Ride London 100

My saddle’s waiting

Come and jump on it.

-‘Pony’ by Ginuwine (admittedly taken mildly out of context)

In the wake of my initial success on the road, I decided – inspired by an unseasonably mild, sunny, and calm day, and further cajoled by my frustration that rose exponentially with every minute I had to stay behind after the bell because kids hadn’t finished their work – to try my first solo outing.

IMG_4965Conscious of limited daylight, I had nipped home at lunch to lay out my cycling kit, pump up my tyres, and charge my lights. And my Bluetooth speaker. As my work day ended, I entered my flat in a Bruce Almighty-esque bluster, and poured myself into the familiar lycra second skin that had been tucked away in a drawer since October. Charged, dressed, and wearing my ever stylish green specs, a harbinger of my traffic fortune, I set off grinning, catching every green light on my journey out of the city.

The outward journey was spectacular: I felt like I was flying into the countryside, noticing subtle variations in the once-familiar landscape and filling my lungs with fresh air. After about 10 miles I had the option to turn back, with guaranteed daylight to guide me home. But I also had the option to keep going, and, weary of being a caged bird, I ignored every internal warning bell telling me I should turn back, take things slowly, be cautious.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Hell no. I kept cycling.

In hindsight, the body might give you these subtle, internal warnings for a reason. The second half of my cycle was marred by overwhelming regret, and trepidation about my homeward trudge, largely due to the ominous clouds closing in, the icy rain stinging my face, and the headwind gathering momentum as mine flailed. It also become apparent that the green glasses are highly effective at cutting out glare from bright lights and the sun, but there is a reason you’re not supposed to wear them while driving at night – with dusk rolling in it was, quite frankly, downright dangerous for me to be on the road. Thankfully I know that particular stretch of road pretty well, and was able to avoid any of the hazards that seem to be the norm for a cycle lane in the city.  I eventually arrived back at my front door tired, cold, wet, and relieved. And elated.

What I did not mention as a prime motivator for my independent jaunt was the fact that I was encouraged by Roz about a month ago to take on a charity place at the Ride London 100 mile cycle in July.  Although I have entered the ballot for the last few years, it would seem my luck was on par with that of the London marathon.  I must have entered the ballot last year, because after work one day I arrived home to the ‘commiserations’ version of the magazine, and I thought just as well.  Roz, however, had fared better, and was excited to see who else she’d be riding with.  As it turned out: nobody.

“You can get a charity place.  I can be your guide.  It’ll be fun.”

She sent me the link for the charity place, and I realised I’d only need to pay £25, and raise £500 for the MS Society.  In a fit of reckless abandon – who am I kidding, that has been my general emotional state for a while now – I entered, and set up my fundraising page.  Incidentally, that can be reached by clicking here.

IMG_5024Since my initial outing I’ve also enjoyed my first group ride with the Velodees to Stonehaven and back. Even the persistent rain and overly curt waitress at our coffee stop couldn’t drown the thrill of being back doing something I love. I’ve also braved a slightly earlier, second solo stint, which would have been perfect had it not been for the 40+ mph gusts. With spring on the horizon, I’m hoping to start clawing back at my bike fitness, and start incorporating longer rides in.

And what better way to do that than on a sunny April day with my guide cyclist, Roz?  She planned a route, and I basically ignored it, opting instead to venture blindly into the outing.  Our journey took us from Aberdeen to Aboyne, where we were joined by Jon Entwistle for a coffee and avocado on toast.  We had initially intended to head straight back to town, but – encouraged/bullied by Jon – we took a detour through Lumphanan and Torphins before the crotch-ruining return to our start point, rounding off the day at just a shade over 70 miles.

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100 miles seems within reach, and I’m ready to rise to the challenge.

Berlin Birthday

“Just consider, your life is passing; […] the time will eventually come even to you when your life is at an end, when you are no longer shown any further possibilities in life, when recollection alone is left, recollection, but not in the sense in which you love it so much, this mixture of fiction and truth, but the earnest and faithful recollection of your conscience. Beware that it does not unroll a list for you […] of wasted possibilities, showdown pictures it will be impossible for you to drive away.”
-Søren Kierkegaard

Now that the dust has settled – somewhat – and my eyesight has started to return, albeit at a rate it would not be misleading to describe as glacial, I’ve had some time to adjust to my new circumstances. I have also had the opportunity to continue to mourn the (temporary) sabbatical setback. And gain weight. I’ve done a bit of that, too, because apparently my coping mechanism of getting blind drunk (ha ha, I crack myself up) and then grabbing food of convenience in between my growing number of naps throughout the day is not conducive to remaining in shape. Who would have guessed?

I still lose my sight when I work out, but in particular when I try any type of vigorous exercise – the best kind. The kind to get your heart throbbing in your chest, the sweat fighting to escape your body, and that surge of adrenaline. Obviously, this has meant a continued hiatus from the road bike, apart from a handful of turbo sessions that leave me flush-faced, gasping, and wholly dissatisfied with the lack of potholes, aggressive city drivers, and bitter winter headwinds.

I’m back at work, and back waiting for tests/consultations/answers. Last August I had booked cheap flights to Berlin for my birthday, as well as accommodation, and had planned to roam the city, meeting people, stumbling upon experiences, taking in the sights. As the holiday approached, however, I was filled with a sense of apprehension that tethered me to my apartment. Even with the assurance from the eye specialist that it was perfectly fine to fly, I started worrying about everything that could go wrong in an unknown city, with faltering vision, speaking a language I knew – essentially – nothing of (this turned out to be a non-issue as the majority of people in Berlin appeared to speak English).

This is where my best friend from high school, Lisa, steps in. Having her birthday the day before mine, she felt entitled to a short European jaunt to celebrate in style, and following a few detail-based messages she had booked herself flights, and I had contacted the man I was staying with to let him know there’d be two people to expect. We made a few loose plans, but she had managed to book us seats for a five course truffle themed dinner, paired with specialist wines as part of a ‘Supper Club’ network. We decided to make this our celebratory meal, and let the night unravel as we saw fit afterwards.


It turns out I can’t handle 11 litres (rough estimate) of wine, even armed with five delicious courses to soak it up, because when the Supper Club was over, Lisa and I – and ‘Michelle from Manchester’ who had lived in Berlin for 6 months, and was therefore our well-established tour guide – stumbled to a busy bar where my memory became muddled, and in between snippets of conversation I can vaguely recollect beers, shots of Sambuca, smoking (because, hell, if they’re doing it INSIDE I might as well get the enjoyment in addition to the cancer, right?).

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This segued into an alleyway conversation with a very pleasant gentleman who lured us to an 80’s themed club night where I remember very little, bar throwing some killer shapes on the dance floor, feeling amused by the non-English 80’s tunes on offer, and being a little bewildered when asked, very kindly, by a couple of bouncers to put my clothes back on if I wanted to stay. My man, I am nearly 33 years old, and I don’t need a governess!

I think the only reason my mother didn’t personally fly out and choke me to death when I img_4541drunk-called her at 8am Berlin time (1am Texas time) whilst Lisa and I were stumbling home – via a supermarket for some kind of sustenance in bread form – is that she was just pleased I was:
a.) alive; and
b.) having a good time for a change.

The following day’s plans were ruined by the fact that Lisa and I both felt as if our internal organs had liquidised, and were slowly oozing from our pores and we sloped towards death. After a few hours of sleep and a shower, we went in search of a burger joint with good reviews, and I managed to stomach my food gingerly before we walked around the streets near our AirBnB. What followed was a morbidly interesting journey through the Menschen Museum, full of plastinated corpses offering us a glimpse inside real human bodies. Admittedly not the most obvious choice after a semi-raw hamburger during one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever experienced, but definitely engaging, and worth a visit. We rounded off the evening with some Asian food, before regressing to teenage years: heading back to our room, changing into pyjamas, and stalking our old high school friends on Facebook with snacks. I am hours away from being 33 years old, and I don’t need a governess.

Monday – the following day – was my birthday, and after a restful night, the blue skies made the morning even more inviting. We packed our suitcases, leaving them in the hallway, and set off for a walking tour of Berlin, taking in David Bowie’s old apartment and the Holocaust Memorial, amongst other sights. We also happened upon a killer brunch place where we enjoyed a celebratory Aperol Spritz to wash down our scrambled eggs and salmon.

Armed with a couple of art prints, we eventually reclaimed our luggage from our host’s central apartment, booking an Uber to our respective airports, and parting ways. Woefully deprived of sleep, I sleep-walked through security and dozed on the flights home, getting my taxi driver to stop at a gas station on the way to my apartment to pick up some milk and bread. Home, finally, I cracked open a beer to round off my birthday celebrations before sleep eventually reclaimed me, and I was back to reality with fistful of snooze buttons.

Since my return, and my renewed lust for life, Roz has taken me out for a 13 mile ‘trial ride’ on quiet back roads. I wore my green tinted glasses, which did block out a lot of the sunlight that causes my vision to go hazy (imagine snow blindness), and although everything wasn’t perfectly clear, my sight seemed to be good enough to avoid the potholes, the puddles, the tractors… It felt good to be back on the bike.

Although I am still awaiting tests, I’m no longer willing to wait for everything to be ‘normal’. I’m ready to start making mistakes again. I’m ready to travel. I’m ready to ride. I’m ready to live. I’m ready to re-start production on my life’s show reel, and stop waiting for opportunities to pass me by.

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I’m 33 years old, and I don’t need a governess.

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Well, shit.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
-Maya Angelou

Basically, the entire year of 2016 can go fuck itself.  I mean, it got off to a pretty unforgivable start when it took David Bowie from us all, but it looks like it had no intentions of quitting its utter bullshittery until it was over.

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Anyone who has read the last couple of posts will know I’ve been struggling with vision issues in the one eye I actually have any usable vision in, and yesterday, following some pretty unpleasant tests that involved putting electrodes in between my eyelids and my actual eyeballs, I got some news.  It turns out there is evidence of damage to the optic nerve behind my right eye, which confirms I have been experiencing optic neuritis (swelling of the optic nerve).  Although my vision is not back to normal, this could potentially be it, as far as recovery goes, which would be a real inconvenience to my entire life.  However, I’m hopeful, having read some first-hand accounts online of people suffering from the same thing, that I could experience further improvement in time.  In fact, it can apparently take up to a year to fully ascertain what the end result could be.  I feel it is prudent at this juncture to mention that patience is not one of my virtues, so I was not thrilled with this time frame, though I admit I was comforted that my sight could get a little closer to what I think of as ‘normal’.

The real kick in the balls was the fact that confirmation of optic neuritis, coupled with the lesions in the white matter on my actual goddamned brain that showed up on my scans, point to multiple sclerosis being the culprit for my vision issues.  Following a conversation with neurologists, my eye specialist also said that the lesions appear to be new, ruling out the possibility that it was residual scarring from the congenital toxoplasmosis in my left eye.

Now – as this is technically, at the moment, an isolated incident, I have no official diagnosis.  There is the chance that this is a freak, one-off body fuck-up.  However, when I aggressively questioned the specialist he did concede that it was unlikely to be caused by anything else, all things considered.  He also mentioned that the exercise-induced blindness I’ve been experience may or may not go away, so now my future cycling plans are on the chopping block.  So thanks, Mother Nature, you absolute cunt rag, for potentially taking away from me the one thing that I learned to love after running.

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Also off the cards: rock climbing.  Thanks, James, for taking a blind girl out climbing on wet rocks on Christmas day.  I had a blast.

From here it looks like I am going to be having a chat with a neurologist.  Apparently they may want to do another brain scan, and potentially a spinal tap (fuck my life) in an attempt to make a diagnosis, and then take it from there.  I was put on the waiting list a couple of weeks ago, so I’m looking forward (I guess) to hearing from them and snagging an appointment.

What really tugs at my gut about this whole thing, apart from the unfairness of it all, is the timing.  I was enjoying life.  In fact, I had applied for a sabbatical from my job and I was meant to be, right this moment, packing up my life in Aberdeen and moving to London for a 6 month job there to help me save up for a summer of touring around Europe on my bike, writing, and saying ‘yes’ to any and every opportunity.  The letter granting my request for a sabbatical arrived in the midst of my dad’s visit, and it has all had to be put on hold until I figure out where I’m at.  My adventure was meant to be just starting.

I guess my feelings about this can be fairly accurately summarised by my mother’s response when I called her to tell her the news:

“Well, shit.”

I’m all about overcoming adversity.  Saying ‘fuck it’ to problems and carrying on.  Laughing in the face of catastrophe.  But right now?  Right now I’m in a dark place where I am ugly crying in the shower, letting my mind dwell on worst-case scenarios, and letting the tenacious claws of anxiety take hold.  I feel like ripping all of my plates from the kitchen cupboard and hurling them with all my force at a brick wall.  I want to run as fast as I can up a mountain until I collapse with burning lungs.  I want to scream until I’m hoarse and gasping for air.  I want this all to go away.

But it won’t.  And while there’s no point in throwing myself a pity party, and nobody likes a whiny bitch, I think I’m just going to take ten from reckless positivity just now and revel in my misery, thanks very much.  I’m convinced that once the dust settles, I’ll be ready to ‘rise’ and crack jokes about making a clean sweep at the next Paralympics, but for now, I’m going to fucking wallow.  For the rest of the goddamn year.

Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay

Allow me to set the scene.

My vision has been (slowly) improving and my anxiety has been starting to ease back.  It’s a sunny Monday and I’m heading to specialist eye clinic for a follow up appointment and to get the results of the CT scan and MRI of my head.  I’m looking forward to getting in and hearing something along the lines of, “Welp, everything checks out, things should continue to improve, see ya later!”  A palpable sense of relief floods over me and with every step I take that brings me closer to the clinic I feel happier.  I can start making plans again!  I can go back to my life!  I can let everyone in my spin classes listen to me breathe like a rapist and gasp for sweet, sweet oxygen as I struggle to get through a 45 minute session after weeks of sedentary gloom!

Things are looking up.  I’m Johnny Cash about to be freed from my cell at Folsom Prison; about to see sunshine again since I don’t know when; about to drive my mental train a bit farther from the prison created by my own panic.  Man – I feel Zen.  As.  Fuck.

So, you can imagine it was a bit of a sucker punch when, after explaining what had been going on to a new specialist’s face, he told me he wasn’t convinced it was the swollen optic nerve.  And it was equally gut-wrenching when, upon realising I had been for brain scans and was eager to hear the results, he went to his computer to pull up the file and then, discreetly, turned the monitor away from me.

What transpired from my appointment was that there were abnormalities in my brain scan.  I can’t fault the guy’s bedside manner, but you know it’s never a good sign when you can see someone’s brain ticking away while they try and choose the right phrasing for the occasion.  The topic of multiple sclerosis was brought up again, though he made it a point to make it clear that this is not what he was diagnosing me with.  He also talked me through a range of possibilities for what the brain scan results could be (discounting tumors, to my relief, fairly rapidly).

As optic neuritis is closely associated with the onset of MS, and as my symptoms weren’t “textbook”, then the first thing to do would be to try and confirm whether or not the optic nerve was swollen.  For this, I have to have some neurological tests, which I am choosing to imagine will be 2 hours of Clockwork Orange-esque rigmarole, but will likely be much less terrifying.  If these tests reveal I have had swelling in the optic nerve, then GOOD: I know what the issue is, but BAD: MS is more likely.  If I haven’t had swelling in the optic nerve then GOOD: MS less likely, but BAD: what’s wrong with my vision, but also, what’s going on with my brain?!

Well, as the scan remains (for now) the only head scan I’ve ever had, there’s no telling how long the irregularity has been there.  It could have happened years ago and been asymptomatic.  Because my blindness in my left eye (from birth) is thought to have been caused by toxoplasmosis, there is also the chance that something happened there which caused the abnormalities.  Or, as the doctor said, “it is not outwith the realms of possibility.”

There’s even the possibility that what turned up in the brain scan is completely unrelated to what has been happening with my vision.  A final idea is that the vision problems are just physical manifestations of stress.  Now I’d consider myself to be pretty laid back and adaptable, so initially I scoffed internally at this suggestion, but the reality is a few years back, feeling no more under pressure than normal, I started suffering from anxiety and having very real, very scary physical symptoms.  The specialist I was in with even told me about how he ran clinical trials on 30+ people with optic neuritis, but he had been forced to discount the results of two participants – who he had diagnosed himself – as it turned out their symptoms were a result of stress.

So what was his advice for me in the interim before tests and more results could shed some light on the situation?  Try to relax.  Well, at least that got a laugh out of me.  Dude, you have got to be kidding – relax?!  Does that mean treating myself to “stressbuster” massages and Indian head rubs?  Does it mean turning all the lights out in my classroom and listening to guided progressive muscle relaxation tutorials on YouTube while I lie on the floor?  Does it mean buying a Himalayan salt lamp to ‘neutralise electromagnetic radiation’ which can – allegedly – cause stress levels to rise, affect your immune system, and lead to chronic fatigue?  Does it mean sitting at home alone at night and cruising tinder to find a human being to talk to in an attempt to avoid panicking by myself?  Does it mean trying to rebalance my chakra (whatever that actually means) by busting out some yoga moves in my living room? Because I have done all of those things, and while they might alleviate anxiety in the moment (and definitely beat sitting at home crying), they are absolutely not going to bring about a sense of calm that definitive medical test results will be able to.

Frustratingly, the first batch of those tests was scheduled to be yesterday, but I got a phone call in the morning to tell me that the doctor had phoned in sick, and my appointment was cancelled, with no indication of when I could expect them to be rescheduled.

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So until those tests happen, I guess I’m still stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on.

The most terrifying weeks of my life

As someone who regularly shrugs off laughter from my cycling friends for wearing sunglasses (I really should get proper cycling glasses) at all times when riding, even in dull, dreary conditions, my pride takes a backseat to the protection of my eyes.  Or eye, to be more specific.  You see, I’ve only really got the one functioning eye as since birth I have had a gnarly scar on the retina of my ‘bad eye’, which means it’s kind of like a window with a lace curtain over it: good for letting in light and seeing shapes move/colour, but not great for actually seeing things.  Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty cautious about my vision.  For example, I would never consider bungee jumping as I read there is a chance your retina could detach.  No thank you.

POP QUIZ! Which of the retina images below is of my faulty eye?  I bet you get it right.  Hint: it’s the one that looks a bit like it’s growing mould.

One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I woke up and tried to read the time on my phone screen, but the glare made everything on the screen swim around, and I had to squint to make anything out.  I just assumed it was first-thing-in-the-morning blurriness, and put my phone down.  When I went outside, the bright sunshine made everything swim around.  I sent a message to a friend who is a GP-turned-optician casually seeking reassurance, because I am a raging hypochondriac, but after I described my symptoms got the reply “You should get it seen immediately.”  PANIC STATIONS ON!

I managed to get an emergency appointment at the optician, and went through a series of tests before being reassured that my eye looked perfectly healthy.  THEN WHY CAN’T I SEE PROPERLY?! They made me a follow up appointment for the following week to make sure everything was still fine, and with vision eventually starting to improve, I started feeling calmer.

The following day I went for a 50 mile cycle, and though vision seemed normal, under the strip lights in the supermarket that night, things seemed to be moving around a little.  Huh, must just be wearing off.  Be cool, Rachel – it’s all good. The following day, Monday, it was back to school after the two week October break, and vision seemed to be normal.  I brushed off the experience as a one off weird-body thing, and went about my day, breathing heavy sighs of relief and promising myself I would eat carrots more.  Because eyesight is great.

Everything remained normal until Tuesday midday.  I went for a coffee with my friend Claire at lunchtime, and on the way back to school the low sunlight hitting the autumn leaves was playing tricks on my eyes.

“Whoah, hey, Claire, is the sunlight doing weird things to those leaves?”

“Uhhh, nope.  They look normal to me.”

“Oh.  Shit.”

We went back to school and the strip lights in her classroom were making me squint, and everything on her desk was dancing.  I had one class left in the afternoon, but as it seemed to be getting worse quickly, she offered to cover if I could get another appointment at the optician, which I did.  Again, everything came back normal, but by this time everything was blurry and I was in mini-meltdown mode.  By dinner time, I had taken up my friend Roz’s offer to drive me to the hospital, and I was seen in A&E and given yet more tests.  They decided it was probably an eye-migraine (who knew such things existed?!), and offered a shot in the butt of some mega strong migraine drugs.  I also had the joy of peeing into a cup (not pregnant), and given a list of things that could potentially trigger an eye migraine (caffeine, hormones from contraceptive pill, stress, an infection, blah, blah, blah).  I decided to avoid all of these things in an effort to get my vision back ASAP.

Wednesday morning and things had deteriorated.  I could barely read anything and struggled to make out faces on the TV.  I called in sick for my spin class and work, and made a same-day GP appointment, where I was again told it was likely an eye migraine and prescribed more drugs, but told to phone back the next day if things hadn’t improved.  I had convinced myself I was going blind, and was near hysterical.

By Friday things hadn’t improved, and my GP said he’d get in touch with the Eye Clinic at the hospital to try and get me an emergency appointment.  By Friday afternoon I had developed a sizeable blind spot, and my boss and one of my colleagues were sitting with me at yet another emergency optician appointment.  The woman who took care of me was very nice, and told me to wait while she tried to get me into the Eye Clinic (I didn’t bother telling her my GP was doing that – I wanted these people to be hassled enough to see me IMMEDIATELY) as soon as possible.  An appointment for the following Monday – after an entire freaking weekend! – was made, and I was told if things didn’t improve to go back to A&E.  We decided to cut out the waiting and head straight there.

Behold a crappy MS Paint representation of what my vision was like compared to normal.  If you stare at the red cross, that’s kind of close to where I was at.  Kind of.  My Paint skills are somewhat lacking.

I guess sobbing uncontrollably and ugly crying made the lovely nurse take pity on me, and the fact that I have very limited vision in my other eye made him phone up the on-call eye doctor in the Eye Ward and practically force her to see me that night.  What followed was a bit of a journey through the hospital maze, a bit of a wait, and finally some more tests.

The lady who saw me was probably one of the most reassuring people I have ever met, and she told me it was one of two things: an eye migraine (which is basically what they diagnose if there’s nothing else wrong), or optic neuritis, which she explained was basically inflammation of the optic nerve behind the eye.  Symptoms include blurred vision (check), blind spots (check), flashing lights (check), and dulling of colour (check).  She told me not to worry, and to come in for my appointment after the weekend for an MOT.

She also mentioned that the condition usually got worse before it got better, but that improvements usually start after a couple of weeks, and normal vision after improvement could return after as much as 12 weeks.  Butt-cheeks unclench!  I’m not going blind!

One slightly more concerning fact she dropped on me is that it can be an early sign that someone is developing MS, but at that point I was only concerned about getting my vision back.

The following weeks were a blur of appointments, sobbing quietly to myself on my sofa, friends coming round to cook for me and keep me company, my dad flying over from the States to take care of me, MRI and CT scans, and avoiding looking up my condition on Google, because I would inevitably convince myself I was dying.  It has now been nearly a month since this whole thing started, and my vision is slowly improving.  I have to wait until the 28th of November before I get scan results and see yet another specialist, but the fact that I can leave my apartment and actually see cars as I try to cross the road has opened up a world of possibilities for me: I can walk to the local supermarket unaided, I can use a computer, and I can see that I need to vacuum my living room!

The fact that my anxiety levels regarding my vision have dropped would normally be great, but in this case it has simply allowed me to start dwelling on other possibilities, because my mind is a dick: what caused it in the first place; what if I’m developing MS; what if my vision never gets back to normal?  Basically, I’m a sad sack of panic, so I am very much looking forward to getting all of my results back and things getting back to normal.

I’m sure my mother, who has been on the receiving end of my distressed phone calls (usually about 4am Texas time), is keen for things to calm down as well. And my colleagues, who have been keeping things ticking over in my absence, and who will definitely be treated to something nice when I finally get back to work.

The Curse of the Chicken

“Fall seven times and stand up eight.” – Japanese proverb

 

After my shorter-than-expected NC500 attempt, I was keen to get back out on the bike.  The road bike.  And what better way to ease myself in than to join the Wheelers for a ball-busting club run?

Sunday morning at 8:45 I found myself, along with Roz, Pamela, Robbie, and a dirty Thistle interloper (joking, obviously), heavy breathing like never before simply trying to hold Robbie’s wheel on the ride out of town to Netherly Bridge – the start point. The route was a reasonably flat 50 miler with a hill in the middle, so there was a glimmer of hope that us ladies would manage to keep up with the menfolk, with limited turns on the front, in the “slow group”, advertised as a 14-16mph average pace cruise.  Sidenote: our average speed was upwards of 16mph.  Just saying.

While we managed to stick in with the boys, maintaining a heart-attack effort throughout and being overtaken by the fast group (who had set off 15 minutes behind us) just after 30 miles, the real drama came courtesy of a mf’ing chicken.  I was holding Roz’s wheel when this creature let out the most ridiculous sound imaginable, causing Roz to laugh and stop pedaling.  As someone who rides so close to someone’s wheel it should be considered vulgar, I peeled off to one side to avoid crashing into her, but then, in slow motion, I saw her back wheel swerving towards me.  Unable to do much at all, and thankfully at a speed that was unlikely to cause too much pain, I resigned myself to the fact that in a matter of moments I would be making sweet love to the road.*

I landed with a horrific sounding ‘crunch’, possibly peppered with a yelp on my part, and did that thing where you just remain as still as possible, mentally surveying the damage based on what areas hurt the most.  In this instance, my shoulder and wrist, which I landed pretty hard on, and my right thigh, which was burning in that way that foretold a stinging shower experience in the future.  Pamela and Roz helped me, shaking, off the road and onto the grassy verge where I realized, with mild concern, that I couldn’t feel my fingers on my right hand.  I also couldn’t stop them from shaking.

Roz offered husband assist, but I decided to try to get to Floras coffee shop, about a 20 minute ride away, and reassess the damage.  Thankfully, Robbie managed to bend my rear mech hanger back into a usable position so my gears stopped jumping and, with some discomfort, we made it to Floras, by which point I was starting to feel a little more put-together, bar the excruciating pain of putting weight on my right hand.  Still – with no bruising or swelling, so nothing broken, I opted to just cycle the remaining ten miles or so home, because TENACITY, where I got that bastarding shower with some pretty impressive road rash down the right side of my body.

I hobbled to the shop afterwards, picking up some vegetables and chicken for a stir-fry.  I hope this is your mother, you degenerate, I whispered to the two chicken breasts as I dropped them into my basket.  The stir fry was delicious.

This morning I awoke to what I have previously experienced as whiplash.  Like a geriatric, I stumbled about some chores in the morning, before deciding to check out what’s on in the city online.  Apparently there was an art exhibition called ‘Northern Lights’ on today from 10-4 at Drum Castle.  With no solid plans, I decided to cycle the ten miles out – on the touring bike, because the road bike needs fixed – only to discover that the castle was closed.  The curse of the chicken continues!  I had a quick walk around the grounds, but in slightly sweaty lycra I was soon pretty cold, and cycled home.

Last winter was my first experience as a non-fair-weather cyclist, at times finding myself on the open road with actual goddamn snow lying on my thigh as I had serious concerns about losing appendages to hypothermia.  I saw huge improvements in my speed and endurance, and I don’t want to let that go into hibernation along with my flip flops.  Armed with some more appropriate cold weather cycling gear, I’m hoping for some decent winter rides with some equally enthusiastic (read: unhinged) people.

The change has happened you guys:  Cycling > Running.

 

*Roz, it wasn’t your fault.  Stop saying ‘sorry’.

A Steep Learning Curve -The NC500 (ish)

“I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to be more reckless with my choices, because practically speaking, you get less careful.  Your choices become more instinctive, and you feel like if you make a mistake, it won’t destroy you.”  -Willem Dafoe

A couple of months ago, my friend Eilidh – who shall herein be referred to as ‘the deserter’ – suggested we both tackle the North Coast 500 route on our bikes, and we loosely planned to do so during my October break, allowing us plenty of time to get round the North coast of Scotland.  The more I read about it, the more enthused I became, and so when, more recently, she decided to pull out (citing ‘cold weather’, ‘tough climbs’, and ‘applying for jobs’ as excuses), the seed had already taken root, and I remained undeterred.  I began making solo preparations – I was going on an adventure!

Day 1 – 65.1 miles, 1893ft elevation

I booked myself and my touring bike onto the earliest train to Inverness on Tuesday morning, and, as is tradition, I packed about 20 minutes before I had to leave the apartment.  Error number one.  Upon my return I realised my panniers, tent, and rucksack amounted to roughly 18kg of predominantly unnecessary weight (and that’s after ditching a tub of butter, a pack of dry pasta, and a bottle of shampoo at my final accommodation).

I awoke in Inverness with a crick in my neck and the sun shining.  Not wanting to allow myself to get too complacent in the warm morning sun, I allowed myself the luxury of a quick coffee (which is a habit I have only recently acquired), before loading my panniers, setting up my Garmin, and clipping in.

I couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions: tufts of white cotton candy mist hung lazily above farmland, suspended in the morning lull, and as I turned to take in the view of the Firth of Beauly on my right I noticed my frozen breath puffing out like the clouds of a steam engine.

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As the sun continued to sluggishly rise – we’re getting into the darker winter months where it struggles to reach the top, instead arcing across the sky throughout the day – I realised I was in the final gasp of summer.  It was also here that I realised I had made a few more mistakes:

  • I had no first aid kit (thankfully not an issue)
  • I had left my rear light on my road bike back home
  • I had accidentally booked my first night’s accommodation 20 miles short of where I had originally intended to stop,  meaning the following day, which would take in the infamous Bealach na ba, would consist of 80+ miles

14725223_10157457012430234_108355989_oMotivated by fresh legs, unseasonably favourable weather conditions, and a sense of adventure, I initially decided to use this  as an opportunity to ‘warm up’ for the journey.  I soon found myself cruising through the villages of Beauly and Muird of Ord, noticing that the Gaelic spelling of place names had taken priority over English spellings on road signs – a sure sign that I was leaving the familiar comforts of supermarkets and reliable phone signal.  I stopped briefly at the Contin store, panic buying a banana and some juice after reading their signs claiming ‘LAST SHOP UNTIL ULLAPOOL’, and enjoyed a rest on the bench in the sunshine, listening to birdsong and the occasional rumble of passing traffic.  Out of the city, folk seem to meander, a trait which both charms and infuriates me depending on my mood.

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I continued on to Achnasheen, where my lodgings were for the evening, but it was still early afternoon and the skies were still blue so – with invaluable text assistance from Roz, who was at work in the vicinity of a computer and internet connection, found a single room in Lochcarran which was just over 20 miles further along the road.  As soon as the room was confirmed, and I’d had a sandwich for lunch, I set off, glad to be chipping away at tomorrow’s planned journey length.

To add to my delight the road to Lochcarran, bar a slight bump at the start, seemed to be entirely downhill, and before I knew it I was skirting the loch looking for a statue of a Buddha that would mark my home for the evening.

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After unloading the bike I wolfed down dinner and a couple of beers at the Lochcarran Hotel before indulging in a ‘healing’ massage.  My host happened to be a trained masseuse who worked until 10pm.

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I didn’t struggle to get to sleep after 65 miles of cycle, and went to bed eager to face the next day’s challenges.  If only I knew what was in store.  Mistake number 5: not studying the route profile.

 

Day 2 – 64.5 miles, 5967ft elevation

After a restful sleep, I woke  up before my alarm when the loch was calm and still glimmering in moonlight.  Nature beckoned me to the toilet, which is when mistake number 6 occurred: leaving my key on the bed as I closed the self locking door behind me.  Unhappy at the thought of having to wake my host, I was relieved to find her and her lodger already up, and the master key allowed me to get packed and ready.  Spirits remained high.

My panniers seemed to feel a bit heavier than they did yesterday, and the fact that my morning was to take in the UK’s highest mountain pass (and arguably the UK’s toughest climb) did nothing to quell my mounting trepidation.  I even momentarily flirted with the idea of taking the coastal route – reserved for lorries and the like – but a Mia Farrow quote was stuck in my mind: “I’m going to take the high road because the low road is so crowded.”  I decided to coin my own interpretation of this.  “Ain’t no mountain gonna make me its bitch.”  And so off I went, full of gusto, full of life, full of a sub-standard sausage roll.

Before the big climb begins, there is an initial bastard of a hill, and it was quickly off with the jacket, on with the sweat.  Once that was summited, there was a woefully long descent before the mighty Bealach loomed into view.  Holy.  Fuckin’.  Shit.

 

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Thankfully, despite the weight of my bike and luggage, I had easier gears than on my road bike, so it was a case of spin-spin-spin on the initial slog, lulling me into a false sense of security.  Although a few markedly steep sections, this didn’t seem all that bad.  The kicker with this climb, however, is it saves the punishingly steep sections until the hairpin bends at the very top.  Add to this the fact that you’re on a single track road, regularly having to tuck into passing places to allow traffic by, and the heartbeat rapidly rises.

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My goal had been not to push the bike, but when I reached the hairpin bends I was again forced to peel into a passing place and dismount to allow cars past, and the gradient was so steep I couldn’t get enough momentum to clip in and stay upright on the bike.  I tried – and failed – a few times before deciding this was not an ideal place to fall and break my leg.  And so I pushed my tank up and around two of the hairpins, regularly pulling myself to the side of the road as a courtesy to caravans, before finally finding a plateau suitable for re-mounting, and chugging my way to the false summit.

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Thankfully, there was only one more milder climb after that until I could see the cairn and a sign for a parking place up ahead.  I had conquered the Bealach!  On a touring bike!  With 18kg of my worldly possessions! I felt immortal!

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With the stunning weather came stunning views across to the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye, which I took in along with a snack until the breeze chilled my sweat and I decided to begin the white-knuckle descent towards Applecross, for some of the best scallops smothered in garlic butter I could ever hope to have served to me on a bed of rice.

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Well, I thought to myself, that’s the tough bit over with.  Just 45 miles of nice, flat coastal road to go!  And for the first 15 minutes out of Applecross, that cheerful notion remained unchallenged.  With Skye on the left, and clusters of postcard houses on the shore, I was living a dream.

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And then it all went to hell.  It turns out ‘coastal road’ does not necessarily equate to ‘flat road’, a misconception that was to punish my legs and spirit for the remainder of the day.  Although beautiful, my smile settled firmly into a grimace, my humming into grunts.

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It was around this time a different quote was at the forefront of my mind, courtesy of Helena Bonham Carter: “There comes a point where you just go, ultimately, I don’t give a fuck anymore.”  Word, sister.  My jacket, which I was too tired to remove, was a few shades darker than it should have been due to being drenched in my sweat, and my face was a few shades redder than I’d liked it to have been.  It seemed after every twist in the road I was facing another short, steep climb, and I was growing weary.  To downplay another rising situation wildly, and to avoid over sharing graphic details, 100+ miles on an unfamiliar saddle on grueling terrain was wreaking havoc on parts of my anatomy.

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I checked my map and realised that after about 20 miles of coastal, single track road I would re-join the ‘main’ road, a thought that gave me hope, and when I finally came across Shieldaig, the immediate ascent on the main road and the sign for a coffee shop in Shieldaig saw me steer abruptly left for some respite in the form of a seat, a cappuccino, and a scone.

By this point it was nearing 4pm, and aware of limited daylight, I forced myself not to stop for too long, despite the aggressive desire to lie down and die.  I had 18 miles left until Kinlochewe, and my reservation in the bunkhouse.  Imagining how good it would feel to be warm, freshly showered, and sinking a beer kept me going through the valley from Torridon to Kinlochewe, barren as my soul.  The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, the temperature was dropping, and I could no longer feel my feet.  It was at precisely my lowest moment, roughly a mile from Kinlochewe, when I encountered the single asshole driver of my trip, honking at me despite a passing place being less than 100 feet ahead, prompting me to instinctively exhale my entire vocabulary of derogatory terms at her passing open window, spit and venom shooting from my mouth.  I was a broken woman.  I wanted to throw my bike under a bus.

Arriving, half-dead, in Kinlochewe, I quickly found the Hotel and checked in, having a shower and spending 20 minutes lying alone on my bunk, completely still, wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea.  And then I did either the smartest or dumbest thing I could possibly do at that point: for the first time ever, I decided to study the elevation for my upcoming ride.  And that’s when I knew I was done.

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I was so tired I couldn’t even finish my dinner, despite the lack of food I’d taken in during the day, and even the thought of a cold pint turned my stomach.  Instead of looking for things to do in Ullapool, I tried to find out if there was a train station in Kinlochewe (there wasn’t) and examined various routes back to Inverness.  I cancelled all of my hotel bookings for the remainder of the week, and went to bed overcome with a sense of immense relief.  It was over.  Well, nearly…

Day 3 – 26.5 miles, 1220ft elevation

Again, having gone to bed hours earlier than I normally would, I was up before my alarm, but instead of leaping out of bed I just lay there in the darkness,  contemplating what decisions in life brought me to this place.  I don’t consider myself someone who quits, but I fully concede that on this occasion I had bitten off more than I could chew.  Though I wanted nothing more than to be in my own bed, I had no choice but to get back on the bike if I ever wanted to get there, so I packed up and got dressed.

14689293_10157457004645234_1498513926_oUnfortunately, the hotel doesn’t do breakfast, the shop doesn’t open until 9, and I had no food.  It was just under 10 miles to get back to Achnasheen where I knew there was nothing but a hotel, and I just sucked it up and decided to try for breakfast there.  I.  Was.  Pumped.

Before I set off I knew I had a few options.  The first was to cycle the 50 miles back to Inverness; the second was to wait a couple of hours at the ghost-town station at Achnasheen; and the third was to continue on to Garve (25 miles away), and hope there was a little more life there to help while away the hours before catching a train to Inverness from their station.

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The road to Achnasheen wasted no time before taking me uphill, climbing over 200m in less than 4 miles.  In fact, it was very similar to the first section of the Bealach, gradient-wise.  Thankfully, from the summit it was basically all downhill to Garve, which did little to lift my spirits with the bitching headwind making downhill cycling a real chore.  Eventually, however, I reached Achnasheen, and the kind man on reception rustled me up a bacon roll and some coffee as I sat, the sole customer, in the drawing room with several stuffed stag heads as my only company. A bit warmer, and with some food in my belly, I decided to press on to Garve and see how I felt.14699616_10157457005150234_117212706_o

After 15 more miles of unrelenting headwinds, and with frozen toes, I reached Garve with my decision made.  I’d wait for the train.  However, with two hours to kill in a hotel that doesn’t serve food, I had little option but to get comfy and warm up with another coffee. Thankfully I was alone – again – so took liberties that I maybe wouldn’t have in polite company.  There is, however, nothing quite like warm, dry socks on cold feet.

When the time came for the train to arrive, I wrapped up and wheeled my bike to the station.  I was soon joined by two more cyclists who had come from Ullapool that morning.  And then another two cyclists materialised on the platform.  Considering it was a small station, things were starting to look bad for at least some of us, as there are limited places for bikes on the train.  We were all exhausted, and began vying for a prime position to launch ourselves at the open doors, but the two men I had been chatting two delivered a killer blow: not only did they have train tickets (I was told I had to just buy them on the train), they had bike reservations as well.  My heart sank.

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When the train arrived, the conductress’s exasperated face and shaking head at the sight of us and our bikes was a bad sign.  The doors hissed open, and she immediately said, “There’s no room for five bikes.”  The two guys with reservations hopped on smugly, waving their tickets, and she asked if any of the rest of us had a reservation.  We all shook our heads, and she said that she was sorry, but there was simply no more space.  Desperate and feral, the details of the next few minutes are hazy, but 5 minutes later I was sitting on a train to Inverness with  my bike precariously strapped in near me, and the remaining two cyclists were left on the platform to wait for the next train.  I was genuinely too exhausted to feel sorry for them.

Back in Inverness, I booked a ticket (and bike reservation) for a train back to Aberdeen, and spent the majority of the journey asleep.  By the time I woke up, we were just passing Inverurie and it was dark outside.  I became very aware of how much I smelled, but didn’t care.  Roz picked me up from the train station, drove me home, and handed me a bag with some juice, a pastry, some bananas, and an oven pizza.  It was over.

I’m definitely not done with the NC500, but next attempt will be on a road bike.  In the summer.  With hotels booked along the way. And a single pannier.  I might start from Kinlochewe as well…

 

To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do.” -Nick Cave

Etape Royale 100

Time: 7:49:41

Position: 395/560 (29/54 females)

Medal: Yes

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Running for the second time, the Etape Royale 100 mile sportive was an event I hesitated to enter for a few reasons, chiefly the hefty £70 entry fee (though considering the cost of having a closed road event, and seeing just how well organized the day was, it was clear to see where much of the money had gone), and the fact that it was mighty in both length and elevation, advertising a quad-searing 9829 feet of total ascent, and giving cyclists the opportunity to tackle the Queen’s View, the Suie, the Cabrach, the Lecht, and – finally – Gairnsheil with command of the entire road.

A third reason was the unpredictability of Scotland’s weather, so it was with great relief that I awoke at the AirBnB I had been staying at with Roz in Tarland at 04:00 on Sunday morning to step outside and witness a serene, shadowy view of farmland bathed in the pale glow of the harvest moon, the world caught in the eerie windless, stillness of an eclipse under the barely flickering stars.  I was, for a brief moment, under the spell of the moonlight, immune to the morning chill.

‘Why the fuck are you making me do this?’ – Roz

‘It’ll be fun – casual cycle, sunshine.’ – Me

Penetrating glare – Roz

Wading through overgrown grass in the parking area as the sun threatened to peek over the horizon, Roz and I went through the familiar routine of preparing our bikes and ourselves for the day’s task before mustering at the portaloos (though not glamorous, a convenient meeting point) to wait for Sarah, Natalie, and Emma, as we planned to start off as a group and ride together until the third food stop at Rhynie.

With some trepidation, we pushed through the throngs of lycra clad shapes towards the starting gantry, beginning in Wave C, and quickly tucked in behind a small, quick group of men.  The course was reasonably flat for the opening 12 or so miles, and we clung onto wheels in front of us until the first climb at the Queen’s View, a not-too-severe wake-up call for the legs, but a very early indication that once the course hit the bigger hills our plan of riding together might unravel.

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Etape Royale elevation profile

Roz and Emma were both having bad days on the bike, while Sarah and Natalie were feeling great.  We regrouped at the Rhynie feed station about 60km into the course having summited the ‘warm-up’ hills, and spirits were still reasonably high.

The next stage involved climbing the Cabrach, which again felt a bit underwhelming, before the descent into Dufftown and the next feed station.  I knew that what was to follow was an 18 mile uphill slog to Tomintoul, having experienced it a few weeks prior during the Audax, so I had some homebakes and energy drink, preparing myself for a particularly draining stint in the saddle.  It was here that Sarah and Natalie flew ahead (eventually finishing 12th and 13th female), and while my cruise control saw me cycling alone slightly ahead of Roz and Emma, I made it a point to wait for them at feed stations and summits, as Roz will confirm that it is entirely my fault that she “entered and turned up to the fucking disgusting thing.”  I may be paraphrasing, slightly.

After what seemed like hours, I had reached Tomintoul, and once Roz and Emma had enjoyed a feed we set off for the daunting climb up the Lecht.  It’s one of those climbs where you can look all the way to the top, and watch as those ahead weave on the road next to others who had dismounted and were pushing their bikes uphill.  Apart from one particular steep section near the start, where the gradient exceeded 20%, the climb was manageable, and the thought of soup and a pie at the top proved worthy motivation.  As did the knowledge that what goes up must come down.

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Roz and Emma starting the descent on the Lecht

By this point the wind had picked up, and the enjoyment of the descent was marred slightly by the unnervingly strong crosswinds, but I still managed a smile at the postcard panoramic view of the stunning Cairngorms – through gritted teeth and squinting eyes.  At the bottom of the Lecht you pass Corgarff Castle and Cock Bridge, before facing the final climb of Gairnsheil.

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Roz + Cock Bridge

As the road grew steeper I remember asking cyclists around me if we had started the final climb.  The stock reply was, without fail, “I fuckin’ hope so!”  After about 5 minutes of steady climbing, I decided that it must be, and roughly 7 seconds later I hit a false summit and saw the behemoth still to come.  This is where my language turned blue, but what followed, despite warnings that the final climb was the worst, was little more than a steady chug.

At the summit I was soon joined by Emma, and then Roz, whose face told us she just wanted to get to the end, immediately, and then slaughter me by the side of the road on the way back to Aberdeen.  Emma and I clipped in, and started the predominantly fast, downhill stretch to the finish, picking off riders along the way.

One day I hope Roz decides to speak to me again.  Our friendship was a thing of seemingly-unbreakable beauty.

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RIP friendship

World Gravy Wrestling Championship 2016

“Some people never go crazy.  What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

-Charles Bukowski

Result: 2016 Female World Gravy Wrestling Champion

Medal: Well, not exactly…

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Much like the time I ran Loch Ness marathon pulling a husky-laden sled, this was one of those ideas that seems like a good, nay – GREAT idea when filling out entry forms a couple of months before, but which seems like the dumbest idea on the planet the actual day before.  Having just cycled 200km, my legs were feeling remarkably fresh (though not entirely un-weary), and my last minute volunteer to drive me down to Lancashire and back was at my door, shaking his head and laughing as I frantically stuffed items of clothing and costume into a bag and kicked them out of the door towards our chariot.

Although I had originally made plans to go down with a friend, yet again I was unceremoniously abandoned, but as I’m not one to eschew commitment, I found myself talking bikes and cycle holidays with my companion on the road all the way to our AirBnB a few miles from the event.  We had food on the road, so we went for a couple of good luck pints in the evening before hitting the sack.

With a rather leisurely start time of 1pm, we had time to drive around the town and grab breakfast and a coffee before heading to the venue: The Rose n Bowl pub in Stacksteads.  They had opened early for the spectators, and instantly I scouted some of the other contenders – not difficult when fancy dress is mandatory.  To settle my nerves (and enjoy the unseasonably warm sunshine), I grabbed a beer once I was in my get-up.

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Soon, all competitors were being ushered into a marquee by the wrestling area for a briefing.  Essentially we were told to entertain, and there was definitely an element of pre-planning moves with who we were facing.  We would be in for 2 minute bouts, with the winner advancing to the next round.

My first opponent was a pirate.  We huddled in the marquee watching all those who were up before us, until eventually, we were introduced to the crowd.  I felt absolutely ridiculous, but equally I was having the most fun.  I believe the commentator called us the two smiliest competitors, and though comedy was part of it, there was some serious manhandling as well:

After the judges had voted me through, we both headed for the firemen to get the gravy hosed off.  We were assured the water would be warm, but it didn’t take long to realise this was a slight untruth.  Despite the sunshine and warmth, I couldn’t appreciate it in my damp attire, and spent much of the afternoon shivering in the marquee awaiting my next fight.  Eventually the time came for me to face my second pirate, again with a bit of playing about, and a bit of actual wrestling.

Before I knew it, I was in the final – my rival being a previous Gravy Wrestling World Champion!  It was at this point the competitive part of me took hold, and despite my smiles, I was pretty serious when I was throwing her down in the gravy.  The two minutes flew by, and then to a cheering crowd I was chosen as the victor!

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Though not necessarily the outcome I was expecting, it also didn’t come as a complete surprise.  My repertoire of wrestling is rather sparse, but my enthusiasm is never lacking.