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

Race No. 1:

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

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

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

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

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

Job done. Happy days…

***

Race No. 2:

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

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

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

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

I go home, and I cry.

***

Race No. 3

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

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

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

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

To nothing.

I am heartbroken.

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

***

Race No. 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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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