The emergence of Must

Last April, I became aware of a Thing called the 100 Day Project.

It was created by the artist Elle Luna, partly as a follow up to her book The Crossroads of Should and Must, which was a follow up to this article on Medium that went viral. Properly viral.

I loved the idea of the 100 Day Project, I came up with my own idea for what my project could be, or so I thought, but it quickly ran dry and other things got in the way. It turns out that committing to 100 Days of anything other than running is awfully hard work.

What did happen though, some months later, was that I bought the book.

My birthday was approaching and I was off to spend it alone on a Scottish island. Well, I was going there to run the Tiree ultramarathon, but other than that it would just be me.

At the time, I had recently broken up with my boyfriend after almost two years together. It wasn’t a very nice ending and it left me pretty distraught and reeling from what had just happened. I was at the stage of starting to contemplate trying to put myself back together again, and accepting that yet again I had ignored signals that were right there in front of me, and had let things go beyond a stage where I should have acted on them.

I bought the book on Kindle because I was flying on a very small plane and only had limited bag space. I am a very fast reader and with three full days away, there would be a lot of reading time. I was a little concerned as to whether the images would still come across as intended, but there wasn’t much option in this instance. My rucksack, with everything I needed for three days loafing and one day to be spent running an ultramarathon, only just fitted in the overhead locker on the plane, which was slightly bigger than the one below on the way out (this is the one for the way back home).

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I sat on the plane on the runway and started to read while the plane filled up with passengers. I was hooked immediately.

And then, the roar of a jet engine, the sudden rush of speed, the bump of the little wheels hurtling along the runway, the pressure on my chest as we took off and climbed up into the sky. The tipping sensation as we banked to turn away from the airport, and then the wonder at Scotland’s west coast lochs, mountains and islands seen from above on a beautiful clear day tore me away from the book.

flying west along the Clyde, looking over to Loch Lomond and its islands, destination Tiree

This was my first taste of what I needed to accept as one of my Musts, and it was one I’d not felt for a while.Memories of riding my motorbike fast, of being lined up on a grid, my left hand wrapped round the clutch lever, right hand holding the throttle, waiting for the lights to go out, launching myself carefully off the line, of tipping into a bend, of dragging my knees on the tarmac, of the oppressive heat of a hot day spent on a hot bike in hot leathers.

No. 6, on a 583cc Ducati Monster. First ever race, first ever knee down. Clearways at Brands Hatch, April 2007. My least favourite corner. Almost.
No. 6, on a 583cc Ducati Monster. First ever race, first ever knee down. Clearways at Brands Hatch, April 2007. My least favourite corner. Almost.

This was Me, or rather a huge part of me that I had had to let go a long time ago and one that I desperately wanted back.

But this Must competes with another one…

And I’m still not sure how and if they fit together or not, and if not, which one to choose and how to go about it, and how to let go of the other one. There’s still a whole lot of Should in there when I think of the other Must.

I wheeled my road bike out of the garage recently to give it a bit of attention before its MOT this weekend. It has been a long time since I rode regularly, longer than I care to admit to. I used to ride between 350 and 500 miles a week, riding an ever changing list of bikes 40 miles to work and 40 miles back in all weathers, and then out again at the weekends with friends. Circumstances changed and I had to stop for a bit. There’s a story for another time.

And then it wasn’t the same when I started again in Scotland.

Riding became about fear, about feeling constantly under the spotlight, about every mistake being noticed and scrutinised, always being asked why I didn’t want to go out. The road surfaces near my house are absolutely dire. The weather is less than bike friendly here, and we had a dreadfully wet summer last year. My drive is mostly gravel and on an awkward corner with an equally awkward slope, and it’s not wide enough to get my bike in and out without moving my car. These are all small things that would never have stopped me years ago, but seem to now. I’d really like to ride on the track again, but I’m only too aware of where my confidence is and I’d like to get some of it back before I put my race leathers back on.

Last year though, only a couple of weeks before we split up, we rode down to the ferry at Wemyss Bay and then headed over to the island of Bute.

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We ended up coming back via the Rhubodaich-Colintraive ferry, the shortest ferry trip in Scotland.

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This brought us back to the mainland via the Cowal peninsula, empty, remote, wild in places. The roads were tremendous and R started to feel a little of the pressure of having someone behind so he pulled over and waved me past.

Just for a while, I opened the throttle and left him and the rest of the world behind for a bit, and I rode.

I really rode. I could still do it, and it was still there.

Everything was still there.

The tarmac was warm, smooth and flowing.

There was no one about and I was completely in the moment, looking only as far ahead as the next corner while still planning for what or whatever was on (or might be just over) the horizon.

I wasn’t riding enormously quickly, but I was back to the smoothness that I had known so long ago. The bike felt fantastic, I moved quickly and easily through the gears, clicking up without using the clutch as I’d learnt on the track. The brakes were perfect and my new adjustable clutch lever meant my small hands weren’t straining to reach.

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an unscheduled pit stop in Arrochar. a cup of builders’ brew, milk and one sugar. a large portion of chips with loads of vinegar and ketchup. heavenly!

And then I had my first ride out in ages a couple of weeks ago, down to the bike shop to get said MOT. It was nerve-wracking, I didn’t ride particularly well, and it was extremely hot. I got to the bike shop a bit late, heart pounding, hands shaking. But I’d made it, and I’d loved it. MOT certificate in my jacket pocket, I started the bike up to ride home. I was mortified when I looked at the mileage on the odometer.

I can’t wait to rectify the situation and start adding to the pitifully low number. I’ve not set a target (very unlike me) but next year, I don’t want to feel that sense of sadness when I realise how little I’ve actually ridden.

I have a couple of longer rides planned in my head but first I need to grit my teeth, bash through and get my confidence back. It’ll come, and I’m looking forward to all the beautiful places I’ll see in the mean time.

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the only bike that has really turned my head in recent years. the gorgeous MV Brutale 899R. strictly a sunny day bike and so it will have to stay in the showroom.

No. 18 Stay Up Late

Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far,

been up too long,

worked too hard,

and you’re separated

from the rest of the world.

BRUCE MAU

Almost four years ago, in the first week of my new life in Glasgow, one of the course leaders presented us with Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto For Growth. It’s a 43 point list that basically makes you think hard.

I like lists, and I like thinking hard and questioning things, so I love this one in particular.

I think back to many of the points regularly, but no. 18 is a favourite as I often push myself beyond the point of what might generally conceived to be sensible (I guess that depends on the company you keep).

Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, when I’m doing something new, or something risky, or something difficult.

Sometimes it’s an unconscious realisation that I have been trying to pack too much in, in desperate fear of not making the most of every second of my life. I know it’s a total cliché, but life really is such a gift, and the death and serious illness of loved ones has made me determined not to waste it.

As I get older, and as I spread my wings north of the border, I love life more and more. Sometimes this can bite me quite hard as I continue to attempt to pack more in. I’d love to be able to balance things better.

But beyond watching my beloved greyhounds sleep, with their paws in the air and their whip-like tails flicking as they dream, I just don’t know what calm looks like. Every time it looks like I’m approaching any sense of pause for an extended period, something happens to shake things up.

I’m over a great big hurdle. I completed the monumental training weekend that had been looming in the diary for weeks. The sun was unbelievably strong, the terrain difficult in places but I managed pretty well considering, and I was amazed by the results. I ran 60 miles over two days, and apart from a couple of annoying blisters and epic levels of hunger, there are no lasting after effects.


As expected, I’m really, really tired. The last few weeks have been pretty tough going, balancing the increase in training and two demanding jobs, but it has all been leading up to this point. I’ve felt my emotions start to unfurl a bit, and a lot has come to the surface. Partly as a result of the abusive relationship storyline on the Archers, partly due to managing a long term injury without compromising on what I want my body to do in less than four weeks’ time, and partly due to my friends completing their final degree recitals at the RCS while I just listen rather than performing my own.

And yet, despite this exhausted, emotionally and physically ragged phase, the creative part of my brain almost feels like it’s on fire. This seems to come from long runs. While I’m running, my body is totally engaged in keeping itself going and my mind is away, free to explore and think and process and digest. Add to this the surroundings I am able to run in, beautiful, empty, truly wild in some places, and it’s no surprise that often when my run is over, I have often found a solution to a problem, written a song or a tune, shaped a musical phrase differently or figured out some tricky pedalling despite being miles away from my harp.

There are projects and ideas popping up left right and centre. This can lead to a different kind of exhaustion and so needs managing in a different way, but I love this extra unexpected dimension that running has given me as I’ve continued to push my distances up. I desperately want to write, to compose and I desperately want and need to sit down with the harp and get my fingers and arms good and strong again so I can really, really play again.

But the next few weeks will see some enforced attempts to calm things down and rest up ahead of the next big challenge. I find it easier to rest properly when I’m not at home. I adore where I live but there’s always something that needs doing and I find it hard to ignore it.

I’m taking a trip to sunny Suffolk to see my parents for a weekend, where I will have to sit for a while in an airport departure lounge, then sit on a plane. With nothing to do but read and wait.

When I arrive at their house I will be jumped on by four whippets. I will sit with at least one of said whippets on my lap, drink tea, catch up with my mum and dad, eat, drink wine and sleep. I will tease my dad about the latest acquisitions in the garage and maybe pass a few spanners as we swap news and exploits. We will probably relive the Ventoux adventure yet again, and nod sagely as we agree (again) that life hasn’t been the same since.

After that, I’m off down to visit my gran for a weekend. I will drive for three and a half hours, watching the weather over the Lake District, feeling the compression effect as the M6 traffic begins to build south of Lancaster, and I’ll listen to the radio. I gave up music in the car years ago, as a result of a fortnight spent almost solidly on the motorways and A roads between Colchester, Leeds and Manchester just after my granddad died. I’d exhausted all the CDs I had in the car and just wanted to hear people talking.

When I arrive at my gran’s house, we will have an endless bear hug. In fact we’ll have about three as this is the time it takes for me to calm down all the emotions I feel when I see her. I know how lonely she is without my granddad, and I am desperately sad I can’t spend more time with her.

I’ll drink tea and eat more cake than I should. Food at my gran’s is a guerrilla-like battle where it’s not a question of “are you hungry/do you want to eat”, it’s how much food she can get down you before you realise how much you’ve eaten or you go home. I prepare in advance now, accepting that it’s just her enjoying having someone to fuss over after years of dealing with four children and my high maintenance granddad, and then the emptiness of that ending.

I always warn her when my dogs are stood behind her in the kitchen, as I worry she will trip. She will kindly but firmly remind me that she managed four kids and numerous Alsatians and so she still has eyes in the back of her head thank you very much.

In between feeding me up, we’ll watch several repeats of Midsomer Murders/Morse/Cadfael/whichever one is on, and at least one of us will fall asleep in the chair. At night I’ll bunk into the single bed in the spare room and attempt to keep the dogs from sharing it with me. There’s not much space on a single bed even when you’re five foot tall, but factor in two great big skinny dogs who want to rest their weary old bones on something soft and … well.

After that, there’ll be a last few short runs, some packing and assembling of kit and food, and then off to the race.

After the race, there will be a holiday and a long awaited chance to rest, recover, reset and consider the next move.

On (not) giving up

I had a tough day today. I was a bit wobbly and a bit hungry when I toddled off down the hill at lunchtime, to see my osteopath about a sore bit on the long-ago-injured foot.

Unfortunately for him, he asked politely how I was doing and just at that moment I couldn’t quite keep the tears in. Up until that point, no matter how much he has hurt me in the course of treatment, I have managed not to cry. It was almost a matter of pride that I never cried no matter how painful it was. He knows to keep talking if he is working particularly hard on an area, and I know not to try and reply but just to keep breathing.

The afternoon got even worse.

At the end of the day I left, and sniffled all the way to the bus station, having repeated “I don’t know” and “I haven’t finished that yet” like a broken record for the best part of half an hour.

All the bad things came, the chimpiest of chimps put on his really nasty hat, shrieked some really nasty things at me, and I wondered how on earth I was going to shake all this off and get some decent practice done tonight.

But just now I popped over to one of my favourite websites and found this – What If You Didn’t Give Up? – as though it was meant just for me to find, right now.

And then I remembered a quote a friend had shared with me a few years ago.

Courage doesn’t always roar.

sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says,

“i will try again tomorrow”

mary-anne radmacher

Dreams

Recently, spurred on by the rapid approach of winter, a few changes on the domestic front, and just the plain old desire to do something different, I decided to make a big push and try out some new things.

A work night out at The Stand a couple of weeks back led me to look for some more gigs to go to there, and something about the flyer on the table for Scott Gibson’s debut solo show really appealed.

Social circles are difficult to establish as an adult in a new city. Having left college a while ago, changed job again and now needing to step away from the running scene for a while, I realised that didn’t leave me with many people. And so, with another potentially long dark cold Scottish winter coming up, I decided I’d better press on and take some action.

I booked two tickets, not knowing who I’d take with me.

A Facebook post led to a dear friend agreeing to come along, he’d always wanted to go to The Stand and as we sat there fizzing away with excitement, I realised I couldn’t have come with a better person as we were both looking forward to it as much as the other. The club was packed, we were sat in a sell-out crowd and the atmosphere and anticipation was building by the minute.

The club is in a basement, bar in one corner, no frills, furniture tightly packed. The tables and chairs go right up to the edge of the stage, which is only slightly raised above the floor. I’m not sure whether it’s more intimidating for the comedian or the audience who happen to end up in the front row. Intimate is not quite the word.

The show was absolutely excellent. It’s hard to go into much detail without giving away massive spoilers, but as promised, it was dark in places, incredibly funny and brilliantly delivered. We were spellbound for each half of the two hour set.

What has stayed with me (unsurprisingly for those who know a bit about me) is the brief statement made at the close of the show, about life being short, almost being taken away from you before you’d begun, and subsequently going after your dreams.

I moved to Scotland three years ago this month, having needed to make a huge change in my life before I ended up in a box, and not really knowing what my dreams were or what kind of a life lay ahead of me.

One of the best bits of the show was realising on our way home that we had just sat through two hours of somebody literally living their dream and appreciating and savouring every second of it. It was incredibly powerful and deeply moving, and both of us will remember it for many years to come.

I’ll finish with a quote that opened the show last night…

A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

Mark Twain

On Learning

September 1st, back to school, another new start. Or so it seems, certainly if you are south of the border. Scotland has been back for a couple of weeks already.

Despite my protestations that it had to still be summer because it’s not my birthday yet, the Scottish weather outdid even my determination and threw some really heavy rain at me on my run this evening. There are fallen leaves under the tree in my front garden and there was a real nip to the air this morning when I took my dogs out for their morning walk.

I met a friend for lunch today, someone I hadn’t seen in a couple of years but who had been a huge part of my life for a couple of months back in 2013 when we were working on Carousel at the RCS.

We talked about all things musical, and part of the conversation involved some reflection on what I’d learned while I was at music college. I had to leave before the end of my course sadly, but I had made my peace a while before and am now happy I made the right decision, and even better, I felt I had taken away everything I needed from my time studying.

I desperately miss the freedom to structure my day to suit my own productive times, and to enjoy the best of the weather when it comes, and the creative inspiration that comes from being surrounded by other musicians and artists, but I am finding ways to make the best of things all the time.

Another thing I’ve taken is an understanding of what I need to look after myself and keep myself happy. It boils down to just a handful of things (and surprise surprise, they’re not actual material Things!).

Over the last few weeks, there was a time of enforced rest and healing, as I was physically prevented from dashing about by the stitches in my leg and the pain from the initial injury. This gave me a bit of time to slow right down and get myself back on an even keel. It helped that I was in the beautiful surroundings (and equally beautiful weather!) of the Austrian/German Alps and being looked after by a good friend.

I’ve learned that it is time to get on and enjoy having some really big dreams about the future.

This was partly inspired by seeing a car I’ve wanted for years while I was away in Austria, and partly because my finances are slowly improving meaning I can start to tentatively make a few bigger plans.

The latter means that perhaps indulging in the former might, just might, be a possibility in a few years.

Mont Ventoux – one hell of a climb

After a year I still hadn’t been able to get some words together to do justice to the Ventoux trip. There was a bit of video (and more still unedited), a stack of photos and a heart full to bursting of incredible memories.

And then today, a year ago since I rode up Ventoux with my dad, the words seemed to come.

The cyclist Tom Simpson had been my dad’s childhood hero. Dad grew up in West Bromwich and then in Beckenham in south-east London, and his dad used to take him to Crystal Palace to watch the cycle racing. Dad describes being unable to take his eyes off an incredibly charismatic racer, and being inspired to take up racing himself.

Tom Simpson died on July 13th 1967 (when my dad was 13) on Stage 13 of the Tour de France, having almost reached the top of the notoriously brutal climb that is Mont Ventoux. I’ll put aside the issue of drugs in cycling, and sport and those associated issues. Watching the Pantani film that was released recently, the footage of Simpson’s death is utterly shocking regardless of opinions and what was the accepted norm of the day.

My own childhood was spent supporting Dad at his races. We would marshal, help with catering, and collect from A&E as required. If he did well, he’d win a few quid on a prime (a sprint within a race) and we’d go to Little Chef on the way home. This was the early 80s, money was incredibly tight all round, and this felt like a huge treat.

July came each year, and at 6pm each day we would all sit in front of the telly to watch the Tour de France coverage on Channel 4. My favourite riders, for somewhat childlike reasons, were Laurent Fignon (because he had glasses like me and a ponytail so he looked different to the others), Marco Pantani (because he had an earring and a pirate-like bandana and those awful denim print shorts so he looked different to the others) and Phil Anderson (because he had a ponytail and rode for Team Z and I thought their jerseys were the best ones).

Childcare was slightly unusual at my house. My mum is a musician, and with dad being into his racing, their weekends and holidays took some planning. It was only a couple of years ago that my mum told me they would sit down with their calendars at the start of the year, put in all their concerts and music courses (mum) and races and training weeks (dad), and negotiate any clashes. I never remember either of them not being there so they did a pretty fantastic job I think. Dad never quibbled when Mum spent a huge amount on a new bassoon (a five figure sum in the mid 80s) and Mum never argued when bike bits/bikes needed buying.

Having one parent in charge and a younger brother to deal with as well, there was no room for much choice of activity but I was happy enough being where my dad was, whether that was at an air show, a cycling road or stage race, a speedway match or a West Bromwich Albion match. Thanks to him I seem to have inherited a love of crap football teams, having also adopted Manchester City (in the late 90s so really crap then!) and Colchester United as alternative teams over the years.

My brother was very ill with asthma as a child, and during one recovery period, Dad took me to watch the Paris Six Day races to get us both out from under my mum’s feet. I think I was about 7 or 8, and I adored being in the velodrome. It was so exciting and energetic and alive. There was live music in the middle, and whenever there was a sprint, a very loud and dramatic siren went off, the band started playing a particular tune and the accordion player started to jump and leap around on the stage as though his life depended on the speed of the music. It was very different from soggy Sundays at Eastway and on the roads around Kent and the South Downs.

For various reasons, Dad never got to ride up Ventoux, although his dad drove him up it one holiday. When his 60th birthday came round, the conversation turned to marking the passing of the years, and he announced that 2014 would be the year.

“Are you serious?” I asked. “Deadly,” he said.

My brother has young children and couldn’t get away (although he would have been a much better cycling companion based on experience!).

”Can I come? “ I asked. “Are you serious? It’ll be very hard and you’ll need to do a lot of training,” he said.

“Deadly,” I said, and the challenge was on. I was quite enjoying my cycling since training for a triathlon and so I offered to be domestique and sort out all the arrangements.

Training was tough but I absolutely loved it. I soon learned to clip into my pedals, and endured the various embarrassing skin-scraping falls, normally in full view of either the fast boys from the local cycling club or sympathetic dog walkers.

I learned to climb, to stay relaxed, to ride for miles, to eat and drink on the go (which took almost as long to work out as figuring out the pedals). I was absolutely determined not to let my Dad down, as I knew that if I gave in at any point on the day, he would probably not want to leave me and would therefore miss out. I also really, really wanted to bag the summit – all those years of watching cycling meant I knew how big a deal it was within the cycling world, and I really wanted a piece for myself. I’m not naturally sporty, I’m not fast at anything, but maybe, just maybe, if I trained really hard, I could do it.

Before Ventoux, I’d done a marathon and an ultramarathon. In theory, Ventoux would be a much quicker undertaking. I had run for hours and hours at a time with no real issue, and yet I was terrified about the climb.

The main reason? If you are running up a hill, or even on the flat, at any point you can take a break and walk. This isn’t unusual in marathons, and is pretty normal in ultramarathons. But, if you are cycling and you get off to walk, you are not cycling any more. If I stopped to walk, I wouldn’t have cycled all the way up, and I really wanted to say I had done so.

I also hadn’t quite cracked getting started again up hills when clipping back into the pedals. My right leg is significantly weaker than my left, and I really struggle when pushing off.

It was also going to be baking hot. Provence in July, starting at 1pm for historical accuracy. We were going to potentially melt into the tarmac. This wasn’t something I could train for in Scotland under any circumstances. There was a high probability of storms and extremely high winds (and I’d experienced plenty of that) but there was nothing I could do to prepare me for the heat.

I rode up as many hills as I possibly could, I rode a lot when I was knackered, I rode up big hills at the end of a long ride. I studied the profile, both the formal and the informal version.

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The informal view – I can’t find the source of this fantastic picture – if it’s yours please let me know!
Mont_Ventoux-Bédoin_profileThe day was nothing less than epic. All the landmarks were there, experienced in full.

Bedoin was buzzing with brightly coloured lycra. The left turn at St Esteve. The brightly coloured writing all over the tarmac, left from previous Tours. The marker posts. The forest, everything that had been promised and worse.

Stopping briefly, chatting to a French motorcyclist who spoke no English. Waiting for my dad who is terrible in the heat these days.

Worrying about pushing off up the hill. In awe of my dad’s skill on a bike as he not only pushes off uphill, but keeps his hand on my back while I clip in and get going again, speaks to reassure me and maintains his balance all at the same time on a gradient of around 10%.

Desperately wondering where the hell Chalet Reynard was and starting to panic as to whether I would ever see it. The relief of seeing it, and the flattening gradient as we turned into the car park. The novelty of the barman asking if I’d like ice when I asked if he could top up our bidons.

The sheer utter paradise of a shared can of freezing cold Coke, and the quick return of some energy as the sugar and caffeine hit us both.

Knowing we would be going back out to sharper gradients. Turning round the bend out of Chalet Reynard and seeing the mountain drop away to our left.

Riding into the storm clouds. Headlights on the cars coming down. Navigating by white lines on the road. Pulling in to stop at the monument. The kindness of a French gentleman who knew what day it was, and who had stopped at the monument to pay his respects, then seeing two bikes at the bottom, offered to take our picture. Shared memories held by him and my dad. Discovering he’d lived in Scotland and worked in Assynt for some years as a geologist.

Carrying on into the storm, feeling the wind, rain and hail in our faces. Knowing the bit at the top was really steep, not knowing which road to take and nearly getting blown over. Then it stopped. We were in the wrong place, at the bottom of some steps. Climbing those steps, slowly as our legs had not walked in a while.

Seeing the summit marker. Sitting briefly.

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Chatting to another French guy on an old BMW motorbike. Him: You have ridden from Bedoin? Us, breathlessly: Oui. Today? Oui. You are riding to Malaucene? Oui. In this? Oui. Alors!! Oui. Would you like a picture? Oui. You are mad! Oui.

Setting off down. Feeling the cold now that we are moving quickly through the biting wind of the storm. Squeezing my brakes hard and feeling my fingers against the icy cold levers. Then not feeling my fingers at all and trying to make them work so that I don’t hurtle over the side of the mountain. Sharper hairpins, steeper slopes on this side.

Teeth chattering hard, shivering violently trying to keep my body warm.

Stopping shivering and starting to really worry.

Losing concentration, praying to be warm again before it was too late.

Feeling the temperature rise again as we descend. Feeling the relief that I have survived this.

We stop for a little while for a break from the wind, we are quiet and not on for sharing much of our exhilaration as it has now turned to fear and cold.

Feeling the warmth starting to return at last. Feeling the evening sun on our skin. A gentle cycle back through the farms and vineyards. We are exhausted, and glad we booked dinner at our accommodation. They saw the storm from the bottom of the mountain and were worried for us. We arrive late but the welcome is warm and everyone is excited for us. We catch some of the Tour footage, barely enough energy to speak.

The next morning we decide to ride again, this time a gently undulating circuit around the mountain. 70 miles of rural French roads, in the sunshine, with stunning scenery. We are warned the Gorge will be warm but it’s pretty flat.

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The Gorge is hotter than hell, and is very gently inclined for 12 miles.

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We are exhausted from the day before, and yet we are unable to help ourselves. We just want to ride, to experience this incredible place. It’s a circular route and there is no quick way back.

I hit my lowest. There is nothing left.

My legs are barely turning the pedals, but I keep doing so because it is the only way to make it all end.

I don’t have the energy for tears.

A Frenchwoman who is part of a motorbike touring group sees my head dipping to my chest over my bars.

I see her starting to turn from where she is stood, and she leans towards the road. Now she is yelling,

“Courage, madame! COURAGE!!! COURAGE!!!!!”

I can’t hear anything else she is saying, but she has lifted me enough with those words, and I smile and puff out my feeble thanks. I will never forget her, she still brings tears to my eyes whenever I think of that awful moment in that gorge. It was one of the worst moments of my life, and she quickly turned it into one of the best.

We are totally unprepared for what comes next when we leave the gorge. Lavender fields, as far as the eye can see. The smell is indescribable, mixed in with pine needles and the sweet smell of herbs and olives growing.

We see Sault coming towards us, and our spirits crumble a little as we can see a steep hill leading to it. As we get nearer, it’s not so bad. We stop briefly in Sault for a quick Coke top-up. We roll onwards, gently downhill.

The evening sunlight is stunning. We ride through wide valley, filled with lavender. We roll through the small village of Aurel – golden. It is much cooler now and the gradients are much more to our liking.

We talk, about time and life and those back home. There are more climbs but again these feel very minor. We realise we are almost round the mountain and not far from home.

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It is Bastille Day and when we get back, we are too late to get dinner at the small café we visited on the first night. However, the owner takes pity on us and gives us a takeaway – two slices of a savoury pie and two slices of apricot tart.

The next day, we rest. Or my wise Dad does. I head out with my running shoes, keen to enjoy some of the trails on the side of the mountain. But I am exhausted. There is nothing in my legs. It is far too hot. I am dizzy and lightheaded and unable to follow the route, I miss turn after turn and finally I admit defeat and head back to the hotel, collapsing into the sofa with a pile of books and a drink. However, unknown to me this proves to be a useful recce, as I have driven past Chalet Liotard.

It’s the last day. We have shelved the idea of a day out to Avignon in favour of more cycling. We are utterly exhausted, from two heavy days on the road and from the heat. The night before, we spoke of another trip up Ventoux. Before the trip, I had said I might have a second go but it would be via the easier Sault route – starting from a higher point, and longer therefore less steep.

Dad wants to try the Malaucene route and I find myself agreeing to give it a go. We both know that if we give it a go, we are not for stopping half way.

It is baking hot again, all the way up this time. The gradient is more variable, with lots of recovery slopes that ease off in steepness. There are almost flat sections, and we chat about hopes, dreams, fears and ambitions.

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This is one of my Dozen Days, sharing my Dad’s passion for cycling with him in an incredible place.

And then it comes. Back to brutal again. Steeper gradients but less sustained. We both start to struggle, and take our time agreeing to push on but wait for the other further up if they need to rest.

At one point, I am so exhausted I can barely see, partly because of the sweat rolling into my eyes but mostly because it is so hot and I am working so hard. I am using the white lines to keep me going in a straight line. I am counting, as I always do when I am struggling.

It takes me four pedal strokes to cover the distance of one broken white line. Then five. It is neverending. I pull over, taking a long drink but knowing it is not doing much in terms of reviving me. I wait a while. Dad comes. He asks where we are, if there is much more.

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At this point, I am able to say confidently, no Chalet Liotard is just two bends away. I know from the profile that the gradient is much easier after that, and we are just a few kilometres from the top.

We wobble into the Chalet Liotard car park, hanging our bikes on the racks and edging slowly we tap our way across to the shaded seating area. We order ice lollies and Coke, taking a longer rest this time.

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Then we are on our way again, gradually making our way to the top, hairpin after hairpin.

It is a totally different environment this time. It is a similar time of the day, but this time, the souvenir shop is open, there are a couple of market stalls, and we were clapped and cheered as we reached the summit. Both of us are wasted. We could not have climbed a moment longer. Dad is very quiet. We spend a few moments looking around us and taking some pictures.

And then we head down. The descent is warm this time, and breathtaking. Everything that was hidden in the storm on our first time up is now revealed below us. The landscape is utterly bare until we reach the junction at Chalet Reynard. We go down via the Sault route this time. We are surrounded by lavender again.

We take a slightly different route back after passing through Aurel, and thanks to some fairly swift descending wherever possible, we are home just before we would have needed lights on our bikes. We receive another hero’s welcome, with a group of cyclists who are due to head up the next day grilling us for details. Another group in the hotel are from where my dad grew up and their children all go to his old school. It is a small world, and they all happily swap stories and tales that grow taller as the evening goes on.

Returning home was hard. We were exhausted and it took longer to recover than I allowed, and my body let me know in some fairly serious ways. The sun was less bright, the hills were smaller and life was altogether less exciting. Gradually, I came back to earth and recognised our Ventoux trip not for what we left behind, but for what I took away with me.

The unshakeable knowledge that when the heat is literally on, I can do it.

My three lessons from Ventoux:

1. Good equipment makes life easier. A triple chainset saved my bacon.

2. When you look at something in front of you that seems steep/hard, don’t forget what you have already ridden up/survived.

3. Love conquers mountains! Happy birthday Dad.

spring

Winter came again last weekend. It was a shock to the system after a week of almost tropical sunshine.

But even snow, hail and sub-zero temperature two days before the start of May can’t dampen the feeling of spring, of newness, of joy, that I have in my heart at the moment. A couple of less-than-positive areas of my life are soon to come to an end, and there is real hope that what replaces them will lead me onwards to the next phase.

I’ve never struggled so much through the winter before, but this year things were very different. Since the middle of October I seemed to be ill or recovering from being ill. Christmas and New Year, normally times I love and enjoy, went past in a haze of cold remedies, antibiotics and steroids. Spring running plans were almost abandoned.

A concert provided a much-needed focus, and timed perfectly with the clocks changing. The weather was awful that morning and unloading my harp was a cold and rather soggy experience. Then at the start of the second half of the concert, I played a Beltane Dance to welcome the summer and by the end of the piece, the sun had come out.

As the days began to draw out at long last, I felt as though I was coming back to life.

I’ve had my first after work evening hill run of the year, feeling too warm on the steep climb up, watching the sun going down and then shivering a little once the light started to fade.

Gradually, my dogs are needing their winter coats less and less. I will moan about the impending moult when it comes, and wonder how two such skinny dogs can possibly lose so much fur.

Soon even weekend walks will need to be early in the morning or late at night. They are getting older and will find the heat even harder to deal with this summer.

A dear friend rang me last week, we had lost touch a little since the big move and it was good to hear from her.

She asked me about my new life, and I told her about the connection I now feel to the seasons and the effect it has on the environment here.

We talked about a few other things, and I was briefly taken back to when things were all so very wrong and it felt as though nothing would ever be right. She, perhaps more than anyone else, understands where I’ve come from, and why I had to leave everything behind. It was understandably a very emotional conversation.

And yet it was filled with positivity. We looked back, and looked forward and talked about all the changes that had happened in between. There are more to come, for her and for me.

This is one of my favourite times of year – knowing the days will continue to draw out, until it will still be light when the dogs are out for their last turnout before bed. 

This year, my summer is looking pretty empty, no big cycling adventures or long runs or trips away in the diary just yet.

I feel uneasy about this, and so it’s time to sit and dream, and wonder if, and wonder how, and plan, and arrange, and anticipate, and then it will be time to go.