Row, row, row your punt!

Let's recap. Ever a glutton for punishment, I allowed myself to get talked into entering an indoor rowing competition.  The appeal? I'd heard they've a great atmosphere, it would give me a target to work towards and it would be a chance to chance my arm in a pond slightly bigger than my utility room!

I've never been that dedicated to, or hot on the erg [indoor rower]. And over the recent years have not invested a lot of time and energy into developing my fitness. Granted, I completed the burpee year but between April and 1st June, when I started the rower ladder, I did nothing which didn't look like picking something up and putting it down again (and, in truth, precious little of that)!

In fact, it was that ladder and starting the dog days of summer that led to the suggestion being made to me. So there I was, the day after my 2nd ever Strongman event, logging on, entering my payment details before thinking "Oh nuts, what have I done now?!" (nothing unusual there) and then the realisation hit that I had nine weeks.

I had also relatively recently to that point started having more "conversation" with a top bloke in Scotland via Tribesports. What had started out as a workout tracking app on my phone had turned into online conversation, and, I'd like to think, mateship as a result of a shared interest in the lunatic fringe that is indoor rowing. Alan has been free with his time, guidance, advice and support. He suggested that I try an indoor competition (and highlighted Bristol) at the same time as Paul Croft, knowing I'm a sucker for punishment, suggested it to me while we were in Westbury. I never gave into peer pressure in terms of drugs and tobacco but I suspect that had more to do with it just not appealing to me because a challenge? I'm all over that!

This would, so I reckoned, require a little more thought that I would normally apply to my own "training". In fact, for the first time in years this might represent the first time that my endeavours have justified the epithet "training" as they would have both method, and, crucially, a longer-term purpose. But before I could get too carried away with that idea I would have to find out where I was at that moment in time and then plan my training.

So, on the evening of Monday 11th August I tried the three distances that I'd be doing in October. Three distances? Yep. Well, I entered the 2km and got a free entry into the 1km and 500m to go with it. Everybody loves a bargain and it seemed rude not to!

Anyway, setting the 3 up like the August C2 CTC (Cross Team Challenge, a relatively newly encountered layer of insanity for me!) i.e. 2km: 3 minutes to rest: 1km: 3 minutes to rest: 500m. Not ideal for testing absolute speed over the distances but useful anyway and doubly so because I'd have to do each of the three distances with the others either already in the legs or still to do on the day. I was still sore from my endeavours at the weekend but posted

  • 2,000m 7:32.5 at an average pace of 1:53.1 per 500m (a season's best for me)
  • 1,000m 3:48.2 at an average pace of 1:54.1 per 500m
  • 500m in 1:43.4
Incidentally, while the 2km was 3s short of being an all-time personal best for me and was the best for the year by some margin, these are not good times. I would later see just how "not good" but for now, at least, they seemed a useful marker.

I then mapped out what I expected of myself. Broadly 5 or 6 sessions of predominantly shorter interval repeats. Some longer sessions were in the mix and I was targeting these as much for their need to keep to the plan as their, hopefully positive, impact on my aerobic base. I knew I would have to be wary about the lifting sessions and while I dropped one in on the first Saturday I felt that I would probably not be doing many. My trouble is that, like a lot of people, I am easily distracted in my training. And, as unpleasant as the sessions can be, I enjoy the iron and it would probably lead me away from the erg if I was not careful. Dropping double kettlebell work into the rowing mix in that first week was a case in point. Clarity of purpose Ben, clarity of purpose.

Skipping ahead a few weeks, we find ourselves we find ourselves about a week or two out from competition day. For some reason I have allowed my progress in training to translate to a little bit of hope that I might actually show a little something something in this, my first competition. Logging on to the City of Bristol site and actually looking at last year's results soon put paid to that!

I very quickly established that my recent best time, while a lifetime best, would still see me squarely and convincingly last. I'll be frank, that took the wind out of my sails and initially made me feel a little despondent. But, after a brief interlude, the clouds started to break. This was perfect! I now had absolutely no pressure. If I could keep my ego in a box, the whole thing would be what I intended from the off - an experience! Perhaps a learning experience but fun if nothing else.

So, relax, stick to the programme. Try to get some rest before game day and see what you can turn out.

But before I park the competitive brain completely let's just have a look at some of these teams: Q-Power...MAD...Sub7. Wait a minute; I recognise them from the CTC page. The rest? Still amateur sportsfolk but professional in their preparation and application. Should be plenty to see if I keep my head up and my eyes open.

As an ex-team sports person, there's something quite strange about walking into a venue alone to "compete" in a solo capacity. I found the same when I dabbled in BJJ/MMA, albeit in those events I was usually there with others from the club (good guys and girls all!). It's daft when you think about it. Team events only work if the individuals perform, without that the team suffers. So what's the big deal? For people like me it is that transference, that sense that you're contributing to something more than just yourself and, to a slightly lesser degree, the knowledge that others depend on you the way you depend on them. 

Of course, it doesn't work out often like that. And virtually never in the corporate arena! When it happens it is a thing of beauty and so much so that it barely registers as a process. Until it breaks or you find yourself in a situation where it is not present.

Back to Bristol. The sun was shining after overnight showers. The city glistened at its morning best. I'd picked up fresh coffee on my way through and was here to do what I could. For what else is there?

Registration was friendly, welcoming and warm. With details of race times and the erg numbers in hand, it was over to me to sample the atmosphere while I waited. Age groups from children to an 83-year old competitor and most stops in between were represented. The power on display - and more exactly, power endurance - was breath-taking (literally). But in spite of the seriousness of the prep that a lot of these ladies and gents had clearly put in there were conversations to be had and a spirit which is hard to put your finger on. Almost an acceptance of you because you're there and that's all they need to know about you.

So, to my first event. The 2km. Erg number 1. Race monitors connected, software feed being projected on to the wall. OK Ben, it's fine. You know what comes next. Nobody other than you is going to try to hurt you come go time! So let's at least try to look like we belong here. Footpads. How do you normally have them? Ah yeah, three notches down. Try 4? No, not now, that feels wrong and this is not the time for experimenting. Ah feck. Damper setting. Damper setting. Why have they lost the 1-10 scale off the side of the fly-wheel? It's OK, you read the article and Alan warned you. Not only that but you remembered to check yours! 150ish. OK, let's play it cool.... done.

You stretched and mobilised. Your erg is ready. A couple of minutes to go. Just try to ignore what is going on around you. Breathe. They don't matter. Ooh look, your monitor has your name on it!

For what we are about to receive...
Count down. 10 to go. The monitor will take you from 5. Here we go. Ready, ready...and you're off! Hit it hard for a few strokes. Easy, easy. Now find your groove. You know you want that split. Focus on that. No, no don't look down the monitor at the names and their times, it doesn't matter that they're pulling away. Wait, we're ahead of somebody! It doesn't matter, how's your pace?

At some point after the initial pull out of the blocks was done I became aware that there was a name that I was actually ahead of. That's great! At getting on for 300m I noticed that he was about 280m behind. "Ah bugger. He's not actually racing is he?!"

Sort of disappointing but the position had not changed from about a minute ago. Where's your pace? How's the breathing? Why does this erg feel so much smoother than mine? This handle is quite nice! I'm not sure what was going on really. It was a long way short of being easy and I was working faster than I have ever gone before but in spite of that I wasn't panicking like I have done on my own before. Curious.

There is a little bit of difference in practice between knowing that you're going to finish last and hearing people's erg handles clatter home while you still have more than 250m to row. The upside, of course, is that by that stage in proceedings there is quite literally only one way that you are not finishing.

And here we go, big breath. 205m. That's less than 20 strokes to go. You do this every row, hell or high-water. Slipping through the fog, the mental maths was trying to make itself heard. Might I squeak in below 7 minutes? I can't spare a thought for that now but it had always seemed so faraway, so otherworldly. As recently as last week it had still been 7s away at the end of a lung-bursting thrash.

Maybe had that thought filtered through, or maybe if I'd believed that it might be an option from the start I might have made it. As it was, I missed out by 0.9s. At first, I was really pleased. Almost as pleased as I was to find that it was all over. Almost! I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't asked "what if?" since. Incidentally, that's a horrible expression; don't leave room for it to sneak into your life. 

I stumbled off the machine and tried to smile at the guys on the computer table. "Could we get a wee outboard fitted to this before the 1km?" said I, seldom short of crap quips. "I mean" I continued, rescuing my composure, if not my dignity "I rowed as hard as I could and the bloody thing didn't go anywhere!" Polite smiles in response.

As it happens, my words came back to haunt me later as I got to watch Paul Buchanan row his erg out of the gaffer tape holding it in place and against the 2 guys holding it steady. Bonkers! Lovely guy but I stand by my Facebook post description of his change in pace as like watching a "Silverback in a speedboat". Just in the interests of clarity that's "in a speedboat" and not "in Speedos" which would be an entirely different kind gig!

Between events I got talking to a few more people. I am not exactly gregarious and can quite happily not make conversation with people, so it is to some degree, a measure of the event and all of the people involved that these were not my only conversations of the day. Craig had put in a good >6 minute effort for his 2km and we talked a little about his training and mine. He did express that the three races were too much and he'd not be sticking around. "Ah" says I "that's the joy of having really low expectations; there's no good reason not to". He genuinely laughed which will always endear you to me! And, coupled with my description of myself as being built like Mr Happy, I seemed to put a smile on his day!

Then there were the guys from Grimsby. Chris adopted me for my 1km which, given his endeavours for the day, was both generous and much appreciated. He talked me through the 1km. The cues were useful and timely and meant that I could focus the part of the brain that still functions when your heart rate has gone through the roof on breathing and effort. No more, no less. My lifetime best of 3:22.7 for the 1 km owed a lot to that freely given coxswain work. What of his mate John? Oh yeah. Nice guy, unassuming, you could see yourself having an easy chat with him over a pint from his tankard at his spot by the bar in the local. Yep him. He went on to beat the British >70 age group Heavyweight record for 500m. To make it better, he'd apparently set out his intention to do so during the week.


It is not unusual to come across people who say they are good at what they do (especially in this internet era). It is less common to actually see people in action who are as good as you think they'll be. It is rarer still to find the combination of qualities i.e. quality of action and humility/consideration. It does exist. I have seen it in other fields but it is still a pleasure to come across it.

And how often do you get to say that you rubbed shoulders with national and world record holders. And thought in both pedigree and output you're lesser than most in the hall, never made to feel anything other than welcome.

"What about the 500m?" you ask. Ah yeah. Third race of the day and my cox says, fresh from his own race "OK power monkey, what are you aiming for?" "Well, I've never come under 1'30, so it would be great to shoot for that" says I. His advice? Pithy and on point. "Go for it".

As we'd discussed earlier, a 500m is too sot to think tactics it is a "just go for it" job. I've always been slightly scared of going out too fast but heck, what is too fast anyway? I'm only aiming for 90 seconds of work. That's all. 90 seconds and I'm done. A quarter of a second after the winners but still a third PB from 3 events with 1:29.8

And that was all she wrote. Thoughts? I joked that the next weekend I would just lie on the sofa and punch myself repeatedly in the face - on the basis that it would hurt less and I would not have to get dressed to leave the house! Well sure, it might save me a shopping trip but it is not preferable to a day like that Saturday.

It is also convention to say that the hanging around at tournaments is worse than the doing. I'll admit I was tempted to wheel out that cliché here too. But it would be a lie! Granted the waiting is not great for the nerves but a 2km erg is still much, much more unpleasant! Besides, there are people to meet and things to learn right there for you.

I'll be honest, I really don't like losing but keeping your ego in check is good training in its own right and besides, if you never put yourself in the mix with the big boys you'll never know where you stand. In short, do it. Stop thinking and sign up or at least sign up to go and watch. 

Will I do it again? Probably. But then I've always been a bit soft in the head!

Finally, in case it was not clear enough, a huge thank you to all who organised, participated, supported, catered, trained and generally made the competition and my first outing at a competition possible. You're all awesome!


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