Monday, 19 March 2012

Row row row your boat....

So.  When you haven’t participated in a particular sport for at least two years, haven’t competed in at least three and a half, and had a baby a matter of weeks ago, how would it possibly seem like a good idea to agree to sub in for the biggest race of the season, in a city you no longer live in, in a sport which involves weighing as little as possible and being able to fit your behind into a very small space?

I can’t answer that question.  But it did.  It seemed like such a good idea at the time that I found myself running about the flat at ridiculous o’clock on Saturday morning, trying to co-ordinate the military-style arrangements involved in disengaging me from the permanently hungry Ben for at least four hours.  Somehow it worked.  I threw a bowl of cereal in front of Thomas and immobilised him by turning on CBeebies.  I lined up the bags of milk and the sterilised bottles and had a last, frantic tot-up of how many ounces were required to avoid Simon having to fulfil his threat of standing by the famous “second lamppost from the left” on Hammersmith Bridge and dropping a screaming baby into my lap as we came underneath.  Finally I woke Ben and added speed-feeding to our existing speed-burping technique which involves sitting him up and patting his back as fast as humanly possible while chanting “burpburpburpburpburp” – it works, I assume, by throwing him into such a state of panic that burps, and possibly more, are inevitable.
Somehow, at 7am I closed the door behind me and resisted the urge to run down the road, performing Dick Van Dyke-style leaps of joy and screaming “I’m free!”

After a brief blip when I attempted to pay for bus travel with an M&S gift card instead of my oyster card (This isn’t just a slightly grubby London bus full of grumpy early-morning travellers and a bus driver who has had his sense of humour extracted – this is M&S travel) I made it to Putney.
As soon as I reached the embankment the realisation set in that this might, just possibly, have been an enormous mistake.  Fishing in the pocket of my London Rowing Club splashtop, I found a weighing slip from Metropolitan Regatta 2008.  This was presumably the last time I raced.  There it was, in black and white.  I was nearly four years out of practice and nearly four kilos over coxing weight.  Everywhere I looked I could see bouncy little nineteen year-olds, all sporting sleek, skin-tight kit and the well-known “coxswain’s swagger” – you can’t describe this, you have to see it, but it is essentially a way of walking that somehow manages to convey “Don’t mess with me – I may be small but I am perfectly capable of reaching your jugular if necessary”.  I tried a half-hearted swagger but only garnered a couple of looks from people clearly wondering if I was drunk or just really desperate for a wee.

Since I was running late, I thought it sensible to hurry.  Just before I came into sight of the club I broke into a run and arrived trying to look like I had sprinted the entire length of the embankment.  I was helped by the fact that a 100 yard jog managed to reduce me to the kind of wheezing, sweaty mess that you normally see being treated by St John’s Ambulance half-way through the London Marathon.
Upon arrival, it became clear that I was not the only one suffering from a bad case of the WhatwasIthinkings.  The crew I was coxing were primarily “retired” rowers whose recent training has mainly consisted of a weekly amble down the river followed by exercising their pint-arms in the Duke’s Head.  On race morning the standard form of greeting was a long look at the four and a quarter mile course followed by a shared, slightly hollow laugh.  Part of a coxswain’s job is to generate the kind of cheesy line that would earn you endless mockery if used in everyday life, but are somehow filtered through a combination of adrenaline and exhaustion into something Churchill might have come out with on the eve of war.  One favoured technique involves reference to it being “time to start asking the big questions of ourselves”.  In this case the big questions were likely to be “why in the name of arse are we doing this?” and “shall we stop at Hammersmith and go to the pub?”

We were slightly buoyed by the London head coach’s whole club pre-race pep-talk, although there was noticeable eye-twitching around the time he started talking about the many hours of hard training and high levels of fitness.  Spirits continued to rise with the traditional “clapping out” of each club crew as they carried their boats down to the river.  Unfortunately, as the final crew to boat we were clapped out by a veteran rower, two random women who were loitering near the clubhouse and the burger van man.
The Head of the River race has over 400 entrants, all men’s eights – a total of over 3500 individual competitors.  The boats line up along both sides of the river and make their way slowly up above the start-line where they turn and set off at 10 second intervals.  A very large number of these crews are novices and the potential for carnage is huge.  An inexperienced crew with an inexperienced cox on the fast-flowing water of the Tideway is a recipe for disaster at the best of times.  When that crew is surrounded by several other equally inexperienced crews, all trying to keep their boats stationery while waiting for the start, it’s not so much a recipe for disaster as a fully-cooked, ready-to-serve, three course meal of disaster.  You know things are not going to go smoothly when you have uttered your first rude word before you are even out of earshot of the boathouse.

Photo courtesy of Ian Weir
We eventually reached our turning point and after a brief moment of excitement when the novice crew ahead of us decided on a novel method of turning their boat which nearly led to us inadvertently docking with them and rowing the entire race as a sort of strange, multi-oared catamaran, we got going.
I was brilliant.  It was some of my finest work.  Seriously.  The Churchill-esque eloquence that poured from my lips was unparalleled.  And no-one can prove otherwise as English was the second language of the stern pair and the cox-box microphone stopped working on stroke two of the race, meaning that no-one else could hear a word I was saying.  Except the bit about “Getoutofmywaygetoutofmywaynow” which was delivered a teeny bit louder than the rest due to the fact that a novice crew had decided to make a 45 degree angle dive across the river right in front of us.
Our aim in the race was to finish higher than we started.  We started 216th.  We finished 215th.  I like to think I added value.

And Thomas had fun....

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