I gave myself three months to go from very little exercise to training for an hour or more four times a week in order to be able to complete the 34000m (or 21 miles), which is the distance between Dover and Cap Gris Nez, the shortest possible crossing between the English and French mainlands.
In actual fact, the distance is just short of 33.5km, but what are a few metres between friends? Call it a short lap of honour.
Progress was interrupted by a virus that kept me off work and out of the gym for two weeks in early-mid November, but I’ve been working really hard to put my old aching body in a position where I can complete an event that (if everything goes according to plan) will take around three-and-a-half hours.
I have been incredibly lucky to have been getting invaluable help and support from Julian Bunn, a member of Tees Rowing Club who is an experienced and hugely successful competitive indoor rower. Julian has given me advice on technique, training plans, nutrition, hydration, mental preparation—basically everything I need to get me to the proverbial starting line in the best condition possible (or rather the best condition possible for a portly fifty-two-year old with dodgy hips).
Physically I am now in decent shape (certainly better than I look); and given a bit of luck, I’ll avoid the various bugs that are still affecting so many people at work and feel strong on the day. I’m starting at 8:30am on Friday (23rd)–at Eston Leisure Centre—and I definitely find I row better first thing rather than after a long day at work.
The training has been built around setting and maintaining a steady pace of a kilometre every six minutes, based on 25 strokes per minute. I began with the tension set at 2 (out of 10), but I am now rowing at 4, which better reflects water resistance, as well as my improving fitness. Fairly naturally, the same effort and number of strokes per minutes at higher tension means I will cover the distance a little quicker, but the time will only become relevant if (but hopefully) when I actually finish.
My biggest worries are mainly concerned with the discomfort and consequent pain that comes from sitting on a fairly unforgiving seat for so long. I know my hips will suffer, but hopefully my technique will be sound enough to prevent any problems in my lower back. I’ve had cramps in my legs, probably caused by dehydration; but take on too much fluid and nature will soon call—it’s a fine line, but something I absolutely have to get right on the day.
As those of you who have been kind enough to take an interest in the “challenges” I am undertaking to raise mental health awareness will know, this is not a fundraising event. I’m hoping that a few people might pop along on the day to offer some welcome support, but essentially this is a personal test of body and mind, and a chance to reinforce a message.
I’m no more a rower that I am a boxer, dart player or stand-up comedian; I’m not talented or brave, but completing this challenge would still feel like an achievement. Real courage is when the definition of “achievement” is simply overcoming the struggles of daily life, before going to sleep safe in the knowledge that the fight will start all over again the next morning.
Mental illness comes in many different forms; and the effects can be unseen, and devastating. Anyone can be affected (statistically one in four adults will be at some point), but stigma—or maybe even a perception of stigma—can cause a sense of shame that in turn leads to silent suffering to avoid any outward sign of “weakness”. But talking or asking for help is NOT a sign of weakness; it is a brave step, a huge step, and just maybe the first step towards positive long-term change.