illegal pot plants in my bed, upstairs. On a very deep level, I knew this was my waste – of my life – and it was my loss. And I was grieving for that as much as I was sharing in the nation’s bereavement over their very own People’s Princess.

What’s more, it made me warm to Princess Di. She was flawed, too. Her life hadn’t turned out how she’d perhaps planned – although from the multitude of round-the-clock televised synopses accounting her 36 years of life, she’d avoided being lumbered with a drug-taking scaffolder from Hull. So, she lived in a castle (and I don’t want any royalist nobheads correcting me on this.) But – of course – as we know, one person’s castle is another person’s prison. Perhaps the worst possible combination is having to simultaneously live in both. What a waste.

I’m not in any way suggesting that this one seismic, tragic world event propelled the direction of my weed-stinking young life. It didn’t. I would go on to wake up on further Sunday mornings next to the poor man’s look-alike, Jay Kay. I would eat sausage rolls and drink Red Bull with him on a weekend break in Blackpool, where I realised the extent of our misalignment when his idea of having fun was smoking pot in our room, which was so small that the TV was suspended dangerously on a badly-mounted wall stand hovering directly over the single bed (there wasn’t room for a table.) Waste, you say? I looked across at him on the train home and knew what that was. I willed him to be quick-witted, responsive, energetic, interesting. He was none of those things. I ate another sausage roll.

That summer, I began to run.

A lot has happened in the subsequent twenty years. Boyfriends (and husbands) have come and gone. Mistakes have been made. Bollocks have been dropped. Careers have been changed. Many different versions of myself have been born and then reborn. But in all of that learning, I have never lost sight of the fact that I won’t waste my life. I’ll make changes. I won’t opt for the path of least resistance.

I will run. I will always run.

Because hell, I could be sitting in a hemp-fest flat somewhere, drooling into my Just Eat kebab slumped off my tits on weed waiting for my husband, Neil, of twenty years to wake up from his afternoon nap.

And what kind of a waste of a life would that be?

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The view from our plane, this morning (yes, really.) It’s a beautiful world.