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

 

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Running For My Life… the birth of the baby elephant, 11th Jan 2018

It finally happened. After a 22-month gestation period, and some early complications -including a routine scan when it was questioned whether the elephant was in fact a giraffe (*ref earlier blog) – at 00:01 on Thursday 11th January 2018 I gave birth to a healthy, bouncing baby elephant. Or, to cut my now slightly overstretched analogy short – my book, “Running For My Life” was finally published.

The anticipation and build up to this event has been something akin to that of the European Space Station’s £80m investment into the human space programme. Weeks, months, and years in the living, writing, editing, re-writing and re-editing… and some more writing. Oh, and then a bit more editing…

And that was the easy part. Honestly.

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You see, back in 2015 when I began writing the book, and for the subsequent two years, I hadn’t quite factored in what might happen if and when my literary masterpiece ever made it out of the slush pile, and onto the shelves. That wasn’t anywhere on my radar. Simply writing and telling my story in the best way that I possibly could was my only goal / obsession. That was my focus and, it’s fair to say, it was my only focus.

So, in the very early meetings with my (admittedly amazing) publishing team, where there was some vague notion of a ‘marketing and PR plan’ closer to the publication date, I paid little attention. ‘Oh, that’s MILES off!’ I would reassure myself, and ‘We’ve got AGES until we’re anywhere close to all that stuff kicking off.’ Whatever “that stuff” was…

But just as day follows night, we crept ever closer to the Big Day. And as that happened, my levels of sheer terror began to build. I looked forward to Christmas, whilst at the same time waiting for it like Cinders counting down the seconds until the clock strikes 12 and her fancy glass slippers turn themselves back into God-awful Crocs. Christmas 2017 was my midnight hour. No more frolicking around with Prince Charming in an expensive little number from LK Bennett (ref. Prima magazine photo shoot); No more time to muse on these so-called ‘marketing and PR plans’ from afar. Along with the birth of Christ came the birth of all my fears: putting myself out there… whilst wearing Crocs.

I write in the book about introversion, and my natural tendencies towards this, and away from drawing any attention upon myself. That is, I’d suggest, reasonably understandable given the nature of my own experiences, and the gladiatorial inner battle with self-doubt vs self-acceptance I have warred over the past twenty years.

The whole idea, then, of going against my natural inclination and putting myself in myriad different guises of feigned self-confidence is as grotesquely warped as it is comical, considering the increasing levels of ‘social media whoring’ I may well be accused of over recent weeks and months. Like when Dustin Hoffman’s failing character actor Michael reinvents himself as ‘Tootsie’, the all-American female television actress, and then hits the big time with her fake teeth, tits, and dazzling red dress.

This is me. I am now Tootsie.

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PR:       “Right. We’ve got a photo shoot in London, Rach. Late November. You OK with that?”

Me:      ‘Yeah! Sure!” [I do a quick Google search for therapists within a 10-mile radius, whilst praying for the scabs to heal on both knees and elbows from Costa Rica, and the cold sores to vanish from my face…]

***

PR:       ‘Can you do a live interview on Radio Leeds next Tuesday, Rach?’

Me:      ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I run across to the sink and think I may vomit the Vienetta I had as a post-run treat over an hour since]

***

PR: ‘Look North want to interview you live on the day of publication, Rach. Are you OK with that?’

Me: ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I run across to the sink and actually vomit, just as soon as I’ve pressed ‘send’ on the email confirmation.]

***

PR: ‘Radio 2 have asked you to come down for a live radio interview, Rach… That OK?’

Me: ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I don’t even get to the sink before vomiting, this time.]

***

I have sleepless nights. One day, the fear consumes me, and I send Gav a text. It simply says, ‘I think I’m going to pull out of Look North. Can’t do it.’ He tries to ring me, but I don’t answer the phone. The fear consumes me, because I am still that person who looks in the mirror and wants to hide away. I am Part 1 of my book – the 4-year-old little girl in the wretched pink ballet leotard who feels like a round shape amongst the rectangles.

But then I think of all the times when I’ve felt exactly the same trepidation and terror. I think back to the start lines of the hundreds of races when I’ve lined up questioning my right to be there, or my sanity in possibly making a monumental fool of myself. And then I know – I can do it again. This time, it isn’t on a start line of a race, but this is just another kind of start line. And running has given me the strength and the courage to know that I can – and I will – push myself out of my introverted, introspective comfort zone again. Because I’ve done so many, many times before.

‘So, Rachel. What’s the main message you’d like to give people, from reading your book?’ the glamorous female Look North presenter asks me, as we reach the conclusion of the live television interview.

‘It’s to be brave enough to try,’ I reply, as all my fears have now gone, melted away in a heady combination of adrenalin and hairspray fumes. ‘And not to worry about making a fool of yourself,’ I continue, on a roll. ‘Because we all have done, at one time.’

The live television interview is over, and I can’t believe that I even enjoyed it! I watch it back, and I realise – I have running to thank for giving me the strength to do this. Not only that, but I’ve had the most incredible experiences over the past week, and I have felt as proud of myself as I have running in any marathon.

Perhaps there’s another book in this, somewhere…

“Running For My Life” is available to buy now on Amazon, in paperback or kindle… Link here.

Giving birth to an elephant Part 2… or is it a giraffe?? #writingabook

It’s a Tuesday morning in early March 2016. I’ve just come off the treadmill at the gym, as I need to keep even the smallest amount of headspace from my attractive bull elephant other half. It was very intense at the beginning of our courtship, but this relationship needs to be sustainable – we’re both in it for the long-haul – and so normality resumes as best it can.

I stroll back to the changing room with the slightest whiff of smugness, having ticked off my dreaded speed session. Phew! Thank God that’s over. Job done. I reach for my IPhone from inside the locker, and without thinking, I click on the ‘mail’ icon in the bottom right hand corner. I find myself doing this on average ten times every fifteen minutes over any 23-hour period (I leave one hour for uninterrupted sleep), just to see how the universe is responding – or not – to the story of me and my elephant. I don’t honestly expect to see anything different from the other 160 times I have already checked since 6am this morning, but this is how habits are formed (having undertaken some light research, I discover that this process is called ‘chunking’ – where the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine.)

I am now a chunker. I chunk.

And there it is. The Email. It reads:

Dear Rachel

We’re attracted to this submission. It has a lot of promise but it also needs some re-writing and re-ordering. On the plus side, it has a fierce energy and a raw honesty, absolutely no preaching, and we relate to a woman who finds and saves herself by running.”

WHAT? FUCKING WHAT?? I take a screen shot of The Email and, with shaking hands, I ping it over to Gav. But I can’t wait the ten nanoseconds for his reply, and so I immediately pick up the phone.

‘They like it!’ I scream to him down the phone, as the woman drying her crotch in front of me with what appears to be a shrunken tea-towel no longer exists in my reality: it is just me, Gav, my bull elephant, and The Email. ‘They fucking like it!’ I repeat, as if to begin the whole process of opening the euphoric email again, just to indulge myself, and relive the precise moment when my relationship with the attractive bull elephant was at least acknowledged by the universe as existing – like it mattered.

I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as the prospect that somebody, somewhere, sees some vague potential in my beloved bull elephant, and that they may think he’s beautiful, too.

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This isn’t the actual selfie, but you get the gist…

Outside the gym, I take a selfie as evidence to Gav, and myself, of this monumental turning point. I check the selfie once more before pinging it across to Gav on WhatsApp. But my ridiculous, euphoric smile isn’t what I see. Instead, an ethereal glow radiates from the photograph. It is the unadulterated joy of potential: of what might be. This person – the one who has typed out the precise words expressing their ‘attraction’ to my submission – is now The Gatekeeper: the gatekeeper to my dreams.

Emails are exchanged, and over the coming weeks and months, a dialogue develops between the two of us.

‘Dear Rachel. We think that maybe your elephant might benefit from a slight makeover. Would it be possible, do you think, for him to work out a little, and to lose a small amount of weight?

Yes, I guess that’s possible. Although I do like his chunky thighs…

‘And he seems a little… grey to us. Would you consider adorning him in some brighter, funkier outfits, perhaps?’

I look over at my elephant who is sitting quietly, reading a book about self-acceptance on the sofa. Hmmmm, I think to myself, imagining my bull elephant dressed up like Timmy Mallet. I happen to quite like that shade of grey…

‘And finally, if we are to proceed with your submission, we will need you to take drastic action with your elephant’s ears. They are too flappy, and there is a small, misshapen chunk missing from the left lobe. Without a doubt, comprehensive reconstructive surgery will be required.’

I look again, and my heart sinks. I love my elephant. I love his colour, and his misshapen, flappy ears. I love the essence of him, and I don’t want him to undergo major cosmetic surgery to morph into a non-grey, neon version of himself that I no longer recognise. That’s not to say that certain improvements can’t be made and aren’t necessary, even (I totally know that they are) but I suddenly realise: it’s not my elephant they want at all. In fact, they don’t even want an elephant.

They want a giraffe dressed up as Timmy Mallet.

With the heartbreak of this realisation, we part ways, and they wish me and my beautiful bull elephant the best of luck on our continuing journey. I sit in the car and cry, because fleetingly I wonder, ‘Why couldn’t you be a giraffe who looks like Timmy Mallet? Why do you have to be a big old lump of grey elephant with misshapen ears?’ I think about the point of our relationship. Where are we going? And why? Do I really love him like I once thought I did? Do I believe in him – and in myself – enough to think that we could make it work? Salty tears roll down my cheeks and plop onto my hi-vis jacket as I ponder our future together. And then my self-indulgent woe is broken by the voice of a small child sitting in the back of the car.

‘Don’t cry, Mummy,’ she says. ‘It’ll be OK. Please don’t cry.’

You see, we have just finished Junior Parkrun, and only now – sitting in MacDonald’s car park at 10am on a drizzly Sunday morning – have I allowed the weight of emotion to wash over me and to temporarily break me, whilst my daughter sits and watches, draining the contents of a blackcurrant Fruit Shoot, from her booster seat in the back.

‘It’s OK, Tills,’ I tell her, half laughing at the ridiculousness of the scene. ‘I’m OK. Honestly I am.’

How can I possibly explain to her how much this means to me; about the Joy of Potential, and the Gatekeeper to my Dreams? She frequently sees me sitting and tapping away on my MacBook Pro keyboard. She sees the Writers & Artists Yearbook 2016 take permanent residency on the small colouring table in our front room, and yet she has no idea that this is all for her. This is her story as much as it is mine; this is her elephant, and she will inherit all of it – whether she likes it or not.

I dry my exhausted tears and I commit once again to finding a home for my beautifully imperfect bull elephant.

We’re back to square one. Each submission is a masterpiece in itself: carefully crafted to the idiosyncrasies of the respective gatekeepers. I haven’t been through this process for a good few months, whilst I tried to bend and shape, flex and contort my bull elephant into the ill-fitting guise of a fluorescent giraffe. But I haven’t sold him out, and I haven’t sold my soul. For that, I am at least grateful.

I’m only at ‘B’ in my Encyclopedia of Hope, and I happen across a publishing house called ‘Blink Publishing’. I do my usual research on the internet, and I am unable to cross this off my list of potentials despite being overwhelmed with magnitude. These are big hitters – the real deal. They publish many incredible non-fiction, autobiographical books for the rich and famous, but I won’t be intimidated. I dig a bit deeper, and I discover a wealth of evidence to support this being a potential loving and nurturing home for my bull elephant. I swallow hard at the prospect of sending a snap-shot of my blundering, grey, scraggy-eared, unpolished bull to the appointed gatekeeper of said publishing house. But I think back to the encouraging words of Giraffe Random House and the early indications I have received of our potential, and I know I must.

It is now early August 2016, and I send my very best effort – an entirely filtered portrait of my bull elephant to the fancy publishing house. He is standing at an angle, thereby disguising the misshapen left earlobe, and the filter I have selected makes him appear to be more of a silvery grey than the miserable, rainy day, murky colour that he is.

I press ‘send’ and I know I couldn’t have done any more. The rest is down to good fortune, and the will of the universe.

One week goes by, and I hear nothing. I’ve hardened up emotionally since the trauma of the MacDonald’s car park pathetic fallacy scene. I simply must accept that this might be a long, or even endless journey. There may be another thousand condescending rejections to contend with, and I may be met with an insurmountable wall of silence (the slush pile is an over-populated, hostile place) so best I get my head around those realities now, before I fall foul of the ‘joy of potential’ honey trap again.

My newly emotionally-resilient self sends a politely worded chase-up email to the faceless gatekeeper at Blink Publishing. I feel nothing as I send the email. My task is now purely pragmatic, and I cannot afford to become too emotionally involved.

But then, I receive it. Another Email. It pings into my inbox, and once again the joy of potential dances around, flirting with me.

‘Dear Rachel

I have indeed received your submission, and I have been reading it for the past few days. I am really enjoying it, and will be able to give some more detailed feedback once finished. Please expect a fuller response by the end of the week!’

I show Gav, and he hops about it the living room, whilst I remain seated.

I just hope they want an elephant, I think to myself, as I look across the room at my bull who is lifting weights over in the corner. He’s just come back from the local tanning salon. What shade of grey is that? I wonder.

He’s already beginning to look rather different…

TO BE CONTINUED…

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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.

 

 

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 Dream Stealer

The Dream Stealer 

What does anxiety feel like?

It’s a daily battle with the Dream Stealer.

It rears its head like one of the ugly, mean giants sprawled across The BFG’s hillside.

It’s a cat pawing at a cornered mouse; a bully taunting the vulnerable kid at school. It’s always there, lurking in the background, ready to rouse and pounce, paw and taunt. You just don’t know when.

It laughs and says, “You can’t!” when otherwise, you might have – just possibly – dared to consider that you could.

It prepares you for the worst, even when the worst is unfeasible.

It paints a picture of a scary, doomed outcome on even the brightest and sunniest of days.

It makes you fear the outcome, kiboshing the journey to even get there.

It’s your heart suddenly beginning to race in a supermarket aisle; your chest pounding when sitting motionless, that nobody sees.

It’s fight or flight that won’t switch off – on constant repeat. Only there is no one to fight, and no need to take flight.

It’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off. But jump where? Into some invisible, non-existent place where only fear lives.

It’s standing, sword drawn, opposite an invisible opponent. A permanency of ‘en garde‘.

***

It’s all these things, and a million more. And it can never, EVER win.

Here’s why it never will.

***

The silent, daily battles; the mini-victories.

Pushing yourself out the front door when it would be so much easier not to.

Refusing to allow the world to shrink, whilst the Dream Stealer feeds on the remnants of your joy.

Smiling, and faking confidence when you’re terrified inside.

Starting a conversation with the quiet Mum in the school playground.

Saying ‘Yes‘, when every ounce of you wishes it were a ‘No‘; saying ‘No, thank you‘ when compulsion and obligation try and steer you to go.

Standing on the start line with a dry mouth, wishing it were the finish.

Entering ‘Destination: Unknown’ into your internal satnav, and revving up the engine.

Pressing that ‘send’ button, and risking rejection.

Clicking ‘submit’ because there’s ever such a small chance that you might win.

Taking part when you doubt you have much to contribute;

Walking into a room when it feels infinitely safer to stay outside.

Picking up the phone when you’d rather switch it to silent.

Asking the question you’ve tried hard to swallow;

Not listening to the small talk, or the ones who just gossip. Or to those who are jealous because their dreams have already curled up and died.

Walking past the crowd, with your head held high.

Meeting up for a coffee, regardless of the panic rising inside.

Asking for help when you can’t face it alone, despite the only comfortable place being inside, on your own.

***

All these are what will keep the Dream Stealer away from your door.

I know, because I’ve done them all many, many times before.*

*including today, when I had my arse kicked at the Bingley Show Trail Fell Race. But victory was mine, for all of the above reasons.

 

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.