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.