Going back in time… the University of Hull 1998 vs 2018

It’s a ‘meh’ Tuesday morning in March 2018 (* ‘Meh’ now being a thing, and having full emoji status, of course.) But it isn’t any old Tuesday morning for me. I’m on my way across the M62 to Hull – the University of Hull, to be more precise – and back to the place where my mental health began to unravel so spectacularly some twenty years ago.

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This is one of the very few photos that exist of me, in the years shortly before commencing at Hull University.

When I took myself away from the University, aged just 19, I was so utterly broken, damaged and scarred (literally) that I swore I would never go back to that place. Not under any circumstances. But here I am.

I’m on my way back.

I’ve been invited to go and talk to a bunch of current students about some of my experiences which I’ve written about in my book, ”Running For My Life”. Naturally I say, ‘YES! I’d LOVE to come over and do that!’ But what they don’t know is that I am saying ‘yes’ in spite of myself. I’m saying ‘yes’ because I refuse to give in to the terror welling up inside me, trying to convince me to think of any excuse at all to say NO.

I can’t let that happen: I WON’T let that happen.

I’ve spent some time preparing for my talk. I’ve written a short introduction, and have repeatedly forced it upon my nearest and dearest (although my 7-year-old’s opinion is admittedly dubious) But the emotions I feel during the process of writing and rehearsing it have taken me by surprise. I sit in a coffee shop with silent tears streaming down my face as the memories are allowed to enter a space which has been strictly off limits for two decades; I burst into uncontrollable tears during one opportunistic lunchtime rendition at work. I find it hard to gather myself, and struggle to battle through the final few words. I look up, and I see that Steph, my good friend and work mate is crying, too.

Shit. I wasn’t expecting this.

As Gav and I drive along the M62, the sight of the Humber Bridge causes the frayed circuits in my brain to reconnect. Shortly followed by Princes Quay and the waterfront. I have flashes of that same journey from another time. “Crikey! You see over there? That’s the pub where I bumped into Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South,” I say to Gav, who has already been subjected to similar reminiscences for well over an hour. His love knows no bounds. The closer we get to the University, the flashes increase in both frequency and intensity. That’s the hairdressers who once bodged my highlights… Over there was a small supermarket on the corner, but it’s a Chinese take-away, now… There’s the park a burglar disappeared into who I disturbed as he’d just cleaned out my housemate’s bedroom… The memories crash into each other as my brain struggles to keep up with the tidal wave of visual stimuli.

The University entrance suddenly appears on the right. I remember it being grand, and feeling slightly cheated that ABSOLUTELY NONE of my lectures, seminars, or tutorials would be held in the impressive, listed building that greets newbies on arrival. Nope! We were based in the shit breeze-block 1960s car park around the back of the campus. Perhaps they could have mentioned this in the prospectus?? But I’m once again wowed by the Venn building. It looks spectacular and glamorous. It feels spectacular and glamorous. I feel spectacular and glamorous just standing on the steps outside.

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The Venn Building: Spectacular and glamorous.

I go inside to pick up our pre-arranged parking permit, and nearly burst with excitement as the lovely lady behind the desk talks to me in her genuine Humberside accent. It strikes me that some of the current Hull University students weren’t even born the last time I heard it.

I ask her to say ‘five [“farve”]’ and ‘nine’ [“narn”] again, explaining to her that I’m here for the first time since the turn of the millennium. Her eyes light up as I tell her the reason for my visit after such a long absence. I glance over my shoulder and realise that just around the corner is where I queued to fill out student loan application forms before anybody had to entertain the prospect of paying for their higher education. I only wanted a student loan so I could afford to buy a fancy raincoat from Ted Baker’s. Maybe that was the catalyst of my demise…

We visit the Waterstone’s bookshop on the University campus, and almost immediately I spot Running For My Life faking it amongst the Joe Wicks & Fearne Cottons. What on earth is my book doing hobnobbing with the stars? I wonder, before my mind is jolted back two decades on sight of the entire wall of ‘Law Study Guides’. I remember so vividly standing and facing that very same tower of ‘Short Cuts to Tort’ and ‘Pocket Book of Contract law’. I get a distinct feeling of déjà vu, of being in that exact same spot armed with a scribbled list of compulsory and expensive legal study materials I would be required to buy in order to eek my way through the ridiculous law degree (*it always felt ridiculous, to me.) It does however give me some small comfort to know that today’s law students are still required to hand over vast wads of cash in exchange for doorstop volumes of legal texts, so there is definitely evidence of karma in action.

I have a mooch around the bookshop, and eventually I pluck up the courage to go and introduce myself to John, the lovely sales assistant. I explain who I am, trying hard not to sound like an Author Wanker, and I tell him that I am reminiscing. I wonder if I’m rambling, but I’m enjoying talking to him. He is kind, and the bookshop feels like home to me, in a place that never did.

Eventually, we head over to the main hall where the ‘Hull University Alumni Careers, Health and Wellness’ event will shortly be taking place. ‘People are looking at you as though you’re famous!’ Gav says. I laugh, and assure him that it’s probably because my stripy jacket looks like a deck chair. We’re a little bit early to go into the large conference room, and so I find a comfy seat to settle down in just outside the ‘Rossetti’ canteen whilst Gav goes for an explore. It looks more like a posh service station following the mistimed arrival of several coach parties, or a British Airways domestic flights VIP lounge packed full of well-to-do travellers who can’t get to Edinburgh because of fog.

It didn’t look like this twenty years ago.

I observe people as they meander past. ID badges swing clumsily around necks, and I wonder if this is the only distinction between the students and A N Others on campus. Words like ‘dissertation’ jump out of the otherwise blended pool of chatter I can hear from surrounding conversations, and I wonder where I would be, if I were a student here, now. Would I be standing outside the Rossetti cafeteria, chatting and laughing with my friends about some dissertation I have no intention of starting until the eleventh hour, and complaining about the hundreds of pounds I’m obliged to spend at the Waterstone’s bookshop on dry, uninspiring legal texts? Or would I be stuck in my tiny bedroom facing a mostly unfrequented back street, staring at a disordered image of myself in a small, frameless mirror?

I think I know the answer.

It’s time to head up the stairs to the conference room and listen to the first group of speakers. Four confident, unblemished, successful, and proud Hull University Alumni stand up and talk to the room about their career paths, giving advice to the young audience who are lapping up their every word. Gav and I are seated in one of the front rows, and I simply marvel at the fact that these people appear to be entirely ‘baggage free.’ No issues here!!! Not a single whiff of any mental health disorder. It’s a place of SUCCESS and ACHIEVEMENT. This is about those guys and girls for whom things lined up and made sense; those who didn’t familiarise themselves with the intricacies of their own face at the expense of dream-chasing; who weren’t required to expend inordinate amounts of energy in preparation for leaving the house to go and buy a pint of milk. These were the movers & shakers of their respective academic years.

I momentarily wonder how that might have felt.

Following a short break, it’s time for the ‘wellbeing’ part of the day. We hear from some amazing young people who volunteer their time to look out for the likes of me – back in the day – as ‘Wellbeing Champions’ and ‘Hull University Angels’. I can only imagine what kind of difference this might have made to me, and how different my story might look, had the signs of distress been spotted by a kind, intuitive stranger.

Soon enough, it’s my turn. I walk to the front with my interviewee – John – and sit in my chair. And I read out the introduction that I have written. I am proud that the 2018 version of myself said ‘YES’ to coming back to a place which the 1998 Rachel struggled to be a part of; I am so proud to have been able to sit and talk to the young(er) people about my struggles, and to let them know that not all ‘success stories’ start out that way.

And if my purpose is to be the example of that, then it was worth driving over to Hull back in 1998, and again in 2018.

***

Introduction 

I first came to Hull University as a shy, naive, overweight, introverted, 18-year-old back in 1998. 

It was twenty years ago when I moved in to my student house on Marlborough Avenue with a random and eclectic bunch of strangers, and into a shared bedroom with a horse- lover named Bethany Barnes who had an unfamiliar west county accent, and a (significantly older) death-metal loving, biker boyfriend. 

My heart sank!

It was twenty years ago when I started out on a journey that I could never have predicted.

I came here to study for a 3-year Law Degree. Was it my dream to become a lawyer? Nope. Not at all! Did I have a dream to become anything, back then?? Sadly not. So, I followed the dreams that others had for me, instead. 

I didn’t know what challenges would lie ahead for me as I carried my super woofer CD player together with a god-awful selection of (mostly scratched) compact discs from my dad’s car into the ground floor bedroom I would share with a complete stranger.

I thought I’d just come here to study Law, but how wrong I was.

  • Mental health issues? What are those??
  • Clinical depression? How? When? Why?
  • Eating disorders? Who? Me?!
  • Body dysmorphia? Really? What on earth is that?

I would soon find out about them all.

I was blissfully unaware that I would be about to undergo a major operation to “fix” my delinquent body, or that I would soon suffer the cruel effects of increasingly worrying mental health disorders, including clinical depression and Body Dysmorphia.

I would become imprisoned inside my own mind, inside my own body, and – quite literally – inside my own bedroom – with no idea how to get out.

And as I stand here now, twenty years later, a happy and healthy 39-year-old woman, mum of a 7-year-old mini version of myself, a marathon runner, author of a book “Running For My Life”; and – most importantly – a woman who has wrestled with those bastard inner chimps and won, I’m happy to be able to share part of that journey with you.

I hope you enjoy listening to more about my story… 

Thank you

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The Ghost of Amanda Walker

It’s early Friday evening and I’m lying stretched out on my living room floor, with newspapers and magazines in which I am featured scattered all around me. I am sick of the sight of my own face. Fortunately, I have a small and (sadly) ever-decreasing pile of Cadbury’s Mini Eggs to my right, which is offset by the little pot of M&S Supergreen Salad to my left. The juxtaposition seems both crude and predictable, but I’m OK with that.

My life hasn’t been normal for approximately one week now. I’ve already written about the challenges of being a reluctant social media whore, and my initial apprehension at facing this inevitability. But the shocking thing is the degree to which I am successfully pulling it off.

‘You sounded so relaxed during the Marathon Talk interview, Rach. Great job!’

‘This interview is brilliant, Rachel! Well done!’

‘You were fab, Rach! Totally nailed it.’

And so it goes on…

In between Twitter messages congratulating me on my various PR performances, I turn to Gav and ask him, ‘How the fuck am I doing this, Gav?’

He has no answers.

I’ve heard from old school friends, ex- child-minders, long lost cousins, and work mates from two decades ago. I’ve been spoken to by the one mum in the school playground I had hoped wouldn’t acknowledge my existence, and quizzed loudly about my PR schedule in a Halifax nail bar, where an old lady sat listening in bemused silence, only to interject with, ‘some bloke threw himself off the motorway bridge last week, didn’t they? Poor soul.’ Although clearly spot on with the Mental Health theme, it did bring the mood in the place down to a point at which even a ‘Feeling Hot-Hot-Hot’ flame red couldn’t raise our spirits.

But on a manageable scale, and in a very small way, my story is impacting on people. As those who have (and haven’t) known me read my words on the page, and hear my voice on the radio, I get the distinct feeling that I’m not alone: I was never alone. And I can’t tell you the joy that brings me. To know that all the years of sadness, madness, and quiet, invisible lostness didn’t count for nothing; that my efforts to pull myself back from the brink of despair, and to watch my own mum grapple to do the same mattered. Hear that again: TO KNOW THAT IT MATTERED – means everything to me.

I sit opposite my mum in a coffee shop in town, and in between sips of extra hot skinny mochas (*again – the irony) we speak about the past week, and how it has felt for the pair of us. And as I look across at my lovely, endlessly selfless mum in her charity shop padded jacket and (what appears to be) a child’s headband keeping her mass of thick white hair from her dainty-featured face, I tell her about one particular question I was asked in a radio interview just a few days ago.

“So, you discuss you mum’s mental health issues in the book, Rachel. How is your mum now, and what does she make of your success?” one well-informed Northampton-based interviewer asked me whilst we were live on air.

I thought for a moment, and then it struck me that this is our story, and our success. You see, all those years ago, we wouldn’t have been sitting together chatting over our chocolate-sprinkled hot drinks in a busy place where people meet and talk. It wasn’t a part of our reality, back then. Just to sit and chat. It didn’t happen – it couldn’t happen – because the demons running amok in my mum’s mind held her captive, and they had pulled the curtains shut tight to avoid any hint of sunlight creeping in. The lightness couldn’t reach her – it was simply beyond her grasp.

“I’m pleased to say that my mum is really well, now,” I answer the male radio voice at the other end of the phone. “She has friends, and they go places; she chats to people she knows in town, and stops to have a quick word with a lady she knows from the knitting group, because it would be rude not to.” I’m now on a roll, pouring over all the remarkable changes that have happened in the years since my mum slayed her demons, and wrestled back the curtains.

“But most of all,” I continue, “This is our success. It is hers as much as it is mine. She showed me that she could find a way to accept help, and discover her joy in life – and she believed that I could do the same. So, the book and all it stands for is not some passive thing that she has observed from the distant sidelines. She has lived and breathed all of my struggles, and cheered for my success. She has cried quietly at times of despondency, and whooped loudly for every mini victory. All the races, all the medals; the first-place Breville Juicers and the no-place Christmas puddings. She has been there for it all, and – as I say in the book – I am as proud of her journey as she is of mine,”

 I glance across to another table in the very same coffee shop, and who is sitting there? None other than Amanda Walker, the girl whose mother inspired me when I was aged just 9 years old (Chapter ‘The Foil Blanket’) and who perhaps sowed the first ever seeds of marathon running in my young mind. I don’t even look twice: I know it’s her. She looks lost and alone. But then again, she always did look lost and alone. I wonder what the last thirty years have held for her, and I wonder why – and how – she is sitting in the very same coffee shop as me and my mum, today. Before I can find out, she has silently disappeared, as though a ghost has just vanished from a room.

And then I think to myself: Maybe it has…

***

It’s amazing to see photos of people (and pets) enjoying my book! You can buy Running For My Life by clicking here

Thanks for all the support, and the INCREDIBLE reviews we’re seeing on Amazon. Keep them coming!

Rachel x

 

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

 

 

I remember where I was. Do you?

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

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

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

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

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I am. I will. I do.

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

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

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

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

That summer, I began to run.

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

I will run. I will always run.

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

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

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

 

 

Ooooh you make me live….*

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

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

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Those iced fingers did me no good…

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

Two decades later… I did.

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

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


And so our newly married adventures continue…

… he’s got a bike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Gav – we’d best do a Google search…]

*Oooooh you make me live

Whatever this world can give to me

It’s you, you’re all I see

Oooooh you make me live now honey

Oooooh you make me live…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: ‘Ok. When?’

[a day later]

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

How did I fare?

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

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

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

What if I’ve just fucked up my gears?

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

CHALLENGE #3: EXPLORE!

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

images

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

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

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

IMG_1233

The epitome of the Gormless Selfie

I kept going.

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

 I didn’t know – I just kept going.

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

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

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

 

I pulled up in a parking area overlooking a reservoir.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks!’ I replied, ‘I’m loving it!’

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

Every stop I make, I make a new friend,

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

 

*** Who the actual fuck am I?