All Things Have Their Season

I've been thinking about training a bit recently. Partly inspired by the end of the indoor rowing "season" and partly on the back of a couple of conversations I've been having. 

The indoor rowing "season" is actually a year and runs from the 1st May. Having just come to the end of the 2015-16 season it seemed a good time for a review.

Top level, I completed 1.4 million metres over 108 hours of sliding up and down on the metal rail. Sounds like a lot of time in the same 8ft x 3ft but it's significantly less time than I spend watching TV. Also, while it is two thirds of my recorded lifetime distance, it is a pretty moderate sort of distance for most indoor rowers. That's not surprising, I don't have a long history of anything that would help me very much and while the physique I've been gifted and enhanced with nutritional choices (good and bad) might have some uses, it is not one that you would look at and think "rower". 

It's been an interesting 12 months. I started the year as I finished the last, on a bit of a tear, setting new PBs relatively easily and feeling pretty upbeat about it. And then something happened. My rowjo disappeared as surely as if somebody had gone back in time and stolen it from me (I know I keep quoting Austin Powers but look more like the offspring of Dr Evil and Fat Bast... what's that all about?).
(Mike Myers in Austin Powers,  New Line Cinema. Still a great movie!)

It hit me pretty hard to be honest. Harder than it should have done. So, how did I come from that to ending on a high? Answering that speaks to several elements within me and starts to address questions from other avenues of life. 

I've been aware of the indoor rower for a while. For the last 22 years (give or take) it has surfaced periodically in my training - most commonly as something to warm-up on or as some sort of horrific garnish...akin to sprinkling insanity peppers into your bowl of chow. I never wanted to spend much time on it. Save for the odd lunatic thing like a nil preparation marathon  (just to say that I'd done one), I avoided it because it hurt. But as covered elsewhere on this blog, I found myself having a go at it more recently on a concerted basis. Regardless of shape, background and physical age, my training age, that is to say the length of time that I have been working in this sport, is really quite young.

Objectively, I'm an average achiever on the indoor rower. The joy of the Concept 2 is that your progress is very clearly set out for you and thanks to the online logbook you get a very clear picture of where you stand. Me? Not that good. Not that bad either. Top third for the most part but a long way from elite. And I'm OK with that. Well, I'm not. I am working to be better but I am pretty phlegmatic about my place in the world. One of the things that I've noticed over recent years, across many endeavours is the push for everybody to be elite. Which of course is salesmanship of the highest order. Or, as we say 
in England, bollocks.

By definition, the elite are superior to the rest of a group. So if everybody is elite, nobody is. Being average is OK. Statistically speaking somebody needs to be. What is not OK is accepting that you cannot improve - you just need to be aware that if everybody improves to similar proportions you are not going to improve your relative position. Which is why your focus should always be on your own performance. 

It's taken me several years to reconcile myself to that. Never having delivered top 1% performance in anything has at times left me feeling battered, bruised and dejected. But other times I have been left literally battered and bruised but happy. Not because of the result, which often didn't go my way but because I knew that I was spent, had absolutely nothing left to give.

It can still be disappointing to empty your tanks, turn yourself inside out and wring out what is left, looking for every ounce of output, only to find that it is still not enough. But it removes the question marks. You end up with a simple binary question at that point:- cash out or double down. Give up or work to improve your capacity.

But here's the thing, the relative novice can find it hard to have that perspective. The early days see an almost constant linear progression with personal records falling easily at regular junctures. The grinds, the challenges come as a shock. You don't have the bedrock to fall back on. You can't depend on the cycle moving you from trough to peak because you've not seen it enough to have faith in your course. 

And on reflection, that's where I was last May. I was tired and happy with my progress but in the face of other relative newcomers' results (others, about whom I knew absolutely nothing!) easily surpassing my own, I felt a bit overcome and found myself asking what the point was. And it is a good question. What is the point? I call it training, but I'm not playing sport any more, so training for what? There's an opportunity cost to everything , is it worth it for these results?

When I think about what I want for myself I am usually at a loss. I'm pretty selfish but articulating that escapes me a lot. As close as I come is is a simple tagline - I want to be as strong as I can be, mentally and physically.

For somebody with mental weaknesses who is generally the "fat kid" of any group, it is probably aspirational but it serves a purpose. How does all this lifting and rowing; with the grunting and the sweating (and the hoyvin glavin), help that?

Professor Frink in The Simpsons, Fox Home Media

Well, the lifting weights stands to reason I guess but it is more than that. There are plenty of people stronger than me but I am averagely strong . But it makes me feel good! Genuinely, my mind clears and I feel happier. The mileage that I out on my body through neglect and a bucket-load of collisions melts away. But it also makes me a nicer person to be around. I'm actually not a very nice person. But in all the roles I play in life - husband, father, mid-level bureaucratic functionary - I am better for working myself over and getting physically stronger. 

There's a degree of preening involved in the celebration, but that is meant to be a marker of relative development not a statement of absolute. I'm not one of the legion of keyboard-riding world champs! The joy of having competed in several things, some to a reasonable standard, is that I have learned the hard way that there are no perfect career records. There is always the likelihood that there is somebody more technically able, fitter and/or stronger than you. But it is not just about potential, it is about bringing all those elements together to deliver a performance...and if you're going to compete, that is the question that gives hope and should keep you yearning and pushing. Even if there is somebody with better components, on the day it is the person who deploys them best who will walk away with the "W". That's what keeps sweepstakes interesting!

The rowing has the potential to play a similar role for me as the lifting. In the words of George Sheehan (a medical doctor no less) "sweat cleanses from the inside out. It comes from a place a shower will never reach" (no, not the folds between my rolls, this is metaphor!). The rower provides plenty of stimulus for sweat and the potential to get a feeling of overcoming a challenge. Nowadays I'm also following a structured plan courtesy of Sam Blythe at Fitness Matters (it is very difficult to programme effectively for yourself - don't be afraid to more experienced practitioners in a field). Following a plan takes a commitment and rigorous application if you are to benefit from it. 

And I'm learning about myself, the sport, and the intersection of the two. That's the point. The learning journey. Sure, it isn't always going to be easy but we know that if it comes easy we seldom really appreciate it.

So I guess it was a good year. Some numbers achieved but lessons refreshed, renewed and reapplied. I wonder what development lies ahead in the next 12 months.

Only one way to find out.


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