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.

The Birthday Weekend – Three Yorkshire Peaks – Part 1: the shit sandwich

I’m sitting on the sofa with my legs propped up on the corner part (When did we all start having corner sofas? When were Shackleton’s three-seaters no longer adequate? Maybe for occasions such as this…) I’ve got a large white toasted cheese baguette to my right, which is slarted with enough Lurpak to bake a small Mary Berry Victoria sandwich, and that’s placed precariously next to a pint of instant coffee – none of that posh stuff: it’s usually shit.

I’m 39 years old, and I’m KNACKERED.

We’ve just arrived back home after our mini adventure weekend away – forward slash – Rachel’s birthday “treat”. This was, as you may or may not know, the challenge of completing the Three Yorkshire Peaks as part of the organised Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice charity group event which took place yesterday, the 24th June, also nonchalantly marking my 39th year of existence.

The weekend started off in spectacular style when we rocked up to the Falcon Manor country house hotel in Settle. Within 35 seconds of arriving – perhaps less – I was entirely submerged in our room’s stand-alone bath, washing away any evidence of my earlier hilly 10-mile bike ride over the hills to Hebden, whilst watching the sheep being herded by the real* sheep dogs out of the panoramic windows scanning the beautiful Yorkshire dales.

Once my skin resembled that of an Amaretto-soaked raisin (try it – they’re fit) myself and Gav Dodd Fax ambled into the town of Settle and set about doing some damage to our his credit/debit card in the one outdoor clothing shop which appeared to have some kind of affinity with Innov8 training gear, and therefore, also with us. Two windstopper / waterproof running jackets later (and yes, we most certainly did need them) followed by a quick stop off in a compulsory coffee shop for hot drinks the same price as a pair of Sealskin gloves, we headed back to our home for the weekend – the Falcon Manor.

‘Are you taking all four pork pies with you, Gav?’ I asked, as he unpacked a Russian doll’s sequence of Tupperware containers ready to fill them with what appeared to be the entire spread from a large family christening. ‘And do we really need those sausage rolls?’ I thought about the navigational task for the following day, and whether pastry goods would survive being hauled over 24 miles up and over in excess of 5,000 feet. Conversely, the 4-pack Peperami would be good travellers, I surmised.

We woke painfully early the next morning after (not) sleeping in what felt like a smouldering kiln, as these posh hotels would insist on having the highest tog duvets for luxuriating purposes, not thinking that perhaps the temperature can exceed ten degrees, even in North Yorkshire.

‘Did you get much sleep, Gav?’ I stupidly asked, whilst assessing the status of luggage bags collecting under each eye.

‘No. I’ve been awake since 5am,’ he half replied. I noticed a few beads of sweat forming on his brow.

At 6.10am we stumbled down the hotel stairs with our mobile buffet neatly packed away in Innov8 rucksacks, and happened across some other FMN walkers about to undertake the very same challenge. One of them looked down at my shorts and long socks. ‘Crikey, are you planning on running it?’ he quizzed, sounding partially stunned.

‘Maybe in parts, but no, not really. And only if there are any easy downhill bits which are run-able, then we can get it over with quicker!’ I replied, already wondering if I could run any of it, even if I wanted to.

We set off on the short drive to the meeting point – a field in the middle of Horton-in-Ribblesdale – where we would register and attend the necessary pre-event safety briefing. Queues of cars were both behind and in front of us as we pulled into the enormous field, having already been turned away from a nearby car park. ‘Bloody hell, Gav. It’s like the Meadowhall Boxing Day Sale!’

He didn’t disagree.

‘Are you two runners?’ the event organiser asked when we turned up to the pop-up registration desk in shorts, decked out head-to-foot in Innov8 race wear. ‘If you are, then I’d like to ask you to set off an hour after everyone else has departed.’ My heart dropped as I looked over at Gav. Shit. Were we going to have to hang about in some overly-congested field which more resembled a packed Ikea than an outdoor pursuits meeting point in a small Yorkshire village? Not a chance.

‘Erm, we’re more likely to just set off walking, to be honest,’ I replied. ‘If we want to run any of the later sections, then that’s up to us, but we will be setting off as walkers, with the walkers,’ I continued, just managing to spare us from pacing about pointlessly in Ikea Outdoors for an additional hour.

People were everywhere, milling about like those miniscule red ant things that crawl about on patio paving. I began to feel overwhelmed and disheartened, as though the sanctity of this quaint Yorkshire village had in some way been eroded because hundreds – no, thousands – of people, just like us, wanted to say they’d conquered the challenge of the Three Yorkshire Peaks. We were no different to anyone else. How did the village cope with the endless onslaught of visitors? Cars continued to stream into the field like the constantly dripping nose of a snotty child. All of that said, it was a Saturday… in June.

 

 

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WHERE HAVE ALL THESE PEOPLE COME FROM? The photo doesn’t show the full extent of Ikea on grass.

Just before we left the safety of our car for the final time to join in the throng of red ants running about on the patio, Gav handed me two small envelopes… This felt a bit like a shit sandwich – the gruelling reality of the Three Peaks challenge being wrapped up in the middle of two far nicer pleasantries on either side. I opened my cards, and my birthday pressie was revealed:

‘FUCKING HELL, GAV! WE’RE GOING UP IN A HOT AIR BALLOON!!’ I shrieked, demonstrating that the first part of the shit sandwich had quite clearly worked.

Back in the Ikea field…

‘WHERE IS RACHEL CULLEN? Could RACHEL CULLEN please raise her hand,’ the organiser hollered above the hum of muffled excitement and general chatter. ‘RACHEL CULLEN could you come and join me at the front, please?’ I looked around and reluctantly raised my hand above the sea of ants. ‘Don’t worry, Rachel,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘I’m just going to use you as an example, if anyone is thinking of running this, today.’ Ahhh shit. I feared once again being made to meander around Meadowhall’s most rural car park long after everyone else had departed for their adventure challenge.

‘LISTEN, EVERYONE,’ he began, as a sea of nonplussed faces looked over at me gormlessly, wondering what the hell they were supposed to be looking at. ‘TODAY IS SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY!’ Organiser Man continued in a booming voice. Thank fuck for that! I glanced up at him and beamed as the throng of strangers sang an obligatory rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. Because sure – that was very nice indeed – but mainly I was thrilled that we wouldn’t have to pace about in the Ikea field for another hour…

Happy birthday to me!

And then, we were off…

To be continued…

*I say ’real’ sheep dogs, in that they were working – as they are meant to do – at herding sheep. Not sitting in some corporate kitchen somewhere proverbially filing their nails. And if the photo of the bath looks good, it doesn’t do it justice.

‘The Power of Yet’ vs ‘The Curse of Enough’

We’ve been learning about something called ‘The Power of Yet’ today, Mummy,’ she said, tucking into half a sausage roll on our walk home from school. It’s one of the perks of living near a farm shop.

Really? And what exactly is ‘the power of yet’ then, Tills?’ I genuinely didn’t know.

Well, if you can’t do something, then you put a ‘yet’ at the end of it,’ she explained, sounding like a teacher in a child’s body whilst processing her pork and pastry combo, ‘and it means that you just can’t do it… YET… but you WILL be able to do it some time in the future.

Wow! That’s a great way of looking at things, Tills,’ I replied, genuinely impressed with the whole notion of this ‘turning obstacles into challenges’ and ‘stamping out defeatism’ vibe.

She continued, ‘So, I cried when I couldn’t work out why number 9 was the odd one out in maths today, out of 9, 12, 20, 36 and 45, when Delilah could.’ I temporarily switched off from her verbatim and drifted into some dusty old mental arithmetic corner of my mind where I divided and subtracted, and raced through my basic knowledge of prime numbers, before finally coming to the conclusion that this was a test designed for six-year olds. How hard could it be??

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

She continued, ‘But then I thought that I just didn’t understand it YET [she exaggerated the ‘yet’, delivering it slowly and deliberately, as though talking to someone of significantly inferior intellect] and that I would understand it some time.

[Shit. What is the answer to a six-year old’s mental arithmetic / spot-the-odd-number-out maths quandary?]

Right, right. I see,’ I replied, still racing through chapters of Algebra for Amoebas in my head, as she continued telling me about her day.

The power of yet. Not making the grade… yet. Not quite hitting the mark… yet. Not understanding the how’s or the why’s… yet. Not reaching the ‘qualifying standard’ … yet. Not getting there – wherever that might be… yet.

Yet, yet, yet. And yet…

It’s a big and generous concept. It stops kids giving up before they’ve really battled with their own internal belief system, and reminds them that sometimes the answer isn’t always easy; it doesn’t always jump out from the page; the qualifying standard might take many, many attempts, and that giving up isn’t the right option: Word on the street is ‘it ain’t cool to quit, kids!’*

Hallelujah! Amen to that. Don’t quit folks! Keep going. Tally-ho! Crack on! Onwards and upwards, and all that.

But then it got me thinking. When is enough ever enough? When does ‘The Power of Yet’ turn on us and become some big old shitty stick with which we can (and do) beat ourselves? What if the right thing to do IS to quit? Move on. Leave it there. Accept our limitations. What happens to ‘The Power of Yet’ then? And furthermore, when are we enough? When are our accomplishments, achievements, feathers in caps and certificates on walls, enough? Are we forever doomed to kneel and worship at the altar of The Power of Yet, deeming ourselves – and any/all of our achievements – to be (offensively scrawled in red pen) ‘could do better’s’ and ‘must try harder’s?’ What if we have tried our best? What if that is as close as we can possibly come to hitting the bulls’ eye?

What then?

You see, I’ve spent years in a silent, daily battle with The Curse of Enough. I’ve spent decades chasing, wrangling, and head-locking a little bastard chimp inside my head which told me that I simply wasn’t good enough… yet. I wasn’t fast enough… yet. Not thin enough… yet. Not pretty enough… yet. Not successful enough… yet. Not GOOD enough… yet. That some illusory, unidentifiable moment in time would occur in my future when I would reach this pinnacle; this mecca of contentment, but that time wasn’t here, and now.

Well let me tell you, fellas (generic term for all readers. We do inclusivity, here) The Power of Yet has been a double-edged sword for me. It has motivated me time after time to try harder. Want to knock an hour and a quarter off your marathon time in the space of 2 years? Use the Power of Yet. It works. Want to write so badly that you spend eighteen months re-writing 80,000 of THE SAME WORDS because you believe in the story? The Power of Yet will help you to get a publishing deal, and a literary agent. Believe me. This shit works.

The medals, the certificates, the contracts, the achievements. The Power of Yet doesn’t know when to stop. What about enjoying the journey? What about luxuriating in the momentary glimpses of joy? What about putting a lid on an endless fascination for desired outcome? Years of being bounced between The Power of Yet and The Curse of Enough like some stunned Wimbledon tennis ball being strewn around Court 1 has taught me to TREAT WITH CAUTION.

This comes in the week when my Good for Age entry for Virgin London Marathon 2018 has been accepted, from a time I ran at last year’s Yorkshire Marathon which was 10 minutes off my marathon PB. At the time, I was devastated, seeing it as a huge personal failure, and a regression away from that elusive moment at some point in my future when it all makes sense: when I am enough.

But I see now that was all wrong. I ran as hard and as fast as I could, on that day. I battled with every cell of my being for the last fourteen miles, and I crawled over the finish line in 3 hrs and 27 minutes. Only a few years ago, this would have been a huge mini victory. Fucking hell! I’ve run a sub- 3:30 marathon! But the Power of Yet combined with the Curse of Enough stole my moment. It won’t get the opportunity to do it again.

So, did you work out the answer then, Tills?

To what?’ She was temporarily distracted by the realisation that her sausage roll was done.

Your maths puzzle. The random numbers and why 9 was the odd one out.’

Oh yeah. It was only because it’s a single digit. The others are double digits. How easy is that?

Of course it was! I was just about to say that!’ I lied.

FFS! Algebra for Amoebas back in its box. There I was involving multiplication, subtraction and square roots. No doubt my six-year old daughter (or clone) was doing the same with her similarly overthinking mind. But the answer was so simple we could barely see it.

I’m hoping that one week she’ll come home and tell me all about ‘The Power of Enough’. Because sometimes – just like the number 9 brainteaser – the answer is very simple: Trying your best is good enough.

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We cracked it!

*Quite pleased with this, having just thought it up. If it were the 60s, I would be Peggy Olson (Mad Men)

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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

Doctor, doctor, I can’t sit down!

Doctor, doctor, I can’t sit down! I think I’ve got ADHD…

… No, Rachel. You’re just neurotic.

Let’s begin with a flashback to my ill-conceived legal career and a good old fashioned caveat: there is no intention whatsoever on my part to make light of the ADHD condition, its symptoms or its sufferers. The same goes for neurosis. I may – or may not – have traces of both. If I were a food product requiring labelling as being ‘free from’ on the Gluten Free supermarket shelf, I fear that I wouldn’t make the grade. I would simply be unable to declare myself to be entirely ‘free from’ either, or both. And so, I would be placed back on the regular shelf with all the other shit full of MSG, wheat, lactose, fructose, traces of brazil nuts and bee pollen. Think Mr Kipling’s Fondant Fancies. They were never fussed about neon icing and E-numbers back in the 80s, were they?

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It’s me in cake form.

Either way, and whatever shelf I’m placed on in Tesco’s – I can’t sit still. I can’t – and won’t – ‘REST’. I HATE THE WORD. I have an allergy to the word itself which would rival most nut allergies on the planet: my head feels woozy and begins to throb; I start to sweat and my HR increases at the mere thought of doing… fuck all. I can’t do it. I’ve tried. *I was even convinced that my tongue swelled up, but that was just a pseudo symptom: my coffee was too hot.

And recently I’ve been doing a little experiment. In a literal sense, I am ‘back running again’ (although that in itself requires another caveat, which we won’t explore just now.) My experiment was this:

I wanted to find out how much ‘rest’ do I really give myself? How much ‘recovery time’ do my legs honestly get?

The facts are these:

Ever since my extended period of non-running from the first part of this year, I have had many weeks of NO weekly mileage, and now quite a few weeks of ridiculously LOW weekly mileage. According to Strava, I’m currently averaging 8 miles of running a week. Down from an average of 50 miles a week in 2015, so a bit of a drop, then. Surely this would help my legs to recover? Hmmmm.

 I’ve also been upping my cross-training activities, including:

  • Interval sessions on the static bike in the gym (a necessary evil)
  • Riding my bike (badly)
  • Attending yoga class 2-3 times per week (lengthening, stretching, and strengthening whilst assisting with my traces of neurosis)
  • Aqua jogging (well, it lasted a few weeks)
  • Walking (Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? We’ll come back to this…)

So, this should surely be the recipe for a miraculous recovery, resulting in legs so fresh I could skip over stiles in buttercup-spattered fields with the (minimal) effort of the nimblest spring lamb, or Ben Mounsey.

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That’s me in the middle.

Has that happened? No. It hasn’t.

WHY?

This, dear readers, is what my experiment has been designed to try and find out. Why are my legs simply not responding, given all the above straight-from-the-Captain-Sensible-book-of-recovery advisable steps?

THE ANSWER?

BECAUSE I CAN’T SIT DOWN.

I bought a Fitbit Alta HR and I wore it for one week. In that week – from Monday 15th May to Sunday 21st May – I walked a total of 75,668 steps (that’s 38.08 miles) without taking into account ANY of the other ‘cross training’ activities OR the fact that we’d done a 16-mile off road hilly walk with over 3,000 feet of climbing the day before this weekly experiment began.

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So, no shit, Sherlock. My legs are not akin to those of the sprightly spring lamb, or to the human/mountain goat cross species that is Mr Mounsey.

Here is what a NON-Rest diary looks like:

Monday 15th May

Speed walk up to the supermarket from work in my lunch hour to pick up 2 x variety packs of Magnums for my boss. I also buy a large bag of ice, so said Magnums don’t melt on the 3-mile round trip back to the office. My rucksack weighs a tonne, and I’m already on tired legs from hiking 16 hard miles the day before. But how could I resist? It’s nice out, and only up the road, and it’s a breath of fresh air, and a break from my desk, and…

Total: 9,095 steps

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I daren’t even imagine how many ‘steps’ this required. Enough to melt a Fitbit Alta HR, I would imagine.

Tuesday 16th May

Walk/jog back home from school drop off… But why go the most direct route home? It’s lovely out, beautiful on the moors, and only adds a couple of extra miles onto the journey. I’ll still be back in time for yoga. What’s the harm in that?

Total: 11,791 steps

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But honestly, how could I resist?

Wednesday 17th May

God knows how I managed it, but I somehow clock up 12,309 steps for the day traipsing up and down the stairs at work from my desk to the kettle and back… 50 times (*oh, on closer analysis of the data, it appears that the 5-mile balls-out run after work was logged here, so this is running and not walking, it would appear. Slight cheat, but you get the point.)

Total: 12,309 steps

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Before, during, and after.

Thursday 18th May

I must have ants in my pants. Or ADHD. Or Neurosis (most likely.)

Walk (the long way) back home from school drop off, and then – after actually sitting down and doing some work – a walk down into town. I could drive there in half the time, or possibly a quarter, but why would I? I get wolf-whistled on the way in, which temporarily makes me feel like I’m clinging onto my youth, and we see an old gentleman in town from years gone by, who asks my Mum, ‘Is your girl [pointing to me] at school, now?’ I am thrilled and immediately dismiss any possibility of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or a sight-degenerative condition that may have caused him to be SO far off the mark. He was undoubtedly fully compos mentis, with perfect vision. I had a brightly coloured baseball cap on: maybe that was it?

Total: 16,972 steps

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Well, would you have missed being out in this?

 

Friday 19th May

Ahh, at last. I have a rest day. Phew! But it’s not absolute rest. There’s yoga. Only I don’t walk / run / cycle / hop or pogo-stick there. I drive there, like any other sane, normal person would do. And I feel lazy. Why? I have no idea.

Total: 4,790 steps (and I feel like a sloth because my Fitbit tells me that I haven’t reached my aspirational ‘daily target’.

Oh, fuck off, Fitbit.

So, you get the gist. Since my experimental week, I’ve realised that I honestly, literally, can’t sit down. I need to move; I am compelled to feel my heart beating in my chest and my muscle fibres twitching, because the alternative frightens me. It’s sedentary and silent; it’s a feeling of non-aliveness that I can remember so vividly from all those years ago when I didn’t know how it felt to move; when my daily step count was a return trip to the fridge for yet another oversize portion of Viennetta, and then back to slump in front of my telly to try and guess the price of a 1994 top-of-the-range caravette and a fully refurbed kitchen (inc. white goods) in The Price is Right.

I never knew how it felt, back then, to feel truly alive. But I do now, and I can’t let that go. Not ever – even if my legs are screaming at me for a rest.

It’s hard to have lived at both ends of the scale, but I have to believe that I can make my way tentatively back along to the middle, where I can still feel the joy of movement and of being alive, and also revel in the beauty of rest and recovery. It feels like I’m being asked to walk along a very high tightrope – it’s easy standing at either end, but wobbly and vulnerable in the middle.

Just don’t look down.

*At this point I’ve been sitting down for far too long. I’m off for a walk…

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Laters…

 

 

 

 

London Marathon Diary 2017, Sunday 5th Feb 2017: Who am I when I can’t run?

London Marathon Diary 2017

Sunday, 5th Feb 2017

Who am I when I can’t run?

Today is Sunday, 5th Feb, and it’s exactly 11 weeks – or 77 days – until the 2017 London Marathon.

How’s my training going? It’s going shit. I’ve already vented my frustration at having two weeks’ worth of KFC family-bucket sized, ‘Do you wanna go large with that?’ flu rampaging through our house, knocking me sideways, off my feet and away from any semblance of ‘real’ marathon training (ref. ‘Lemsips and Race Disasters’ Blog post.)

And then. AND THEN it got worse. I kicked my own arse so hard on the bastard treadmill playing some misconceived game of ‘catch up’ that I brought on an injury to my lower calf/Achilles area. This caused me to go all E.T and Phone Home on Thursday morning, as I stood by a wet, lonely bench high on Norland Moor with wide, sad eyes waiting for my long-suffering Other Half to pick me up 3 miles from my own front door (ref. ‘Beware: The Dreaded Treadmill Overkill’ Blog post.)

It is now Sunday. By my basic calculations, that is a mere THREE DAYS after the E.T Phone Home incident, and subsequent emergency Physio appointment at which he (Magician Dave) said – and I quote – ‘So, you WON’T be racing on Sunday then, Rach, will you?’

I didn’t answer.

I did believe in miracles, and I did turn up to the start line of the Dewsbury 10k race this morning. I knew it was a gamble: my leg would either handle it, or it wouldn’t.

It wouldn’t.

I set off knowing the grumblings were still there, and by only ONE MILE into the race, the pain was intensifying. At 1.7 miles, there was nowhere to go, and so I limped off the course and made an about-turn, facing the Walk of Shame back to the start.

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Runners stared at me as though witnessing a resurrection, as I trudged slowly down the street in the wrong direction, back to the centre of the toilet bowl that is Dewsbury.

‘Are you OK?’ A kind marshall asked, as I hobbled by, pathetically.

‘Injured.’ I said, feigning a sorry smile, whilst hobbling and pointing to my leg.

A St. John’s Ambulance pulled up, and a kind chap shouted out of the window ‘Do you want a lift back to the start, love?’

‘Yes. Yes, please, I do’ I shouted back, as the prospect of a 1.7 mile shuffle back down the Dewsbury U-bend wasn’t altogether appealing – certainly not in (short) shorts and a thin running top. I hopped in the van and made polite chatter with the crew, who looked grateful to have something to do. I turned down their kind offer of emergency Lucozade, having barely broken a sweat, and confirmed that I didn’t need bandaging or carrying anywhere, which seemed to dampen the mood slightly.

Once safely dropped off back at the Dewsbury bidet, I conveniently bumped into Andy, a lovely runner also hampered by injury, and a true gentleman. I stood with Andy, still slightly stunned from the wilful disobedience of my left leg, whilst wrapped up in his warm, winter coat with the oversized arms hanging down around my knees like a homespun Mr Tickle costume. We chatted about our recent running experiences and respective misfortunes, whilst my very own Hero in Human Form Cheryl (#FlyHighEdie) and baby Annie joined us. She hugged me with a warmth to challenge Andy’s overcoat, and the world seemed just that little bit brighter.

We waited for our respective Running Other Halves to cross the finish line – which they did in 41 and 43 minutes respectively (well done Tom & Dodd) and hobbled off to Weatherspoons, where I dunked my emergency non-branded digestives into a refill coffee to ease my running sorrows (I brought them along from home… just in case.)

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It’s all smiles… then RICE

And once back at home, it got me thinking. Two things:

Firstly: Who am I if I can’t run? How does it make me feel? What is my state of mind? And how does it– and will it – impact on the rest of my days, until I am free to bounce around the hills and vales once more in serotonin-enhanced bliss?

This may seem a little melodramatic (it has been known to be a particular penchant of mine) and also rather hasty, as I don’t yet know the full extent of my lower limb’s blatant refusal to play along with my marathon hopes and aspirations.

But these are questions that I will ponder, as the coming days of cross-training, rehab and ‘rest’ (NO! NOT THAT WORD) are on the menu. It already makes me shrink and recoil in my own skin to think that I am ALREADY struggling with this as a concept, whilst there are

  1. a) PLENTY of other people who are experiencing similar minor irritations like warts on an otherwise peachy arse; and
  2. b) there REALLY ARE FAR bigger problems to be facing in the world (and I know plenty of lovely, incredible people personally who are having those daily battles right here, and right now.)

I will put some more thought to this, and to the glaring flaws this highlights in my own ability to handle even mild adversity (of which I have had a reasonably generous dollop across my 38 years of spinning around like some preoccupied Tasmanian Devil on this oversized revolving marble, I must confess.)

Secondly: This is the start of my NEW Virgin London Marathon 2017 journal. It came to me in a lightbulb moment. For the next 77 days, I will document the ups and downs, the triumphs and disasters and the bumps in the road that will see me to the start of the VLM 2017… or not. I last did this on the run up to the VLM 2015, and – hell – it ended up being the very first chapter of my book ‘Running For My Life’ (which will be published Jan ’18 by @BlinkPublishing with signed copies also available on the free table at Tesco’s shortly after.)

 So, on Instagram* (Cullen_Rachel) I will post a photo EVERY DAY for the next 77 days to document that journey. Some days, it might be a photo of a bar of Dairy Milk and a Foam Roller, but it will all be a part of my journey to VLM 2017.

The question is: Will I make it?

*I still don’t quite ‘get’ Instagram; the whole hashtag thing, or the fact that I only have about 7 followers (you know who you are, and I love every single one of you :-D)

But my Mum loves me.

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Instagram?? Hashtag? Mum – Are you there?