There’s an almost back-to-school feeling in the air lately.
The race is run. Not almost run, like in the song, but actually run. The immediate recovery is complete, and now it’s right back to normality.
Except it isn’t.
Things feel different. There are a couple of obvious reasons for the difference which I won’t go into here, but I’ve been surprised by some of the other things that have come about.
Generally I feel so much more in control of what’s going on around me.
A few days away from working at the day job and away from harp related email have helped enormously of course, but otherwise the difference is mostly due to having more time.
There’s no denying that training for an ultramarathon takes time – 35-50 miles a week takes a LOT of time, and more so if you’re a slow runner like me. And even more so when you add hills and trails to those miles rather than endlessly bashing tarmac.
The training clearly takes phenomenal amounts of energy, but I think what I hadn’t appreciated is just how much it drains you even when you’re not actually training. I have been so tired for these last few months. My greyhounds’ sleeping habits and my inability to switch myself off at night haven’t helped, but most of all running and planning and driving around and endless extra loads of washing have totally worn me out. Housework has been a long distant memory beyond the essential, I’d hardly played my harp except for booked gigs and my motorbike’s MOT and tax expired without me realising. My dogs have been missing their sofa time with me, and me with them.
I had three unscheduled days at home after I arrived back a bit earlier than planned, and I barely told anyone I wasn’t still away. My weekend plans were changed by the weather, and I hardly left the house except to buy food. Instead, I just pottered around doing whatever took my fancy.
The scruffy pile of sheet music that has been shooting me dirty looks for months – tidied. Filed. Scanned into the iPad I’ve had for a couple of months but not had time to use.
The pile of receipts that has been slipping down the back of the table for months – tidied. Filed/binned as necessary.
The kitchen floor – properly clean.
The dust bunnies under the sofas, under the stairs, behind my bike – gone.
The washing up – done and put away.
I read, dozed, watched telly, ate the last remaining items of junk food, and circled round again.
I had a bride and groom-to-be round last week to confirm their music choices for their wedding next weekend. My harp was pointing the other way, giving me a different perspective, so before they arrived I took a quick picture for my Instagram feed. As I looked at it before briefly editing it, it occurred to me my house looked…
Pretty wonderful actually. Inviting. Homely. Quietly stylish even. It looked like I lived there. Tidy but not clinical. A greyhound snoozed on the sofa.
We had a hugely enjoyable hour talking about their wedding and the music they wanted. It quickly turned into a session of “can you play…?, what about …., oh what’s that song that goes….etc” and not only did I have all the music they wanted (bar one new thing which won’t take long to learn at all), it was all things I already knew well.
And we soon had a list of great choices which are special to them, and which I enjoy playing. I can’t wait to be a part of their day.
I love sharing the music I play, and it was great to do so at home. I loved feeling comfortable in my house not worrying about how untidy it was or what cleaning I hadn’t done. Their little girl loved having a go on the harp and loved meeting my dogs.
There are some tremendously absorbing musical projects in the pipeline, and rather than worrying about how on earth I’m going to fit everything in, I’m actually really looking forward to getting started in even though I know they will take a lot from me.
There’s space for those projects now, and as I went through my list book this morning, I realised there’s space for quite a lot of things at the moment. Rather than worrying about how empty things look, I am really enjoying the peace and I’m thinking what else I want from my life and how it will all pan out.
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.
From Victoria Bridge, Inveroran, West Highland Way
Looking back north at where I’d been – heading back to Tyndrum
Lairig Mor, looking towards Kinlochleven
The mighty Buachaille Etive More, Glencoe. I ran 40 miles the day before and had 20 to go. I had no idea just how hot it was going to be.
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.
Kentwood Hall, Long Melford
Mont Ventoux with my dad, 2014
We hearz there is an impostor in our midst…
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.
Sunday morning. Rain tapping against the window. I roll over. The bed is empty and I remember why. He left an hour or so ago, and is now battling up the hills in the weather I am seeing from under the duvet.
I get up, put my running kit on and head down for breakfast. My bacon sandwich is delicious, the bacon perfectly cooked, and I hear the B&B owner discussing the provenance of the sausages he is proud to serve. I suspect the bacon comes from the same place. I rarely eat meat these days, but bacon butties and smoked fish are something I would find hard to give up.
I’ve had a good look at the map that is drying out from yesterday’s amble round the Fairfield Horseshoe. I’d hesitate to call it a run – it was steep on the way up and very technical on the way down. We got snowed on, more than once. For one moment I thought I was going to have to lower myself down what appeared to be a rock climb but we found another way. But I ran where I could and enjoyed myself immensely. D could have gone a lot quicker, but didn’t. When I asked hesitantly, tentatively, very nervously, if he was getting frustrated with me, he said no, gave me a big hug and off we went again.
He offered to carry the pack on the first climb, and bravely, fighting every independent feisty obstinate cell in my body, I let him. A pale blue girly XS Salomon pack didn’t really fit him but he managed.
Now back to the map. A friend has suggested the Kentmere horseshoe. There’s a fab looking route round Helvellyn but the road nearby is closed. Decisions.
The rain continues. My tea is a little too weak but you can’t have everything.
I pack everything up from the weekend, and everything I need for a few hours running in the mountains. I am tired. I should be looking forward to getting out in the hills but, honestly, I’m not.
I settle the bill with the B&B owner. He asks what my plans are for the day. I look at the floor. A voice comes from nowhere.
If you were going to sit. Just sit. And look, and read, and sit. For the day. Where would you go?
It’s my voice.
He ushers me over to the huge map on the wall. He offers Grasmere as a first suggestion and recommends a cafe there. Inside or out. Either is good, he says.
The next suggestion is Rydal. We ran past on our way up to Fairfield yesterday. It looked lovely.
The cafe is excellent, he says. And the gardens of Rydal Hall are beautiful, he says.
I recall a day spent with one of my dearest friends, sitting, pondering, and wandering round the gardens of Brodick Castle on Arran on the single day of summer we had in Scotland last year.
Rydal it is.
I cross the road into the garden centre. It’s huge, but there in the plant house is the Cotswold concession. I desperately need a decent pair of gloves as the last link in my collection of kit for next weekend. We’ve been in every outdoor shop in Ambleside and there has been precious little choice of decent waterproof not too bulky gloves for teeny female paws. And there they are.
The chap behind the till clocks what I’m wearing and asks me where I’m off to. To the cafe, I reply. He laughs.
I wander through Ambleside. There’s a bookshop. A proper bookshop. I hesitate to say old-fashioned. It shouldn’t be.
I wander in. A girl/lady/woman, I’ve no idea which, she’s a similar age to me and I’m not sure what I count as, asks me if I need any help.
Something local and quirky please. I’m off to sit in a cafe for the day.
She offers a couple of suggestions, and then directs me outside to look in the window where their customers’ Top 10 of the week selection is displayed. I see a book by the author of a crazy Swedish language film I enjoyed last year. I didn’t know it was a book before it was a film. The film involved a very old man and a significant body count. It was hilarious.
I buy two books and stroll towards the cafe.
There are sheep, and cows, and people heading out to the hills.
I get to the cafe. There is an enormous piece of chocolate and Guinness cake staring up at me while I order my coffee.
We sit, outside, over a waterfall. Me, the chocolate and Guinness cake, my new books.
Oh, and Flora.
Flora is part of the Go Herdwick trail, and some kind person has given her a wee hat to keep her ears warm.
I’ve run a lot lately, up a lot of hills. In the last month, the Mell trail in the Trossachs, the Arrochar Alps, the Pentlands and now Fairfield. I’m shattered. I love being in the hills but I’m so, so tired. I’ve run/walked/staggered up the equivalent of half of Everest in three weeks.
I sit and read another book about farming. The cake is lighter than it looks, and it slips down quickly. I slurp my way through another coffee, and then head back to Ambleside. Via another couple of shops. Ewegene and Ewegenie follow me back to the car.
We head off to Great Langdale. I loiter on the finish line, hoping D hasn’t come in already.
I chat to a girl/woman/lady also waiting on the line. Her husband, an ex England rugby international, died a few years ago. She had travelled all over the world with him, and in later years they had moved to the Caribbean to set up a rugby program there. He died very young, very suddenly, from a heart attack. She met someone new who is into cycling. She’s a former runner who is carrying a knee injury and is starting to discover cycling for herself. We share frustrations at life ending too soon, and at those who get to take it for granted.
D isn’t expecting me and hardly recognises me as he crosses the finishing line. He has had a tough day but is smiling, elated, pleased with his efforts. I hand him an enormous Bath bun from a new favourite cafe in Ambleside.
I had a brilliant day.
I’ll be back in the Lakes in a couple of days, and I have no doubt I’ll have a better, safer time as a result of a proper rest day on Sunday.
Last week was a funny old week really. Lots of good things seemed to sneak in.
After the training lows of the week before, I was amazed to post my biggest weekly mileage since I started running. And I realised just recently that I’m starting my fifth year of running!
I can’t quite believe where the time has gone, and what has happened in that time, and what happened leading up to that time to place me where I am just now.
But I digress.
I had some wonderful comments from happy harp listeners and clients.
I revisited some old haunts, some favourite places to run. I discovered new places and in doing so, I found some new favourites.
I reclaimed the Cobbler from the jaws of bad relationships past, and avoided getting myself into mischief on Saturday by going up mountains in conditions I wasn’t equipped for.
It was really hard saying no to just going a little further, a little higher, despite the snow, just to see. But in the end it wasn’t quite so hard saying no more to the endless energy sapping boggy mush that lay between Beinn Nairnan and Beinn Ime.
A 12 mile loop around Loch Venachar was absolutely stunning on Sunday morning, and sharing it made it even better. Finding a new little thinking spot and enjoying a recovery lunch in the Brig o’ Turk tearoom might just have made it a perfect day out.
Things feel so much lighter. I have a big event coming up in a couple of weeks that I’ve been worrying about a bit, and while I still have a lot of logistical stuff to sort out, I’m starting to believe that I will be able to do it.
The bigger one is about 10 weeks away and that feels like it will be OK again too.
There’s also a holiday in the diary, and I’m so looking forward to seeing another part of Scotland I’ve always wanted to visit.
I found myself looking at places to live, just daydreaming really. But I came across a disused barn for sale for development in a perfect location. Although there were big plans to make it someone else’s idea of just so, I couldn’t help think that with a loo, shower, kitchen and plenty of hot water, it was pretty much perfect as it was. It reminded me of a friend’s workshop where I’d spent some happy times a few years back.
And there are other good things quietly going on in my life too, scary but in a good way.
Ultra running is about many things, but for me one of the biggest is dealing with the highs and lows as they develop over the course of a long training run, or an even longer race. I accept that these are part of the game, and I’ve enjoyed learning to cope as things change over a long day. Dipping energy levels, sore legs, wheezy lungs, poor weather conditions, tough terrain, landscape that isn’t always beautiful. These all come and go, often unpredictably.
You’d think I’d have worked out by now that life is just the same, and that I really don’t need to worry so much when I find myself under a bit of a cloud for a while.
The last few weeks have been rather more jam-packed than even I’m used to, and not with good things. Each night I’ve been arriving home utterly drained, with a to-do list longer than I can possibly keep up with.
The way forward has been a bit clouded so I’ve had my head down trying my best to get through it.
Daydreaming has been a really good way of keeping the bigger picture in mind.
Warm evenings in Alpine villages with cold beer and live music
A beautiful 1980s Mercedes SL
Deserted west coast of Scotland beaches
Flights on a teeny plane
Summit cake shared with friends
Sofa days with wet noses, tails like whips and skinny ribs
The moment on a run when the rasp from my lungs disappears
Racing the sunset home through the lavender fields of Provence
The secret whisky drinking club
Warm tarmac and tipping into Paddock Hill followed by the bounce at the bottom
Pizza, pizza, pizza
Freezing my bum off in a football stand sipping hot chocolate with my Dad
A wee restaurant that takes an epic journey to get to
An open house in the hills with huge windows and a long drive lined with Lombardy poplars, and filled with friends, food, drink, music, pets
Cycling up short sharp climbs round the Applecross peninsula while remaining completely relaxed
Freshly smoked fish eaten on the shore of a turquoise Bavarian lake
For 75 minutes a week (and a bit of craft shopping/preparation time), the outside world took a back seat as 16 girls aged between 7 and 10 years old met and observed traditions that have been in place across the world for years.
It’s quite a responsibility, taking on the role of informal educator. You are somewhere between parent, teacher, aunt and older sister. Memories of my own time as a Brownie were not great, but the very fact that I remember it at all meant that I took great care of my Brownies and how I looked after them. I wanted them to have good memories of their time with us.
My first meeting as a leader was when the bug man came to visit. Within a few minutes, I had a wee girl, 9 year old E, clinging desperately and slightly hysterically to me as she was petrified of spiders. I didn’t mind the spiders but wasn’t a huge fan of the giant cockroaches. I couldn’t have let on though, so sat bravely and declined to stroke them. Some of the girls did and I really admired them.
At the time it gave my week some structure and a bit of ritual. I knew that at 7.15 every Thursday night, we would stand in a circle, link little fingers and sing the same song.
When it came to enrolment, we would sing a different song – This Little Light of Mine, with the word “Guiding” added so as to make it more relevant to the movement we were part of.
As we sung the words with new little Brownies bursting with pride and relief at having remembered their promise in front of their friends and family, I hoped they might take some of the words into their hearts and call on them when needed.
“Don’t you (puff) my little light out, I’m going to let it shine,
Don’t you (puff) my little light out, I’m going to let it shine,
Don’t you (puff) my little light out, I’m going to let it shine,
Let it shine, all the time, let it shine”
It’s really easy to get flattened by the bad things in the world, to let it crush our spirit and wear us down. To dumb down because it’s not seen as appropriate to celebrate our achievements and skills, our passions and what really makes us tick.
Doing a less than thrilling day job, conquering a mountain of debt, housework, people that unwittingly drag us into their misery and lack of spirit, bad relationships, illness, injury, fear.
When I think of my little Brownies singing that song on their special day, I am always reminded of similar words from Marianne Williamson, given to me by a dear friend and often wrongly attributed to Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration. They remind me not to be too shy, not to keep things hidden too much:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Over the time I’ve been in Scotland I’ve collected a few photos that remind me of what lies within, what makes me me.
I didn’t really have many before I came here. Partly because I was never doing anything exciting when there was a camera around, and partly because the sparkle had become a bit squashed and was rather too well hidden back then.
Mont Ventoux with my dad, 2014
Thanks to Fiona Keating for this picture. I had been on my feet for 14 hours 40 minutes and had just finished running the 2015 Highland Fling, still smiling though!
Post harp gig beach trip, Scotstown Aug 2015
Ma wee pal A, Easter Saturday 2014
In the mountains in Austria, August 2015
Post-harp gig beach trip, Ardrossan, Oct 2014
thanks to Fiona Rennie for this picture from the 2015 Loch Katrine marathon
the shit had hit the fan big time the night before. but I learnt so much about myself that weekend in Applecross. huge thanks to G for the awesome photo.
Thanks to Nicholas Beckett from Edinburgh Sports Photography for this fab picture from the 2014 Highland Fling Relay
Thanks to Bob Scott Bikes in Glenrothes for the suspension work on my GSXR750 that led to this happy face!
Thanks to Graeme Hewitson of Monument Photography for this picture from my Harp Odyssey concert in March 2015
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.
The 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.
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.
The Gorge is hotter than hell, and is very gently inclined for 12 miles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hoping we’ll make it up the mountain the next day (hidden by cloud behind my dad)
At last it’s July. This means two things. Firstly, the Tour is coming.
Secondly, I’m thinking about what I did this time last year.
The Ventoux trip changed everything, for me at least. I think it changed a few things for my Dad too.
Nothing was the same afterwards. The hills weren’t as big, the sky wasn’t as blue and it certainly wasn’t as hot (although I was awfully glad about that). And if ever you want to send me into a wee dolly daydream, ask me about the evening ride back through the lavender fields and the setting sun.
More positively, I got up the mountain, twice. I stopped numerous times on the way, but not once did I contemplate giving up.
This video is about the way down, when it was all done and over with.
I’ve been running as part of a group on a Wednesday night on and off for about 18 months. It’s not really a club, just a happy gaggle of people who run for the same reasons – a love of running, a love of dogs, a love of being out in the hills, a love of being somewhere new, a love of sharing it with friends, a love of supporting each other.
Things petered out over the winter while I was ill, and then I lost all confidence in my running and didn’t want to play with the others any more. After the post-Fling running break, I decided to be brave and go back again.
Last week, my friend J was put in charge. It was the last run before her wedding, so we left the pace and the route choice to her. J likes flat trails, although she is strong on the hills. She’s also getting back into training after a few niggly injuries, and although she is quite speedy, she wanted a really relaxed pace while she was building up the miles again for her next event.
We met at the Falkirk Wheel, intending to run for about 6 miles or so. There was no fixed route, which was a little worrying as this is a group of people that prides itself on getting lost frequently. Those of us more confident in our route finding were well away from our normal patch and hence pretty clueless.
We set off somewhat tentatively, but actually J was more confident than she let on, and a couple of hours later, we were making our way back to the car park, having done nearer 9 miles with lots of stops for chats and giggles and attending to dogs.
The faster boys went off for a couple of leg stretches, but I think their ears must have been burning or they felt they were missing out, as they kept walking up the hills and drifting back to join the rest of us.
It was a really weird kind of light, not dark at all but gloomy and misty.
And then it rained. Jackets had come off early on as it was so warm. They didn’t go back on again despite the rain getting gradually heavier. There was something about the feel of summer rain on sweaty skin that was just too good to miss.
We ran through damp misty forests, breathing in the smell of the pine trees and feeling the softness of the forest floor beneath our feet.
When we came out of the tunnel above the wheel, the water was utterly, perfectly still.
We were all full of excitement and good wishes for J, which added to the warmth of the evening. It was one of those brilliant nights where you have no idea where you’re going to end up, and sharing it made it all the more special.
Of course, with this group, if everything went perfectly, something would be wrong.
On our way out, we failed to notice the sign saying the little swing bridge would be shut at 8pm. We arrived at just gone 9pm, and there was a brief panic as to how we would get back. It was a bit too far to jump, and the detour was a good few miles long. Faces fell.
A very crafty plan was put into action however, and all ended well.