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. 

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The Seven Year Itch… Running through Motherhood

I love Marilyn, with all her maddeningly frustrating vulnerability. Some Like It Hot is a personal favourite of mine, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego – the location where several iconic scenes were famously filmed. Once there, I unashamedly sprawled myself across a tartan chaise longue, eating Corn Dogs whilst being hypnotised by the siren herself. Watching Some Like It Hot in situ, knowing that Marilyn had walked – together with her predictably fawning entourage – along those very same corridors, and that she had woken up (no doubt also feeling thoroughly bemused) to the very same sunrise – I felt a kind of solace.

However, I digress.

I am clumsily hijacking this titular phrase, borne of said Marilyn film, and referring to the ever-decreasing interest a person may have in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage. [Don’t worry, Gav. We’re not even at seven weeks.] I am referring instead to the last seven years of my life – marked today* – as being seven complete years of being A Mother. A mum. Somebody’s mummy. Responsible for another person’s joy. Provider of security, reassurance, and Yollies (don’t ask). Professional worrier. Also, professional actress (pretending not to worry). Disciplinarian. Groundhog Day face-washer, taxi driver and social committee chair. Picker upper of dirty pants and invisible fridge-filler.

For the last seven years, this has been me. It will continue indefinitely, for a lifetime.

Today is my daughter’s 7th birthday. It marks not only the moment when my life transformed into being about something infinitely greater than my sorry little self; it also defines the rebirth of who I knew myself to be. A dawning of a new me. A raising of the bar, and a resetting of any previously (arguably shoddy) standards. It was make or break, and fortunately, I chose to make.

Without delving too much into the story from which I have written a book, Running For My Life, (yes, that), about setting myself a challenge to greet me on the other side of motherhood, I decided that I would run the London marathon – my first ever marathon – just 7 months after giving birth to my beloved blood-sucker and nipple-cruncher. From that moment on, and because of that single decision – my life has never been the same. It has been richer, braver, bigger, and brighter than I could ever have imagined, whilst also being at times tougher, darker, and infinitely harder than I might have known.

And as I sit here, post sugar-fuelled giddy Sylvanian Families celebrations, I can look back on seven years that have fundamentally changed the person who I did, once, believe that I was, and who I could be.

As Tilly’s seventh (outdoor) birthday party came to an end, the four of us – me, Gav, Mini Me and Mini Dodd – all meandered back to the car with arms full of fancy gift bags and boxes of leftover Colin the Caterpillar cake. The party was a great success, but why wouldn’t it be? Throw a random group of kids into an unspoiled outdoor climbing rope maze, and watch them fall over logs in hysterics.

Back at the car, I gulped down a mouthful of jam sandwich whilst wriggling out of my jeans and wellies, and miraculously transforming into Running Mum (courtesy of my running shorts and fancy new Adidas Boosts.) We’d planned it all meticulously, and within 90 seconds I was Eric the Bananaman – ready for action. Tilly and Ava already nodding off in the back of the car; Gav grateful for the silence.

And I ran. I ran, and I felt free. I ran, and I felt joy. As I headed over the glorious Yorkshire hills, I felt to be a part of the beautiful landscape I could see all around me in every direction – a moving, living cog in a wheel of gloriously vibrant life. To be a part of the landscape. Read it again, because how often do you feel to be a part of the beauty that you see? As I ran over the hills today, I knew that I did. I knew that I was. And I thought, THIS IS WHY. THIS IS WHY I RUN.

For those seventy-nine minutes – the time it took me to run ten miles up and over the tops of Mount Tabor… dropping down and running through the quaint old village of my childhood, Warley Town, working my way to eventually meet the canal… I was free of knicker-picking, bean-stirring, school bag-packing and present wrapping. Free from the school drop off and polite chatter at the Big Blue Gates; free from hand-holding and shirt-straightening. I was spared the “Mum… can I just…?” random questions, and the search for answers I cannot provide. Free from over-tired tears and vain attempts to make broccoli taste infinitely better than it actually does.

I was free from it all.

And in that seventy-nine minutes of freedom, I also knew that I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t swap the regimented bedtime routine and the alarm for brushing teeth; I wouldn’t change the endless pile of washing or the arguments about wearing tights (although I’m with you on that one, tills. They suck.) I can handle the ridiculously early mornings, and the cartwheels in the lounge. I can pair the socks, and painstakingly de-knot the hair. I can apply the Sudocrem where the sun don’t shine, and administer the Calpol, watching as a sticky pink blob lands on the carpet, as it always does. As long as I can have my seventy-nine minutes to ponder, collate, process, cogitate and digest all the madness of being a mother, I can do it all. And I never ever thought that I could.

So, happy birthday, Tilly, happy birthday motherhood, and happy birthday the Me that emerged out of the delivery room a stronger, happier and infinitely better person.

Here’s to the next seven years of running through motherhood… (Cue Mazza’s rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’. What a woman.)

(I got myself a sneaky Colin the Caterpillar cake and blew out the candles on my own, in the kitchen like a right sad bastard. Luckily, there was a BOGOF deal in Morrison’s. Winner. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO (THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLD NEW AND IMPROVED) ME… 😀 )

*Written on 22nd September, 2017

 

 

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

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?