When I was a younger man I decided I was going to row a marathon. I had owned a rowing machine since a knee injury sustained playing football at university which meant that, in order to avoid appearing on a Channel 4 documentary entitled “Forty Stone Fatty!”, I either had to examine the very core of my existence (involving a conversion away from excess that would impress the strictest of monks) or take what I thought was the easy way out and adopt a punishing exercise regime.
On a rowing machine there really isn’t much to do other than listen to music and set yourself targets. It’s not like a fresh jog in the morning mist through an autumnal park – it’s you and a machine staring at each other until one of you stops, and the Concept2 ergos are astonishingly well made and very rarely give up first. So I set myself targets. At first they were easy ones, ones that I would look back on now and be almost embarrassed to tell you about.
But as time progressed I began to get moderately fit and improve my efforts, at least in the artificial sport of rowing on land. Jason joined me on this crusade and we would swap times over 2, 5 and 10k distances. This remember is the guy whom I had known since we were eight and would play board games with for days on end, often ending in fierce acrimony about some obscure interpretation of our own-invented rules.
Naturally, it got competitive. We fought to be the first to achieve a 5k in under 20 minutes, and then a 10k in under 40 minutes, and then a 15k in under an hour. Looking back, these goals seemed so far out of reach when we started, but it is amazing what can be achieved by fierce rivalry and a willingness to make things hurt. Then, and I’m not sure who came up with it now, at the start of 2007 the prospect of rowing a marathon in under three hours appeared on the horizon.
A marathon is an obscure distance. In the metric world of rowing machines 42,195m is almost as absurd a number as it’s imperial counterpart. Essentially, completing that distance is a meaningless achievement, and one that most people would be able to achieve either running or rowing if given enough time – it comes down to the goal you set yourself. Three hours was on the very edge of doable for me. The margins are so narrow in rowing. Three and a half hours would have been rather easy (in the hideously painful sense of the word ‘easy’), two and three quarters a physical impossibility (for me at least).
My last big training piece before the tapering-down process began was a week before the marathon. I set off too fast for my 30km, started feeling decidedly ropey quite early, dogged it out (and I use that phrase in the non-layby-on-the-A30 sense of the word) to somehow finish, and stepped off the machine a broken man. I was worried I was dehydrated, so started drinking water quickly, went grey and lifeless for about an hour, and then threw up spectacularly.
In hindsight, I think I had developed hyponatremia and was actually making things worse by downing water. The condition occurs when the concentration of sodium in the blood is abnormally low, and anybody that has seen me on a rowing machine will attest that I certainly sweat a lot in the process. After recovering, and in the days before the actual event, I bought some gel sachets, switched sports drinks, and experimented with eating pretzels whilst rowing.
A week later, on a hot July Saturday in 2007, Jason, Clive and I lined up our ergos and sat down to invite hours of agony upon ourselves. The mathematician in me had set a target. Tick, achieved – a sub-three-hour marathon, just. The numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story. The hours of pain, the fear of failure, and the depths of my soul that I confronted could not be expressed on the readout of the small screen in front of me. Now I look back on the photos from that day like I’m looking at a different version of me – younger, happier and without the fat-suit that I now encase myself in.
In a way, the same was true of my horse racing odyssey. This was the journey of a man who has always taken solace in the definitive and the absolute truth of mathematics. Yet my eighty days was crammed full of the opposite – motorways that didn’t work, writing that expanded to fit the space available and often beyond, and a variety of unusual feelings that were slightly alien to someone who has been described as emotionally retarded. Neither my racecourse tour nor my rowing marathon can properly be described in numbers.
Sure, I took comfort from ticking off the days and the racecourses, and the stark message from the betting account, but in the end the toughest foes were neither the bookmakers nor the traffic, but the homesickness and loneliness that signified my desperate longing to be with my wife and boys at one of life’s defining moments for a family unit.
Eight years older, not much wiser, but carrying 2 stone more and a slipped disc, this afternoon I once again rowed a marathon in under three hours. And I realise now that the youngish man in the photos, gurning to camera with a silly grin and a healthy glow, didn’t really know what pain was back then. He thought it might be snapping a cruciate ligament or completing a three hour marathon, but he didn’t understand that as you continue through life the bar gets raised in so many ways he could not have even imagined back then. I talk of things that I cannot change however much I endure, and the stunning realisation that all cannot be made better with modern medicine.
For some reason the last 6km of today was purgatory, in a way that was infinitely different to the original. I don’t know whether I ‘hit the wall’ or simply felt the accumulated weight of age and excess catching up with me. What I did know was that I could not stop or even slow down. I had a burning desire from deep in my soul that I was not only going to defy the three hour barrier again, but that I was going to beat my last marathon time of 2:59:18.1. It would represent that, for all my many and various failings, I was still in there fighting against the marching decrepitude and exquisite injustices of life.
In that last 25 minutes I went to hell and back. The way I got through it was by thinking of my family, and how brave they have all been recently without having a choice in the matter. I know that getting through that last section of agony doesn’t make me as brave as them; I had chosen to sit on the rowing machine. The last few minutes, when I realised that I was close, were very emotional. A voice in my head kept repeating “make it stop, please, make it stop”, and when the meters ticked down to zero, it did.