The Birthday Weekend Part 2: The Three Yorkshire Peaks Challenge 24th June 2017

We set off walking and immediately got stuck behind slow moving traffic, not unlike the roundabout approaching Birstall’s IKEA which narrows into one lane for all those planning on purchasing self-assembly beds. ‘(Ahem), excuse me, please… Could I just… Would you mind if…’ I asked one, and then another steady ambler who seemed to have settled into the idea of queuing to hike up a mountain. How very British! My repeated apologies and embarrassed coughs grew in frequency, and were mostly met with a sudden shuffle of walking poles and then a step to the left, akin to a Rocky Horror Show dance move.

The landscape was littered with people. People and poles; people with poles. Many, many poles. I sped up, and almost began a slow trot. Not that I harboured any burning ambition for achieving a time of glory, but just to escape from the relentless stream of bodies… and poles. I looked behind, and Gav was stuck. Wedged between a group of tired looking teenagers and a bleary-eyed corporate crew who appeared to have woken up only seconds earlier. Push past them, Gav. Make a bid for freedom! I telepathically transmitted to him, wondering if we would ever see past the parody on the hillside before us. Shit. He’s too polite, I concluded, as he remained jammed in between Cool 6th Former and Corporate Ken. Is this what Wainwright envisioned? I wondered, as the snake of bodies trundled slowly onwards and up Pen-Y-Ghent as though in some never-ending Starbuck’s queue.

Nearing the top of Pen-Y-Ghent, the steep, rocky climb became ever more difficult courtesy of the unanticipated human congestion. A mother waited patiently to climb further up the ragged rock face with her young daughter in hand – perhaps 7 or 8 years old – no more. The girl stood alongside her mum looking completely unflustered by the wind pummelling her little body against the now fully exposed hillside. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman clung on desperately to a jagged, jutting edge and wept in terror as she wailed, ‘I can’t move. I CAN’T MOVE!’ I looked down, and couldn’t blame her, not being one for heights myself. Wanting to get the hell away from the juxtaposed climbers, I took the advice of a kind chap who was volunteering to help Wailing Woman overcome her frozen fear. ‘Just barge past people love,’ he instructed me. ‘Move round them. You’ll get hypothermia otherwise!’ I took his advice and circumvented the queue, gulping hard whilst my heart raced in the knowledge that I was going ever so slightly ‘off piste’.

Shortly afterwards, I reached the top where thankfully, the congestion had eased. A well-built marshall who was tasked with ticking us off a laminated list came immediately into view. He was digging about to retrieve his sheet, whilst at the same time wrestling one arm into a wind-battered hi-vis. ‘You’re the first here. That’s pretty fast, to be honest,’ he said with a smile and one brow slightly raised. I waited a few minutes, and then, like a meerkat poking his head out of an underground burrow, Gav appeared.

We spent a few minutes chatting to brick shit-house Marshall Man, who confidently informed us, ‘You’ll be able to run the ten miles across to Whernside, no problem.’ Perhaps – naively – we took him at his word. I was desperate to run, away from people and poles, and down the hillside on the long trek across to peak number 2: Whernside. No sooner did we begin to descend the opposing side of Pen-Y-Ghent than it became very clear that we wouldn’t have the easy, flowing, downhill section we’d dreamed of (there is a reason why I love tarmac.) This quickly began to feel like a long, technical cross country run. Loose, rocky paths meant that our eyes were fixed only on the few metres in front of us. Gav – with only one remaining tendon supporting his left ankle – did his best to navigate his way down the rough terrain. Off road, we surmised, is perhaps not our bag. Meanwhile, I was terrified of tripping over my own feet and impaling myself on a sharp, dislodged Russian doll Tupperware lid. Could there be any worse way to go? All that aside, we did manage to do a fair amount of running, and people were dissipating. For that reason alone, I would happily continue attempting to run down the rocky, scree-covered path.

Halfway between Pen-Y-Ghent & Whernside, our support van came into view. We were the first there, by their reckoning. Offering us top-ups of water and chalk-like protein bars, the three crew members kept us chatting for slightly too long, giving us additional ‘challenges’ that we could choose to undertake over the remaining 14-or-so miles (and two peaks) that we yet had to tackle. That they even considered we might be looking for any ‘additional’ challenges over and above getting our arses around the 3 peaks and back to our car safely remains a complete mystery. But we were simply too polite to say, ‘Thanks, but no fucking chance!’ This cost us a good few minutes, but typically, British etiquette and courteous chit-chat prevailed.

Just around the corner, and the majestic Ribblehead viaduct came gloriously into view. We’d ticked off around ten miles by now, and it was a welcome sight. How the hell did people build that?’ I wondered, comparing the toil and workmanship of yesteryear to the IKEA and self-assembly of modern day. Just before I felt my heart sink with what we’ve all become, I rallied myself for more running as the paths became easier underfoot. There was still a long way to go.

The Whernside climb started off gently. Initially, it didn’t feel like a climb – more of a long, meandering path barely rising at all. That said, I felt like a mountain goat. Having got a definite second wind from somewhere, I powered along the footpath onwards, and upwards; onwards, and upwards. Gav’s second wind hadn’t arrived yet, and instead he was on a mini slump, not enjoying the trudge. I kept looking behind for him, and as the meandering road turned into a steeper climb, the mist descended. To accompany this, the wind picked up massively. I secured a buff over my Inov8 cap to make sure it stayed in place.

I passed one hi-vis marshall, but he was waiting for another group. Is this the top? I couldn’t tell. Wind and mist encircled us as I kept up a good pace despite being unable to see anything at all for the fog. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. Where’s Gav? I looked behind. No idea. It was flat on the top, with no discernible summit. Have I passed it? Should I wait for him? How far back is he? I decided to sit down and shelter by a wall and wait for him. A good few minutes passed. ‘Are you ok?’ a couple of walkers asked me as I sat down, having only just stridden confidently past them moments earlier. ‘Yes! I’m fine! Just waiting for my other half…’

Eventually, he showed, like a scene from Guerrillas in the Mist. We continued together to the summit where the lady marshall was just arriving and setting up, putting on her hi vis with KUTA OUTDOORS thankfully emblazoned on it. We recognised the logo and so were the first to be ticked off her laminated list. It was now around 12pm, and I asked how long she was likely to have to wait up there, at the summit of Whernside. ‘Probably until well after 3pm,’ she replied. I noticed a droplet of snot about to fall from the end of her nose. Bloody hell.

Whernside was a horrible descent. Steep scree; random rocks; and large indecipherable steps. A couple of dogs ran around wildly, being hollered at by frightened owners. One woman stood on a dog’s toe. It yelped. For one who isn’t great with heights, and with an unhealthy fear of falling, this couldn’t be any worse. We couldn’t run any of it, and our pace dropped to that of terrified snails as we nervously inched our way down the worst descent. Some braver folk flew past, whilst we continued to tip-toe down like toddlers on a polished spiral staircase.

Towards the bottom it levelled out, and became runnable again. Paths were chopped into chunks with a series of never-ending cattle grids. Signs on display evidenced the opportunistic rural community cashing in on tired trekkers: ‘500m to fresh orange juice with ice.’ … and further down the path… ‘250m to cold juice with ice…’ Before long, our support vehicle and crew came into view again. The well-built marshall tasked with checking people off his list at Pen-Y-Ghent was in action once more, this time preparing to climb Ingleborough for his second laminated list duty of the day. But he hadn’t set off, yet. The Organiser bloke asked, ‘Do you think you can get there before him?’ We knew we would – or we hoped we could.

 The Ingleborough climb felt like an extended cardio session on a travellator / Jacob’s ladder machine – climbing massive chunks of stone carefully laid out all the way up the sheer hillside. This was a cardiovascular workout. It felt vertical as there was no meandering this time; just up. Thick fog began to set in again. A slow-moving older guy said, ‘Nice legs but I bet they’re getting cold!’ as I marched past. They weren’t. Getting to the top, it was unclear where the summit was. I felt my entire upper body now soaked in sweat, but my hands were cold – with sealskin gloves on… in June. A couple of weathered old-timers directed us to the summit. There was no sign of Well-Built marshall. No laminated sheet to be ticked off. ‘Will we still be counted as completing it?’ I asked Gav, stupidly. We took a selfie at the summit as photographic evidence, just in case (it’s the legal training.)

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Guerillas in the Mist

As we headed back down Ingleborough, a bloke had lost his dog’s ball. ‘Someone’s nicked off with it. Must be a bloody southerner!’ the Yorkshireman shouted. We laughed. 3 peaks were now done, but the journey wasn’t over. Feeling tired and disappointed with what seemed to be so many un-runnable non-paths, we tried to run wherever we could. We’d also lost everyone. At times, there was now only me and Gav. At some points, we stopped in our tracks, wondering where the path even was. In one earlier, more positive moment, we had considered the possibility of going for sub-7 hours, but this seemed increasingly unlikely as large grass-covered boulders stuck out of the land like a badly-fitting carpet. We hopped over bogs and grassy mounds trying not to lose Gav’s one remaining ankle ligament through sheer carelessness. But we were getting tired, and increasingly clumsy.

20 miles seemed to take forever to come. Gav’s Garmin lost battery. He kept asking me how far we’d gone, and didn’t believe the miles were going so slowly. ‘Are we at 21 yet, Rach?’NO,’ I barked back. He didn’t believe me. I wrestled with my own frustration with tired legs and simply broke away, willing myself home like Dorothy clicking together the heels of her red shoes.

A family was approaching from the bottom of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, just setting off on their Saturday afternoon walk. ‘Please tell me the village isn’t far,’ I desperately asked the glamorous-looking mum with her kids hopping about on the hillside like spring lambs. ‘No, not at all. It’s taken us lot half an hour to get here at our snail’s pace,’ she replied, smiling. ‘Only down the hill now.’

 The field came into view, and I legged it. I could see the banners marked both ‘START’ and ‘FINISH’. I was home.

The KUTA crew were ambling about, only just starting to put out bottles of water and boxes of salty crisps / chalky protein bars. No one rushed over, as time – it appeared – was not of the essence. I stopped my Suunto. 6 Hrs 54 mins. Still no one came over, and so I asked for a bottle of water and helped myself to a bar of chalk. A guy dressed in what appeared to be faded military gear came over to congratulate me. ‘Only one runner has come in ahead of you… in 5 hours. You’re the first back from the FMN group. Bloody good time!’ he said.

Gav arrived shortly afterwards, and we headed off to the Pen-Y-Ghent café where we’d clocked in at 7.25am that morning.

‘We’re in the Three Yorkshire Peaks Club, Gav!’ I said to him, as we sat and drank our pints of hot sweet tea. ‘Under 7 hours. Is that any good?’ I quizzed. How do you measure these things? I had no idea other than the clear evidence of my own exhaustion, plus my recollection of 8 years earlier when I’d completed it in well over 10 hours. I guess in the 8 years since, being three stones lighter and three hours faster isn’t a bad effort…

‘Are you going to order a Three Yorkshire Peaks Club silk tie?’ I asked Gav as we pondered over our souvenir options. He said he wasn’t fussed for one of those, strangely.

‘Nah. I’ll go with a sew-on badge. What a weekend. Happy birthday, Rach!’

THE END.

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.

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…