By Rachel Cullen – Runner / Writer / Non-fiction Author / Mental Health / Outdoors.
It’s early March and I can already feel myself getting excited. Excited about what? I hear you ask. I’m excited about the prospect of… doing something different! I’m excited about having a new adventure, meeting likeminded people, and hiking together in a beautiful part of the world, right here in the UK.
Comfort zones are funny things, aren’t they? Mine has expanded significantly over the years, but it’s fair to say that our comfort zones can also contract. Our worlds can begin to shrink and shrivel without us even being aware that it’s happening.
Some years ago, I set out with a firm intention to blast my minuscule comfort zone to smithereens. I decided to try and become pregnant (a joint decision with my then partner) and to do that, I needed to come off the daily mental health medication which I’d been taking daily for over a decade. The fear that came with that decision almost engulfed me. How can I be okay without my mental health meds? How can I be a mum without daily medication? What if I spontaneously combust and dump my child outside a supermarket because I simply can’t cope with motherhood? What if I just collapse in a heap and can’t get back up again because the burden of newfound responsibility is too heavy for me to carry?
I decided that the only way to tackle this kind of overwhelming and all-encompassing terror was to put something in place that was much bigger than it. I decided to set myself the goal to run the London Marathon – my first ever marathon – when my daughter was just 7 months old. I entered the London marathon ballot during my pregnancy and chose to push myself so far outside my comfort zone that I would have no option but to completely redefine it. I wrote a book about that journey called Running For My Life which was published in 2018.
That initial comfort-zone expansion happened 13 years ago. Since then, I’ve felt my comfort zone expand and contract like a pair of well-worn elasticated pants. I ran the London Marathon a total of six times; I travelled to Dubai and ran the marathon in desert heat, and I qualified for the Boston Marathon which I then ticked off my bucket list in 2018. In 2017, I mountain biked 400km across Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean, returning home battered and bruised and only just able to tell the tale; in 2019 I cycled from Vietnam into Cambodia, finishing at the World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat. All these experiences were significant expansions in my comfort zone. Each of them challenged me to grown in some way; to experience the unknown and reset my own boundaries.
And then the Covid pandemic hit. I’d just had my second book, A Midlife Cyclist, published, and I was about to head off to various literary festivals to talk about my recent cycling and mental health journey when the entire world ground to a halt. My life immediately shrank to the size of our modest, two bedroomed apartment in the blink of an eye and, well, we all know what happened next. *No one needs to see or hear the words ‘HOME SCHOOLING’, do they?
It’s now March 2023 and for the last few years I’ve been on a very different kind of journey. One which hasn’t been about taking on any global sporting adventures but about re-discovering a love of nature and the outdoors, running, trekking, and hiking in a completely new way. It’s been liberating, fascinating and truly engaging to choose to run in beautiful places rather than churning out mile reps along a busy road where the only thing on my mind is maintaining a certain pace. I’ve built up a collection of stunning photographs from my plethora of trail runs, catching the sun as it rises over the top of a hillside or the reflections in a mirrored lake captured from high above.
I’ve learned many lessons in that time. I’ve learned that I don’t need to travel to far-flung corners of the world and take on epic sporting adventures to grow, although there will always be a place in my heart for that kind of dream-chasing. I’ve learned that I can find peace and fulfilment from simple things. I’ve learned that the beauty of nature is open to us right where we are – right here, right now. I’ve also learned that I need to feel connected, and I enjoy exploring new places and meeting people who share my love of nature and outdoors. I’ve learned that it is possible for me to find balance – to settle and discover inner peace in who and where I am whilst also taking the time to venture beyond the familiar places (and faces) and seek out the unfamiliar.
And so, it is with this in mind that I will be heading up to Kirkby Stephen in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales in the Springtime to join the C2C crew on one of their guided walks. I’m sincerely looking forward to rocking up and hanging out with some likeminded people in a way that works for me – finding peace and connection whilst exploring all that nature has to offer. Who knows what will happen from there? I may become a frequent Packhorser. I may return time after time and keep on meeting new people and challenging myself in different ways, in new places. What I do know for now is that I’m excited to take a step forward and open myself up to new opportunities for growth. Because without that, then – well, we might as well have a conversation about home-schooling!!