Wheels on Fire: Riding The 2015 Argus

The year did not start well. Having Shingles and suffering a self-imposed quarantine when I was supposed to be training for 3 half marathons, two 10ks, a 100km bike race, seeing all the people in London and prepare for starting a new role was not ideal. I was furious about being ill. I thought I had really been looking after myself, obsessively it would appear, and that’s never any good.

But it was exactly what I needed. A kick up the backside to evaluate what was important – so I gleefully handed out race packs like a belated running Santa, cancelled all my social plans and decided to focus on the cycling and getting my head around a new job.

(Also can we talk about how marvellous it is just to say no? ‘No I can’t come out, because I am sitting in my pants watching Law & Order SVU and eating endless rice cakes. Basically winning’. Saving that for another post)

February saw me hitting Boom Cycle 3-4 times a week to keep up the fitness and also saw the advent of our annual work conference. By the time Feb 26th rolled around I hit Heathrow feeling exhausted and excited. A holiday, a few days catch up with the teams in SA and THE bike race. No biggy.

Now, to be honest, I was under-trained. My fitness levels were good, but I am nervous as all hell. I just hadn’t logged the long miles. But I also knew that the nerves could be a good thing, that additional hit of adrenalin that carries you through and drives you over the tough hills. I know these nerves well. I get them before every running race (even the fun ones), every time I get up on stage to present even though I have been doing it for well over 10 years, and every time I have to have those difficult, but essential conversations. Where there is risk I feel it. Every single time.

There is a school of thought that maintains the body can’t tell the difference between anxiety and excitement on a biological level (you science nerd please feel free to refute this!). Apparently, you release the same chemicals, the same heightened awareness, same surge of energy. It’s how your mind then interprets the feeling that makes it positive or negative. Hit of fear plus rush of endorphins is a pretty powerful cocktail. I have learned that pushing through the fear is essential to making life more open, interesting, full. Without it it’s small and claustrophobic and dull.

But I have also learned I need support to just go ahead and do it. On my own I’m no good. My mind is very frequently not my friend. It’s risk adverse, and lazy and prone to catastrophic thinking. I need people to point out the mad, destructive nonsense I tell myself and remind me its all good. And that if it goes wrong, that’s OK too.

Then this popped up in an article I was reading enroute to Cape Town. Pussy Riot hits the nail on the head. Given this is in relation to being arrested for political activism, and my cycling is hardly revolutionary, but the sentiment is bang on.

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So its a good job I don’t listen to my head. Because a week after I find myself in South Africa, Mother Nature decides to set fire to the entire Southern Peninsula, and that is no exaggeration. My catastrophic thinking is having a field day. Headlines like, ‘Hellfire Rages in the Cape’ adorn every lamppost in Jo’burg while I’m psyching myself up for my first ever bike race. People are being evacuated, dams are near empty, rock falls are a serious risk given the plant life helps stabilise the mountain side and is now no longer existent. Thankfully the Cape fire volunteers and fire servicemen and women put on the most heroic defence and curbed the blaze in 3 days.

So the race is still on. I am now officially bricking it. However, the Argus distance is cut from 109km to 47km. It’s just not safe to release 35,000 cyclists onto the route that will then cut off all of the southern suburbs in the wake of the most devastating fires in recent memory. Of course I’m gutted, but also ever so slightly relieved, in this scenario I get to test my riding legs on shorter distance. Until I remember it’s with exactly the same amount of people. 35,000 cyclists.

And the panic sets in.

The major difference I have found between cycling and running for me is the logistics. You can’t just chuck your shoes in your bag and head out on the road wherever you are. There’s the BIKE. There’s the helmet, the shoes, the kit you need for the bike for punctures and general maintenance. For this race I rented a bike in CT. Already breaking my cardinal rule of racing – GO WITH WHAT YOU KNOW. And crucially I don’t know this bike. I also don’t know if the bike is even going to show up, as the correspondence I’ve had with the company renting it to me has been patchy. Everyone is more laid back in the Cape. They aren’t all obsessively checking emails every 3 minutes. And swearing about lack of wifi.

Thankfully I get to tell my head to pipe down as the bike does show up and discover it’s ever so slightly too big. I panic again. So much so this time that I draw a complete blank and forget how to get on the damn thing. It takes a good 10minutes for me to get over this sheer terror, but once I do the bike is fine. It’s in hand. I haven’t forgotten how to ride. But how on earth am I going to do this with 35,000 other people?

My head creates these visions on a loop for my viewing pleasure, while trying to sleep: Causing a huge crash because I can’t stop quickly enough, the brakes failing, the wind blowing me off the road and into the sea, the wind blows me into other riders, etc etc and they escalate and get more horrific the less sleep I get. You don’t worry about this stuff when you run. You just stop. You don’t crash. You very rarely get blown off your feet. This whole endeavour begins to feel like a huge mistake that I am wholly unprepared for.

Until my dad, a seasoned veteran of the race and elite cyclist, decides he’s going to give up his elite start time, seeing as the shortened distance won’t count towards his seeding. He’ll cycle with me instead. It will be fun. He says. I think he could see just how panicked I was. ‘Just stick to the left, don’t look behind you and raise your hand high if you need to pull over’ he says when explaining cycle race etiquette. ‘Hold your line, and if someone clips your back wheel just keep going, he’ll fall but you probably won’t’. This talk of wheel clipping is terrifying when you’re in your holding pen with little more than elbow room with other cyclists, all looking like they ride professionally, with jerseys from Dubai and Hong Kong and Italy. And me with my flat pedals, no clips and ashen face, a big ZERO on my race number where is shows completed tours.

We shuffle our bikes forward and hug the left, they start counting down the minutes to start and I find myself feeling a mixture of gratitude that I have made it this far, and fear that I may vomit on the French woman in front of me, ruining her 13th tour. According to the bib. But I am here, in Cape Town, riding the (mini) Argus with my Dad. Something that has been on my bucket list for years. Something I thought would probably stay firmly inked on a list and not manifest itself like this. Me, terrified on a bike that’s too big, surrounded by cyclists and my Dad, having a laugh at my expense, but also there just like he was when he took off the training wheels some 30 years ago.

Of course it we have a total blast. I manage to get on the damn thing for a start. I don’t crash into anyone, no one crashes into me. I hit the hills, test the gears and find myself over taking people. There is some power in the legs after all. We hit the downhills and I slowly relax and take my fingers off the brakes. It really is pretty close to flying. I find some speed on the flats. The wind does not blow me off, in fact it blows me home once we turn around and head back for the finish line. And just like that it’s over.

We finish in 2 hours and 12 minutes, and I feel pretty confident we could have done it in just over 2 if I’d relaxed on the down hills more. I have no idea how that tallies, but gives me a rough idea that I could probably do a sub 4:30 Argus with loads more training and a bike that I am comfortable with. So that’s the next goal (nowhere near my Dad’s best of 2:58… but there’s still time).

I have been well and truly bitten by the biking bug, and with Spring just around the corner back in London, I really have no excuse to get back on the bike there too. Out of my comfort zone. Where all the good stuff happens.

The Body Beautiful

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Some of you may know I write another blog, which has taken a bit of a back seat while I got this one up and running. Over in that corner of the web I write mainly about running and fitness stuff. Its been my way of tracking my improvement over the years. I geek out about gadgets and new running kit and get overly emotional about PBs and race reports.

What I have come to realise is that its very difficult to keep that part of my life separate from my day to day, because it has finally become my day to day. A cursory glance at my instagram lately will attest to that. R commented last week that he rarely sees me in any anything other than lycra. He got a bit of a fright when I got home from work and I was wearing A DRESS. I rarely wear heels any more and I discovered while trying to find some ‘going out’ clothes that I am woefully bereft of any clubbing attire. But I am not bothered, I realised through a fog of endorphins on Sunday post Hackney half marathon, that I am happiest when I am outdoors in the sunshine, post run, wearing short-shorts, a cut-off tee and eating pizza.

Which is why there’s a running post in the non-running blog. Six races this year and counting. I can barely believe  it myself. But its all on Facebook so it must have happened. What has happened to me indeed?

I was not a sporty child. It’s true that I came stone cold last in more than one cross-country race in primary school where running was a torturous punishment. We had to wear tiny blue culottes (or skorts as they are now known) made of  hideous fabric that was highly flammable and itched like mad. I hated swimming too. The pool  had green algae on the sides  that was slippery to the touch and to combat it, bucket loads of chlorine was liberally thrown in while we were swimming so our eyes burned and our skin crawled tight for hours afterwards. Netball was worse, I was short so was usually given Centre, but lacked the fitness to do that position any real justice. Needless to say I was not picked for teams.

Tennis was marginally better, but by then my confidence was shot and I lacked the  incentive to try. I just made a fool of myself, so what was the point? Outside of school was no better. I was useless at Ballet and Modern dance, resenting anyone who found it effortless, and spending most of my time sulking and squinting because the bun was too tight.  It wasn’t worth getting sweaty for and the girls were all horrid.

The common problem was that there was  a huge disconnect between what I WANTED my body to do (Hit ball with racquet) and what it WOULD do (hit self in head with racquet).  A combination of lacking hand-eye co-ordination, and a will to get better through practice, given how bloody awful it was, meant I gave up.  I assumed I had been given brains instead, and believed on some level (incorrectly) that you couldn’t really have both. An assumption which helped justify and fuel my hatred of sport for years, as I thought it was really just for dumb jocks. Looking back on it I was given ample opportunity and was probably more than a little lazy. But at the time I felt on some basic level that my body had just let me down and I didn’t trust it.

My teenage years did very little to help me gain any confidence in my body. It was unpredictable, in the way that teenage bodies are. It was embarrassing and marvellous and frustrating. Hormones and and boys and bra shopping, the endless debates with friends about what was and wasn’t ‘normal’. The horrendous urban myths about sex  (that are out right dangerous and traumatic) made worse by the terrible sex-education that wasn’t really anything other than a biology lesson. Then finally discovering Forever by Judy Blume (GOD BLESS JUDY BLUME).

But mostly my body never  felt like my own. It was constantly misbehaving, getting bigger in places, smaller in others and wobblier. Crippling self consciousness coupled with the fact that everyone has an opinion, made me feel like an exhibit on display. Sadly, as a teenage girl this is common. You’re either precocious or a late bloomer.  Everyone wants to know what you’re up to with who and when. Not just  parents who are entitled to know, but  friends, boyfriends, extended family members, teachers, doctors. Everyone.  And they tell you too – without prompting. You’re on the cusp and you need watching. Men comment in the street, women make passive aggressive suggestions about being ‘dateable’, shop assistants raise their eyebrows, mothers of friends ban you from visiting. Skirts are too short and you’re asking for trouble, too much make-up makes you look like a hooker, walking that way is suggestible, laughing like that is questionable.  Endless rules about what Good Girls didn’t do and what Bad Girls looked like. You certainly couldn’t be somewhere in between. Or that’s certainly what it felt like. Brains or Sport. Good or Bad. I picked Bad, because frankly it was loads more fun and I could say Fuck You to all the inappropriate questions and rules and expectations because they were (and are) total bullshit. Plus the eye-liner was amazing.

Playing at being a Bad Girl in my teens meant I learned a number of very cool tricks while Being Up To No Good. I could blow perfect smoke rings, doctor broken cigs that had been crushed in blazer pockets and was very very good at playing pool. Generally keeping active was in my repertoire (unless it was scaling a wall).  Sport was not cool, it was mainstream and conformist and reminiscent of the military regime.  Most of the party tricks were pretty bad for my health all round, but that didn’t matter because, you know, fuck getting old too. We were invincible at 16, so nothing was ever going to happen to any of us, the consequences were too far away and being young offers a limited amount of bullet proof resilience.

But somewhere along the line my body stopped feeling as though it was part of myself. I practically ignored it, unless it was being  ‘fat’, and then assaulted it with fad diets and weight loss pills. I certainly didn’t feel a lot of love for it and so I stopped feeling protective of it. Instead I continued the rebel without a cause theme into my twenties and smashed it to bits with a toxic cocktail of long working weeks, weekend-long parties, 20-a-day cigs, terrible food and very little sleep.

What was actually happening was a lot more insidious, and it was only in my mid-twenties when my world was rocked by two pretty severe heath scares that I realised something had to change. With healthy kick up the arse from a few professionals, a good dose of courage and some amazing friends, I set about doing just that.

That was seven years ago now and it didn’t happen over night. I still drink far too much coffee and I have a very unhealthy relationship with sugar, but overall the doctor at my last health check was pleased as punch.

Discovering running was a huge part in rebuilding my health. But more importantly, what running gave me back was my mind and the will to get re-acquainted with what my body was capable of. This much neglected, battered up and hugely underrated vessel that recovered slowly at first and then bounced back , was  actually pretty spectacular. My legs  could go for long walks in winter and not get tired, cycle  through mountains in France, run around the streets of Berlin. They could still dance until way past stupid o’clock in Spain. This body that responded immediately to good food, that developed actual muscles, that got faster. Like magic.

Being active for me isn’t about controlling my weight, getting lightening fast, or collecting loads of medals (although all these things are fun). It doesn’t come naturally and I didn’t always love it, but within the structure and discipline of training,  I found something else. It was a healing process. A way to reclaim my body. A way to feel comfortable in my own skin. For every single mile I run I learn a little bit more about who I am.

Learning how to use this particular brand of magic, and to pass it on, comes down to the people I run with, most of whom I’ve met through the inimitable Run Dem Crew.  They support and challenge, they coach and celebrate.   No one is left behind, and it couldn’t be further away from my days of chaffing culottes and grass allergies. Mainly we have a laugh and take on London. But on a Tuesday evening in Shoreditch, there’s enough energy to burn away all the stress, trivial drama and worry that living in a big city can bring and to galvanise a couple of hundred people for a few mythical miles.

Which leaves me happy. In my trainers. At the heart of it I am a big nerd who likes nothing better than a skinny latte and star trek repeats

But that doesn’t give a shit if you think the shorts are too short and isn’t afraid to tell you so

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Harry, Lissy, me and Azra – South Bank June 2014