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Handling lockdown & why I love hats

 I open the drawer for the first time in well over six months. It’s where my woolly hats live – they’ve been waiting patiently for me to return. The knitted green bobble hat is my favourite. Every time I look at it, it takes me back to running the Boston Marathon in 2018 when the conditions were so utterly wretched, it was touch and go whether the entire thing would be cancelled altogether. We were forewarned that a bad storm was brewing, but we couldn’t have predicted the reality of that freakish day in April – running a marathon in the worst conditions of the race’s 122-year history. My woolly green bobble hat was with me throughout it all. It kept me warm whilst I shivered inside a portaloo for over an hour-and-a-half before the race began, with compression socks over my entirely numb hands UNDERNEATH my Sealskin gloves, and two pairs of disposable shower caps hopelessly covering each saturated running shoe. My hat looked after me for 26.2 miles – sheltering me from the driving, freezing rain in the fiercest headwind. My woolly green bobble hat kept me safe, on that day.

 

Fast forward to March 2020 when then the world stopped turning and everything changed. Marathons were cancelled; there were no more races. I ran the very last Parkrun of 2020 whilst on a bizarre weekend in Glasgow just as the word spread about this deadly ‘COVID 19’ corona virus which was bringing the entire globe to its knees. Schools closed; the world shut down. Everything felt alien and completely out of sync. With my mental health teetering on the edge and sensing abject terror at the prospect of a complete lockdown imminently upon us, I opened my hat drawer and I saw the answer… I picked up my bobble hat and it reminded me of the freezing winter races last year – before the world imploded. Standing at the start line, hopping about from foot to foot – my hat keeping me feeling safe and warm. 

I opened the hat drawer at 8.25am the very next day… and every subsequent day going forward. Every single morning for four solid months, my ten-year-old daughter and I would choose a suitable hat and head out onto the local hills and trails. We’d put on our trainers and run along woodland tracks, soon building up a collection of our favorite routes. Shall we run along the muddy track up to the reservoir? Or perhaps the gnarly route beside the river where we’ll hopscotch over tree routes and dodge the boulders underfoot? Day in, day out. There was no “bad weather.” No excuses.

We carried our gear in running rucksacks – packing a drink, gloves, a waterproof jacket (or sunglasses on the odd occasion!) a couple of resistance bands and a small snack. We would find a quiet place – usually high up on a hillside, feeling like we were far away from the rest of the world: the world that felt to be unsafe and crumbling with uncertainty.  We wore our woolly hats in the chill of early March, and then switched to caps in the heat of the summer sunshine. These were times when, for a short while at least, we could be out amongst nature and forget about the heaviness of the world. We could talk about our worries and look out onto the sheep grazing in the fields or the pattern the sun makes on the shadowy hillsides. We would feel the sun warming our skin; the wind in our faces, and the rain lashing down so hard it made us laugh out loud. Perhaps that’s when I first truly appreciated what running and being outdoors means to me. It means freedom. It means that there is a place we can go to get away from all the madness. There is always an escape. For me, it’s being out amongst nature. Running along muddy tracks; hiking along trails. Reaching the top of a climb and feeling my heart thumping in my chest – reminding me of being fully alive. It’s January 2021 and once again we’re back in lockdown. And we’re going right back to what helped us, before. It’s time to open the drawer and choose a woolly hat…

 

I get my running kit on, fasten my trail shoes and pack my rucksack.

I feel better.

I hear the door ‘click’ shut behind me and I step outside.

I feel better.

The rain is spewing down. I pull on my hood and zip my jacket right to the top, closely resembling Kenny from South Park.

I feel better.

I set off running along the road for a mile or so until I meet the track.

I feel better.

I turn off at the track and feel the change as the ground is soft and loose under my feet.

I feel better.

I run along the track and notice how the sound of the traffic has disappeared, replaced by the sound of my footsteps schlepping on the sodden ground and the birds chattering under the echo chamber of the trees.

I feel better.

I feel so small running through the woodland. The giant tree barks are glistening. They look oily and strangely muscular. 

I feel better.

A gust of wind carries with it the scent of dampness. Of moss and mushrooms. It’s the smell of freedom.

I feel better.

Everything shines as though it has been polished. The leaves glisten. There is only the sound of the swollen raindrops plopping to the earth.

I feel better.

I reach the top of the woodland and wonder at the sheep who are grazing on the almost vertical hillside. 

I feel better.

The light changes. The plopping raindrops have stopped. There is perfect stillness as the sun breaks through and warms my skin.

I feel better.

I can feel the peace of the now perfect blue sky as though nature is resting, warming the watered earth. 

I feel better. 

The muted colours are now bright and vibrant, like an iPhone filter has changed.

I feel better.

I stop for a while and get a drink from my rucksack. I look up and see the bendy country lane – it reminds me of Postman Pat’s village.

I feel better.

I start to run again. I’m running along the winding road and I’m picking up speed. 

I feel better.

My clothes are drying out – I’ve taken off an outer layer. I’m running downhill, feeling my heart beating faster.

I feel better.

My body is swimming with endorphins. I can feel it happening as my pace increases and my arms relax. I’m only a few miles from home.

I feel better.

I’m almost home. I know every inch of this route, and it’s almost over. I turn into the driveway and stop my watch. It’s over. 

I feel better.

I smile to myself knowing that when I step back inside the front door, I will feel better. 

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Rachel Cullen
Rachel Cullen
Runner; writer; occasional bike rider. Solar powered mother ducker. Author of "Running For My Life" and "A Midlife Cyclist" Rep'd Bell Lomax Moreton. Winning with mental health.

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