Somewhere in Oxford, Great Britain, 2009, 5.25am. Two Varsity rowers sleep, the winter morning silent around them, the spires of their Oxford scraping the frosted sky. Three more months to the Boat Race. 192 sessions gone; 144 to go, until they look across the water at Cambridge and say “I am ready”.
An alarm clock beeps, some stupid tune, designed to irritate the sleeper awake. An angry hand emerges, pushes the clock, skittering across the dresser, to the floor. A body moves beneath the bedclothes, stirs and creaks, pushing precisely half away, careful not to wake the figure beside. The fallen clock reads 5.30am; some mornings 6.00. The sleeper places stockinged feet on the cool floor. Once the feet are on the floor, the sleeper knows she will be alright. Her heart rate monitor is wrapped around her chest. The watchface reads 36 bpm. Slow. Good. Up, pee, scales. The scales read 65.2kg. Fine for this stage in the season. Most of the first half hour can be conducted asleep. Kit is there, laid out. It goes on. Sportsbra, unisuit, thermal leggings, tshirt, sweatpants, sweater, fleece, bobblehat, mittens, socks, more socks, trainers. Two bottles of fluid. Thermal coffee cup jammed over the handlebars of a rusting racing bike, a bagel in one gloved hand. The sleeper is now a body; the sleeper is now awake. She is an athlete.
The journey to the boathouse across town is 30 minutes. Ergometers are pushed out onto the balcony. Steam rises off the water, and the twelve or so figures – half the full squad – on the rowing machines chuckle down at the novices as they push. Music thumps out over early morning Oxford, incongruous, lifting over the spires, lacing Christchurch Meadow. Steam rises off the girls now. Eight kilometres into their morning 12k. The girl checks her watch. 143 bpm, too low. She picks it up, 149, there, better. Steady, steady, 18 strokes a minute. Sweat pools off her elbows, runs down her shins. The back of her tshirt blooms. It is over. They rise, stretching, cracking backs, guzzling water, leaning on the railing, catcalling. In this moment they feel big, strong, ultimate. Wet clothes are exchanged for dry and they leave, unlocking bikes and swinging tired legs over saddles. Up the hills.
She unlocks the door. Prepares two bowls of three weetabix, fruit, two cups of tea. Upstairs. Weighs herself. 64.2kg. Drinks a litre. Wakes the sleeping figure. It is her morning off. They eat, shower, dress. Both pedal into town. Today as with every day, they will battle the hands of sleep, dragging at them inexorably as they sit in the warm, wood panelled library; in their stuffy lectures; as they sneak a break in the common room. They sip coffee constantly. They talk, talk, talk. Placings, seats, scores, armspans, weights, heartrates, a cold, a sore throat, compare stiff backs, pace, stretch, nod off, start awake.
Four pm comes. They both feel sick. Adrenaline again. Tonight is sprints. Pre-training fluid goes in. Training snacks; precisely weighed. 30g of carbohydrate. Bikes again. To the gym. They pass through the gates, lords of this place. They stalk past the gawping amateurs, to their own place. The second building past the squash courts belongs to them. A hole of rusting weights; hastily mopped floors; an eerily slopping practice tank; ergometers propped up against the walls. Everything smells of stale sweat. They joke, a team as usual. Sizing one another up. She looks sick today. She’s been in labs. She’s been on ward rounds. She’s a bit too noisy. Her? Negative. Her? Not been on fire this month. They stretch, warm up. Select their spot. Next to someone fast? You’d better be having a good day. Today is 6 x 1000m with lactate testing, a brutal, ugly session. Half urge the other half on; they stand behind them, screaming, bellowing in their ears. They swap. She pulls, rhythmic, each swing of her body on the machine crushing air out of her puffed-out lungs. She feels strong today, for 800m each, then the burn builds. 200m to go. It sets in, spreading. Lactate pushing its way, up her legs, passing up her back, her arms frozen in a rictus, her face following. Vision narrowing. Hands and face buzzing. Blood leaving. She finishes, doubled over, gasping, her feet burning. A blue-gloved trainer stuffs a needle into the lobe of her ear, pushing past the gristle of previous tests. Draws a drop of blood. Tests it; enters the scores; checks the graph. The adrenaline surges and she begins to pour with sweat, steaming off her broad back in this cool room. They battle in waves until five are over. Shirts are stained with blood, a rust-red streak down one side. Surgical wipes litter the floor.
The last set is disgusting. The coach screams at them. Hold form, sit up. They despair. Cambridge, he shouts, now. She couldn’t care less. Cambridge are they. The very same, a mere 100 miles away. She just wants this to be over, soon. Faster is sooner, and she draws the handle towards her straining chest, her stomach churning. Finally it is over. She unstraps her feet, in a daze. One more needle. Staggering, drunkenly towards the door and fresh air. She is sick; vomiting into the open topped bin, placed there directly for that purpose. Fluids. Deep lungfuls of freezing December air. Coughing. Stretching. They shake, tremble through the obligatory core work, water pooling on the floor from their boiling bodies. Paper towels for the floor, wipes for the mats. Soggy kit into gymbags, mixing with the books and essays and pens. They congregate in the bike park, laughing now, with hands numbly fumbling for light clips, helmet buckles. A final push up the hill onto the road. Dumbly going through the motions in the kitchen. Some form of pasta. Unfeeling. More work – just another thousand words. Bed and sleep, legs sinking through the sheets, a limp and heavy arm across her shoulders. There is very little time for love. Five and a half hours are for sleep; for hoping that some of the ache disappears; for hoping that some of the will to wake again comes. For battling with your worse self. Don’t give up. It’s not arbitrary. It is in these moments that you find yourself.
Three years ago, this was me. I rowed for Oxford against Cambridge. I rowed all year, against every opponent available. I won. When I left, I quit rowing. I needed to find some space away from a thirty hour training week; away from the thing that had owned and defined me for three years. I ran a handful of marathons, untrained. I grew my kempt hair long. I drank too much. I ate. I hadn’t eaten properly in three years – too tall for a lightweight rower really. But I missed it terribly; I missed it all. The team; the rhythm; the noise of oar in oarlock; the clip of blades on entry; the thump of the finish; the collective gasp for breath on the recovery. Growing bigger; trimming down the fat; shoulders broadening; legs like whipcord steel. Coping. I even missed the 18 kilometre ergos, the two hour endurance weights sessions, the lactate testing. So in December 2011, I decided to return, choosing London elite lightweight squad as my home.
Then in January, I fell off my bike, pedalling downhill at 40mph. I shattered my shoulder, smashed my collarbone to bits, snapped my AC ligament. You’ll never row again.
Since then, I have been lost. For those who have defined themselves in this way, so extremely, so singularly, it is an impossible proposition – not returning. I have spent nine months planning nothing, failing at everything. Hating waking up in the morning. Running one day. Ignoring the next. Unable to lift weights. Afraid of getting back on my bike. I have misplaced a part of myself. I no longer look or feel like a person who lived and loved those moments with my Varsity girls, the elite. The few.
Now it’s time to come back. Not to rowing, but to something. Something approximating enjoying and not fearing the pain; enjoying and not loathing the push; enjoying and not resenting the outdoors.
And I will be recording it all. I start tomorrow, no half-measures. I know what I can manage, what I can suffer. A 10 kilometre run a day, here on in. Half an hour of stretching. A short weights session. And in unearthing what I’m sure is still there, I hope to find something I haven’t yet discovered.
Wish me luck? No. Don’t. Wish me strength.