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

 

 

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The Deer Park Dash 10k: The non-trail trail race.

‘It’s a 10k trail race,’ I proclaim confidently, ‘around the grounds of some beautiful Estate in Chester.’

‘Sounds great!’ Gav replies. ‘I wonder how “traily” it is, though?’ he continues. We’ve fallen foul of this being used to describe everything from balls-out fell races (Bingley and Ilkely, to name but a few) to more steady jaunts through woodland paths. Ironically, the Trailblazer Half Marathon in Clumber Park falls into this latter category. Hard in its own way, but the trails are at least a) visible and b) not vertical.

Anyway, without further ado – and for no other reason than it is a CFD (a Child Free Day) – we enter the Deer Park Dash 10k. Job done.

A day or so later, a large ‘signed for’ envelope arrives through the post which always generates some level of excitement. What could it be? A cheque reimbursing us hundreds of pounds from Daylight Robbers, the HMRC? A hand-written invitation to meet Paula Radcliffe at her Font Romeu training base, and spend a week discussing how to progress from being a marginally shit runner to a slightly less-shit one? (it’s all relative.) It is neither of those things. Instead, I take out of the envelope the largest neon car parking pass I’ve ever seen. There is no sign of any race numbers. How odd. After pausing briefly to consider whether we’ve in fact entered into a car rally, Gav and I shrug in mirrored bemusement.

As usual, our travel to the race is planned meticulously to factor in a good hour-and-a-half of sitting in the car doing fuck all other than pinning and re-pinning numbers to our vests, and so we set off only slightly after the crack of dawn. ‘Have you got your trail shoes?’ I ask Gav, just before we heave our unnecessary bags into the car. ‘And what about your road shoes, just in case? It’s been quite dry out, so you never know – roadies may be an option.’ It’s an afterthought, but he agrees.

The Sat Nav helpfully directs us towards the middle of a forest and a magical-looking gatehouse, with absolutely no sign of life. ‘We are ridiculously early, though,’ I suggest hopefully, as we glance unconvincingly up at the gatehouse / castle / fortress / somebody’s ‘Grand Designs’-esque home, and then back at each other, with a further quizzical look. Short of Hansel & Gretel tip-toeing past the car scattering Dunkin’ Donut crumbs as they go, it is a rather bizarre fairy tale scene.

‘This doesn’t look right,’ Gav says. And it isn’t. After six phone calls to Bob on Security, and a series of reverse-and-drive-back-down-the-non-recognised-public-highway manoeuvres, we eventually reach the ‘correct’ gate, and queue up behind a ’67 plate Land Rover Discovery which has a polish on it akin to Mr Tumble’s nose (and in the exact same shade of rouge.) Holding our oversized neon car-parking pass proudly at the window, we are ushered through the gates by two middle-aged Hi-Vis vest wearers, and pull up in the event carpark.

The family in front of us open the boot of their Audi estate to reveal a stylish crate filled with a selection of Hunter wellington boots, and the youngest – Jonty – is mildly admonished for straying too far from the expensive corporate saloon. ‘Shit, it’s posh here, isn’t it, Gav?’ I say, as I dig around in my bag for the slice of cold toast I brought along in a plastic sandwich bag (I don’t like waste.)

Gav needs the loo, and so I am left to chew on my cold toast (it’s a Warburton’s Farmhouse crust) whilst watching Jonty and his sisters buzzing about in giddy excitement. They are now adorned in official ‘Deer Park Dash’ race T-shirts, which come down to their knees.

I swallow the last of my cold, claggy carbs, and see that Gav is marching back to the car at some pace, armed with our A3-size race numbers, and expensively-packaged race t-shirts. I already feel guilty, knowing that soon enough mine will be stuffed in the drawer with the rest of the Last Resort Bedtime Wear and/or Emergency Decorating attire.

Gav: ‘So, I asked the guy on the desk what the trails are like,’ he says, with a kind of I-should-have-known look on his face, ‘… and it’s all on tarmac.’

Me: ‘What?’

Gav: ‘It’s on tarmac. All paths. No trails. Did you even read the event info? There is not a single trail in sight. Not even any grass. Just tarmac. All the way.’

Me: ‘Oh. Right.’

Me again [sounding too jovial]: ‘Good job we brought our road shoes then, isn’t it? Ha ha ha!’

Gav: [silence]

I feel like a dickhead.

And it was a good job we’d brought our road shoes along – albeit I am currently in pre-litigious discussions with a certain Sports Shoes supplier about a certain hole which has appeared in my Adidas Ultras within 8 weeks of purchase (and at £129 they can kiss my ring if they even think about arguing that it’s ‘wear and tear’.) Anyway, I digress.

The bloke on the microphone announces that the ‘official warm up is about to commence’ and so, with 15 minutes to the start of the non-trail trail race, we get out of the car and meander over to the action. I say action, but there are a small handful of people doing questionable standing lunges in front of Eccleston’s most recently-qualified Personal Trainer. He does well, and the crowd (eventually) join in.

A tall, blonde woman floats past me, and as she glances over in my direction I immediately recognise her. I point at her and mutter something stupid like, ‘is that you? Off breakfast telly?’ I am momentarily thrown by the sensory overload and so can’t place her name in time, but I know that she is Louise Minchin. She comes across and comments on my striking Zoot! triathlon vest. I wonder how many people must point and stare and not-quite-say-hello to her, as she chats warmly about duathlons and qualifying times. We establish that there is some commonality, and she informs me of a GB age-group qualifying duathlon happening at Oulton Park in October. ‘Oooh, I’m doing that one!’ I say excitedly, and I wonder if I am really having a conversation about duathlons with the lovely blonde lady off breakfast telly.

We move over to the start line, where there is a man dressed as a deer. He’s standing quite near the front, and I wonder if he is a particularly fast deer*. I have no I-deer (sorry.) The countdown from 5 seems to come out of nowhere, and then we’re off. I fly off and I know I’m in second place to the woman who was hovering confidently at the front of the start line. In my head, I’m being hunted down by The Blonde Lady From Breakfast Telly, and so I run hard, not wishing to disgrace myself (because I have somehow convinced myself that Ms Minchin gives two shits how fast / slow I am, and therefore, I don’t want to disappoint.)

But my race fitness isn’t in line with my current ambitions, and so after 5k I’m pretty much spent. We turn at the corner, and I see Gav approaching. He’s not too far behind me. He shouts something lovely and encouraging, but I can’t speak and so I don’t reply. I gulp a drink at the water station, and then set off again. I see my new BBC Breakfast Friend coming towards me in the opposite direction, and I think I hear her give me a mini-whoop of encouragement. I run fast again, but I am running out of steam. When I run, my pace is good, but I want to stop. I want to stop so badly, and I know I can’t keep this pace going. This is only 10k, Rach! What the hell is wrong with you? I berate myself for failing, and for not being good enough. I stop briefly and take a breath. I run again, and some of the slower runners who may have done only half the distance I have look across at me with some confusion, as if they didn’t expect me to show any signs of struggle. It angers me, because I am struggling. I am hurting, and I want to stop – again.

My pace continues to be fast, but I also keep wanting to stop. I can’t understand why, and it frustrates me**. I stop again, and look behind me. I know I’m still in 2nd place (ladies), and I’m half expecting a troop of females to trample me down and leave me for dead. Instead, I see a UKRunChat vest, and he shouts at me, ‘Keep going! Come on, lass, keep going!’ He catches up with me, and I try to stick with him, but I am on my last legs.

I try and I try and I keep fucking trying, and I will it to end. I look at my watch, and my time is disappointing. I try to rationalise with myself the ‘whys’, and I dig deep to congratulate myself for coming 2nd lady, at least. This – I remind myself – means that there was only one other female runner faster than me on the course, today. But, it is of little consolation. I still feel let down by my stop/start laboured efforts.

I sit down on the grass and feel flat.

A few minutes later, Gav approaches the finish line. I can see that he’s worked just as hard as me, and he makes a fuss of ‘how well I’ve done’. I find it hard to believe him, but then I realise that I sound like a pathetic, self-defeating, perfectionist wanker. He puts me straight on a few things, and we head back to the car.

Jonty and his folks are just packing up. The dad looks sweaty from his fun-run efforts with the kids, and they pile themselves and their Hunter wellingtons back into the Audi Estate. I smile as I inhale the remaining half of a croissant I stuffed into my bag earlier, because I don’t like waste.

I drive back home, and I feel a cacophony of emotions: relief, joy, elation, fatigue, pride, frustration, but mainly joy. And I’m wondering when I’ll see my new BBC Breakfast Friend again. And I’ve got a funny feeling I will… #Jan2018

*Gav beat the deer. Just.

**Afterwards, Gav reminds me that I have been injured for 7 months of this year, and have barely run more than 15 miles a week for over 9 months. This – he suggests – may be ‘why’.

 

‘The Power of Yet’ vs ‘The Curse of Enough’

We’ve been learning about something called ‘The Power of Yet’ today, Mummy,’ she said, tucking into half a sausage roll on our walk home from school. It’s one of the perks of living near a farm shop.

Really? And what exactly is ‘the power of yet’ then, Tills?’ I genuinely didn’t know.

Well, if you can’t do something, then you put a ‘yet’ at the end of it,’ she explained, sounding like a teacher in a child’s body whilst processing her pork and pastry combo, ‘and it means that you just can’t do it… YET… but you WILL be able to do it some time in the future.

Wow! That’s a great way of looking at things, Tills,’ I replied, genuinely impressed with the whole notion of this ‘turning obstacles into challenges’ and ‘stamping out defeatism’ vibe.

She continued, ‘So, I cried when I couldn’t work out why number 9 was the odd one out in maths today, out of 9, 12, 20, 36 and 45, when Delilah could.’ I temporarily switched off from her verbatim and drifted into some dusty old mental arithmetic corner of my mind where I divided and subtracted, and raced through my basic knowledge of prime numbers, before finally coming to the conclusion that this was a test designed for six-year olds. How hard could it be??

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

She continued, ‘But then I thought that I just didn’t understand it YET [she exaggerated the ‘yet’, delivering it slowly and deliberately, as though talking to someone of significantly inferior intellect] and that I would understand it some time.

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

Right, right. I see,’ I replied, still racing through chapters of Algebra for Amoebas in my head, as she continued telling me about her day.

The power of yet. Not making the grade… yet. Not quite hitting the mark… yet. Not understanding the how’s or the why’s… yet. Not reaching the ‘qualifying standard’ … yet. Not getting there – wherever that might be… yet.

Yet, yet, yet. And yet…

It’s a big and generous concept. It stops kids giving up before they’ve really battled with their own internal belief system, and reminds them that sometimes the answer isn’t always easy; it doesn’t always jump out from the page; the qualifying standard might take many, many attempts, and that giving up isn’t the right option: Word on the street is ‘it ain’t cool to quit, kids!’*

Hallelujah! Amen to that. Don’t quit folks! Keep going. Tally-ho! Crack on! Onwards and upwards, and all that.

But then it got me thinking. When is enough ever enough? When does ‘The Power of Yet’ turn on us and become some big old shitty stick with which we can (and do) beat ourselves? What if the right thing to do IS to quit? Move on. Leave it there. Accept our limitations. What happens to ‘The Power of Yet’ then? And furthermore, when are we enough? When are our accomplishments, achievements, feathers in caps and certificates on walls, enough? Are we forever doomed to kneel and worship at the altar of The Power of Yet, deeming ourselves – and any/all of our achievements – to be (offensively scrawled in red pen) ‘could do better’s’ and ‘must try harder’s?’ What if we have tried our best? What if that is as close as we can possibly come to hitting the bulls’ eye?

What then?

You see, I’ve spent years in a silent, daily battle with The Curse of Enough. I’ve spent decades chasing, wrangling, and head-locking a little bastard chimp inside my head which told me that I simply wasn’t good enough… yet. I wasn’t fast enough… yet. Not thin enough… yet. Not pretty enough… yet. Not successful enough… yet. Not GOOD enough… yet. That some illusory, unidentifiable moment in time would occur in my future when I would reach this pinnacle; this mecca of contentment, but that time wasn’t here, and now.

Well let me tell you, fellas (generic term for all readers. We do inclusivity, here) The Power of Yet has been a double-edged sword for me. It has motivated me time after time to try harder. Want to knock an hour and a quarter off your marathon time in the space of 2 years? Use the Power of Yet. It works. Want to write so badly that you spend eighteen months re-writing 80,000 of THE SAME WORDS because you believe in the story? The Power of Yet will help you to get a publishing deal, and a literary agent. Believe me. This shit works.

The medals, the certificates, the contracts, the achievements. The Power of Yet doesn’t know when to stop. What about enjoying the journey? What about luxuriating in the momentary glimpses of joy? What about putting a lid on an endless fascination for desired outcome? Years of being bounced between The Power of Yet and The Curse of Enough like some stunned Wimbledon tennis ball being strewn around Court 1 has taught me to TREAT WITH CAUTION.

This comes in the week when my Good for Age entry for Virgin London Marathon 2018 has been accepted, from a time I ran at last year’s Yorkshire Marathon which was 10 minutes off my marathon PB. At the time, I was devastated, seeing it as a huge personal failure, and a regression away from that elusive moment at some point in my future when it all makes sense: when I am enough.

But I see now that was all wrong. I ran as hard and as fast as I could, on that day. I battled with every cell of my being for the last fourteen miles, and I crawled over the finish line in 3 hrs and 27 minutes. Only a few years ago, this would have been a huge mini victory. Fucking hell! I’ve run a sub- 3:30 marathon! But the Power of Yet combined with the Curse of Enough stole my moment. It won’t get the opportunity to do it again.

So, did you work out the answer then, Tills?

To what?’ She was temporarily distracted by the realisation that her sausage roll was done.

Your maths puzzle. The random numbers and why 9 was the odd one out.’

Oh yeah. It was only because it’s a single digit. The others are double digits. How easy is that?

Of course it was! I was just about to say that!’ I lied.

FFS! Algebra for Amoebas back in its box. There I was involving multiplication, subtraction and square roots. No doubt my six-year old daughter (or clone) was doing the same with her similarly overthinking mind. But the answer was so simple we could barely see it.

I’m hoping that one week she’ll come home and tell me all about ‘The Power of Enough’. Because sometimes – just like the number 9 brainteaser – the answer is very simple: Trying your best is good enough.

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We cracked it!

*Quite pleased with this, having just thought it up. If it were the 60s, I would be Peggy Olson (Mad Men)

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It’s running, Jim, but not as we know it / Back to life; back to reality / I’m fucked

The phone rings. It’s Mum.

You’ve done what? Broken it? What the hell, Mum? But you only fell getting out of the bloody car! And you bounced straight back up again. Plus a torn ligament? Jesus Christ. So, what happens now?”

FFS. I’m due in work half an hour ago. I pull over and ring my boss. Satnav enter new destination: Huddersfield Orthopaedics.

Mum went all Del Boy-at-the-bar on me, and slid down the outside of the car in some comedy slow-motion “did that really just happen?” move right in front of my eyes. Once me and tills stopped pissing ourselves laughing (I’m not some heartless bitch: she jumped straight back up and appeared to be alright) it transpired that her knee and the curb didn’t get on. This meant the subsequent three weeks of hospital visits, packing bags, shopping trips, and endless cut & paste “Are you ok?” / do you need anything?” text messages, plus dishing out regular bollockings when she blatantly refused to use her crutches because they’ll ‘make (her) look old and decrepit… But I don’t want to be a burden, Rach.’ 😮

Meanwhile…

Mummy, can I go out on my bike?”

I’ve just walked in through the front door from work. I have 24 bags slung over both shoulders, draped across my body, and the veins are popping out at either side of the circulation-stopping grooves I’ve managed to indent into my hands by carrying too much shit around in plastic bags. I’ve also just completed a list of ball-aching chores which I won’t waste your time in reciting, including getting cash to pay for something I’ve got no idea about for one of the clubs my daughter goes to. It might be something to do with a farm, or bowling, or it could just be protection money. I’ll pay it – I don’t honestly care. I look across to the kitchen sink, where waiting for me is an unholy pile of ceramic shite still caked in ketchup from last night’s tea.

Yeah, tills. Go and get changed and I’ll get your bike up from the cellar. Give me ten minutes.” I mentally prepare myself for pushing my sturdy 6-yr old daughter plus her steel frame bike half a mile up hill whilst she (ahem) ‘pedals’ and then gear myself up to run alongside her for the next mile-and-a-half downhill hollering ‘brake… BRAKE!’ at her as she grins and nudges my minute/miling to something akin to a track session.

Meanwhile…

*NEW EMAIL ARRIVES IN INBOX

Dear Rachel,

I’m very happy to attach the millionth copyedited version of your manuscript. There is absolutely no rush in getting back to me with your revision, because I’m officially the loveliest editor in the world, but it’s over to you!

x

And she meant it – there is no time pressure (she genuinely IS the loveliest editor in the world.) Only the unenviable task of yet again having to completely re-read and edit my own 80,000 words which I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half already carefully sculpting. AAAAARRRGGGHHH! You’ve heard of snow blindness. This is word blindness, only worse, because there’s no option to fall to your knees and make an impromptu snow angel. The words aren’t comforting like that.

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And on the hundredth re-write…

Meanwhile…

‘Hi. Could I make an emergency dental appointment, please? I’ve got an infected wisdom tooth. Yep – had it for about 3 days. It’s not improving. OK, 3.15pm today is fine, thanks.’

I phone the dentist as my wisdom tooth has been keeping me up at nights with a throbbing pain, whilst during the day I’m off my tits on ibuprofen / paracetamol combo. I’ve stopped short of crushing and snorting the stuff, but only just.

Meanwhile…

*DING DING! NEW TEXT MESSAGE ARRIVES

Hey Rachel, it’s (one of the nicer non-fake fur coat wearing school mums). Just wondering if you’re still joining us on that 11-mile walk we spoke about this Saturday morning? Hope you can make it! X

I couldn’t make it last time we arranged something similar, and I let her down. I don’t want to let her down again. She seems nice. She’s had a rough time. It’s infinitely better than ‘going for a coffee’ and talking shit whilst sedentary. At least we’ll be moving.

Meanwhile…

TWITTER ALERT:

Tweet from my favourite Twalker (Twitter Stalker – just made it up) reads: Where’s the blogging gone? I thought you’d dried up!

But I haven’t dried up. I haven’t had time to dry up.

I’m fucked.

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I’m fucked.

And my running? Oh yeah, that. I’m back running again. It’s funny though, because it’s having to take its place in amongst the rest of my life. It doesn’t command and usurp my attention anymore. I’m building my running back up steadily, and on my terms. Anything past six miles isn’t feasible just yet. But in amongst the madness of the rest of my life, I may be fucked, but I am infinitely happier than I was before.

Maybe there’s a blog in there somewhere…

The late arrival to the DREAM BIG! party…

I was a late starter when it came to the whole ‘Dream Big!’ mantra. In fact, I arrived at the party just as they were emptying paper plates with discarded Wotsits into black bin liners and stacking up the fold-away chairs. But, Agadoo was still playing, so I hung around a bit.

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…Push pineapple, shake the tree…

And it’s funny, because even when I DID achieve mini life victories, I explained them away as being a fluke, or a freakish never-to-be-repeated piece of good fortune, or an Act of God (forgive the legal reference.) I never ever took the credit for them. Not ever.

Aged 18:

I passed my driving test, first time. On my 18th birthday – the day itself (oh, the pressure) – and very nearly flunked it. One more ‘minor’ error and it would have been game over. I answered 3 out of 3 of the Road Safety questions incorrectly, one example given below:

Q: What does this sign on a motorway mean?

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My Answer: ‘Erm, three lanes, two lanes, or one lane?’ I stammered, whilst offering up a pathetic little smile.

No, Rachel. It doesn’t. But the slightly aging man in the tweed jacket with a clipboard gave me a ‘Pass’ anyway. It’s because it’s my 18th birthday, today! I reasoned with myself. He couldn’t fail me on my birthday! It couldn’t possibly be because I’d just about managed to negotiate the L-plated Vauxhall Corsa around a corner without wiping out an old lady. I couldn’t give myself the credit for that. It was a fluke.

Aged 22:

I got a 2:1 in my Law Degree – against the odds (seriously, we won’t go there just now.) I’d had a virtual breakdown, taken a year out, changed universities, and returned to find myself Billy No Mates sitting at the back of a Leeds University lecture theatre wishing I’d never started the damn thing in the first place.

When my result came through, I had no Plan B. Pretty blondes floated and skipped around the University Campus telling of their impending next steps to Law School where they would become Daddy’s Little Protégé. I sat with a full fat latte in the canteen and wondered, What the hell do I do now? I wasn’t expecting a half decent result. It must have been an easy paper, this year, I told myself; the dissertation must have been semi-plagiarised. Did I cheat? I couldn’t be sure.

Aged 26:

I qualified as a solicitor – against the odds. (Again, you don’t need a full breakdown as to the disparity between my real, hapless self and the person I portrayed.) How have I even secured a training contract?

I dropped my biscuit in the milk jug during one important client meeting… AND THEN STUCK MY HAND IN TO RETRIEVE IT much to the horror of the Litigation Partner and his very wealthy client (in my defence, it was one of those posh biscuits covered in foil.) How was I not sacked? I qualified, but it was more by accident than by design. An Act of God, perhaps.

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Couldn’t waste it, could I?

(There are many, MANY more such examples, but for the sake of time and convenience we’ll skip the minutiae. And the Virgin London Marathon 2011. That’s in the book.)

***

Aged 36

I ran the Yorkshire Marathon 2014 in 3 hours and 16 minutes, averaging 7:30 min/miles for 26.2 miles. WHAT THE FUCK?! I went into overdrive with the IT’S A FLUKE / HAPPY ACCIDENT / ACT OF GOD apparently logical reasoning. After all, I couldn’t POSSIBLY have simply worked my arse off and achieved that time, could I?

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No sooner had I limped off the York University Campus post-marathon than I was already filled with dread and panic that this was somehow entirely outside of my control – a thing that had (fortunately) happened TO me, and not BECAUSE of me. I feared I would never again run like that, or achieve such a freakish result again.*

Remember, they’ve already binned the plates and stacked chairs at the DREAM BIG! party, and now Black Lace has finished on repeat play, people are slowly ambling outside into the car park. I’m left dancing on my own to The Conga whilst I try and mop up the last remnants of the DREAM BIG! happy vibe – along with a few crusty sandwiches and slightly warm cucumber sticks.

But it WAS my doing. All of it was my doing. I achieved all of those things, despite it appearing as though I am walking, talking anti-proof for the ‘Expectancy Theory’ (i.e. that proposes an individual makes choices based on the belief that there is a positive correlation between effort, performance and outcome.)

Dream big? DREAM BIG, you say? Even when I’ve LIVED the bloody dream, I STILL haven’t believed it!

So here we are. I am now aged 38 years old. The book I have written (‘Running for my Life: My 26.2 Mile Journey to Health and Happiness’ – Blink Publishing) is about to be listed for pre-order on Amazon. It won’t be released for another nine months – not until January 2018. But, I am refusing to allow myself to make up excuses for my dream being a fluke / happy chance / stroke of luck. It isn’t. I have lived that story, and I have written that book. It’s my party, and I own the fucking paper plates.

And as I sit browsing through my back catalogue of Dream Big! party invites, I can take myself within a millisecond to each and every one of those experiences, where – despite my putting in every ounce of effort humanly possible – I hadn’t dreamt about some fantastical, out-of-this-world positive outcome. I found that the effort sort of took care of that anyway.

It can happen anyway. It DOES happen, anyway! It is – perhaps – possible to Dream Big! in retrospect, to realise that simply by continuing to turn up / pound the rock / grind the stone / run the miles / write the words, the outcome is already being choreographed somewhere far grander and more exotic than the Black Lace Agadoo-playing dance floor.

That’s the party I want to be invited to. Hell, that’s the party I’m going to!

See you there.

* I ran 3:17 at VLM 2015. It wasn’t a fluke then, either.

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Dream Big, Tills. Dream Big… (or just work your arse off. Either will do.)

 

Goodbye, #VLM2017, hello recovery…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your company. Hold on tight!

 Mon 13th Feb

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

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Thanks for the hint, Amelia. Loving this book…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soppy Get 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Fret not, I have others.

TO BE CONTINUED…

WHAT’S YOUR DREAM?

What’s your dream?

Right at the end of Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts is (ahem) rescued from the skanky down-town bedsit by her Knight in Shining Armour as he pansies his way up the fire escape, red rose gripped between his chattering teeth, the voice of a local vagrant can be heard, saying ‘Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream?’

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Well, fortunately for me, I don’t need saving from a life of prostitution, and Gav’s really not good with horses, so I eliminated the need for him to gallop anywhere on his trusty white steed some while back.

Let’s also get the obvious Miss World responses out of the way for the sake of completeness:

  • World Peace;
  • Obama to remain as US president for an eternity, in the absence of any viable alternatives;
  • Anything at all relating to my daughter and her having a joyous, prosperous and pain-free future (including not ending up falling for an arsehole, avoiding a legal career, and generally deferring adulthood for as long as humanly possible);
  • A permanent end to the persistent problem of ‘roots’ for a pseudo-blonde (I actually gave this as a ‘serious’ answer during one Training Contract assessment day at a high profile City law firm in my mid-20s. I was unsuccessful.)

One Monday morning in May 2015, I walked into Waterstone’s bookshop on Princes St in Edinburgh. I gazed around at the thousands of titles lining the shelves, and felt mild panic at ever having to leave. ‘This is it,’ I remember thinking to myself. ‘This is my dream.’ I knew in that moment that one day, I would have my very own pristine, hard copy book for sale in that bookshop. Not in any bookshop: in THAT one.

Things have moved on in terms of bookshop layout and design, and boy, do these guys know their craft: Tables piled high with silky, smooth hard copies; crisp paperbacks stacked up like Jenga next to chalk boards displaying handwritten notes about The Author. A peace transcends the floors as bookworms and other general moochers peruse back covers, whilst the more focused muse over the self-helps (* the obvious exception to this being the Children’s Book section. I quick-stepped through this one, and hurdled at least two semi-abandoned toddlers.)

The day before, I’d completed the Edinburgh half marathon in a dream time of 1:30 (…and 45 seconds). I inched my way up the stairs (there are shit loads of them – especially on dead legs) thinking I couldn’t fall any more deeply in love with a bookshop.

And then I did.

I saw the coffee shop. Now, this really isn’t an advert for Waterstones, in Edinburgh. I am unashamedly a bookshop fanatic. I cried real, heartfelt tears when Borders closed through insolvency some years ago. ‘But how could it go bust? I spent a FORTUNE in there!’ my logical brain grappled to comprehend, but found no answer.

There was something special about that day, back in May 2015. I lined up and ordered my Extra Hot Skinny Mocha, and then took my seat at the one remaining table. It just so happened to be the two-seater with a perfectly unspoilt view of the castle.

I sat down, and began to write. I was writing the book that would sit stacked up – like perfect, polished Jenga blocks – on a table near the top of the stairs, enticing passing mocha-drinkers and rocky-road eaters on their way to the Café with a View. My chalk board would stand next to the table, with a short biography of The Author, Rachel Cullen. I saw it all: My Dream.

A year went by and I continued to write. Races came and went; chapters were written and rewritten; successes intermingled with disappointments, and life – as tends to happen – moved on.

August 2016 came around, and I somehow piggybacked a low cost return trip to Edinburgh by virtue of Gav’s business trip (he’d be lonely without me – for all of one night – I reasoned.)

As Gav left for the Edinburgh Office early next morning, I set off walking in search of my bookshop. I ignored silver-sprayed street entertainers mid-performance, and barely glanced at the kilted man giving his bagpipes CPR on the street corner; I weaved through bemused tourists and their oversized luggage, and hop-scotched small children in prams. I blanked dazzling SALE displays in otherwise debt-inducing dress shops, and I even walked straight past the latest running gear on show in a funky sports shop window. All to get to my literary spiritual home. Will MY table be free? The two-seater with a castle view? I wondered. What if someone else is sitting there? Do I politely ask them to leave? You can see this getting a little out of hand.

I saw the ‘W’ sign approaching in the distance and increased my pace. My bags felt heavy, weighted down with laptops and other apparently necessary plug-in devices, but once there, I didn’t plan on moving for quite some time.

Once up the stairs, I turned right. My table was taken, but I had a plan.

“Large Extra hot skinny mocha, please,” I said to the kind looking assistant who looked at me and smiled, as though she’d seen me before.  Telepathically, she knew I was in for the long haul.

I sat down to write. Only this time, I wasn’t writing my book. I was packaging it up to send out into the universe, to see if someone, somewhere would also share my vision – the hardback Jenga table display in Waterstones, Edinburgh with accompanying chalk board. I wrote for hours. I broke down my synopses to cover all of the possible why’s and how’s necessary to convince some invisible, unknown publisher that my book should be spared from the Slush Pile. I knew it wasn’t perfect; I knew it still needed work, but I believed it deserved the chance to stand shiny, polished and proud on that table.

The universe listened.

It’s now early November, 2016. And as things stand, my dream looks like it may well become a reality in January 2018.

*and again, for the purpose of concluding matters, my imminent and pending dream list also includes:

  • a sub-3:15 time at Virgin London Marathon 2017;
  • to run Boston marathon 2018 for my 40th birthday (I already have a qualifying time);
  • A vision relating to my work, which would be unfair to share at this moment in time;
  • A permanent end to the persistent problem of ‘roots’ for a pseudo-blond (Or even a semi-permanent one will do.)