With no time to recover from our altitude training camp we are straight back in the boat preparing for the first of a series of water trials to be held in two-man boats (pairs) before christmas. The first is a 5km time trial held in Boston Lincolnshire, probably not somewhere I would choose to go unless absolutely necessary and so reluctantly that is where I am headed.
With a new level of fitness gained from altitude my partner and I find we can get back in the boat and post fast training times with relative ease. We are open with each other, communicate well on and off the water and maintain a level of calm and relaxation in the boat. It is important not to let any of the inevitable distractions take our minds off our common goal. I learn to trust my partner in a very short space of time, which in rowing is essential. Confidence in our boat moving ability grows daily and so we travel three hours up to Boston in a great frame of mind, feeling fit, strong and confident that we can put together the performance we need to prove our worth within the team.
The morning of the race sees two grown men sitting in a small hotel room in silence, one on the floor stretching, the other sitting cross-legged on the bed eating a breakfast of cereal, bread and honey. There is nothing glamorous about rowing! I’m sure we both have the same nerves and apprehension about what is to come. We are both aware that this 5km time trial is a serious strain on our bodies and 3km further than the standard international race distance, so how will we hold up? How badly is this 18 minutes of racing going to hurt?
We find ourselves on the start line, fully warmed up and race ready. My heart pounds so hard in my chest I’m convinced something is wrong and I really should get out of the boat and walk back – surely that would be the sensible thing to do? No chance. Our start is strong and precise just as we have practised in training. We fly down the first 2km with great rhythm and in good shape to move on in the second part of the race. I am in the stroke seat so set the rhythm and control our pace, which is crucial for such a long race. My partner behind me steers with a wire attached to a rudder from his foot and makes the few calls he can manage between breaths. These might be technical reminders or marker points so we know how far is left. He does a great job and, as my vision darkens and I start to struggle to hold myself up and control my body, he reassures me we are going to make it and pushes us on to squeeze even more out of ourselves. It is for these moments we spend all those miserable hours in that dark gym at altitude, training ourselves to glean every last ounce of energy from deep within us.
We cross the finish line and collapse, crumple in our seats with relief spreading over us, but then something else hits a millisecond later. It’s an intense pain in every muscle of the body, my lungs feel like they are full of fluid and there’s a metallic taste of blood in my mouth. I have so little control over my body now that it’s a struggle to get back into the landing stage and carry the boat out to the trailer. I’m met by a man with a clipboard. The last thing I need right now is a drugs test, but it’s a necessary part of sport and something we learn to deal with. You quickly get over the embarrassment of the process so now it is just part of the job.
There’s not long to wait until the results are published and as my body regains feeling and my mind becomes coherent again we find we have finished a credible second behind a very experienced crew. With a slight feeling of disappointment not to have won we decide to be realistic about our race and result. It was by no means perfect and we have plenty to go away and work on, but we should be pleased with this positive outcome and decide there is no need to over-analyse our performance. As important as it is at the time, this trial is merely a stepping stone to my goal of Olympic gold in seven months’ time, and so for today I can say have done a good job.