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.)

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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.

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Getting back on the horse: Well, riding along on a donkey…

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in bed with a cup of tea and a cluster of custard creams (is there a collective noun for custard creams?) after completing my first Parkrun in over 4 months.

When the wheels fell so spectacularly off my running at the beginning of this year, I knew that I’d gone from a Volvo S60 (nothing too flashy, but extremely good economy and a decent performer) to cruising around town in a Flintstone-mobile. It happened, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. So, I decided to take my arguably small-fry, mini dollop of adversity and turn it into a positive: I decided to Get a Life. I could barely remember what else I did other than running. Where do I go? What do I do? And… why?

And here’s how I went about proving to myself that there was a life for me over and above the endless miles trudging up and down the valley and gearing up for A N Other race for the already over-trained-yet-in-denial runner that I had somehow morphed into.

  • Becoming sociable (within reason.)

Do you fancy coming for a walk sometime, Rach? Normally, my answer would have been ‘Oh, erm I’d love to (gulps hard), but… [cue list of endless excuses]’ Running was my priority. If I wasn’t racing I would be chasing miles on Strava and simply unable to excuse myself from any given opportunity to thrash my own arse. So, I would politely decline such invitations. Friends? Who needs those? I’ve got my trainers, and my race medals. Hmmmm…

  • Being brave (i.e. doing things I know I’m shit at.)

Right, Gav. I’m off out on my bike.’ Really? Really? My inner bastard chimp (“IBC”) would bleat. But you’re shit on a bike! And not even just a little bit shit. You’re absolutely shit! You can’t take one hand off the handlebars to indicate, and have no traffic awareness whatsoever. You’ve fallen off at a roundabout before, narrowly missing a Nissan Micra. Are you even safe to be on the roads?

And IBC is right: I am thoroughly shit on two wheels. But if you take my four-wheel-luxury Volvo S60 away from me, then of course I’ll take two shit wheels over a Flintstone-mobile.

But wait…

Can I cycle half a mile uphill from my house and remember how to change gear without falling down a pot hole?

Turns out that I can.

Can I navigate my way down the main road and avoid getting flattened by passing a heavy hauler?

Unbelievably – as it happens – I can do that, too.

Can I RIDE to my mum’s instead of driving over there, successfully traversing the nasty little cobbled bridge crossing the canal?

Against the convincing protests of my IBC, Yes…Yes! – I bloody well can!

  • Experimenting

I’ve already written about my aqua running exploits, and my experience of jogging in the deep end of the pool wearing a ‘special belt’ whilst old ladies float about, gazing at me with a combined look of pity and intrigue. It’s character building stuff.

There’s a water aerobics class on a Monday evening, love, if you’d be interested?’ one kind OAP suggested as I ran like fuck whilst going absolutely nowhere in Sowerby Bridge pool.

‘Ahh, thanks! I might give that a go!’ was my enthusiastic reply: the truth of the matter being that I’d rather drink the entire contents of the overly-chlorinated pool through a straw.

  • Doing more of what I love

YOGA YOGA YOGA! Yoga has nurtured me when nothing else could. It has calmed my mind when the IBC threatened to run rampant like a ferocious case of foot & mouth disease amongst otherwise happy livestock. And it has strengthened my body: not in some kick-ass high dramatic display of epic proportions, but in an intelligent, and mindful* way.

*Both of these may be buzz words for ‘Fitness Bullshit Bingo’, but they’re true, nonetheless.

  • Setting *new* goals… other than [the next] half marathon (my default race distance of choice.)

Fancy the Three Yorkshire Peaks in June, Gav? We could walk / run / hobble / clamber / trudge / slide it?’

You see, we don’t need to run it. We can hike. We can walk. YES, WALK! And still experience something amazing, in a beautiful part of the world. IT IS POSSIBLE!

And so, all of the above things have brought with them many brilliant, funny, beautiful – and at times, entirely unexpected – experiences. They have enriched my life. I’ve made new friends; I’ve discovered new ‘fun’; I’ve found my balls, and I’ve discovered that I am – in fact – enjoying the journey. Hell, I even managed to navigate my mental state through the #VLM2017 preamble and race day whilst not even being tempted to go and lock myself away in my car and lick the windows in a solitary protest of self-pity. I succeeded in NOT GIVING A SHIT about being unable to take part in this year’s VLM. I’ve had some amazing experiences crossing that finishing line, but this year, others needed to experience it – it simply wasn’t my turn.

But now, like an ex-boyfriend from 1992, running is lurking around the corner again, throwing stones up at my bedroom window and asking me if I want to go down the park. It’s said ‘sorry’ for dumping me so rudely and abruptly. It thinks we can make it work. Initially, I gave it the V’s and pulled my bedroom curtains shut, but it’s since written me a little love letter and has posted it through the front door: I still really like you, Rach. Can’t we just go out a few times and see what happens? I’ll be at the park if you want to come down.

Well, today I skulked down to the park in my hooded top and dungarees, armed with my skateboard. I turned up at the Oakwell Hall Parkrun. I smiled nervously at the equivalent of my teenage ex, and he – kind of – smiled back.

‘I’m sorry’ he mumbled, as I willed myself through 5km of hard work.

I felt awful. Cumbersome and heavy-legged, with breathing to match. Are my Achilles hurting? I couldn’t tell. I wondered if I did still want to do this. ‘Great pace!’ some nice bloke shouted as I ran past him. ‘Good lass. Keep it up!’ another one yelled. ‘Third lady! KEEP GOING!’ a ridiculously over-excited marshal bellowed as I dragged my tired self around the twisty-turny Parkrun course.

And then, I knew. Yes – I can do this again. I can learn how to do this again. I WILL learn how to do this again, because – as much as all the other stuff has enriched my life – I still love running. My 1992 boyfriend is back.

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So, I guess I’m officially ‘back on the horse’ Although, to be fair, it felt more like riding a donkey through the streets of Nazareth, today.