The shortest distance between the English and French mainlands is the 34km (21 miles) between Dover and Cap Gris Nez; and this was therefore my target.
I joined the gym at Eston Leisure Centre in September and gave myself three months to train for the event, which was scheduled for 23rd December, thereby allowing me enough time to recover and regain the strength I would need to open all my presents on Christmas morning.
After my first couple of sessions on the rowing machine (or ergometer… “erg” to its friends), a few things were apparent: I am old, I was not very fit, and France is much further away from England than it looks on a tiddly map.
I sent an e-mail to British Rowing to explain what I was doing and ask if they could offer some guidance on how best to prepare for the event. A few days later, I received a message from Neil Dunning, club captain of Tees Rowing Club, who said he would put Julian Bunn in touch with me, as he would be perfectly placed to help me with all aspects of the training.
Julian is one of the best indoor rowers of his age group in the whole country, and he has produced outstanding performances across various distances in competitions both here in the UK, and abroad. Basically, he has forgotten more than I will ever know about indoor rowing and I was delighted that he was willing to work with me.
By the time we met, I had managed to extend my longest training session to 18km—just beyond halfway, and therefore too late to turn back. Julian helped me devise a structured training plan that would enable me to complete a 25-26km row a week or so before race day. This included recovery sessions, antagonistic weights to make sure I was balancing the work being done by the muscles most used on the machine. He gave me tips on nutrition, some of which I admit I ignored purely on the basis of taste (although my ears pricked up at the sound of the words “Jaffa Cakes”), and also advice on hydration, all of which I followed.
We talked about mental preparation, which would be every bit as crucial as the physical training, and we exchanged regular e-mails as the work intensified.
Apart from a two-week hiatus caused by a particularly nasty virus that kept me away from both work and the gym, training went pretty well. I was aware there would be good and bad days and as fantastic as I felt after a 26km row on 11th December, I was equally sluggish over a much shorter distance the following Sunday.
Overall though, I felt strong, but as with any endurance event, there would be difficult moments along the way, which was where the training and mental prep would come into play. The toughest part of the training hadn’t actually been the fitness, but the discomfort caused from sitting on the plastic seat for an extended period. I had devised a plan whereby I would row for 12-15km and then use a padded seat to get me through to 20km, then discard it again when the discomfort turned to pain.
I’d cramped quite a lot in the early stages of training, and that led to another concern, as too much liquid to overcome the cramp would lead to unwanted calls of nature; and it took me almost the full three months to finally get the balance right.
Although the final five days prior to the event were essentially a time for rest, I went down to the gym on the eve of the race to record a piece with Louise Hobson of BBC Radio Tees, who have been good enough to support a number of events over the past three years. Louise had to use her phone for the recording after her tablet chose a particularly ill-opportune moment to stop working. Note to self to check the battery in the rower… a flat battery would equal no proof of completion.
I didn’t sleep very well that night. I had trained well, but my head was filled with the things that could go wrong (viz. the battery, a painful posterior or an uncomfortably full bladder… or worse still, all three).
Thankfully when I arrived at the Leisure Centre, Rachael was on hand to make sure everything was set up and ready; Julian duly arrived, followed soon after by Louise and her temperamental tablet. Warm-up and stretches complete, there was time for a short live chat with Louise (whose producer had apparently commented on my “nice legs”—presumably followed by “shame about the….”), a few last words of encouragement from Julian and off I went.
As the white Kentish cliffs disappeared into the virtual distance, I had a visit from my friend Glen Durrant, BDO World no.1, Winmau World Master (twice) and hopefully soon to be world champion. Glen and I met through this challenge project and he mentored and guided me from not having thrown a dart in public for 25 years to playing him on stage in from of a couple of hundred people and then, around this time last year, somehow managing to hit back-to-back 180s for the first time in my life in another leg against Glen (that I still lost). He’s a genuinely top bloke who is so generous with his time and, as always, it was a pleasure to see him.
At various intervals during the row, Louise would take short videos, during which I would give an update on my progress. Both she and Julian stayed for the whole event (which was massively appreciated); a couple of other friends also popped in to see how things were going (thanks Gel and Les, it was great to see you), and Rachael and the Leisure Centre staff couldn’t have been more supportive.
Elaine arrived just before 11 o’clock (she was supposed to arrive at half past ten, and I’ve yet to discover how much money she spent in that half hour), and she was soon “persuaded” by Louise to make her radio debut. Louise chatted to her and to Julian in a live feed just after half past eleven, before she came over to ask how close I was to la côte de la France.
If I’d maintained my pre-race plan of a steady 25 strokes per minute and a kilometre every six minutes, I would have been maybe four kilometres away, but probably due to the hugely positive effect of the company, I’d been rowing faster than I’d ever done in training and was only two hundred metres from the finish.
Louise asked how I was feeling. I said I was fine. I was lying.
As I later learned, the show’s host stayed with Louise because I was so close to completing the 34km; I really pushed the last hundred metres and the finishing time of 3 hours 1 minute and 21 seconds was a total surprise. It might not compare with anything a decent athlete could do, but I was so happy with what I’d achieved; and thrilled that people had taken time out their respective days to support me.
I am so grateful to everyone I’ve mentioned during this blog. You all made a real difference. Thank you.
I must give one more special mention to Louise and Julian though. The coverage that Louise gave the event… and by definition the cause which was always the most important thing, was fantastic. And I think it’s safe to say that without Julian’s support and wise words, I would have struggled to complete this challenge—and I certainly wouldn’t have finished anywhere near the time I actually managed. I just hope my performance did Julian and Tees Rowing Club justice—I honestly gave it everything.
I will finish simply by saying two things. Firstly, I did this (as I have done the 74 previous challenges) to raise mental health awareness; if you are struggling, please don’t ever be afraid to talk or ask for help. And secondly… I wish you all a very Happy Christmas x