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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: ‘Ok. When?’

[a day later]

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

How did I fare?

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

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

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

What if I’ve just fucked up my gears?

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

CHALLENGE #3: EXPLORE!

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

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

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

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

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The epitome of the Gormless Selfie

I kept going.

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

 I didn’t know – I just kept going.

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

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

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

 

I pulled up in a parking area overlooking a reservoir.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks!’ I replied, ‘I’m loving it!’

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

Every stop I make, I make a new friend,

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

 

*** Who the actual fuck am I?

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Keeping the faith: The Bastard Chimp of Anxiety comes to Parkrun

If only it were as easy as Jon Bon Jovi purported it to be back in 1992, when I used to listen through my crackly Walkman headphones how he had suffered for his anger and there were wars that couldn’t be won. Shit, I thought to myself whilst screeching tunelessly along to the ruggedly sexy New Jersey-born soft rocker: he must have been through a really tough time – although when I saw him perform live that same year, he did look to have been melted down and poured into his canary yellow leather pants, so maybe that was the catalyst for his angst? (I wore elasticated waist jeans: it was a much easier option.)

Unknown

What a spectacular metallic number. Crown jewels, you say?

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

Saturday morning was looming once again, and I’d made the same mental bargaining with myself as the previous weekend:

Get up (early),

Go to Parkrun,

Run my arse off,

Recover,

Come home – entirely thankful for it to be over – and resume normal activities.

So what? What’s the big deal about that? Thousands of people up and down the land – and far beyond this egocentric little rock – turn up to Parkrun every Saturday morning. Vast armies of fantastic folk push their backsides out the front door and challenge themselves, seeing where personal limits can be thrashed, bashed and smashed week, after week, after week.

I’m no different.

I woke several times during Friday night riddled with fearful, anxious, stomach-churning thoughts. I was terrified. What if I can’t do it? What if I’m shit?

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What if I have NOTHING to bring to the kick-ass PB-chasing party? What if all I can do is to get myself around the godforsaken 5k course?

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Where have I gone? Why am I panic-stricken about a bloody Parkrun? And why am I eating bourbons at 4am?

 Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

6.30am came, and I woke to the sound of birds having a brawl outside my bedroom window like two drunken youths having been kicked out of a nightclub in the early hours scrapping over a kebab.

Tiredness from my broken sleep meant that my eyes took longer than normal to focus. I wasn’t even sure they were looking in the same direction, or at the same time. My bleary-eyes clocked and eventually focused on the small pile of shorts / vest / socks laid out neatly on the chair and I knew – there was no way out. Fucking hell.

‘Right. I’m heading off, Gav,‘ I declared, after creeping about the house at some ungodly hour doing goodness-knows-what for an indecipherable length of time. I looked at my watch with my heavy, unfocused bog-eyes. It was Saturday morning. The time? 7.30am.

I pulled up into the entirely desolate Oakwell Hall Parkrun carpark. It was 8.10am (only 50 minutes early, then.) There were no marshals, no hi-vis vests, no runners, and no other overly-anxious, bleary-eyed nervous freaks anywhere to be seen. Just me, sitting in my car having audible heart palpitations whilst playing Pet Shop Boys greatest hits on repeat. Fast forward half an hour, and it would be a very different scene. The place would be swarming with hi-vis race marshals, regulars adorned in ‘I’ve completed 50 Parkruns!’ apricot T-shirts, and little old me, going nowhere other than pacing around in ever-decreasing circles wondering how I could tame the Bastard Chimp of Anxiety who’d accompanied me to Oakwell Hall Parkrun.

Once all of the above crew had arrived and were predictably swirling around the carpark in small, high-visibility clumps, I decided to head out of my car for a token gesture warm-up.

Oh fuck. My legs feel stiff like two bread sticks left out on the side overnight. They won’t bend. How can I do this?

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

After congratulating Betty for her 50th birthday, and Ken for his 100th Parkrun (‘There’s CAKE afterwards, Parkrunners!’) one final nervous gulp and we were off. My stale breadstick legs powered off up the slightly uphill start, and – unlike last week – I managed to overtake the offensively fit nine-year-old boy who was (thankfully) too young to appreciate how crippled with anxiety this bog-eyed lady running next to him had been only moments earlier.

The first mile was fast: too fast. As the course undulates around the beautiful – if challenging – Oakwell Hall grounds, it turns into a series of mini obstacles. Sharp corners force a sudden drop in pace, as does slaloming down a descending-level zigzag path. The faster downhill section is loose under foot, and is only too soon replaced by a gravelly uphill pull. Once at the top, the sinking reality of facing it twice suddenly seems daunting.

Halfway round the second lap and the classic nauseating 5k sensations rose in my throat, accompanied by burning in my chest, as though if I breathed out hard enough flames would shoot out of my mouth like Zog, the accident-prone dragon.*

Shit. I can’t do this. It’s 5k and I can’t do it. How can I not do this? Why is this so fucking hard? I pulled over for a millisecond as the Bastard Inner Chimp of Doom temporarily beat me, and I willed the entire thing to be over… But, I CAN do this. I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I CAN finish this. Fuck the time. Fuck the outcome. I’m trying my bastard best, and I can finish this. I’ve done MARATHONS that have felt easier than this.

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

As I began to run again, I felt the anxiety, the fear, and all the other entirely disproportionate and melodramatic nervous chatter disappear as I focused only on getting myself over the finish line. Despite the temporary ‘blip’ which caused me to pull over in discomfort and despair, I beat the chimp. Coming 12th overall, I was the 1st lady over the finish line, and I beat my time from the previous week by 20 seconds.

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But the real victory came in wrestling with my own anxiety, pinning it down in some Hulk Hogan-style** headlock making it squirm and thrash around whilst I raised one arm to the crowd, shouting ‘EAT DIRT, LOSER!’ to my ungracious opponent.

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Victory ride on the ram

You see, the Bastard Chimp of Fear can – and does – accompany all runners, at all stages, over all distances, and at all levels. It came along for the ride with me on Saturday morning, and almost chundered all over my trainers (and no doubt it will do so again, and again after that.)

But the comforting words of my favourite 1990s soft rock band came back to save me:

Keep the faith; keep the faith. Lord we got to keep the faith.

*A reference perhaps only familiar to parents running away from young children. It’s worth a read even without kids, to be fair.

**Yes, I was a teenager of the early ‘90s… I also have no idea what kind of insult would have been appropriate in 1990s professional wrestling circles.

It’s Blind Date! …with a static bike.

Wednesday 8th Feb

 It’s an early start this morning. I’m up with the larks to go see Magician Dave (Physio) for some more spells and contortions as he tries his best to un-make this holy mess I’ve made of my Peg Leg.

I turn up at the Miracle Centre and his polite – if slightly officious – receptionist makes me a bowl of Flat White. I’m not sure whether I’m in a physio’s waiting room or Starbucks, but I’d be happy with either right now.

‘How is it?’ he asks in his unmistakably Irish twang, and I begin to wade through the ridiculous tale of my having undone precisely ALL of the patching together he’d achieved before my ill-conceived attempt at the Dewsbury Bidet 10k.

He is patient, understanding, and kind. He doesn’t stand before me with condescending tones of ‘Well, that was fucking clever wasn’t it, Rachel?’ or repeated, disapproving sighs. He knows me well enough now to be confident that either of those responses may insight me to drive straight home and go out for a bastard rage-fuelled run (yes, he also knows that I am THAT stupid.)

He pulls and pushes my limbs as I move this way and that.

‘Can you push your RIGHT hand towards the LEFT corner of the room’

‘And your LEFT hand down the INSIDE of your RIGHT thigh.’

‘Good. And your RIGHT hand down to the floor to touch your RIGHT foot.’

 Suddenly, I’m in an expensive game of Twister. Or the Hokey Cokey.

I’m given my orders:

  • a prescription of rehab exercises (I hang on to his instructions as though I’m hearing the words of God himself);
  • I can do ‘other’ non-impact training, he generously confirms; Oh, and
  • No running.
  • NO RUNNING.

Those words, ‘NO’ and ‘RUNNING’ hit me and I grapple with myself for being utterly ridiculous. ‘Let’s see how it is in a few days – a week,’ he says (I realise, I’ve had longer holidays). By then, he reassures me, I MAY be able to reintroduce some very short, steady runs. But my head still spins with unanswered questions:

WHEN will I be back running? I want a time, and a date. Possibly even a place. He can give me nothing.

Will I lose my fitness? Will I lose all that I’ve trained for over the past six years just because of one silly treadmill run too far?

What will I do instead? What other training shall I do to a) stay sane and b) stay fit? I hate most classes; I fall off bikes (although admittedly not indoor ones – yet); and I can’t STAND swimming (I get cold and want to wee in the pool.)

What about all the races I’m booked to do on the run up to London? Write them off?

What about the marathon? The VLM 2017

What about the marathon?  Yes – the VLM 2017

And finally, what about the marathon? I see the hashtag #VLM2017 flash in front of my eyes. I so desperately want to be on that start line in April, the question spins around my head and eclipses all others.

 It’s suddenly like being in a bad episode of Blind Date from 1996. I begrudgingly revisit Contestant Number 1 – the static gym bike. He isn’t too bad, I guess. Maybe we could get along? It seems I’m left with no option but to go on a second date.

That lunch time, myself and the Static Gym Bike go to the First Dates restaurant. We have a pleasant chat; we have a few things in common. ‘The food is nice,’ I tell myself, whilst being fully aware that anything with the word NICE attached to it is thoroughly shit.

I look over at the other table. There is another woman on a date with the Treadmill. She doesn’t love running like I do – I can tell. She isn’t even interested in it. But she’s on a date with it, and I’m not. I’m stuck in the corner with Dull Arse Static Bike for company.

The clock ticks by. Offensive, red pixelated seconds and minutes pass away in front of me, and I turn the volume up on my Warren headphones (*There’s Something About Mary reference for the uncultured.) ‘Yazz & the Plastic Population: The Only Way is Up’ suddenly blares out into my ears. Oh, for fuck’s sake! I shout silently to myself as I work up to face my second endurance set – another hard effort 8 minutes.

The dinner date between Non-Runner and Treadmill has ended. She’s flounced off, not even giving it a backward glance, whilst the belt still spins slowly, as though it wasn’t ready to be left on its own just yet. Another day, I’d have dumped Static Bike and the endless ‘intervals’ in a heartbeat, and hopped aboard my beloved Treadmill. I’d say, ‘Listen, Tredders. I know we’ve had a few fallouts recently, and it hasn’t all been plain sailing, and you know that – well, I’m VERY FOND of you. I love running on pavements infinitely more, but in here, you are my true love. Can we not just patch things up and make it work?’

 But today, I’m on a date with Static Bike, and there’s no escape.

I come to the end of my session. I’ve split it up into purposeful, manageable chunks. I’ve worked hard – I’ve sweated (more than I would on the treadmill, to be honest) and I feel a sense of achievement that I’ve at least stuck it out.

I drift over to the mats and then focus on the Words of God rehab exercises I’ve been sent to fit into any given opportunity. I try my best to remember how I should be doing them. Am I supposed to breathe IN here, or OUT? Is my leg supposed to be at THIS angle, or THAT? I don’t honestly know, but I do them anyway.

I look at the clock and see it’s time for me to head back to my desk. Dave (work mate Dave, not Physio Dave) will be wondering where I am. And just as I’m about to head out of the gym, Static Bike shouts over, ‘So, shall we do this again sometime, then?’

 ‘Yeah.’ I say, miserably – eyeing up the Treadmill with watery eyes. ‘Yes, lets.’

 ‘I’ll call you…’

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