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 Half Year Blog Birthday

Curled up on the sofa with a panicked dog (thanks Guy Fawkes) and a rotten cold (thanks London commuting) has given me an opportunity to catch up on my email, my diary planning and forced me to stop and take stock. Its been 6 months since I started writing this blog, and while it hasn’t quite turned out how I had envisioned it (what does?) I think I may be getting a better of idea of what I would like to do with it. Or rather what I’d like to do with my writing/ photography. The fact is,  it hasn’t gone to plan. But then again this year has not really gone to plan either, and it has been a huge lesson in going with the flow, which is not my natural state, being an anxious control freak.

2014 was going to be a new beginning. I was taking my running up a notch, I was going to travel more, I had big ideas.

My year with Run Dem Crew has been nothing short of inspiring, stepping up pace groups, epic cheering, international racing, new friends, old friends and race bling galore. Most importantly, I learned to run for the joy of it and finding that same joy in supporting others, and that times and speed were only a small part of it. And as our captain Charlie Dark always says, Run Dem is also a bridge to other things. I’ve found the courage to finally take the plunge buy a bike and start cycling and even give up my anti-yoga petition and succumb to the charms of Vinyasa (and the DOMS, near God).

There have been a few bumps along the way, we moved house in April throwing our schedules out of whack (they’re still a bit all over the shop) and a sprained ankle in particular that has slowed things down, plus a lack of motivation in the late summer, added to the on going work-life balance that I do not always get right. My blackberry obsession is never ending, and if I get one thing right in the next 6 months its that I need to master ‘switching off’.

I’ve started writing more, and ironically from that from that decided I need to up my photography game – that finding different ways to tell the story are increasingly important to me, and that I need to experiment with way of combing these more.

We travelled. A lot. We found our way to Thailand, to Berlin, to Morocco, a quick trip over to New York for good measure and a few unexpected days in South Africa. Our family visited us here in London, we got to play tourists in our own town and reconnected. My passport is smug and exhausted. To be honest I am a little exhausted.

So its odd that I feel like I should have been doing more. I feel I should have taken more time off my half marathon PB, that I should have found more time to train, that I haven’t spent enough time out of London, and that my writing hasn’t been a higher priority, which is true, because you know, life happens.

Perhaps the yoga will help me learn to be more flexible in all areas of my life.Let go and make space, my instructor says. Now that’s a mantra I can get with. I need to make peace with where I am rather than where I would like to be.

So between now and next May I’d like to re-evaluate my goals

* Get with the meditation vibes and learn to just BREATHE

* Get up to 50 miles on the bike by the end of the year, no mad racing, just steady!

* Run for joy. And repeat.

* Get snappy. Lose the filters

* Stop taking the piss out of the yogis

Whoo saaa bishes.

The Blind Spot

park

Today a woman lost her daughter in the park. It was a sunny Sunday, about 3pm, loads of kids kicking about a football or three, many a dog walker like ourselves and a few cyclists stripped down to their lycra shorts and soaking up the last of the summer sun.

We were throwing a stick for the dog, and drinking coffee, sitting under one of the big oaks that lines the make shift football pitches, watching a guy trying to fly a kite without any wind. This is not a remarkable day. I have done two loads of washing, put off the vacumming and berated myself for not sorting through the bathroom cabinet. A standard day. Nothing special, but a pleasant day. No rain, and it’s warm for late August. We left our jackets at home and I’m kicking myself for wearing jeans, but pleased we’ve made it out the house. The dog needs exercising and who knows how long we’ll have this weather for. Its September tomorrow after all. 

I’m feeling a bit annoyed, inexplicably so, although probably because R took too long getting the coffee or spoke in an off tone to the dog. In reality, I’m probably annoyed as its Sunday afternoon and the weekend is winding down.  My annoyance is peaked as someone is shouting and cutting across the usual park buzz. It’s not the shout of a kid retrieving a ball, or someone calling their rogue dog. Its a distressed shout. And its repeating one word over and over.

I’m not really paying attention as this stage, so I can’t make out the word, but its reached that volume so that I have noticed. I’m walking up the small embankment to retrieve a better throwing stick for the dog and as I’m walking closer to the main path I catch the tail end of a conversation.

‘…she’s 4 and she’s on a scooter. She just went over the hill and I thought by the time I caught up I’d see her on the other side, but I can’t see her…’

A calm voice, but with enough of a tremor to betray the rising panic. I put two and two together, she was shouting a name.

‘..right, and you’ve looked by the swings and the cafe?’ The conversation continues with an elderly couple who have stopped to offer help. Although I’m not sure they’re elderly, I’m guessing by the tone as I’m not close enough to tell and there’s a few hedges and shrubs between us.

I’m still not really paying my full attention as the dog has now got into a tiff with a Maltese-cross and I’m telling her off. But a few more people have now congregated around this woman and someone says,

‘I think you should call the police’ 

But the sun is shining, and the park is tranquil and its Sunday. There aren’t even that many people around –  not enough to lose someone. And its a big open park. Scenes like this don’t play out now do they? I wander back down to the oak tree where we’ve plotted up and I mention what I have heard to R. He’s just has surprised as I am.

‘Here? Did you just pick all of that up from walking up the hill and back?’

I start to wonder if I day-dreamed it, but then I see the mother, walking very fast, talking on her mobile with another child trailing after her. She must be calling the police. I start to feel a bit queasy. 

I’m almost subconsciously now scanning for a lone child on a scooter. Hoping to see her coming out from around a tree, from behind the playground steps, may she was hiding?  I’m torn between running after the mother and asking if I can help to reminding myself she is calling the police and doesn’t know me from Adam, and that I’ve just earwigged the whole conversation and I’m not holding all the facts. 

We carry on throwing the stick for the dog. Continue with our conversation. Finish our coffee. Walk a bit further around the park. I tell myself the professionals will be on the scene soon, and that she’ll be found queuing up for ice-cream with no knowledge of the drama that unfolded. But I’m scanning the park regardless. 

Sometime later, with the dog suitably exhausted we meander back past the oak, along the main track where I had overheard the conversation. I can’t see the mother, or any sign of the police. The man is still trying to fly his kite. Kids are still kicking about a ball. There’s a healthy queue for the ice-cream van. No sign of anything untoward. We must have missed the reunion. The relief. Probably some tears and then reprimanding the child for wandering off. But lots of hugs, That’s what’s happened. Otherwise we’d see some kind of gathering with men in high vis, and questioning. I tell myself its all worked out. Perhaps that child I saw with the mother while she was on the phone was the original lost child after all.

We make our way home. But it hit me again how the extraordinary things happen on ordinary days. We don’t get the luxury of ominous theme music to alert us to something coming down the road, no heads up, no warning. We do not get the chance to prepare ourselves. We cannot possibly know what will happen on a Sunday afternoon at the end of August. When throwing a stick for the dog.

We know this, of course, on an academic level, but we still think we can prepare for every eventuality, that we have no blind spots. If we save enough money, or take enough care, do all of our research, have all of the control. Or that we have the luxury of waiting for the right time. For the stars to align, for the perfect conditions. And it both scenarios there is no such thing. We are not in control. There are no perfect conditions. Most importantly, we have no guarantee that we have the luxury of time, and that it is a huge luxury.

Maybe it’s that I am hurtling head first into my mid-thirties, or that its already September, which basically means its Christmas, or that I am seeing time pass so much quicker as our friend’s kids grow up (and speak! go to school!). That many of my contemporaries are now experiencing age-related illness with parents, and we were in our teens over 20 years ago. Even though it really only felt like the other day we were scaling the walls to go clubbing past our curfews.

Unsettling, uncomfortable and disquieting yes, but a good reminder to get on with the business of living, and stop putting off all the things that I want to do ‘when I have time’ and just do them. Even if it is just a quiet Sunday Afternoon.