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

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

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy.

Terminal 4 – The Delay

The Beginning – at the Pacific Coast

The Heroes – a cast of legends

The Bus – our lifeline

The Camping

The (daily) Route Maps

The Hills

The Views

The Meals

The Fall

The Bridges

The River crossings

The Man from Del Monte

First sight of the Caribbean

Victory is ours! The end…

ALMOST HOME…

AND FINALLY.

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

The Dutch Oven – Amsterdam half marathon – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED…

Duathlon Virgin Pops Her Cherry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Can’t you do without the milk, Gav?’

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

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

Not a Scooby Do.  

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

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

Bollocks.  

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

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

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

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

He didn’t laugh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I. love. tarmac.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Seven Year Itch… Running through Motherhood

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

However, I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was free from it all.

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

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

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

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

*Written on 22nd September, 2017

 

 

Ooooh you make me live….*

I’ve just married my best friend. Well, he’s more like an upgrade on a best friend – the deluxe version. He’s the front-facing table seat in quiet coach C on the Grand Central from Halifax – London… first class (of course.) He’s the 12mm luxury underlay as opposed to the 10mm more reasonably priced alternative (yes – we are currently shopping for carpets, and yes – we want the Gav quality “it’ll be like walking on a bouncy castle” option). He’s the Marks & Spencer’s weekly food shop, although admittedly, Aldi do some excellent fresh produce. (And £3.10 for a Pink Lady apple? It does come in a M&S protective polystyrene tray, although I’m quietly confident it would survive the 3-mile car journey home without.)

The last time I had a real best friend was in my teenage years. We did everything together, Jo and I. She’d get on my bus into town and we’d go shopping at Jean Junction for hooded tops; we’d trudge around Sainsbury’s for my Mum during school holidays and make a bee-line for the iced fingers.

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Those iced fingers did me no good…

In later years, that same trudge advanced to the dark and sticky route up and down the stairs between the Coliseum nightclub and Maine St, where she would patiently guide me with my frustratingly poor eyesight, as I chased Fit Rob around hoping he’d notice that I was both alive and available. (I never knew his surname; he had blonde curtains, and he never did realise that I was either of those things.) And then – selfishly – she went and got herself a boyfriend. “It won’t last… He’s from Down South… she’s still at school… what are they gonna do? Commute?** Ha ha ha just wait and see…” **They did exactly that, and 20 years later are happily married with 3 beautiful kids. Meanwhile, I was stuck with my latest Boyfriend of the Month eating pot noodles whilst swinging my legs on the bench under the slide at Warley park wishing I could find another best friend.

Two decades later… I did.

I’ve written about our romantic meeting – some bullshit excuse around him needing a new running club vest “I’m not sure what size, so I’ll take two just in case, and bring one back…”, and the rest – as they say – is history. We’ve melted together in the oppressive heat of the Dubai marathon, and hob-nobbed with Sir Mo whist altitude training in Font Romeu.

We’ve had four years of fun and belly-laughter that make the previous thirty look like tired old sepia photographs. Welcome technicolor! With filters! Life with my – now husband – Gav is X Pro ll on Instagram (it’s a bright one.)


And so our newly married adventures continue…

… he’s got a bike.

I repeat – he’s just got a frickin bike! This was as unlikely as Theresa May waking up one morning to discover that the Bags for Life residing under her eyes had miraculously disappeared (who’d take that job?) And this is a whole new chapter in our CulloDodd adventures. Yes – we’re still runners. That will always be a big part of our lives and our story, but just as the amoebas turned into fish, we are evolving into people who can – and will – choose to have new experiences in life. I’m back on the bus into town with my new best friend, and we’re off to buy a hooded (cycling) top.

And we went out for the first time on our bikes together, this week. Admittedly, I’ve had more practice on two wheels – my progress having been documented in recent blogs referencing jigsaw puzzles and painting by numbers. Gav was last on two wheels when he was chasing 6th form girls around town back in the early 90s with crooked teeth (Gav – not the girls. They’re straight now. Gav’s teeth – and also Gav, I’m happy to confirm.) So, as I flew off up the road ahead, Gav tried to take himself back two decades and remember the basics. “Just keep pedalling!” I shouted back to him. The advice has worked well for me.

I stopped and waited for him at the next suitable juncture, and saw his gormless* smile appear as he approached on his sexy, pristine new Orange Clockwork mountain bike. “It’s fucking ace!” He shouted, as I took a snap of him on his new toy, and we both continued on our 14-mile loop, up and over the beautiful Yorkshire hills from home. *I’m allowed to say this, as I tend to sport the same vacuous look – see Instagram.

And it’s a bloody good job we’re getting some cycling practice in, because for a honeymoon? Well, we’ve just signed up to cycle 460 km coast-to-coast across Costa Rica from the Pacific to the Caribbean in November. Really, how hard can it be?… and then we read the itinerary. Gulp. Shitbags. What the f*kc have we done? (Mind you, our impulsive decision to enter the 2016 Dubai marathon was at best questionable, and we did almost get lost whilst (ahem) “exploring” non-existent trails high on a mountainside in Font Romeu as we ran out of food, water, and daylight, but we don’t need to worry about those things just now.)

Meanwhile, running is coming back to me. More like my love of running is slowly returning after a long, injury-induced absence earlier in the year. So much so that bollocks – I’ve entered into a duathlon for October. Fuck it – what have I got to lose? I’ve even bought myself one of those fancy tri-suits and run the risk of resembling a toilet roll tube on a bike, but I’m flirting with the possibility that it was always meant to be this way. I was supposed to lose running this year in order to try out new adventures, and that’s exactly what I – and we – have done. I had to drop off the mile-chasing Strava Wanker scenario to see that I can still train without it. I needed to lose the races and the places to realise that it doesn’t define me, or my self-worth.

More recently I’ve tackled a couple of trail / light fell races, and I’ve deliberately put myself out of my comfort zone. Not to hone my off-road skills so much (which remain entirely shit) but to test my metal. Dare I go out of my road-running comfort zone? Trail running will never be my first love, but it’s still a worthwhile pursuit in challenging my fears. Skipping over tree roots at pace on a fast, slippery trail descent fills me with a terror I can only akin to the concept of playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey in the middle of the M62.

Our cycling adventures – the Duathlon and our planned Costa Rica bike ride – are exactly the same. Pushing ourselves, trying new things, seeing what we can do. And I love that my husband, Gav, is as up for the challenge as I am.

Now, just remind me. Where is Costa Rica again??

[Gav – we’d best do a Google search…]

*Oooooh you make me live

Whatever this world can give to me

It’s you, you’re all I see

Oooooh you make me live now honey

Oooooh you make me live…

 

All the gears, no idea: Naïve ambitions of cycling grandeur

It’s only gotten worse, this recent and sudden-onset impulsion I have to transform myself into a cyclist. I look at my newly-padded ass in the mirror (I now own two pairs of Beyoncé-inspired cycling shorts) and I don’t know who I’ve become.

We broke off at my cycling the equivalent of a 1000-piece 101 Dalmatians jigsaw, did we not? This was the 16-mile local hilly route I ventured on with my trusty Trek 2010 front-suspension mountain bike, incorporating the infamous Ripponden Bank in granny gear (without getting off to push, I might add.)

Well, since then I’ve taken to wearing cycling jerseys around the house. In fact, I’m currently sitting in my long-sleeved zip-up DHB spotty number, and if I glance to my left, I can see two spare aero wheels* sitting underneath the lounge window (yes, I can – proof below), these having recently been changed over on my… NEW ROAD BIKE! YES. THAT. *Warning: Wanker alert.

So much has happened, where do I even begin? The road bike thing came about quickly, and entirely out of the blue. Like a first date that ends waking up pissed in Gretna Green (or Las Vegas if you’re Britney Spears.) An innocent conversation with a work colleague that went something like this:

Him: ‘Ahh you wait until you get on a road bike, Rach!’

Me: ‘Why would I want to do that? Those flimsy things terrify me. There’s no WAY you’ll catch me going out on one of those any time soon.’

Him: ‘The need for speed, Rach, the need for speed. You won’t believe the difference… I’ve got a 2012 Scott aerofoil I don’t use anymore. I was going to sell it to a friend, but that fell through. You’re welcome to give it a go.’

Me: ‘Ok. When?’

[a day later]

Me: ‘I can transfer the money online tonight, Chris. Is that ok?’

The beautiful, sexy, Scott foil aero frame, complete with Shimano Ultegra groupset (still no idea what this means) and Planet X aero wheels + Shimano Ultegra rims (what?) had to be mine. But guess what? I’m now back trying to decipher paws from tails in the 5-piece Paw Patrol jigsaw puzzle. For the sake of my own boredom, lets change the analogy to ‘painting by numbers’. I’m struggling to control the fat, easy-grip Crayola’s and stay within the lines.

So, here we are again. Paw Patrol/Crayola – time flies when you’re entirely out of your depth.

Challenge #1: Can I even ride this sleek, strange, drop-handlebar number, with gears I don’t know how to use for two-and-a-half miles back home along one straight road without causing any kind of calamity?

I lifted the bike up and it felt like the biking equivalent of a Malteser – floaty light. I’ve been cycling a fucking tank! was my first thought (sorry, Trek) – although it’s a tank I’ve grown to know and love. I pushed ‘Scott’ (we’re already on first name terms) a few yards up the hill to a stretch of flat, and climbed aboard. Trusting only my instincts and the basic premise of ‘if in doubt, just pedal’ I rolled way, and in the direction of home. The fact that this only required me to navigate my way up ONE SINGLE ROAD with a reasonably steady incline for just a couple of miles –with no major traffic issues, only one junction; minimal pedestrians, and equally minimal opportunity to face-plant outside a supermarket. The risks were mitigated by all these factors, and – guess what – I ARRIVED HOME. IN ONE PIECE. This was the first test, and we passed.

***

Challenge #2: Can I ride a bit further up the hill, navigate my way around the steep bend, up to the smelly farm and back down home again? It’s hard to describe this plan in any greater detail, other than to say that it would require

  • more climbing,
  • on busier roads (and at a busier time of day),
  • up a steeper incline,
  • and it would be slightly further in distance than challenge #1,
  • together with a reasonable descent, where my metaphorical balls would be put to the test on my new speedy Malteser-framed, floaty-light bike.

How did I fare?

I tried to acquaint myself with the gears. Referring to them only as ‘the left one’ and ‘the right one’ – and with no discernible knowledge as to which of the cogs* – front or back – related to either, we struggled to hit it off. Had this been a first date, we would have laboured to eke out 90 seconds of ‘getting to know you’ inane patter, and neither of us would have ticked the box for a potential round two. ‘Nice enough, but not for me. Thanks, but no, thanks, would have been the reciprocal feedback.

I cranked at ‘the left one’ and then jarred unceremoniously at the right, and with the incline noticeably increasing up and around the main road as it veers off to the left, Scott buckeroo’d me off, like a racehorse with an incompetent, ignorant rider. The chain came loose, and for a split-second I considered phoning home and calling for immediate rescue. Is there a biking equivalent of the AA?

BUT NO! I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED. I picked up my Malteser bike and carried it across to the safety of the pavement, where I flipped it upside down and began fiddling about with the greasy, oily chain – picking at cogs and turning them in (what I considered to be) the right direction – and causing untold havoc to my new acrylic nails – until the chain sat back into place, with teeth and grooves apparently in harmony once more.

What if I’ve just fucked up my gears?

What if I get back on it and fall straight off again?

What if I’ve gone and broken it – as in, the entire bike?

What if I’ve also just ballsed-up my new pre-wedding acrylic nails?

I carried my featherweight friend back on to the road, tentatively hopped on board, and cycled off. Changed gear (left / right / front / back – who cares?) and heard it ‘click’ into place. YES! FUCKING YES! YES YES YES! Mini victory internal celebrations commenced, and inside my head I was popping champagne corks and dancing a victory jig at taking yet another incremental step towards being a slightly less incompetent cyclist. Oh, and painting by numbers? I’d say we’re onto crayoning in a picture of a cockerel** (with a 20-colour palate indicator, obviously.)

*I’m well aware that this isn’t the right word, might I add.

**No idea why a picture of a cockerel. Well, actually, I do. It came up on a Google search.

***

CHALLENGE #3: EXPLORE!

I woke up and I was feeling brave. Brave and adventurous. So much so, that I didn’t even have a plan. Who needs a fucking plan! Just get on my bike and explore. No end destination in mind, and – inspired by the Littlest Hobo – let’s just see where the road takes me (there was a voice that kept on calling me.)

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I plonked my padded Beyoncé backside onto Scott, and we headed off up the same main road which climbs as it bends around to the left. And, back once again in the First Dates restaurant, as I cranked roughly with the (left) gear, an awkward silence descended across the table as Scott once again bolted, the chain coming off in exactly the same place as it did before! Fucking hell. How stupid can I be? But this time, I’d come prepared. Lifting my malteser cycling companion up and flipping him over, I unzipped the pocket of my Inov8 rucksack, and donned my disposable gloves. Fuck you, chain. And bollocks if you’re going to wreck my acrylic nails (I’ve only had them for a bastard week.) I fiddled about with the chain once more, shifting a few cogs and – just as before – harmony was restored.

Back in the saddle, and having moved past the awkward dinner-date silence with the gears, we began rolling along nicely. Increasing in speed, efficiency, and confidence with every revolution of the wheels. We soon ventured past the smelly farm, and the open road beckoned me further. I’ve never been beyond that hill before. I wonder what’s up there? I pondered, whilst cycling past my familiar turn-off, and heading further along the new unfolding road ahead of me. It was all new. It felt exciting, and I felt brave. Mini steps, I told myself, but they’re all steps in the right direction. Plus, I was even beginning to have a bit of banter with my gears. Fucking hell. We’re getting along! As I continued to experiment, increasing the gears on the flatter sections and lowering them again on the climbs, some small semblance of understanding began to take place between us. I could feel them click into place. I could sense when the gear change was forced and felt wrong. Me and Scott were beginning to converse!

Bloody hell. There’s the motorway bridge! I’m cycling across the M62! This feels good! What should I do?

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The epitome of the Gormless Selfie

I kept going.

There’s a road sign saying we’re entering Kirklees. I’m leaving Calderdale! Am I on a top road cycling somewhere above Marsden? This is ACE!

 I didn’t know – I just kept going.

This is a long old stretch of road. It’s incredible! I’m still climbing, but I’m also cruising. Where the hell am I going? Where does this road even lead to?

 I had no idea. And so, I kept on going.

There’s a crossroads up ahead, and I can only go left or right.

 

I pulled up in a parking area overlooking a reservoir.

‘Where the hell am I?’ I asked another road biker who’d just pulled up alongside me, as we gazed down at the beautiful reservoir, below.

‘Blackstone Edge,’ he said, looking at me rather agog. I’d heard of it many, many times before, but never actually seen it.

‘It’s only my third ride out on this little number,’ I ventured, trying to put into context the reason why I appeared to be entirely clueless as to my whereabouts. ‘I’m just exploring.’  I looked down at my watch – it told me I’d cycled 8 miles up a hill.

‘Not bad going that! It’s a hell of a climb up here,’ he said. ‘Nice machine you’ve got there, too.

I beamed at my beautiful Scott sitting beneath my enlarged Beyoncé bum. I didn’t like to tell my new cycling friend that I didn’t know how to work the gears, or my left gear from my right (we’ve since had some relationship counselling, and I’m now comfortable that my left gear works my front derailleur***; the right one my back.)

‘Thanks!’ I replied, ‘I’m loving it!’

 And with that, I headed off on my 8-mile freewheel white-knuckle ride back home (and I didn’t change gears.)

Every stop I make, I make a new friend,

Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again.

 

*** Who the actual fuck am I?