My Journey of Pain – The 2011 World Indoor Rowing Championships

Posted: 05/03/2011 in Uncategorized

SIT READY. My heart is pounding, I feel sick and my stomach turns.

ATTENTION. ‘I’m not ready’ says one voice in my head; ‘I don’t want to be here.’ I quickly dismiss that voice and tell myself to be positive; it has taken six months to get here.

ROW! I explode out of the blocks as rehearsed and feel the adrenaline rush through my veins. I’m buzzing as the crowd volume lifts; I’m rowing on the front rank of machines amongst the top seeds in the world. Adrenaline quickly turns to discomfort, discomfort turns to pain and pain then questions my faith on whether or not I can do this. Too late; this is the 2011 World Indoor Rowing Championships.

The Beginning

My journey started in August last year when my wife came home to find me merrily rowing away in our living room. She wasn’t impressed; I was soon kicked out into the garage! I had borrowed a concept 2 machine of a friend who later became my life line to the rowing world. The plan was to do some training over summer leave, but soon got hooked when he told me I was pulling some ok pieces and had potential to go reasonably fast. He told me about the British Indoor Rowing Championships (BIRC) and explained the stature of the annual event. I was soon on the Concept 2 website studying names, previous times and the who’s who of the indoor rowing scene.

The Training

I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for when I set out on a short and brutal training regime. I knew how physically demanding it was going to be (or so I thought), but what I wasn’t prepared for was the mental and emotional side of it. The highs, the lows, the bad moods and tempers – the sheer obsession of it. Every waking minute of every day thinking about /500m splits and stroke rates!
My first 10 weeks saw huge gains as my technique improved and fitness levels moulded around rowing. I rowed 6 days a week for 10 weeks and did every piece at the top end of the spectrum if not faster, I felt great. I met Matt Jackson who became a training partner and someone else to talk rowing jargon to. He introduced me to the Concept 2 Challenge Series, a league divided into age categories with monthly challenges and its own RN/RM Super League. Over the coming weeks we pushed each other through the first challenge pieces and encouraged each other on as the splits became faster and the pain became more intense. The week before the race we spent tapering and hitting a few short sharp sessions. I felt really good and put in a sub 5 minute one mile a week before. The first race was looming, it was nearly show time.

2010 Royal Navy & Royal Marines Championships – Portsmouth

1157637_595159790536883_1642401874_nWe left for HMS Sultan mid morning on a Wednesday and spent the 3 hour journey talking about race plans and race tactics. Nerves took over as we arrived and listened to the brief, then a long 2 hour wait until race time. My warm up went to plan, but felt like I was burning up as I finished. I put it down to nerves as I set up my race machine and then waited for the go. Royalnavy
The race was underway. I and the other favourite both established an early lead. I stuck to the race plan, but was suffering badly in the middle part of the race. I hadn’t done a 2k test before, but had done plenty of training pieces at high intensity; this however was at a new level altogether. Eventually 1400 meters went by and I started to count down the last 10 strokes before the final 500m push. With 500m to go the plan was to increase the rate and start to work down the average split. I tried to go up, but nothing happened, I knew I was in trouble. 400m sailed by, then 300m. The pain was at such a level my body was screaming at me to stop. Momentarily, I somehow took the lead as I looked up in a blur at the big screen for all the spectators to see. The lead was short lived as I was rowed through and the pain reached a new level. Lungs burning, legs screaming, forearms like lead I had 200m to go, this should have been up the rate again and again at 100m but nothing came. I was all out and my pace slowed, I was in serious trouble. I was willing the race to finish, this was a bad place and I wanted out. I collapsed off the machine, feet still in the straps. Random spectators came to my aid and tried to encourage me to keep moving. I tried to hide, but was in sheer agony, it took a while for me to drag myself off the floor and attempt to drain the lactic acid out of my legs. I hobbled away and hid, I felt so ill, I’m never doing this again I told myself! I finished the race in 2nd (6.17.2) beaten by 700ths of a second. The journey home was solemn and whilst Matt tried to pick me up I wasn’t happy at losing, repeating the race over and over in my head. What went wrong? Should it really be that painful?!

2010 British Championships – Birmingham

As predicted I came down with a heavy cold the next day and generally felt pretty rough. ‘Crack on through it’ I told myself – it’s only a cold. Training intensity went up, but the times and general feeling went down. The slower I got the harder I pushed myself. ‘Back off’ my friend told me, of course I ignored him and trained with aggression. I shook off the cold then with 10 days to go I picked up a horrible sickness bug. Sick for 3 days and feeling weak I couldn’t move let alone row. One night with my head down the toilet I told myself that I wouldn’t race at the weekend. The weekend came around fast and I did race – big mistake.British+Indoor+Rowing+Championships+hJPBcUgYs4zl

We travelled up to the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham on the day of the race early on a Sunday morning. I actually felt positive and put the last few weeks behind me. My morning was spent watching the rest of the RN/RM rowing team race. Matt Jackson put in a seasons best finishing 14th in his age group (6.34.6) and seemed happy enough. It was now their turn to watch me. The warm up went well; I was excited and felt like a pro sat amongst the top seeds trying not to look around. However, I couldn’t help notice how small I felt at 6’2, looking down the front row at some of the giants. We sat on our machines for what seemed like an eternity until the starter got us away. I set off at a ferocious pace and sailed through the first 300m in 3rd place, I even took the lead for a few strokes. I was completely caught up in the moment as the commentator called out my name, little did I know what was around the corner.

‘Fly and die’ is the term used in rowing for those who start to fast and can’t sustain the pace. That’s exactly what I did. With just 500m gone I knew I was in serious trouble. The pain was building to a level I had experienced a few weeks ago, but back then I was near the finish. Here I had barely started. Most of the race was a blur, form out the window and head down, not even looking at the screen. Had I been anywhere else I would of stopped, but I couldn’t, this was BIRC and in front of thousands of people. How I got through the race that day I will never know. As I crossed the line in agony I once again collapsed. Someone removed my feet and I lay in the foetal position about a foot from the guy next to me who was busy being sick over the arena floor – he was handed a bucket, I wanted to die. The pain was excruciating and my chest continued to pulse up and down for sometime after.

Eventually I made it back to the warm up/cool down area and crashed through an U16 girls rowing team as they warmed up. I proceeded to collapse on the stretching matts convinced I was never going to recover. The following hour involved me throwing up none stop in the toilet and then being taken outside by the St John’s Ambulance team. They kept insisting I should contact my team to assist; needless to say I didn’t! I finished  6th in the Men’s HWT 30-34 (6.23.3) and eventually came to the conclusion I was not physically well and lacked race experience.

The pain of a 2k race

To pull your fastest possible time over a 2000 meter race you must commit from the first stroke. If at any time you don’t commit, your time will suffer and you will find yourself playing catch up with the average split. However you have to be sensible about this. The first 10 seconds or so you feel invincible as your body relies on its anaerobic CP energy system. However suddenly the body requires oxygen and a lot of it, that’s when it hits you like a steam train head on. Your heart rate will make a huge jump up in a very small space of time; it will then level out at near maximum – that’s when it hurts and by the way, the race is less than 2 minutes old.603994_10151282663805547_1938411761_n

Physically your body wants to stop which is why you have to be mentally strong. It goes against logic especially when the display reads 1200m to go! Soon, around the half way point your quads will be building lactic acid and at an alarmingly fast rate. Temporarily the pain may shift to the lungs and chest, then back to the legs, then the arms and soon enough the whole body will be screaming to stop. With 500m to go most rowers will increase the rate. That means stroke rate up 1 or 2 and start to see lower numbers on the display. Lower numbers means pulling harder, pulling harder means more pain. Every 100m now until the finish up you go again and whilst sitting here reading this, 250m or so doesn’t seem long, when it is the end of a race every stroke is agony. No matter how quick you are, if you are pulling to your full potential it’s going to hurt just as much as the next man.



Here’s another explanation: – (courtesy of Lewin Hynes)

So, let’s talk about the be all and end all of a 2000m erg race – pain. Despite all its complications and talk of efficiency, free speed, and technique, the rowing stroke is very simple. The legs engage the back levers past, the hands whip round, and the chain spins the fan. The harder you do this, the faster the boat goes; and the harder you do this the more it hurts. That hurt is what stops rowers from killing themselves to win but it is also what stops them from winning.

The pain isn’t instant; indeed the initial acceleration from standing start is a time of fun as I see my split drop down to international standard pace. I know this is unsustainable and reluctantly I find my rhythm and switch out of the start and into race mode. Then after that, it is time to assess where you are, and start to deal with the pain.

It starts as nothing more than the same cold ache in you thighs that happens when you climb the stairs quickly. I am irritated that I still feel this on the stairs; I feel that after some years of training I deserve not to experience this. My legs however, disagree, and have the casting vote. But in this race you are not going to reach the top of the stairs anytime soon, and so the pain builds, seeping outwards from the centre of your thighs to skin, still dull and diffuse, but promising the fire to come. And at this point most you probably have only reached the second half of the first quarter of the race.

250m-500m There is a better than 50% chance that at this point you are not in the lead, so you think about pushing up. Chasing. You know you can’t and have to find your pace and hold it. The pain becomes that of acute overwork now, muscles straining and stretching as you try to do more. Beneath that lies the fire of acid and anoxia, the next 45 seconds to 500m passes in a flash.

500m -1000m Racing into the second quarter, rational thought leaves the room and diffuses into the dull roar of the ergs around you and everything becomes about the next stroke, and maintaining the split. Pain now blossoms fast and hard in other parts of your body, not just the thighs. And now it is the internal scald of hydrogen ions poisoning your metabolism. Your shoulders will have switched on fast to the hurt, cramping your stroke, tying up your movement. Arms too, blossom into bright fire, and in the triceps, one of the few muscle group not extensively exercised by rowing, a strange warning numbness develops. But, within this hell, you find stability, an anger promising to get you through. Hatred of the opposition, your coach, the universe and everything in it, but mostly losing, fights back within you. The pain; insufferable, consuming and growing as it is, is just another enemy to defeat. And then the 1000m mark hits you with the gentle sting of despair.

1000m – 1500m Chris Hoy’s mental chimp takes leave from the Manchester Velodrome, takes the train down to where you are rowing just to sit on your shoulder gibbering and raging “you have to do all of that again you have to do it all again you have to do it all again, stop now stop now stop now!”

If you are going to fail it will be here.

You don’t, but the loss of all hope of control, despair of ever going faster, and the fear of failure; all combine, react and ignite in your tinder dry throat, the flames leaping into your chest and scorching it raw. The skin on the back of your forearms and shins goose pimples up, some bizarre atavistic reaction to the acid poisoning your blood. You are being drowned by your own exertions, burned alive from within by the by products of your muscles, and you must not, will not ever let it stop.

This is the wilderness, the third 500m, an eternal, blasted wasteland. It is a black place, hope is abandoned, logic is absent, and pain is eternal. It is the entrance to the hole that the last 500m.

1500m -2000m the numbers scroll down from 501m to 499m and you are faced with an impossibility, you will now have to drive for home, this is the only place that willpower will take you beyond what you think you are capable of, this is where you chase the guy in front. But to sprint you will have to expend more effort, which means you must accelerate the malevolent alchemy within your muscles that is steadily destroying you. Pain is already your world, and your body is an inefficient lizard like thing, co-ordination failing and desperation clogging every motion. This is the hole, the space you dig in your own heart and mind, and fill it with acid, pain, heat and suffocation. Take a breath, dive down, and see if you can stay there longer than the man on the machine next to you. You muscles hurt to the point of failure, you chest burns as if your are being suffocated, your joints feel swollen to the edge of breaking, and within this all, there is one point of light, one beacon of salvation. It is almost over. The numbers scroll towards 300m.

“Last 30 strokes, Up Two!”

Maybe that was your own internal voice, maybe the chimp or possibly the devil herself. Would there be a difference anyway.

There is hope now, there is an end to the suffering, it is quantifiable, even though pain is your world, and your world has been mapped. And you can see the horizon.

“Last 20, Up Two Again!”
Fog falls, hope is lost, you cannot work harder, 20 stokes could be 200, you cannot survive the increase, you cannot stop, the light at the end of the tunnel is a psychopath with a blowtorch, you accept your own death.

“Last 10! GO!”

Within death, within the failure of your own body, spastically levering the last fifteen seconds of consciousness away, with every muscle, every organ, every structure in flames, from bones to skin, the number slips from 100 to 0.

You can scream now, as you are born again from the ashes of your self-created fire. Your muscles relax, your blood pressure drops, and physical incompetence washes over you like a wave, as, slowly the pain starts to fade. It is a long way to the surface, you feel like you are drowning and struggle with you heel restraints like you would struggle for the surface, everything hurts but it is not getting worse, collapsed as you are here, alongside the aluminium and steel execution device called an Erg, it only gets better from here on in.

New Year 2011

My family are visiting and I am not great company. I’m miserable as its Christmas leave and for the first week I’m training alone in my bedroom whilst everyone else is socialising downstairs. I’m motivated and keen, but it’s bloody tough. Each piece gets harder and harder and my times get slower and slower. This isn’t right, I think, as I scan my training diary from previous months and see what I was pulling some weeks ago. If I fail at one test piece then I re-row it the next day and push even harder.

I have one day remaining to post a 5k test online for the Challenge Series League and I have planned it for today thinking I will have more metres under my belt. Its New Years Eve morning 2010. I pull an average time (16.49) and miss my target by some way which leaves me disappointed as my rival beats the time too. At the time my main concern was to keep moving after I thumped to the floor, withering in pain – I’m never doing this again I tell myself! My mum visiting from Spain appears at the door concerned after the noise. I had to apologise later for what I said. I’m completely over trained, tired and getting irate at my lack of progress; in fact I seem to be going backwards. It’s hard as I am full of enthusiasm, but can’t seem to perform. It’s hugely frustrating and I am letting it get me down. My friend warned me about this, I really should start to listen.

The New Year brings a complete re-structure to my training. 4-5 times a week I commit to 18k pieces at a low rate and low intensity in the attempt to re-build a base fitness and to stop stressing my immune system to the extreme of getting ill. (By this point I have suffered with more coughs and colds than I can remember). I introduce weight training twice a week focusing on rowing related movements and eat more food than I ever have to keep energised and anabolic. Sleep becomes more important than ever and I’m in bed usually by 9. I must stay fit.

2011 English Championships – Manchester

I post a last minute entry for the EIRC as I have no idea where I am at and feel I need a decent race under my belt. I travel to Manchester the night before which helps no end as I can eat and rest, plus I’m first race of the day. The English Championship is smaller than the British, but is still competitive. The race plan is to start big then settle early for the middle 1k, up the rate in the final 500m and get a sprint finish. It’s exactly as I planned, a text book race plan, executed well. I got my sprint finish although I couldn’t hold on to 2nd spot and finish 3rd in the Men’s HWT 30-39. (6.17.2). I equal my PB, but the race is better than last time as I raced the final quarter rather than just survived. Once again I collapse, quads screaming at me and once again I tell myself never again!P1010118

I recover well and pick up my bronze medal delighted that I finished my race as planned.
I return home that day on a high full of life and then come crashing back down to earth as I remember I have a cheeky date with a 10km timed piece on the Tuesday. The session is emotional, but I perform well and have a target to beat as my rival set the pace. I top the Challenge Series leader board (20-29 and RN/RM Super League). I finish in a time of 34.36 averaging 1.43.8 /500m. Its sheer hell, I keep telling myself just 500m more and somehow the meters roll on by.

2011 World Championships – Boston, USA

I carry on the long 18k pieces, but start to add in the odd interval piece to try and sharpen up. I get another cold the day after the 10k piece, my wife thinks I’m a hypochondriac, I think I’m knackered! I start to think about a race plan and race strategy. I meet with the RN/RM team at Heathrow and we set of to Boston, USA 5 days prior to the race. My main concern is to rest and stay hydrated for the 6 hour flight. We arrive safe and I reject the offer for a late night training session in the hotel with the team and proceed straight to bed. The next few days are full of sleeping, eating and you guessed it – talking about splits and stroke rates! We visit the arena prior to race day and I notice the close proximity and how close the arena seating is to the machines. On race day there will be around 2500 athletes plus supporters in here, there is nowhere to hide. I finish my taper week with first 500m rehearsals and short sharp sprints. I feel good and am positive of a good result.

The Race

My warm up goes to plan; I finish with around 5 minutes until race time. I am aware that the race officials are keeping to a tight schedule using the large clock in the centre of the arena. I finish and stand alone as I go through my race plan in my head. 3 minutes to go I start my walk to the race arena and to my machine. I have been seeded in the top rank and our machines are laid out along the front of the arena where quite a crowd has built. Just to add to the pressure I had earlier told family and friends to tune in as the race was being shown live across the internet. The official behind my machine asks if I have a cox and if I would like some encouragement. I ignore her and just grunt, the athlete next to me is giving her his life story and tries to engage with me, I ignore him too. I have already built up a hatred for everyone and everything. The only thing that now exists is me, an ergo and 2000m.

I pull a few strokes and set my drag factor to 135, then it’s time to sit and wait, the work is done, six long lonely months all for this one moment, 2000m’s of hell. I am focused but feel the need to look around at my surroundings. I glance left and right and once again feel out of place amongst the 6’5 giants. My eyes meet with my rival Rob Brown, the top Royal Navy rower two machines down who is having problems setting his drag factor. He gets sorted and gives me a nod; I return a positive smile and a wink. I look up and see a few members of the GB team who have gathered at the front of the arena. I feel like I’m centre of attention like at a public hanging. My manager stands behind me and switches between me and Rob checking we are set and ready to go.0212CrashScene008-01 (2)

The race gets under way first time. Immediately I am aroused by the noise of the other ergos roaring and the volume of the crowd sitting just metres in front. I focus on the monitor on my machine and feel in control as the first few hundred meters fly by. I have no idea of my placing at this time and I don’t care. I have told myself over and over again to row my own race and don’t get sucked in. From being in control of my own race I have a moment’s hesitation. That hesitation last no more than 1 stroke and just like that my race plan start goes out the window. I had planned for a fast first 500m, the bulk of that coming in the first 200m and then settling to race pace. What went wrong? I panicked that I had gone off too fast even though I had rehearsed it over and over again. I pulled up 4-5 strokes early and the 1st 500m split read about 0.7 adrift of plan. Crack on I thought, it’s in the past.

As I reached the 700m mark the mind games began as discomfort turns to pain. ‘Just settle for a 6.20 finish, it will still be respectable’ one voice said. ‘Ignore that and stick to the plan, relax,’ was the reply. This went on backwards and forwards like a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other for the next few hundred meters, broken every now and then by the voice of the team manager behind, pushing me on. To be honest I can’t remember much about the middle part of the race. I was aware of the sheer discomfort I was in and the dryness in the arena making my tongue stick to my mouth. Any weak stroke had to be counter acted with a follow up strong stroke as my eyes remained glued to the monitor willing the metres to tick down quicker. I tried to break it down, 10 strokes here, 10 there. Pretend there is only 250m to go I told myself, keep pushing on.

EIRC 2011500m to go and I was sharply awoken as the crowd volume lifted and just like that I’m back in the room. I glanced at my average split and was delighted to read that I was on target. I remained calm and counted down the strokes. Up we go then, I told myself as 400m came and went by. I started to notice names appearing on the monitor, who was in front and who was behind. Team mate and rival Rob Brown appeared, be patient I reminded myself as I moved through the pack from 12th to around 8th. 300m came and I went up a notch again, 250m appeared and it was time to go.

I had already naturally increased the pace slightly and was rating around 33/34 SPM, but now it was time to see what was left. My rate went up again, I started to see 1.28s on the screen, 200m to go up again 1.26s, 100m go go go! My form has gone out the window by now, I’m in serious discomfort, eyes shut, 40m I shorten up, 30m I shorten again, 20m I’m barely pulling half a stroke, rating around 40SPM, 10m and across the line.
I glance up at the monitor and in seeing my time let out a roar and punch the air. Feeling invincible I un-strap, stand up and stagger to the front of the arena not really aware what I’m doing or where I’m going. Momentarily I bend over, supporting myself on the barrier separating the crowd from the race area. I’m fighting for breath desperately trying to control my breathing as the lactic acid refuses to shift from my legs. I’m angry I feel like this and wonder if anyone else is hurting as bad. I turn and hobble back on to my machine. Two people help me sit down and strap me back in, I have to keep moving or I know I’m in trouble. I make a half hearted attempt to go backwards and forwards as the RN/RM Team Manager taps my back and says well done. I’ve pulled a PB (6.15.1) and have finished 8th in the Men’s HWT 30-39 category. Rob has finished 9th, we shake hands as he stumbles past.

A few minutes tick by and I hobble back to the warm up area and fall on to a machine. Other GB athletes are finishing their cool down and are gathered where I am sitting. Plenty of congratulations and pats on the back, but my quads are still on fire and I’m desperately trying to keep moving, I can barely function. Another rower helps me put my feet in the straps, I feel like an invalid unable to lift my own legs. More congratulations and I can’t really respond, I’m bent forward withering in pain. As reality sets in I look around as athletes cool down and pull bizarre faces of displeasure and discomfort, others are bent over bins throwing up. I see one athlete being attended to by the medics and memories of BIRC flash back. I manage a small grin. Why do we do this to ourselves? I recover well and start to re-live the race in my head.

The Future

As quickly as my indoor rowing career has begun I now have to stop due to work commitments and won’t row again for the next 8 months. I do however have a lot of ambition and goals, I have genuinely falling in love with this crazy sport. I will return back on the scene in 2012 and plan on getting a full 12 months training under my belt to be able to compete for honours in the future. I am lucky to have the support of my family and friends which has been so important. However let’s not forget when you’re on the machine, it’s just you versus the ergo – and the ergo never loses!

‘Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever – erg on!’


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