Summer Solstice Sunrise Ride

“Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Are you sure about that JP? Because the way I see it, the diem ain’t gonna carpe itself. And I want to ride my bike to the top of a hill and watch the sunrise in a middle of a stone circle on the longest day of the year.  Here in NE Scotland, sunrise on the Summer Solstice is at 04:12, so three o’clock is actually just right for doing what I want to do.

Technically, 02:18 was the time I set out from my apartment in town along silent, dark streets – deserted but for the occasional drunk on their way home – but 03:00 was the designated time to set off from the traditional Velodees bus stop in Peterculter.  Slightly bewildered that anyone had actually decided to take me up on my offer to lead a solstice ride before work, I met Karen, Doris, Angela, Marsaili, and eventually Aneeka, as we set off towards Banchory, picking up Paula and Trish along the way in Drumoak.

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Before long, the sky morphed from black to misty shale, and we turned off the main road, climbing towards Nine Stanes Stone Circle in Mulloch Wood, or what is left of Mulloch Wood after recent felling. We reached the top by 04:02, with ten minutes to spare before sunrise.  Steeling ourselves for life-affirming views, the low morning fog that had threatened to spoil our vistas maintained its dominance, and we had to make do with admiring a slightly pinkish hue on one of the thick clouds skirting the horizon.

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Still, it was a rare treat to be out in the country at the crack of dawn, surrounded by like-minded people, and enjoying some hot drinks and cinnamon buns courtesy of Trish.  There are few other ways I’d have preferred to spend my Solstice morning.

Refuelled, and starting to feel the morning chill, we set off down the hill towards Strachan before circling back towards Banchory, then beginning our homeward journey along North Deeside Road. One by one, the groups peeled off, until I was back by myself for the final solitary miles.

By three o’clock in the afternoon, the time was perfect to have a nap.  And as the forecast rain hammered against my living room window, that is precisely what I wanted to do.

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Summer Solstice Sunrise…

Midsummer Beer Happening 2017 – Undo

Time: 4:29:10

Medal: No, just another Beer Happening glass!

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“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” – F Scott Fitzgerald

There is something restorative about a day spent outside in the sun, and there was certainly no shortage of light during the Midsummer ride this year.  In fact, in many ways it was reminiscent of the Katy Flatlands 100km I rode last summer – the heat emanating from the asphalt, the film of salt and sun cream on my skin, the summer motley crew of insects meeting their demise on my sunglasses…  Unlike the Katy 100, however, I began as a part of a group and broke off as a lone wolf in the final miles.  Also unlike the Katy 100: it was not flat.

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My friend Lauren’s budding romance proved beneficial as her delightful new bed-friend happens to be a cyclist.  With a car.  And space to carry me and my bike to Stonehaven.  And so at 06:30, I was making a stellar first impression on him en route before joining the amorphous throng of lycra waiting for registration to open.  Race pack in hand, Velodees and other familiar faces began trickling in, and soon we had a group of about 8 ready to tackle the Cairn O Mount together.

We managed to set off in the same wave (after some stealthy manoeuvring), and began the rather unkind uphill start.  Straight into the granny gears, we opted to try and conserve a little energy for the ‘proper’ hill, and found a comfortable pace for everyone.  About 10 miles in, just at the top of the Slug Road (and before the first blissful descent), we passed Natalie at the side of the road having suffered a critical bike malfunction, and beginning a long wait for pick up.  She seemed in reasonable spirits, so we kept on.

Before we knew it we were back into the granny gears to climb the Garrol, regrouping at the top by the stone circle, then descending into Strachan, and the first feed station.  It was here that the group fractured slightly, and Aneeka (the birthday girl) and I decided to get a head start on the Cairn, as the rest of the girls are part human/part mountain goat, and we didn’t want to keep them waiting at the top.

Though some of the group were struggling with the heat, my cold, dead soul welcomed the summer thaw, and I summited the Cairn just behind Pamela, feeling pretty good.  We hung about for everyone else, before I warned them that my brake pads were pretty worn, and it’d probably be a good idea for them to set off behind me on the steep drop to the Claterrin Brig (and feed stop number 2).  We hung out there for a while enjoying the sun (and salted pretzels) before Aneeka and Rocio set off together (they were both doing the 70 mile ride and wanted to get going).

Eventually we were on the road again, briefly, before Pamela lost concentration and came off her bike.  Luckily she only suffered a few scrapes and bruises (and the bike was unharmed), so we were soon moving forwards again.  This section of the course is largely gently undulating, and I found myself pulling away from the group, along with Lynne.  We rode together along the closing miles until I was in familiar territory.

The final 10 miles follow the Stonehaven half marathon route, and I knew the road well.  I could also feel my exposed arms, rarely out in the light of day, start to sting, and regretted my earlier decision to try and cultivate an ‘authentic cycling tan’ by only applying sun cream to my face.  Partly in an attempt to lower my skin cancer risk, and partly because I felt strong, this is where I pulled away again, lone wolfing the final drag past Rickarton, through Fetteresso Forrest, and back down the Slug Road to the finish.

The remainder of our group arrived in drips and drabs, and we enjoyed a couple of the beers on offer, resplendent in our salt-encrusted lycra.  Although the plan is always to stay and enjoy the rest of the festival, I always find the urge to go home, shower, and rest too strong, and after a couple of hours Aynsley and I cycled to the train station to catch a ride back the Aberdeen.

I found this ride much less grueling than I did last year (and the year before, when I did the 72 miles route), and I expect a lot of that is down to some of the tougher recent sportives I’ve tackled, as well as the fact that I’ve tried to make Cairn O Mount my bitch in the last couple of months by relentlessly adding it into any free weekend training ride.  I know exactly what to expect, exactly how hard to push at different sections, and exactly how much I hate it.  After the shitty winter I’ve had, this did indeed feel a little like life was beginning all over again; hitting a giant ‘RESET’ button.  Goodbye shadows, hello sunshine.

Now all I have to do is get on top of my sunblock game, and I’ll be on fire.

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3 Pistes Sportive 2017

“Find what you love and let it kill you.” – Charles Bukowski

Some men like fishing.  Some like to hear the cannonball roarin’.  Thin Lizzy likes sleeping, especially in his Molly’s chamber.  I like riding my bike (with or without blasting ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ from my Bluetooth speakers, though admittedly it helps with morale on tough climbs).  And so last August, before everything went temporarily down the drain, I signed up for the 3-day, 300 mile Tour of the Highlands, riding Sarah’s infectious enthusiasm.

Fast forward to this May, and as I didn’t feel I was fit enough to complete the full 3 days (and because my sabbatical plans are on pause, meaning I did not have the Monday off), I ‘downgraded’ to the 3 Pistes Sunday event – a 100 mile journey that, according to britishcycling.org.uk “takes you past 3 ski centres, over the UK’s 2 highest roads, through some of the UK’s most remote countryside, ascending eight categorised climbs (4 of which have gradients of 20%) – and finishes by climbing the UK’s 4th highest road to Cairngorm Ski Centre in the heart of the UK’s only Arctic plateau.” Casual Sunday ride, then.

Natalie had arranged accommodation, booking a family room for 5 of us in the luxurious Athol Palace Hotel, and we all had grand plans of arriving early, enjoying the spa, walking around Pitlochry, and having a relaxing Saturday.  The reality was an afternoon arrival, registration, and bed-hopping in the hotel room catching up before fuelling up on pasta and beer at a local Italian, bartering for a ride home from one of the waiters at the end in his tiny car because of the torrential rain that was hammering the area.

The 05:30 alarm was not music to our ears, and although we all joked that this was indeed a ‘casual Sunday group ride’, we were all very aware of the onslaught out quads would soon face.  There was a loosely agreed plan to stick together, but individually our strengths on hills varied so it would be a case of allowing smaller groups to form naturally.  Unless you’re Emma S., in which case just blast your way to the end, towing a bunch of dudes.

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Just after 07:00, we congregated at the start for our briefing before being released onto the initial uphill slog out of Pitlochry.  The memory of King of the Mountains was still fresh, so I kept quiet at the back of our group and administered restraint, keeping a close eye on my heart rate, and going straight for the granny gears.  These hills don’t fuck about.

Once over the initial slog, we formed a chain gang for much of the opening 20 miles, beginning to form into smaller groups as soon as the climb up the Cairnwell started.  A photo op at the summit next to the Glenshee Ski Centre was the last time we were all together, before Natalie and Emma P., later joined by Emily. pushed on ahead.  This left myself, Sarah (who had ridden 100 miles the day before as part of the tour), Katherine, Aynsley, and Charlotte to motivate each other at the back.

We progressed at a steady pace until the two lumps that comprise Garinshiel, before a quick descent where there was a water stop at a café.  I stopped off here to buy a tin of Dr. Pepper as I waited for the rest to catch up, and then began the climb to the second ‘Piste’ – up the mighty Lecht.  At this point the weather turned rather foul, and blustering headwinds combined with low visibility due to cloud cover was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as it saved us all from witnessing the behemoth we were to climb in its entirety.  Instead, we weaved up the first steep incline, and then battled simply to stay upright – head down, legs (slowly) turning, grunting into the unknown.  Without being able to see much, it was a pleasant surprise when the sign for the Lecht Ski Centre appeared in the mist on the left, and it was conquered.

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Once everyone had made it to the top and had a chance to eat/put on more layers, we enjoyed the blissful donwhill section of about 6 miles to Tomintoul.  After the Audax 200km last year, Sarah and I were both aware of the nasty little climb that was to follow, and with morale low we decided to stop for a coffee before tackling Bridge of Brown.

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Spirits lifted and warmed by coffee and soup, the lady train began the gentle climb preceding Bo’B, but at 70+ miles into the ride a few of us were beginning to suffer.  This is where, for the first time all day, I seemed to perk up, and I was happy to take most of the time on the front, blasting out tunes and singing along in an attempt to inject some enthusiasm into our group, with mixed results.

Coming into Aviemore, and just before the final climb up to the Cairngorm car park, the group split.  As I was feeling strong, I pressed on ahead, followed by Katherine, with Sarah staying with Aynsley for the final push.  My second wind lasted until approximately 2 miles from the end, when my body started to strain against the uphill battle, and the fear from hearing the low warning battery on my speaker was my raison d’être.  Finish before the music stops was the only thing I could think about, and – as a sign I had given everything of myself that I could have – Metallica’s rendition of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ cut out mid-chorus within sight of the finish line.  

Beyond words, I unclipped and ditched my bike before limping back to the finish to watch everyone else come in.  It was over.  And we all felt great.

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Tour Series: Aberdeen (Women’s race)

Position: 15th (let’s not dwell on the fact that there were only 16 female competitors on the start line)

I might as well start entitling all cycling related posts ‘Another of Roz’s dumbass ideas’, because yet again I found myself, on Thursday, May 25th, waking up with an overwhelming sense of dread.  The Tour Series was coming to Aberdeen, and as she had e-mailed suggesting a women’s race (but, like, IN THE FUTURE IF THEY WERE EVER TO RETURN), they obliged, which meant that SHE was obliged to sign up, and coerce as many victims fellow female cyclists into signing up as well, thereby proving the organisers weren’t wasting their efforts.  And because I am clearly incapable of saying ‘no’, I willingly entered, knowing fully that I was likely to face severe public humiliation.  But whatever, you know, support local shit.

As if to make up for my erroneous decision, the weather played nicely.  In fact, it was easily one of the most beautiful days Aberdeen had been graced with this year: glorious sunshine, blindingly blue skies, and temperatures that lured thousands of locals out as spectators (or, by chance, into beer gardens of the pubs surrounding the course).  I mean, I wore flip flops and considered removing my sweater – it felt like being on holiday.

As my teaching timetable is currently light, thanks to the fact that the senior kids are all on study leave, I was able to duck out early – which was just as well, as I had some bike maintenance to take care of.  During a social ride the previous evening, after casually commenting that I was still on the same tyres and inner tubes that came with my bike back in 2013, I suffered my first ever puncture.  And my second.  And then my third.  In the end, one of our group – Trish – had to phone her husband for roadside pick up as we were out of inner tubes and we were stranded.

Having never actually changed an inner tube or tyre before by myself, I wanted all the time I could muster to get things sorted.  I also had to remove my pannier rack, lights, bluetooth speaker…  As it turns out, I have a lot of junk on my bike.  I’ll cut the tension right now and let you know the tyre swap was a success, and it also became disgustingly clear that I need to clean my bike more frequently.  Or, you know, ever.

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Once cleaned up, and with everything I needed in a rucksack, I cycled down to the AWCC support tent to meet Roz, Rosie (who had also been fooled into signing up), Katherine (who was taking part in the team challenge), and Eilidh (who was there to laugh at support us).

Fully expecting to make a fool of myself, I decided to play up to my role with some fancy dress.  However, the unseasonably warm weather dictated that I would have to ditch this idea, as I was dangerously close to overheating when I was standing still.  After all the effort I went to getting into the outfit, I felt disappointment as well as relief when I peeled it off again.

Before too long, Natalie had also materialised, and we anxiously talked tactics.  Chiefly, the conversation went something like this:

“Stick together and work as a team?  Then we won’t look so bad?”

“Deal.”

Fuckin’ LIARS.

After a few warm up laps in a nearby lane, we found ourselves being ushered to the start line for the briefing.  We were to race for 30 minutes on the 1.2km circuit, and we’d be told when our final laps were.  There was an eye-of-the-storm moment in the 30 seconds before the start when nobody really had anything else to say.  And there was no way of avoiding the hurt that was to come.  Natalie, Rosie, Roz, and myself had taken our position at the back of the back.

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And then it began.  I clipped in securely and pushed off with a mighty heave – only to have to brake as the two women in front of me struggled to get clipped in.  I was right on their back wheel and did think: Well, fuck, wouldn’t it be awesome if I crashed ON THE START LINE.  Thankfully, a pile up was avoided, and I tried to pick up speed, but Roz and Natalie were already specks in the distance.  I had been abandoned at the first hurdle!  I desperately tried to hold onto the wheel of the girls ahead of me, but those bitches are fast, and I was struggling.

My main fear going into this event was cornering.  Being notoriously terrible at turning (in particular, right hand turns, which dominated the course), I worried I’d either crash into a barrier or come to a complete standstill.  What I actually found was a newfound love of weaving in and out of the small side streets, as it actually seemed to give me a chance to catch up to people!  After a few laps, I could see Roz’s AWCC jersey looming closer, and made an effort to jump on her tail.

“Help.  Help.  I’m fucking dying.” -Roz

“Team effort?” – Me

The two of us, initially joined by Rosie, made up the back of the race, and worked together round the course.  Until Rosie sped off on a straight, leaving the two of us in her dust.  Still, a two man team trumps a solo death effort, so Roz and I took turns towing each other along and trying to keep morale high, despite the announcer commenting FREQUENTLY that we were not only in last place, but soon to be lapped.  He did comment we were still smiling though, totally unaware of the raspy ‘fuck you’ uttered between gritted teeth.

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I don’t understand why I’m smiling.  Ignore the smiling.

If there is one saving grace to going balls-to-the-wall, it’s that, somehow, time passes in a flash.  Before we knew it we heard we were on our final lap, and we had a quick agreement that we would have a ‘champion’s finish’ (not my words) and cross the line side by side.  Cornering the horrendous 180 degree turn for the final time, we dug in for the final uphill drag amidst wild cheering and applause.

In the end, we had only been lapped by the three leaders, so I’m pretty sure we didn’t suck too hard.  Rosie finished two spots ahead of us, with Natalie just ahead of her.  We were basically champions.  But never mind that – we had beers to drink, dinner to eat, and, most importantly, the men’s pro race to cheer on!

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King of the Mountains 110 mile Sportive

Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk.  That will teach you to keep your mouth shut. -Ernest Hemingway

If only.  -Me

Time: 9:13:19

Medal: No

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Much in the same way I actively avoided anything to do with running when, back in September 2014, I picked up what I thought was a niggle, but was actually the death knell on my long distance running adventures, in the dark days of being housebound earlier this year I was creating draft eBay listings for my bikes, listening (and wailing along) to Nick Cave, and languidly sinking back liquor in a glass that was most definitely less than half full.  I hid every notification from cycling related groups, and aggressively declined facebook event invitations to social rides.  Any evidence that I had ever been on a bike was buried in the dusky corners of my hallway closet, shut out of sight, out of mind.  So when Roz took me on my tentative first ride back in February, I cautiously started considering the possibilities.

Naturally, this progressed to typing in my bank card details on an online entry for a punishing 110 mile sportive to the beat of Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’ in a dreamy beer fog.

Except this time I wasn’t going to be on my own when it came to undertaking this disgusting ride.  In fact, it wasn’t even my idea in the first place.  Roz had signed up for it (and booked a hotel room with beds aplenty) under the (false) assumption that a few others would sign up with her.  Instead, they did the sensible thing and booked a girls weekend in Aviemore with some social cycling and wine, and Roz, as a matter of principal, refused to abandon the event.  Not one to miss out on grievous genital harm, I decided to join her.

Following my entry in February, I completely forgot that the event existed until it loomed dangerously close.  In an attempt to ‘train’ for it, I went on a few rides out to the notorious Cairn o’Mount to prepare for some of the steep ascents I knew we would be tackling, as much of the route is similar to the Etape Royale that I rode last September, and which was not in the distant enough past for me to ignore memories of burning quads while climbing the mighty Lecht.

On the Saturday before, Roz picked me up and we drove out to Tarland where we checked in to our hotel (which was essentially a room above a bar), had dinner, and then settled in for a Eurovision Pyjama Party.  Disregarding the brief 01:00 drunken argument outside our window, we both got a reasonable rest, and were up at 06:00 to shovel food into our mouths and kit up.  The forecast had varied between sunshine and light showers to torrential rain, so a fresh mist and patches of clear sky was an acceptable sight to behold when we lumbered outside and into the car for the short drive to Aboyne.

Roz:  So.  This is occurring.

Me:  Yep.  Death or glory.

Wanting to get this shit-show on the road as soon as possible, we managed to squeeze into the first wave setting off at 08:00, tucking into the peloton of lycra clad dudes… until the first incline, when they pulled away and into the distance.  It was an early indication of what was to come, just in case the name – King of the fuckin’ Mountains – did not suggest strongly enough the kind of terrain we’d be facing.

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It might be telling that of the 225 finishers of the 110 mile route, there were only 11 females.  Roz and I had decided that in order to get through the day we would adopt a ‘casual’ pace and try to conserve as much energy as possible for the later, steeper, shittier hills.  In hindsight, considering the state of my legs in the final, dragging miles, this was a wise decision.

We cruised over Queen’s View and the Suie hill, also passing the turn-off for the shorter, 100km route with some reluctance.  After stocking up on water at the first aid station, we conquered the Cabrach, and descended into Dufftown.  I strongly suggested a pit stop here, and we had something to eat and drink from a local shop (and stocked up on painkillers for Roz), enjoying being swathed in the glorious sunshine that had wrestled through the thick morning cloud as we waved to fellow riders as they passed.  We were 50 miles in.  We felt OK. 3 hills down, 3 to go.

From Dufftown came the 18 mile stretch to Tomintoul, which I have only ever aggressively loathed.  This was no exception.  We battled against a vicious headwind on the net incline, very much looking forward to the next aid station (and the change in direction).  Sadly, upon arrival at the Tomintoul aid station, we were quickly informed that they had run out of water.  I had about a healthy gulp left in my bottle, but a couple of the riders who had decided to withdraw offered up what they had left, and one of the marshals procured a can of Coke for us.  Just as we were setting off again, the sweeper van came to collect the riders who wanted out, and it was sorely tempting to throw our bikes in and call it a day, but, you know, death or glory.  And we were still breathing.

We took it slow and easy for the few miles that lead to the bottom of the Lecht, and about half a mile before the climb began I switched on my bluetooth speaker and got my cycling playlist on in time for the ski centre to loom into view up in the distance.  

Once conquered, it was the death-grip descent in fierce crosswinds that made you really fear death momentarily before Gairnshiel sprung up in front of you.  Despite being less elevation, Gairnshiel actually felt tougher than the Lecht, but the thought of the third and final aid station at the top was motivation to just get to the top.  Thankfully, this time we were met by plentiful supplies, and after a quick rest, Roz and I were ready to plunge into our final 23 miles.  Piece of piss.

For the second time on the course, we were cruelly forced to pass a turn-off for the shorter route in order to take on one final climb – Strone.  Despite what the filthy, lying marshals had claimed, Strone did not, in fact, feel like a steady, gentle climb, fuck you very much.  The summit, however, did provide welcome relief, in part due to the knowledge that the course was – largely – all downhill from here.

We flew down the road, tailwind mercifully pushing us along towards Ballatar, where we both stopped for a comfort break.  There is only so much an undercarriage can take, after all.  Gingerly getting onto our bikes for the final time, we began the death march home – 10 miles of grunting, swearing, and accepting delirium.  

After a few moments of doing nothing but standing still in silence after finishing, we wordlessly made our way back to Roz’s car to load up and get home.  Kudos to her for managing to drive us back, because I was drooling in the passenger seat by this point.  

24 hours later, still breathing, no longer aching from everywhere, and the glory is starting to soak in.  We are Kings.  Kings of Mountains.

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.