AMSTERDAM HALF MARATHON PART 2: RACE DAY

We both sleep well and wake up to the most beautiful blue-sky morning. I check WeatherPro on my phone: a great big childlike sunshine stares back at me, and a temperature of 23c is predicted for today. Our race doesn’t start until midday, when arguably it will be at its hottest.

We know we’ve got ages to wait. I shower, and then deliberately waste time messing about with my race kit. Gav sticks his new nipple tape over his freshly shaven areolae. He bought them from the expo – not everyone suffers with painful, bleeding nipples, but my Gav does. I’ve seen them look red raw – like he’s breastfed teething triplets – after races. He’s hoping this Magic Tit Tape will minimise the chafing.

It’s approaching 10am when we mosey on down to the cool cafe / bar next to our Oosterpark loft apartment. I know what I’m having for brekkie – a simple croissant and a black coffee. The buzzer goes and Gav goes to collect that and his Dutch beans on toast. I feel relaxed; chilled out, even. Far more so than yesterday when we were traipsing past the fat whores texting (or “sexting”) in their shop windows. I don’t know why, but it feels nice to be free of anxiety. That will come later, I’m sure.

A pleasant looking girl approaches and excitedly asks if we’ve done the marathon, this morning. “No” I tell her. “Our race is later this afternoon.” She smiles, looking ever so slightly disappointed, and says “good luck” anyway. I don’t want to tell her than even the Kenyans won’t have finished, yet. Not that she should either know, or care.

It’s time to go, and we head off for the tram. But wait! A notice is stuck to the entirely (excuse the pun) Double Dutch tram timetable. “Tram numbers 3 and 24 are not running due to today’s marathon,” I roughly translate from Hurdy Gurdy. Ahh shit. Problem solver Gav instinctively approaches a heavily set, grubby-looking man who is standing close by blowing wafts of Silk Cut high into the otherwise toxin-free air. “Do you speak English?” he asks the filthy vagrant. “No” filthy vagrant replies. Ah. Ok. I can’t help but admire the lack of apology from smelly, toxic man. I laugh as Gav turns to me, stunned by his direct response.

An infinitely cleaner and far more accommodating young woman looks like a far safer bet. She walks across, looks intently at the Double Dutch tram timetable and map with us, and tries her best to help. It is comforting and reassuring to be back to the friendly, helpful vibe of the place, like the apple-rubber from yesterday, and girl in the cool cafe, earlier. Fortunately, Amsterdam’s initial shiny reception hasn’t lost its sheen.

With the help of friendly immaculate girl, we board the next tram. A large, uniformed woman sits behind the clear plastic screen in the middle of the four carriages. She wants to help us, and sees it as a personal challenge to make sure that we arrive at our destination – the Olympic Stadium – despite the obstacles of closed roads and tram diversions. She is efficient, but not smiling. Stern, yet kind. She writes down the exact metro stations we must locate, and the various tubes she is convinced will get us there. I repeat the instructions back to her like a child learning a new language. She nods, still looking focused and ever so slightly fierce. I’m glad she wants to help us. I say “thank you very much” but she isn’t interested in our fawning gratitude. She just wants us to get the fuck off her tram.

Her guidance is good. We arrive at the first destination and I go through her instructions again in my head. I glance across the platform and see a tall Viking-looking chap wearing trainers. “He’s doing the race” I say to Gav. On that basis, we cross over to the other side of the platform and sidle up next to him. We begin a direction-based conversation, and yet again we are in the company of an entirely helpful, Zen-like warrior who is only too happy to chitchat in pigeon English about races and the weather. We don’t get much further than this due to the language barrier, but his eyes are warm and kind. Another female arrives in trainers, and we know we’re safe. I look and smile at Zen Warrior: he smiles back – we both know why.

An influx of vest-numbered runners are suddenly all around us. The tram is crammed, as though we’ve all just arrived from another planet. I see a female runner eyeing me up and down, as though trying to work out my running pedigree and aligning that with her own. Either that, or she fancies me in my short shorts.

Before long we are seated on a circular bench just outside the stadium. The sun is warm and comforting on my skin. I feel the heat, and I bask in it like a reptile on a mountain top. It hasn’t yet dawned on me what it might feel like to run in this, today. For now, it is heavenly and I sit happily on our sunny bench and people watch whilst Gav goes for his 14th wee. I could sit here for many hours, but we have to go, soon. Shit! I’ve temporarily forgotten that the hard bit is still to come.

Our trek to the orange starting pen seems to take forever. I’m sure we’ve done an entire lap of the stadium, and time is ticking on. I look at my watch. 12:09 (1:09 in Dutch time).. the race begins at 12:20 (1:20 in Dutch time.) “Shit Gav, we’d best get a move on,” I say as Gav slopes off for yet another urination. I can’t hang about any longer, and so I give him a hurried kiss, and leave him to piss. I won’t see him again for quite some time.

The gun goes off and nothing happens, other than the steady trudge towards the starting line and the timing mats. I still feel relatively calm. Once at the mats, I begin to run and wonder why some other fuckwits aren’t doing the same. I have to dodge people and hop onto curbs to get past those who look like they haven’t yet realised where they are. “Fucking hell!” I say to myself out loud, as I skip around a 5”2 woman who is already walking.

 

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Artistic licence: this is the start of the marathon, not the half. But you get the gist…

The first few miles are steady, and a decent pace. I’m relieved. I check my watch frequently to make sure I’m not overcooking it, and flying off too fast. Gav warned me earlier – it’s easy to burn up in a half marathon and there’s a long way to go once you’ve used up all your juice. With that in mind, I reach mile 7 and still feel kind of ok.

But then it starts. My feet are fucking killing me! What’s going on with my shoes? I can feel searing pains in my toes and on the padded bits to the side of both feet. I haven’t experienced anything like this before – not since the Dubai marathon, that is. My feet feel sore and swollen, as though covered in bee stings or submerged in a tank filled with jelly fish. It’s then I realise – this is going to be a tough second half of the race. I piss in my shorts, and stop shortly after for a gel. If truth be told, I don’t honestly want to start running again, and I could happily pull off the course right there. But I don’t, because I can’t. Because I won’t. My feet still ache murderously with every step, but somehow I manage to keep a half decent pace. I’ve stopped dreaming of a good time now – I’m focused on survival.

The heat feels oppressive, and I douse water in myself at the next drinks station. I wonder where Gav is, and I wonder how his race is going. I miss him and contemplate pulling over for him and waiting, but I know that’s stupid. He can’t help me. No one can help me, now.

Suddenly, the miles stretch out ahead of me like a vast expanse of desert. My mouth feels dry, and I realise – it’s hot. It’s so fucking hot. The internal chatter begins. “How can you be struggling, here, Rach…” “why can’t you do this, Rach…” “how is this beating you, Rach…” and I think back to last weekend’s duathlon. I think back to that first, fast run, and the never ending comedy 24-mile cycle. I think back to how my body performed, and all it did for me, on that day. It was only 7 days ago. My inner chimp is reminded of the fact. “You’re lucky you can do this at all!” It is temporarily muted. “Your legs are still fucked from last weekend,” I say, trying to silence the hurtful, unhelpful mantra threatening to swim into my mind.

Every mile hurts now. “How have you ever managed to run a marathon, Rach?” I wonder. “How on earth can you possibly run one again?!” I don’t know. I just have to keep myself from stopping. My feet throb with pain, as fluid fills the delicate skin around my toes. I haven’t yet worked out that this is largely a result of today’s heat. I just think my trainers are shit and Ill-fitting. I want to take them off and throw them into one of the overflowing bins with banana skins cascading down the sides.

I hate the final miles. My head swirls with conflicting thoughts – thoughts that simply want to make me stop running and sit down.

Finally, we enter the Olympic stadium. There are another 150 metres to go. I look at my watch and I’m on for a fairly average – if slightly disappointing – time. Oh well, it’s almost over. My whirring mind can soon switch into fatigue mode, and then over analysis of my performance. At the moment, I can’t be arsed with either.

I cross the line and feel like I’ve run twice the distance. I limp slowly to collect my medal and half a banana, and I wonder where Gav is. How far behind is he? I stand by the barriers and watch other runners enter the stadium as I did just a few minutes earlier. Will Gav be one of them? I just don’t know. I begin to chat to a friendly Scott called Alan. He’s found the heat to be equally oppressive, and it robbed him of his previous PB of 1:38. He came in at 1:42. I tell him my time, and he looks impressed. I don’t want to mention that I’m disappointed. It seems unnecessarily rude and self-absorbed. He feels lightheaded and I suggest he goes outside the stadium to get some water. We both leave the stadium and I lose him in the crowd.

Where is Gav? I head to the baggage area and pick up our bag. I know he has no phone, money, or any other vaguely helpful items on him. I ask 12 people how I get to the “A” from the giant IAMAMSTERDAM letters we stood next to posing for photographs, yesterday. No one seems to know where it is, and I wonder why – the letters are ten feet tall. How can they go missing?

Eventually I find them. I sit and wait. Just by the A, as agreed. I post a message on Instagram notifying the world of my LOST HUSBAND. I don’t know why. It achieves nothing other than to worry my mum.

I sit and wait. And wait.

Echoes of Dubai 2016 fill my mind. I know the heat will have affected him today, as it did, then. Suddenly, I am worried. What’s happened? Can’t he find the ten-foot tall A? Why not? I have.

My phone dings and it’s Gav’s mum. “MEET GAV BY THE CHARITY TENTS.” I get up and slowly force my swollen feet back into my trainers. I now fucking hate them.

I walk to the charity tent and see Gav sitting on the curb. “What happened?” I ask him. It was the heat.

We head for a beer and sit on the grass. Every ten minutes the hum of chatter is interrupted by the sound of ambulance sirens. And we know then that a lot of people found it hard, today.

Back at the Loft apartment we sit in muted, tired silence contemplating our respective races. I check on Instagram and a few people have congratulated me on my efforts. And I get one message from a girl saying “You did a great time. You’re capable of much better, though.” I want to scream at her through my iPhone and tell her how fucking hard it was, today. I want to make her do last weekend’s duathlon, and then fly out here and race in soaring temperatures, seeing how she fares against her own PB.

Gav laughs and manages to calm me before I post a reply. I delete the selfie I’ve just taken sticking Vs up, and post something vaguely polite, instead.

I sit and take another swig of shit coffee from the little yellow mug I nicked from the Cool Cafe yesterday, and Gav laughs at the memory of me running away around the corner so not to get caught. Maybe that tired my legs…

What a weekend it’s been in the Dutch oven.

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Yes, I really did nick the mug. Shame on me.

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Duathlon Virgin Pops Her Cherry

I’m a road cycling virgin – or at least I was until very recently when I purchased my very first second-hand speed machine from a guy at work. Cleats? Are those like vaginal warts? Derailleurs? French for train track? So, completing the Oulton Park Duathlon yesterday felt like a hell of an achievement. I entered it on a whim a couple of months ago when the realisation hadn’t yet fully hit that I’d have to at least pretend to know what I’m doing on a road bike. Fake it ‘til you make it? Yep. That’s me. 

I chose to enter the Standard distance race. This would be a 9k run + 39k bike + 4.5k run. The alternative was a shorter Sprint distance (4.5k run + 21k bike + 4.5k run) ‘Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound’, was my exact thought process whilst choosing the longer distanced race. If it’s going to hurt for 21km on an uncomfortable, unfamiliar set of wheels, then what difference is an additional 18km going to make? (hashtag: ‘ignoranceisbliss’). 

Gav and I have revelled in some mini-victories in the run-up to this unlikely feat. We have: 

  • Bought bikes; 
  • Equipped ourselves with a bicycle pump and some other basic maintenance equipment which we have absolutely no idea how to use (we have enough allen keys to make all necessary adjustments to the Eiffel tower, and yet raising my seat half an inch is a bridge too far.) 
  • Invested in a fancy bike carrier for the car. One entire Saturday afternoon was recently sacrificed as we wrestled to marry my Nissan Juke with the various wires / arms / straps and contraptions contained within the neatly packaged Thule box. It drizzled mockingly as we stood in hung silence watching instructional YouTube videos on repeat. 

‘I’ve decided I’m not going to wear my cleats on Sunday for the race, Gav I declared to my endlessly supportive husband as he stood in the kitchen trying to work out how to gain access to the fridge which was entirely blocked by my now upturned Scott road bike. ‘It’s not worth the risk, and surely I won’t be the only one pedalling in trainers?’ 

‘Course not!’ he replied, still unable to access the milk. 

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‘Can’t you do without the milk, Gav?’

Once my Scott bike was sufficiently adhered to the car boot, the three of us headed off to Oulton Park racetrack on Sunday morning.  

No sooner had we parked up and enjoyed the relief of our compulsory thank-fcuk-we’ve-arrived-at-destination-and-escaped-from-the-car toilet stop than a tall chap in a hoody approached with a beaming smile. ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he said. I looked nonplussed at the approaching stranger, and then across at Gav. ‘The Deer Park dash!’ he said, as if this would make it any easier.  

Not a Scooby Do.  

‘Oh yeah!’ I lied. ‘The Deer Park Dash!! Of course!’ I said, as though repeating the race back to him were indeed confirmation that I had any kind of recollection of our exchange. ‘I was running with the pram? he continued, as my vacant look didn’t go unnoticed. Lovely chap. Still no idea. 

We stood at the back of our car next to the bondaged bike and the four of us – me, Gav, Friendly Hoody Man and his wife – talked turkey about race tactics. ‘It’s the last run that’s a killer,’ friendly hoody man says. ‘Your legs are like jelly. You want to run, but your legs have turned to mush.’ I didn’t want to tell him that the running parts were the bits I was actually looking forward to. ‘Just keep up a good cadence on the bike, and you can make up a lot of time with a decent cycling section.’ 

Bollocks.  

I looked at my bike, still gagged and bound to the back end of our Juke, and it suddenly felt like an alien to me. In that moment I realised – I don’t know it very well at all. I haven’t worked out how it feels most comfortable, or what gears it prefers. I haven’t taken the time to oil its chain or to lube the intricate parts. It doesn’t know my correct seat height, and the pedals and I muddle along in some persistent misunderstanding. I bought an entire set of allen keys, and yet the seat still chafes parts of me that only my husband knows. We are complete strangers.  

I wheeled my reluctant partner, Scott, into the transition area.  

Could I just safety check your bike please, madam?’ a necessarily efficacious gentleman said as I approached in my gormless state. ‘Do you know that you’ve got an end bar missing? ‘ he went on, pointing to a part of Scott I’d never seen. ‘I’m going to have to tape it up, as I’d hate for you to impale yourself on the course if you had a collision.’ Oh. Right. Yep. ‘And your tyres seem a bit low. In fact – bloody hell – these won’t last nine laps, love. Take it to the guy over there and he’ll sort you out.’ 

I trundled my non-friendly alien, Scott, over to another younger gentleman who winced when he felt the skinny rubber surrounding my wheels. ‘It’s a good job you’re here!’ I joked nervously.  

He didn’t laugh. 

After an informative safety briefing, we were off and I set off running confidently on my own two feet. Yesss! I know how to do this, I thought, as I soon passed a number of pro-looking tri-suited bodies on the first lap of the two-lap section. My pace was controlled but fast, and I felt good. I felt strong. No technical malfunctions possible, other than the obvious shoelaces or legs falling off. With no evidence of either, I arrived into the first transition entirely happy with the first running section.  

Remember to put your helmet on before you take your bike off the rack, I recalled the wise words of Friendly Hoody guy and stuck my Halfords lid* straight on my head before inhaling a gel and pushing my bike out into the traffic lane. Shit. I’ve got to hop onto the bloody thing, now. 

For the first lap, we took some time getting to know one another. It tried to mould to me, whilst I squirmed about on the impossibly narrow saddle and wondered if my marriage would survive nine laps of potentially irreparable damage to sensitive female areas. Fuck! My foot slipped from the non-cleated pedal and the wheels spun round at some speed, catching me on both shins. Fuck, fuck FUCK! I wrestled my Adidas Boost trainers back onto the slippery silver pedals and wrenched the handlebars back under control to avoid face-planting on the race track. I looked around me. No one else was cycling in Adidas Boosts. NO ONE ELSE IS PEDALLING IN FUCKING TRAINERS, RACHEL. Wait! Oh look! A girl over there is, and she’s a shit cyclist too! I felt like cycling over to her and making friends, but she didn’t look to be in the mood for chatting.  

Lap 3 and I felt sure my future was one of celibacy. I could see nothing through my entirely unnecessary Rudy Project sunglasses, and wind whipped snot across my face like a sad, sleeveless child. I looked up and saw Gav and Tilly up in the stand for the fifth time. ‘TAKE HER INSIDE IT’S PISSING IT DOWN’ I hollered across to Gav who stood looking perplexed at the unexpected instruction whilst I attempted to ‘maintain a good cadence’ on my alien bike. For the remaining seven laps, they took my advice, and were nowhere to be seen.** 

There were hills on the course. I couldn’t believe it. Just as I began to think I could manage to remain seated on my ill-fitting bike for what may feel like an eternity, they threw two significant inclines on the track for good measure. And just as I was attempting to lower my gear for the 5th time, I heard an emphatic ‘Keep going, Rachel! Keep pushing!’ from behind. For a millisecond I was transported back to the delivery room of Calderdale Royal Hospital in late September 2010, but a quick glance to my right and Friendly Hoody man came flying past me, clearly making up time on his cycle, just as he’d predicted. Fucking hell. 

The remaining cycle laps were a feat of a certain kind of endurance I’ve never experienced before. Like balancing on a thin, moving beam praying for the moment when it would all end.  

Approaching the second transition, I felt no fear about the second run. Legs tired? Of course. A bit wobbly? Yeah, sure. Desperate to get off the fucking bike? YES! YES. THAT! I hopped off the bike like a slightly drunken vagrant heading off to his last pub of the night. Right: Hang bike on rack? Check. Inhale a gel? Check. Right. Now RUN, RUN, FUCKING RUN!  

‘Wait! You’ve still got your helmet on!’ I heard Gav and Tilly bellow from the barriers as I headed towards the transition exit. Oh, for the love of God. I turned on my heels and handed my No Frills non-aerodynamic Halford’s lid to a very helpful fellow athlete, and ran off, as far away from my fucking Scott bike as was humanly possible. That was motivation enough for me. 

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I. love. tarmac.

‘Great running!’  one semi-limping guy said as I skipped past him on my final lap of the track, feeling the thrill of my Adidas Boosts on terra firma. The last mile felt tough on the final climb up to the finish, but it was over soon enough. 

Approaching the finish line after a cold, wet, tiring and uncomfortable 2 hours and 24 minutes, I could see Gav and Tilly – both perfectly dry and warm – cheering for me as I raised my thoroughly feeble arms in the air whilst attempting to look mildly victorious.  

‘WELL DONE, MUMMY!’ Tilly said, pawing at my medal and blatantly eyeing up my CLIF peanut butter bar. ‘You did REALLY well… But why were you so slow on the bike?’ 

Thanks, Tills. The adoption papers are being processed at the time of writing. 

 

*I can call it this, now I’m officially a #cyclingwanker 

**I subsequently discovered that they were neither cold nor pissed wet through, and my unnecessary hollers had simply caused them to fall about laughing. ‘The other cyclists must have thought you’re mental!’ were Gav’s exact words. 

The Deer Park Dash 10k: The non-trail trail race.

‘It’s a 10k trail race,’ I proclaim confidently, ‘around the grounds of some beautiful Estate in Chester.’

‘Sounds great!’ Gav replies. ‘I wonder how “traily” it is, though?’ he continues. We’ve fallen foul of this being used to describe everything from balls-out fell races (Bingley and Ilkely, to name but a few) to more steady jaunts through woodland paths. Ironically, the Trailblazer Half Marathon in Clumber Park falls into this latter category. Hard in its own way, but the trails are at least a) visible and b) not vertical.

Anyway, without further ado – and for no other reason than it is a CFD (a Child Free Day) – we enter the Deer Park Dash 10k. Job done.

A day or so later, a large ‘signed for’ envelope arrives through the post which always generates some level of excitement. What could it be? A cheque reimbursing us hundreds of pounds from Daylight Robbers, the HMRC? A hand-written invitation to meet Paula Radcliffe at her Font Romeu training base, and spend a week discussing how to progress from being a marginally shit runner to a slightly less-shit one? (it’s all relative.) It is neither of those things. Instead, I take out of the envelope the largest neon car parking pass I’ve ever seen. There is no sign of any race numbers. How odd. After pausing briefly to consider whether we’ve in fact entered into a car rally, Gav and I shrug in mirrored bemusement.

As usual, our travel to the race is planned meticulously to factor in a good hour-and-a-half of sitting in the car doing fuck all other than pinning and re-pinning numbers to our vests, and so we set off only slightly after the crack of dawn. ‘Have you got your trail shoes?’ I ask Gav, just before we heave our unnecessary bags into the car. ‘And what about your road shoes, just in case? It’s been quite dry out, so you never know – roadies may be an option.’ It’s an afterthought, but he agrees.

The Sat Nav helpfully directs us towards the middle of a forest and a magical-looking gatehouse, with absolutely no sign of life. ‘We are ridiculously early, though,’ I suggest hopefully, as we glance unconvincingly up at the gatehouse / castle / fortress / somebody’s ‘Grand Designs’-esque home, and then back at each other, with a further quizzical look. Short of Hansel & Gretel tip-toeing past the car scattering Dunkin’ Donut crumbs as they go, it is a rather bizarre fairy tale scene.

‘This doesn’t look right,’ Gav says. And it isn’t. After six phone calls to Bob on Security, and a series of reverse-and-drive-back-down-the-non-recognised-public-highway manoeuvres, we eventually reach the ‘correct’ gate, and queue up behind a ’67 plate Land Rover Discovery which has a polish on it akin to Mr Tumble’s nose (and in the exact same shade of rouge.) Holding our oversized neon car-parking pass proudly at the window, we are ushered through the gates by two middle-aged Hi-Vis vest wearers, and pull up in the event carpark.

The family in front of us open the boot of their Audi estate to reveal a stylish crate filled with a selection of Hunter wellington boots, and the youngest – Jonty – is mildly admonished for straying too far from the expensive corporate saloon. ‘Shit, it’s posh here, isn’t it, Gav?’ I say, as I dig around in my bag for the slice of cold toast I brought along in a plastic sandwich bag (I don’t like waste.)

Gav needs the loo, and so I am left to chew on my cold toast (it’s a Warburton’s Farmhouse crust) whilst watching Jonty and his sisters buzzing about in giddy excitement. They are now adorned in official ‘Deer Park Dash’ race T-shirts, which come down to their knees.

I swallow the last of my cold, claggy carbs, and see that Gav is marching back to the car at some pace, armed with our A3-size race numbers, and expensively-packaged race t-shirts. I already feel guilty, knowing that soon enough mine will be stuffed in the drawer with the rest of the Last Resort Bedtime Wear and/or Emergency Decorating attire.

Gav: ‘So, I asked the guy on the desk what the trails are like,’ he says, with a kind of I-should-have-known look on his face, ‘… and it’s all on tarmac.’

Me: ‘What?’

Gav: ‘It’s on tarmac. All paths. No trails. Did you even read the event info? There is not a single trail in sight. Not even any grass. Just tarmac. All the way.’

Me: ‘Oh. Right.’

Me again [sounding too jovial]: ‘Good job we brought our road shoes then, isn’t it? Ha ha ha!’

Gav: [silence]

I feel like a dickhead.

And it was a good job we’d brought our road shoes along – albeit I am currently in pre-litigious discussions with a certain Sports Shoes supplier about a certain hole which has appeared in my Adidas Ultras within 8 weeks of purchase (and at £129 they can kiss my ring if they even think about arguing that it’s ‘wear and tear’.) Anyway, I digress.

The bloke on the microphone announces that the ‘official warm up is about to commence’ and so, with 15 minutes to the start of the non-trail trail race, we get out of the car and meander over to the action. I say action, but there are a small handful of people doing questionable standing lunges in front of Eccleston’s most recently-qualified Personal Trainer. He does well, and the crowd (eventually) join in.

A tall, blonde woman floats past me, and as she glances over in my direction I immediately recognise her. I point at her and mutter something stupid like, ‘is that you? Off breakfast telly?’ I am momentarily thrown by the sensory overload and so can’t place her name in time, but I know that she is Louise Minchin. She comes across and comments on my striking Zoot! triathlon vest. I wonder how many people must point and stare and not-quite-say-hello to her, as she chats warmly about duathlons and qualifying times. We establish that there is some commonality, and she informs me of a GB age-group qualifying duathlon happening at Oulton Park in October. ‘Oooh, I’m doing that one!’ I say excitedly, and I wonder if I am really having a conversation about duathlons with the lovely blonde lady off breakfast telly.

We move over to the start line, where there is a man dressed as a deer. He’s standing quite near the front, and I wonder if he is a particularly fast deer*. I have no I-deer (sorry.) The countdown from 5 seems to come out of nowhere, and then we’re off. I fly off and I know I’m in second place to the woman who was hovering confidently at the front of the start line. In my head, I’m being hunted down by The Blonde Lady From Breakfast Telly, and so I run hard, not wishing to disgrace myself (because I have somehow convinced myself that Ms Minchin gives two shits how fast / slow I am, and therefore, I don’t want to disappoint.)

But my race fitness isn’t in line with my current ambitions, and so after 5k I’m pretty much spent. We turn at the corner, and I see Gav approaching. He’s not too far behind me. He shouts something lovely and encouraging, but I can’t speak and so I don’t reply. I gulp a drink at the water station, and then set off again. I see my new BBC Breakfast Friend coming towards me in the opposite direction, and I think I hear her give me a mini-whoop of encouragement. I run fast again, but I am running out of steam. When I run, my pace is good, but I want to stop. I want to stop so badly, and I know I can’t keep this pace going. This is only 10k, Rach! What the hell is wrong with you? I berate myself for failing, and for not being good enough. I stop briefly and take a breath. I run again, and some of the slower runners who may have done only half the distance I have look across at me with some confusion, as if they didn’t expect me to show any signs of struggle. It angers me, because I am struggling. I am hurting, and I want to stop – again.

My pace continues to be fast, but I also keep wanting to stop. I can’t understand why, and it frustrates me**. I stop again, and look behind me. I know I’m still in 2nd place (ladies), and I’m half expecting a troop of females to trample me down and leave me for dead. Instead, I see a UKRunChat vest, and he shouts at me, ‘Keep going! Come on, lass, keep going!’ He catches up with me, and I try to stick with him, but I am on my last legs.

I try and I try and I keep fucking trying, and I will it to end. I look at my watch, and my time is disappointing. I try to rationalise with myself the ‘whys’, and I dig deep to congratulate myself for coming 2nd lady, at least. This – I remind myself – means that there was only one other female runner faster than me on the course, today. But, it is of little consolation. I still feel let down by my stop/start laboured efforts.

I sit down on the grass and feel flat.

A few minutes later, Gav approaches the finish line. I can see that he’s worked just as hard as me, and he makes a fuss of ‘how well I’ve done’. I find it hard to believe him, but then I realise that I sound like a pathetic, self-defeating, perfectionist wanker. He puts me straight on a few things, and we head back to the car.

Jonty and his folks are just packing up. The dad looks sweaty from his fun-run efforts with the kids, and they pile themselves and their Hunter wellingtons back into the Audi Estate. I smile as I inhale the remaining half of a croissant I stuffed into my bag earlier, because I don’t like waste.

I drive back home, and I feel a cacophony of emotions: relief, joy, elation, fatigue, pride, frustration, but mainly joy. And I’m wondering when I’ll see my new BBC Breakfast Friend again. And I’ve got a funny feeling I will… #Jan2018

*Gav beat the deer. Just.

**Afterwards, Gav reminds me that I have been injured for 7 months of this year, and have barely run more than 15 miles a week for over 9 months. This – he suggests – may be ‘why’.

 

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.

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

When Scrooge turns into Mrs Santa, courtesy of the Percy Pud 10k

I woke up feeling more like Scrooge than Mrs Santa at 6am this morning.

‘Are we doing it, then?’ Gav mumbled, quite understandably still half asleep, and quite clearly opening the door for any excuse-filled reason to opt out.

‘Yep. We’re doing it.’ I replied curtly, as if minimising my own window of opportunity to bail.

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Bahhh Humbug!

It was pitch black outside, and Tilly was still fast asleep in bed (along with most other sensible folk on a cold, dark Sunday morning, I mused.)

07:00 hours – We shoe-horned her out of her bed;

07:10 hours – Dressed her in the dark;

07:30 hours – Delivered her to Grandma’s.

07:31 hours – Phew. We’re off.

I was a particularly grumpy driver this morning. ‘This bloody sat nav. It’s taking us the wrong way, Gav!’ I groaned, as I felt my anxiety well up inside me at the prospect of getting lost and/or arriving late at the unknown start, 30 miles away.

As we meandered up hill and down dale – passing Mrs Goggins’ Post Office, and keeping an eye out for Postman Pat’s van en route – the sky turned varying shades of pink. I felt my anxiety ease a little, as the girly pink sky simply made me smile.

We pulled up in the car, and were both stunned by the scenery. ‘I wasn’t expecting this. Were you, Gav?’ We clearly hadn’t done our research, or pondered why the Percy Pud 10k  race sells out within minutes every year. AHHH… THIS IS WHY!

            Rachel Meldrew/Steptoe then made a sudden and miraculous transformation. I put on my race number… and nothing happened. Then, I PUT ON MY SANTA HAT and an amazing thing occurred. I actually smiled! ‘I’m going to enjoy this,’ I thought as I took yet another gormless selfie, and was laughed at by a sensible-looking woman as she walked past the car. CLICK!

Medders! Medders! Is that you?’ I hollered as I saw my girl-crush / favourite Twitter stalker walking up the road. It was like the time when I ran after Boris Becker at Wimbledon, only she didn’t ignore me. We exchanged pleasantries, whilst Gav had gone AWOL looking for a place to wee.

It looked like a large, well-organised event. We’d heard there were some top-level athletes taking part, and I recognised the girl who’d won the Yorkshire Marathon back in October whilst warming up. ‘Harry Gration’s here!’ Gav said, as he came back from relieving himself.

‘Bloody hell. It must be a pretty serious event, then,’ I replied. We’re both big Look North fans.

         And then a blast from the past. ‘Ken! It’s me!’ (she’s called Amy, but to me, she’ll always be Ken.)

          ‘Ahhh Rach! Look at you! You look like a REAL runner!’ my old friend Amy said, as I spotted her on the start line. A more beautiful, wholesome and gorgeous person you couldn’t meet. I haven’t seen much of her since we went skiing together in 2006, when I was busy popping Prozac and spent more on Self-Help books than on race entries. I’ve come on a bit, since then.

We set off, and I tried to go for consistency. Don’t blow up in the first few miles, Rach. You don’t want to die part-way through today. Pace yourself.

            Mile one clocked in at 6:39m/m. That’s OK. Don’t push it any harder, though.

The route was beautiful – a real treat. If anything was going to make it do-able today, this course would do the trick. Heading to Damflask Reservoir, a simple – and stunning – out-and-back route. Pretty, pretty, pretty.

We saw the fast boys and girls as they were on the way back in. The eventual winner was way ahead of the second placed male (he won in 29:57!!); Eilish McColgan led for the women, and ended up finishing in a course record-breaking 32:32. I saw her legs and hair. That is all.

And back to the rest of us.

‘Go on, Cullen!’ Medders (girl crush Twitter stalker) hollered as she was running the opposite way, heading to the half-way turn. I smiled and upped my pace.

Jesus. It’s getting hard. I know I’m working now. Admittedly, the climb around 7k killed my spirit a little. I looked down at my watch, and I’d still managed to clock a 6:43 m/m. I dug in. Back home now, Rach. Just get back home. I pushed on, and willed my legs to stay with me. They didn’t want to, but today, I won the battle.

Almost dead by the finish line, I clocked in at 42:11. It’s a new 10k PB. I was 5th F35 out of 180, and 23rd female out of 1014 who ran today.

I hung around for Gav. He came in a minute or so later, and we both collected our MAHOOSIVE Christmas puddings. ‘There’s custard, too! This is possibly the best race EVER!’ I said, simply unable to believe our luck.

 

 

Whilst slowly ambling out of the pudding collection area, a friendly Sheffield Star reporter approached us, and asked if we had a few words about the race. ‘Yes, Sure! Look around. This is a scene of pure happiness!’ I said, and went on to say a few words about my book (yes, that) and how taking part in races like this has made Prozac simply an unnecessary, old memory for me.

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We headed back to the car, and took more selfies, including ones of me holding the two Christmas puddings to look like a pair of boobs. Yes, we are that immature.

Back in the car, I turned the radio on. It was playing Bill Withers, Lovely Day. ‘Ha ha – this is apt, Gav!’

I looked at the clock: It was only half ten. WHAT a start to a thoroughly lovely day.