I DON’T HAVE TO CYCLE UP EVEREST…

It all began a few months ago, when I dug my old 2010 Trek mountain bike out of the cellar and heaved it into Halfords for a service (and by this, I mean checking that the wheels were still round – the back one was suspect) pumping up the tyres, and making sure the brakes still work. And as much as I’m no cycling connoisseur, the name ‘Avid Juicy’ (a brand of cycling brakes, for the unenlightened) had stuck in my mind. To my knowledge, they may well have run out of their magical avid juice.

Wheels round? Check

Tyres pumped up? Check

Brakes working? Check

Gears working? Kind of. Well, not really, as they keep sticking, but just about manageable. Plus, I’d forgotten how to use them, so no bother.

It was the start of a new era. Not some Kick Ass, Dream Big! plan to cycle round Peru (that comes later) but my own personal plan to start off small, and set myself some tiny, incremental goals.

CHALLENGE # 1: CAN I RIDE A BIKE?

ANSWER # 1: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

My first challenge was cycling down to the gym from home – a five-mile route consisting of a couple of main roads (Gulp. Cold sweat.) followed by a traffic-free canal section (better, but it’s got plenty of bumpy, cobbly bits, and low bridges. Fuck.)

So, I set off one day on my now circular-wheeled Trek mountain bike, with grips on the tyres large enough to tackle even the most mountainous regions of the Alps, and headed on my way.

WhatsApp message to Gav: I’ve made it! I’m here in one piece! [elated-looking selfie attached]

I locked my bike up outside the gym with my daughter’s £5 fluffy unicorn-pink child’s bike lock (yes, I did) and trotted off to my class. Surprisingly, it was still there when I came back out, and so I cycled the 5-mile route back home again. But there was a small incline en route. Fuck, fuck FUCKKKKK. I managed to crank the gears down to the speed of a slug steadily progressing from the garden to the empty bean tins in last week’s recycling – stopping three times on the way – and eventually made it to the top.

YESSS! VICTORY IS MINE! I’d proven to myself that I could get on my bike – after 5 years of abstinence (even back then I was shit) and navigate roads, traffic, wanker lorry drivers, canal cobbles, clueless dog-walkers, piles of dog shit, low bridges, crossing roads, and pedestrians. If this were a jigsaw puzzle, it would have been a simple 6-piece affair for target age group 2/3yrs. Possibly in Peppa fucking Pig design. Anyway, I cracked it.

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…baby steps…

CHALLENGE #2: CAN I CYCLE TO MY MUM’S AND BACK HOME AGAIN?

ANSWER #2: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

Having never been formally diagnosed as appearing on the OCD spectrum (highly likely but am now too long in the tooth to find out) the simple task of cycling on another route to another place was a significant enough variable to increase this to stage 2: a 49-piece Paw Patrol jigsaw, target age group 5/6yrs. There were more roads involved, and therefore increased exposure to wanker white-van-man drivers and other imbecilic fuckwits on the move. Less canal, so fewer bumpy cobbles, dog walkers with mile-long leads and steaming piles of excrement. All things considered, it was progression.

WhatsApp message to Gav: I’ve made it! I’m here in one piece! [elated-looking selfie attached]

I sat drinking a brew on mum’s sofa, feeling disproportionately chuffed with my little self, whilst my Trek bike waited patiently for me on the ground floor. We (the pair of us, myself and Trek) cycled home exactly the same way as we’d come, only this time, I only stopped twice on Granny Gear hill. Result!

Text from Mum: Have you arrived back OK, Rach? I was watching you from my window. You didn’t look overly confident on the roads, love. Let me know when you’re back safely.

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So yeah, thanks, Mum. I may have looked like I could cycle up the back end of a Skoda at any given minute, of have a close shave with a Corsa, but I made it. Another mini victory in the small-fry book of minor achievements in my life. Job done. [tick box emoji]

CHALLENGE #3: CAN I CYCLE A 6-MILE LOOP FROM HOME, THE FIRST HALF BEING UP A BASTARD 2-MILE HILL?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

The answer would be simple enough: I either could cycle 2-miles up a hill, or I couldn’t. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll have to get off my bike and push it. So fucking what? I’ll give it a whirl…

I geared myself up for the grind (awful pun, I know) and settled in, pushing steadily and consistently in as high-a-gear as I could manage to enable me to still have some torque (see! Who is this absolute wanker I have become?) It worked. I dug my off-road trainers into my pedals and I pushed. There were a couple of fat blokes on road bikes just ahead. As I approached AND PASSED them, I was suddenly aware that I didn’t look at all like a cyclist, but here I was, gate-crashing their party – without cleats (#wankerism again. Sorry about that.)

Once at the top, I stood on my pedals and lifted my bum high in the air for the most incredible downhill section, and I felt a kind of elation that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I CAN FUCKING DO THIS! I shouted to myself, as the wind blew rain and snot sideways into my face. Such was the increase in my confidence, I even took one hand off the handle bars and wiped the snot from my top lip/chin area which had been dangling there for approximately 15 minutes. This, my friends, is progress.

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I got wet.

CHALLENGE #4: CAN I CYCLE A 15-MILE LOOP FROM HOME INCORPORATING 3 OF THE BIGGEST LOCAL CLIMBS, AND BE BACK BEFORE 10AM TO START WORK?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

I had my sights set on this one. I’d even bought a new lid (#wankerism for cycling helmet) jazzy cycling gloves, and dug out my old padded shorts and cycling jersey. This is happening, Rach. You know what to do.

I pictured the route and saw myself grinding up the first hill climb to Norland, and then standing up for the long descent down into the far side of Rishworth, following country lanes I know well from miles of running around the area. Stop 1: a selfie outside our favourite pub, sent through to Gav approximately 30 mins into the ride, with the words, ‘look where I am!’ typed underneath my gormless grin.

The second climb was tougher. Up and over from Rishworth to Baitings reservoir, involved many more climbing sections than I’d remembered from the last time I’d run the same route. Bloody hell, my self-doubt chimp began to chunter. You’ve got Ripponden Bank to tackle after this! WTF!

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Beautiful Baitings Reservoir

With a few pauses for breath (and to inhale a Peperami) I made it to the other side of the reservoir, and once again stood high on my non-cleat pedals and rolled at speed down the 2-mile descent – the calm before the unholy shit-storm of Ripponden Bank.

Now then, kids. We’re on with a 1000-piece 101 Dalmatians jigsaw, here. This ain’t easy on a road bike, or on any friggin wheels of any description. My 3rd and final climb of the morning would involve the infamous Tour de France Stage 2 route climbing past The Fleece Inn, and over the top dropping down into Barkisland – and finally, back home.

My steel-framed Trek cranked and groaned as I pulled the gears back to the slug-trail speed, and pushed again with my cleat-free shoes on the non-clip-in pedals. And fucking hell it was tough, but I made it to the top.

Free-wheeling the final few miles back down home, I almost sang with joy. I’VE DONE IT! YESSSS! I’VE FUCKING CRACKED IT!

You see, as my jigsaws have increased in pieces and complexity, so has my confidence and my self-belief that I can take on new challenges and tackle them head on. They don’t always have to be ones with a big shiny medal at the end, or ones that other people even know about, but they are my personal challenges, and I know what they mean to me.

CHALLENGE #5: CAN I CYCLE 20 MILES UP AND OVER THE TOPS TO HEBDEN BRIDGE AND BACK THE DAY BEFORE A TOUGH 7-MILE ROAD RACE?

ANSWER #3: I’M NOT SURE… but I’ll give it a go.

That was Saturday, and the #kilburnfeast road race was yesterday. A step too far? Perhaps. I fell and whacked my shoulder whilst cycling under a low cobbly bridge* (it was either that or fall into the canal.)

And the race? My legs were battered at yesterday’s race, having cycled 45 hilly miles on my beloved Trek bike in last 3 days, and so no PB for me, today. But do you know what? I couldn’t care less. I did it anyway, just because I could.

You see, I don’t need to have grand ambitions to cycle up Everest. Ripponden Bank will do.

*Maybe I’m back to a 500 – piece jigsaw of kittens all playing with balls of wool.

**At the time of writing, I am exploring the possibility of cycling 511km from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas in 2018. Yes, I am.

The Birthday Weekend Part 2: The Three Yorkshire Peaks Challenge 24th June 2017

We set off walking and immediately got stuck behind slow moving traffic, not unlike the roundabout approaching Birstall’s IKEA which narrows into one lane for all those planning on purchasing self-assembly beds. ‘(Ahem), excuse me, please… Could I just… Would you mind if…’ I asked one, and then another steady ambler who seemed to have settled into the idea of queuing to hike up a mountain. How very British! My repeated apologies and embarrassed coughs grew in frequency, and were mostly met with a sudden shuffle of walking poles and then a step to the left, akin to a Rocky Horror Show dance move.

The landscape was littered with people. People and poles; people with poles. Many, many poles. I sped up, and almost began a slow trot. Not that I harboured any burning ambition for achieving a time of glory, but just to escape from the relentless stream of bodies… and poles. I looked behind, and Gav was stuck. Wedged between a group of tired looking teenagers and a bleary-eyed corporate crew who appeared to have woken up only seconds earlier. Push past them, Gav. Make a bid for freedom! I telepathically transmitted to him, wondering if we would ever see past the parody on the hillside before us. Shit. He’s too polite, I concluded, as he remained jammed in between Cool 6th Former and Corporate Ken. Is this what Wainwright envisioned? I wondered, as the snake of bodies trundled slowly onwards and up Pen-Y-Ghent as though in some never-ending Starbuck’s queue.

Nearing the top of Pen-Y-Ghent, the steep, rocky climb became ever more difficult courtesy of the unanticipated human congestion. A mother waited patiently to climb further up the ragged rock face with her young daughter in hand – perhaps 7 or 8 years old – no more. The girl stood alongside her mum looking completely unflustered by the wind pummelling her little body against the now fully exposed hillside. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman clung on desperately to a jagged, jutting edge and wept in terror as she wailed, ‘I can’t move. I CAN’T MOVE!’ I looked down, and couldn’t blame her, not being one for heights myself. Wanting to get the hell away from the juxtaposed climbers, I took the advice of a kind chap who was volunteering to help Wailing Woman overcome her frozen fear. ‘Just barge past people love,’ he instructed me. ‘Move round them. You’ll get hypothermia otherwise!’ I took his advice and circumvented the queue, gulping hard whilst my heart raced in the knowledge that I was going ever so slightly ‘off piste’.

Shortly afterwards, I reached the top where thankfully, the congestion had eased. A well-built marshall who was tasked with ticking us off a laminated list came immediately into view. He was digging about to retrieve his sheet, whilst at the same time wrestling one arm into a wind-battered hi-vis. ‘You’re the first here. That’s pretty fast, to be honest,’ he said with a smile and one brow slightly raised. I waited a few minutes, and then, like a meerkat poking his head out of an underground burrow, Gav appeared.

We spent a few minutes chatting to brick shit-house Marshall Man, who confidently informed us, ‘You’ll be able to run the ten miles across to Whernside, no problem.’ Perhaps – naively – we took him at his word. I was desperate to run, away from people and poles, and down the hillside on the long trek across to peak number 2: Whernside. No sooner did we begin to descend the opposing side of Pen-Y-Ghent than it became very clear that we wouldn’t have the easy, flowing, downhill section we’d dreamed of (there is a reason why I love tarmac.) This quickly began to feel like a long, technical cross country run. Loose, rocky paths meant that our eyes were fixed only on the few metres in front of us. Gav – with only one remaining tendon supporting his left ankle – did his best to navigate his way down the rough terrain. Off road, we surmised, is perhaps not our bag. Meanwhile, I was terrified of tripping over my own feet and impaling myself on a sharp, dislodged Russian doll Tupperware lid. Could there be any worse way to go? All that aside, we did manage to do a fair amount of running, and people were dissipating. For that reason alone, I would happily continue attempting to run down the rocky, scree-covered path.

Halfway between Pen-Y-Ghent & Whernside, our support van came into view. We were the first there, by their reckoning. Offering us top-ups of water and chalk-like protein bars, the three crew members kept us chatting for slightly too long, giving us additional ‘challenges’ that we could choose to undertake over the remaining 14-or-so miles (and two peaks) that we yet had to tackle. That they even considered we might be looking for any ‘additional’ challenges over and above getting our arses around the 3 peaks and back to our car safely remains a complete mystery. But we were simply too polite to say, ‘Thanks, but no fucking chance!’ This cost us a good few minutes, but typically, British etiquette and courteous chit-chat prevailed.

Just around the corner, and the majestic Ribblehead viaduct came gloriously into view. We’d ticked off around ten miles by now, and it was a welcome sight. How the hell did people build that?’ I wondered, comparing the toil and workmanship of yesteryear to the IKEA and self-assembly of modern day. Just before I felt my heart sink with what we’ve all become, I rallied myself for more running as the paths became easier underfoot. There was still a long way to go.

The Whernside climb started off gently. Initially, it didn’t feel like a climb – more of a long, meandering path barely rising at all. That said, I felt like a mountain goat. Having got a definite second wind from somewhere, I powered along the footpath onwards, and upwards; onwards, and upwards. Gav’s second wind hadn’t arrived yet, and instead he was on a mini slump, not enjoying the trudge. I kept looking behind for him, and as the meandering road turned into a steeper climb, the mist descended. To accompany this, the wind picked up massively. I secured a buff over my Inov8 cap to make sure it stayed in place.

I passed one hi-vis marshall, but he was waiting for another group. Is this the top? I couldn’t tell. Wind and mist encircled us as I kept up a good pace despite being unable to see anything at all for the fog. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. Where’s Gav? I looked behind. No idea. It was flat on the top, with no discernible summit. Have I passed it? Should I wait for him? How far back is he? I decided to sit down and shelter by a wall and wait for him. A good few minutes passed. ‘Are you ok?’ a couple of walkers asked me as I sat down, having only just stridden confidently past them moments earlier. ‘Yes! I’m fine! Just waiting for my other half…’

Eventually, he showed, like a scene from Guerrillas in the Mist. We continued together to the summit where the lady marshall was just arriving and setting up, putting on her hi vis with KUTA OUTDOORS thankfully emblazoned on it. We recognised the logo and so were the first to be ticked off her laminated list. It was now around 12pm, and I asked how long she was likely to have to wait up there, at the summit of Whernside. ‘Probably until well after 3pm,’ she replied. I noticed a droplet of snot about to fall from the end of her nose. Bloody hell.

Whernside was a horrible descent. Steep scree; random rocks; and large indecipherable steps. A couple of dogs ran around wildly, being hollered at by frightened owners. One woman stood on a dog’s toe. It yelped. For one who isn’t great with heights, and with an unhealthy fear of falling, this couldn’t be any worse. We couldn’t run any of it, and our pace dropped to that of terrified snails as we nervously inched our way down the worst descent. Some braver folk flew past, whilst we continued to tip-toe down like toddlers on a polished spiral staircase.

Towards the bottom it levelled out, and became runnable again. Paths were chopped into chunks with a series of never-ending cattle grids. Signs on display evidenced the opportunistic rural community cashing in on tired trekkers: ‘500m to fresh orange juice with ice.’ … and further down the path… ‘250m to cold juice with ice…’ Before long, our support vehicle and crew came into view again. The well-built marshall tasked with checking people off his list at Pen-Y-Ghent was in action once more, this time preparing to climb Ingleborough for his second laminated list duty of the day. But he hadn’t set off, yet. The Organiser bloke asked, ‘Do you think you can get there before him?’ We knew we would – or we hoped we could.

 The Ingleborough climb felt like an extended cardio session on a travellator / Jacob’s ladder machine – climbing massive chunks of stone carefully laid out all the way up the sheer hillside. This was a cardiovascular workout. It felt vertical as there was no meandering this time; just up. Thick fog began to set in again. A slow-moving older guy said, ‘Nice legs but I bet they’re getting cold!’ as I marched past. They weren’t. Getting to the top, it was unclear where the summit was. I felt my entire upper body now soaked in sweat, but my hands were cold – with sealskin gloves on… in June. A couple of weathered old-timers directed us to the summit. There was no sign of Well-Built marshall. No laminated sheet to be ticked off. ‘Will we still be counted as completing it?’ I asked Gav, stupidly. We took a selfie at the summit as photographic evidence, just in case (it’s the legal training.)

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Guerillas in the Mist

As we headed back down Ingleborough, a bloke had lost his dog’s ball. ‘Someone’s nicked off with it. Must be a bloody southerner!’ the Yorkshireman shouted. We laughed. 3 peaks were now done, but the journey wasn’t over. Feeling tired and disappointed with what seemed to be so many un-runnable non-paths, we tried to run wherever we could. We’d also lost everyone. At times, there was now only me and Gav. At some points, we stopped in our tracks, wondering where the path even was. In one earlier, more positive moment, we had considered the possibility of going for sub-7 hours, but this seemed increasingly unlikely as large grass-covered boulders stuck out of the land like a badly-fitting carpet. We hopped over bogs and grassy mounds trying not to lose Gav’s one remaining ankle ligament through sheer carelessness. But we were getting tired, and increasingly clumsy.

20 miles seemed to take forever to come. Gav’s Garmin lost battery. He kept asking me how far we’d gone, and didn’t believe the miles were going so slowly. ‘Are we at 21 yet, Rach?’NO,’ I barked back. He didn’t believe me. I wrestled with my own frustration with tired legs and simply broke away, willing myself home like Dorothy clicking together the heels of her red shoes.

A family was approaching from the bottom of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, just setting off on their Saturday afternoon walk. ‘Please tell me the village isn’t far,’ I desperately asked the glamorous-looking mum with her kids hopping about on the hillside like spring lambs. ‘No, not at all. It’s taken us lot half an hour to get here at our snail’s pace,’ she replied, smiling. ‘Only down the hill now.’

 The field came into view, and I legged it. I could see the banners marked both ‘START’ and ‘FINISH’. I was home.

The KUTA crew were ambling about, only just starting to put out bottles of water and boxes of salty crisps / chalky protein bars. No one rushed over, as time – it appeared – was not of the essence. I stopped my Suunto. 6 Hrs 54 mins. Still no one came over, and so I asked for a bottle of water and helped myself to a bar of chalk. A guy dressed in what appeared to be faded military gear came over to congratulate me. ‘Only one runner has come in ahead of you… in 5 hours. You’re the first back from the FMN group. Bloody good time!’ he said.

Gav arrived shortly afterwards, and we headed off to the Pen-Y-Ghent café where we’d clocked in at 7.25am that morning.

‘We’re in the Three Yorkshire Peaks Club, Gav!’ I said to him, as we sat and drank our pints of hot sweet tea. ‘Under 7 hours. Is that any good?’ I quizzed. How do you measure these things? I had no idea other than the clear evidence of my own exhaustion, plus my recollection of 8 years earlier when I’d completed it in well over 10 hours. I guess in the 8 years since, being three stones lighter and three hours faster isn’t a bad effort…

‘Are you going to order a Three Yorkshire Peaks Club silk tie?’ I asked Gav as we pondered over our souvenir options. He said he wasn’t fussed for one of those, strangely.

‘Nah. I’ll go with a sew-on badge. What a weekend. Happy birthday, Rach!’

THE END.

The Birthday Weekend – Three Yorkshire Peaks – Part 1: the shit sandwich

I’m sitting on the sofa with my legs propped up on the corner part (When did we all start having corner sofas? When were Shackleton’s three-seaters no longer adequate? Maybe for occasions such as this…) I’ve got a large white toasted cheese baguette to my right, which is slarted with enough Lurpak to bake a small Mary Berry Victoria sandwich, and that’s placed precariously next to a pint of instant coffee – none of that posh stuff: it’s usually shit.

I’m 39 years old, and I’m KNACKERED.

We’ve just arrived back home after our mini adventure weekend away – forward slash – Rachel’s birthday “treat”. This was, as you may or may not know, the challenge of completing the Three Yorkshire Peaks as part of the organised Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice charity group event which took place yesterday, the 24th June, also nonchalantly marking my 39th year of existence.

The weekend started off in spectacular style when we rocked up to the Falcon Manor country house hotel in Settle. Within 35 seconds of arriving – perhaps less – I was entirely submerged in our room’s stand-alone bath, washing away any evidence of my earlier hilly 10-mile bike ride over the hills to Hebden, whilst watching the sheep being herded by the real* sheep dogs out of the panoramic windows scanning the beautiful Yorkshire dales.

Once my skin resembled that of an Amaretto-soaked raisin (try it – they’re fit) myself and Gav Dodd Fax ambled into the town of Settle and set about doing some damage to our his credit/debit card in the one outdoor clothing shop which appeared to have some kind of affinity with Innov8 training gear, and therefore, also with us. Two windstopper / waterproof running jackets later (and yes, we most certainly did need them) followed by a quick stop off in a compulsory coffee shop for hot drinks the same price as a pair of Sealskin gloves, we headed back to our home for the weekend – the Falcon Manor.

‘Are you taking all four pork pies with you, Gav?’ I asked, as he unpacked a Russian doll’s sequence of Tupperware containers ready to fill them with what appeared to be the entire spread from a large family christening. ‘And do we really need those sausage rolls?’ I thought about the navigational task for the following day, and whether pastry goods would survive being hauled over 24 miles up and over in excess of 5,000 feet. Conversely, the 4-pack Peperami would be good travellers, I surmised.

We woke painfully early the next morning after (not) sleeping in what felt like a smouldering kiln, as these posh hotels would insist on having the highest tog duvets for luxuriating purposes, not thinking that perhaps the temperature can exceed ten degrees, even in North Yorkshire.

‘Did you get much sleep, Gav?’ I stupidly asked, whilst assessing the status of luggage bags collecting under each eye.

‘No. I’ve been awake since 5am,’ he half replied. I noticed a few beads of sweat forming on his brow.

At 6.10am we stumbled down the hotel stairs with our mobile buffet neatly packed away in Innov8 rucksacks, and happened across some other FMN walkers about to undertake the very same challenge. One of them looked down at my shorts and long socks. ‘Crikey, are you planning on running it?’ he quizzed, sounding partially stunned.

‘Maybe in parts, but no, not really. And only if there are any easy downhill bits which are run-able, then we can get it over with quicker!’ I replied, already wondering if I could run any of it, even if I wanted to.

We set off on the short drive to the meeting point – a field in the middle of Horton-in-Ribblesdale – where we would register and attend the necessary pre-event safety briefing. Queues of cars were both behind and in front of us as we pulled into the enormous field, having already been turned away from a nearby car park. ‘Bloody hell, Gav. It’s like the Meadowhall Boxing Day Sale!’

He didn’t disagree.

‘Are you two runners?’ the event organiser asked when we turned up to the pop-up registration desk in shorts, decked out head-to-foot in Innov8 race wear. ‘If you are, then I’d like to ask you to set off an hour after everyone else has departed.’ My heart dropped as I looked over at Gav. Shit. Were we going to have to hang about in some overly-congested field which more resembled a packed Ikea than an outdoor pursuits meeting point in a small Yorkshire village? Not a chance.

‘Erm, we’re more likely to just set off walking, to be honest,’ I replied. ‘If we want to run any of the later sections, then that’s up to us, but we will be setting off as walkers, with the walkers,’ I continued, just managing to spare us from pacing about pointlessly in Ikea Outdoors for an additional hour.

People were everywhere, milling about like those miniscule red ant things that crawl about on patio paving. I began to feel overwhelmed and disheartened, as though the sanctity of this quaint Yorkshire village had in some way been eroded because hundreds – no, thousands – of people, just like us, wanted to say they’d conquered the challenge of the Three Yorkshire Peaks. We were no different to anyone else. How did the village cope with the endless onslaught of visitors? Cars continued to stream into the field like the constantly dripping nose of a snotty child. All of that said, it was a Saturday… in June.

 

 

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WHERE HAVE ALL THESE PEOPLE COME FROM? The photo doesn’t show the full extent of Ikea on grass.

Just before we left the safety of our car for the final time to join in the throng of red ants running about on the patio, Gav handed me two small envelopes… This felt a bit like a shit sandwich – the gruelling reality of the Three Peaks challenge being wrapped up in the middle of two far nicer pleasantries on either side. I opened my cards, and my birthday pressie was revealed:

‘FUCKING HELL, GAV! WE’RE GOING UP IN A HOT AIR BALLOON!!’ I shrieked, demonstrating that the first part of the shit sandwich had quite clearly worked.

Back in the Ikea field…

‘WHERE IS RACHEL CULLEN? Could RACHEL CULLEN please raise her hand,’ the organiser hollered above the hum of muffled excitement and general chatter. ‘RACHEL CULLEN could you come and join me at the front, please?’ I looked around and reluctantly raised my hand above the sea of ants. ‘Don’t worry, Rachel,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘I’m just going to use you as an example, if anyone is thinking of running this, today.’ Ahhh shit. I feared once again being made to meander around Meadowhall’s most rural car park long after everyone else had departed for their adventure challenge.

‘LISTEN, EVERYONE,’ he began, as a sea of nonplussed faces looked over at me gormlessly, wondering what the hell they were supposed to be looking at. ‘TODAY IS SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY!’ Organiser Man continued in a booming voice. Thank fuck for that! I glanced up at him and beamed as the throng of strangers sang an obligatory rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. Because sure – that was very nice indeed – but mainly I was thrilled that we wouldn’t have to pace about in the Ikea field for another hour…

Happy birthday to me!

And then, we were off…

To be continued…

*I say ’real’ sheep dogs, in that they were working – as they are meant to do – at herding sheep. Not sitting in some corporate kitchen somewhere proverbially filing their nails. And if the photo of the bath looks good, it doesn’t do it justice.

Q: When is a race not a race?

A: When I couldn’t give a Fat Rascal about anything other than finishing it.

‘I think I want to enter into a race again, Gav.’ I said. ‘It’s time to get over the fear.’

What’s the worst that could happen?

We chose the Ilkley Trail race on Bank Holiday Monday. It worked around the delicate orchestrating of childcare arrangements courtesy of two broken homes (sob*) having successfully amalgamated into one complete madhouse**

Regardless, it wasn’t an obvious choice for a tentative first race back since the debacle of the Dewsbury 10k back in February, during which I’d been forced to make the Walk of Shame back to the start after only 1.5 miles of purgatory (before being picked up by the Unfortunate Bastards Sweeper Bus.) That was my last race: it hurt my legs, my Achilles, and my pride.

I’ve written a lot recently about race anxiety. I’ve been known to have sleepless night before Parkrun. Yes, seriously. I’ve woken up with palpitations in a goose-bumped, fuzzy-headed clammy sweat, cleaned the fridge, and set off a good two hours before the marshals have even pressed ‘SNOOZE’ on their teasmade.

And why? I have no answer. It doesn’t really matter: none of it does. Nobody ultimately cares how I do, or what time I drag my carcass across the finish line. I used to think that it matters, and that it proved something about who I was, and who I could be. But it doesn’t. Successes are fleeting. They’re like the yellow marzipan around a Battenberg: a nice-to-have. Would you still enjoy the pink and yellow sponge cake squares without the yellow marzipan encasement? Yes, you would. Or I would, at least.

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A loss of form, however, separates the ego from the true self. It strips away the protective marzipan comfort of glory, and the pseudo almondy mask of acknowledgement. Injury; illness; life events. Any one of them can suddenly derail even the most cock-sure of egos, and have it tumble from the gilded perch on which it has merrily swung.

Q: What’s left then?

A: The pink and yellow sponge cake squares.

I woke on the Bank Holiday Monday having thoroughly processed and digested my ‘who am I?’ Battenberg analogy (I can only apologise for inadvertently stumbling across this clumsy pun.) I’d slept, and I’d slept well. PHEW! This was a good start. No heart racing, no palpitations, and no reaching for the proverbial mushroom bag. It’s all under control, Rach. And it was.

Resting heart rate: 54.

Kit on, bags packed, myself and the other half of me, commonly known as ‘Gav Dodd Fax’, headed out under a heavy sky in the direction of Ilkley. ‘I don’t feel nervous, Gav. Do you?’ I ventured.

‘No, not a bit,’ he replied. And he meant it.

‘But I don’t feel anything! No butterflies, no adrenalin, no tension. No nothing! I slept like a baby and haven’t taken to grinding my teeth, or cleaning out the fridge at 6am. It feels strange, that’s all.’ I continued, talking to myself as much as I was to him.

‘It’s the furthest we’ve run in months, Rach’ he replied matter-of-factly in his pre-8am tired tone, ‘And we’re only just starting to build our fitness back up. What can we expect?’

He was right.

We were – true to form – a good hour too early on arrival at the Ilkley Lido. With the heated seats on low, I slurped the remnants of cold coffee from my favourite Heisenberg travel mug, whilst Gav took half a dozen attempts to pin a small square of paper onto the front of a vest. It felt like coming home.

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Do these look like faces that could give a fat rascal?

‘Are you feeling nervous yet, Gav?’ I asked, as he stabbed his thumb yet again with a pin.

‘Nope. Not at all,’ he replied, shortly followed by, ‘is my number straight?’

And then the already slate-grey heavens must have remembered that it was a national Bank Holiday, and so began to spew relentlessly. For fuck’s sake.

‘I guess we’d better warm up, then’ we appeared to say in unison as the car clock nonchalantly indicated that it was a quarter past the hour.

Once our trainers had been replaced by the more unfamiliar off-roadies, we stepped out into the incessant shower pouring from a monochrome sky, and began to jog – no, hobble – up the grassy banking towards the start of the race. We continued slowly up the offensive hill in some kind of torturous pre-race dress rehearsal of what was about to come.

It’s quite possibly the worst start to any race. A measly hundred metres of flat followed by up, up, and then some more up.

‘Jesus, Gav. I’m fucked.’ I panted, stopping my pathetic attempt at a warm-up jog only a quarter of the way up the offensive hill, and stared at him, blankly. ‘And this is just the warm up!’ I could tell from his expression that my words echoed his exact thoughts.

Back down at the start line, we hung around at the back like a pair of shy teenagers trying to smoke menthols behind the bike sheds. ‘Start off slowly, Rach. And remember – it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.’

He was right.

We set off slowly, as Gav suggested, towards the back of the pack. My legs relaxed thanks to the entire absence of any pressure, and they took off slowly up the hillside. Steadily inching past a fair number of runners, they made it to the top. What had seemed incredulous whilst tottering about on our anxiety-inducing warm up was – in fact – perfectly feasible. My legs handled it: they were (just about) up to the job.  The climb continued, and – unbelievably – my legs were still turning over. A couple of miles in, and I’d pulled ahead. But lack of racing fitness kicked in, and I took the opportunity to pull over and wait for my Gav Dodd Fax who was sticking to his guns and approaching at a consistent, steady pace. I was thankful for the rest.

I’ll spare you the minutiae: I stopped a bit, and I started again. I felt temporarily beaten, and then mildly triumphant for fighting back. The rain was cold and cleansing, washing away any worries about performance, PBs or lack of form. I’m here, and I’m back running… No, I’m back RACING! Only racing in a different way. Free from heaviness and pressure; stress and worry. Racing on my terms, and running as well – or not – as my body could, on this day, today.

Crossing the finish line I was 5 minutes slower than the last time I’d tackled the very same beast back in 2015, when – entirely without injury, illness, life event or force majeure – I was happily swinging away on my merry little perch. But I didn’t care. I’d happily nibble on the pink and yellow sponge cake squares – minus the (admittedly delicious) yellow marzipan. Today, I was grateful for the squares.

Gav came over the line shortly afterwards, visibility having been an issue whilst having no wipers on his face furniture.

‘Bloody hell, that was tough, wasn’t it?’ he said, attempting to peer through his now entirely opaque spectacles.

‘No shit it was. Do you fancy going to Betty’s for a Fat Rascal?’

They don’t sell Battenberg.

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*not really

**hashtag smiley face

Tenerife December 2016 Run 1/4: The M1

Tenerife December 2016  Run 1/4: The M1

 ‘Jesus, Gav. Where are we staying? Next to the M1?‘ I jibed as we pulled up at the resort.

‘Ahh… is someone overtired?‘ He asked, mocking my clear anxiety at the prospect of spending four days running on Tenerife’s equivalent of both the M1 hard shoulder and Snake Pass.

As it happens, I was also overtired.

After almost missing the plane from the least glamorous airport in the U.K., and almost passing out with hunger on the least glamorous flight to take off from the least glamorous airport in the UK, our day of travel hadn’t been without stress.

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WE JUST MADE IT… ‘is this a direct flight to God’s waiting room, Gav?’

I am the worst combination of traveller: I don’t do tired, hungry and cooped up on a plane very well. I’m also one with high expectations, having been spoilt in a previous life as a Corporate Wanker and, thus having experienced some degree of middle class travelling luxury. Despite being a REFORMED corporate wanker, I’m still not easily pleased.

Like a dog laughing at a fearful kitten, the lady behind reception sensed my travel anxiety. No, I don’t want to chat about the fog in the UK, or how good/bad/indifferent our journey over here was. I just want to see our room and know that we won’t be sleeping in bunk beds over the top of an 18-20s disco for the next 4 nights. Thank you. My smart responses to her pigeon English chit chat were bum-clenchingly short.

Right, let’s dump our bags and head out for a run’ Gav said, sensing my need to move. ‘We’ll head out from the hotel and have a little explore. Let’s head for the sea.

Ok‘ I grumped back, wishing I could share in his optimism as we headed off trotting down the wrong side of Tenerife’s M1. ‘There’s nothing like a game of Russian roulette to start the holiday, is there Gav?’ I sniped. He couldn’t hear me, as a heavy-hauler truck flew past us, just missing his left ear.

At least it was downhill.

We reached the major junction connecting various highways, and pulled over like two people who had just escaped from a local high security institution and would have buried their way through solid earth to find freedom. We were, in fact, two naïve / simple runners from Yorkshire wanting to have an explore / adventure. Well, that’s one box ticked.

‘I’m not running across a bloody motorway to get to the sea, Gav.’ I said, now thoroughly pissed off. A car randomly pulled over, and Gav went over to ask them for something. It could have been a) advice on the safest route down to the sea; b) a lift to somewhere safe, down by the sea; c) a lift back to the hotel 1.3 miles up the (steep) hill; or d) to see if they were OK. Knowing Gav, it will have been option D.

They sped off before he reached the window – I’d have done the same.

‘Right, well I’m turning round and running back up to the hotel. This is bollocks.’ I said, in my (still) overtired, ex-Corporate Wanker, grump.

He conceded, and we turned to run back up the 1.3 miles we’d just run down.

A pro-looking cyclist came whizzing past and gave me a wry smile as she descended the hill at break-neck speed. ‘Oh, fuck off’ I thought, knowing full well we must have looked a right pair of chumpers (incidentally, I don’t even know what a ‘chumper’ is, but it sounds appropriate for this occasion.)

We got back to the hotel after 1.3 miles of HARD EFFORT grappling our way back up the Canary Island’s M1 travellator.

‘Jesus, that was tough going,’ I gasped at the entrance to the resort, once we were safely out of Road Kill zone.

We trudged back to the room, and hoped for better things on Day #2.

At least we’d live to see another day…

(It was a good hill session, though.)