I can’t tell you the relief as the bus wheels start to roll off down the mountain as we leave the Sierra Nevada training centre not to return again for at least a year. We have just spent two weeks in the impressive, purpose-built facility perched on the mountainside at an altitude of 2,320m in Southern Spain. At this altitude the training benefit is optimum, however this camp is dreaded by us all in the heavyweight men’s rowing team and is undoubtedly the most gruelling, physically demanding, mentally draining training camp we undertake throughout the year. After entering the doors at the beginning, we don’t step outside again until boarding the bus two weeks later. Everything we require is contained within the walls and thus often referred to as prison!
The training is land-based and used purely as an intense fitness, strength-building phase continuing from the long miles we have been doing on the lake in the UK. We use Ergos (rowing machines) and weights of which every score, every stroke, every single lift is monitored and recorded. It allows the coaches to build up our fitness and strength picture so accurately that they know exactly how we are preforming at this crucial time of year. The aim is then to return to the UK (and a sensible altitude) fitter, stronger and with enriched blood so the training from then can be even more beneficial, leading into the trialling period through which we must earn our seats for the Olympics.
Each day starts with a groan and a creak from my back as I swing reluctantly out of bed. The cold dry mountain air seems to dry my throat out through the night so every day I start with a sore rasping throat. I take a urine sample to the physiologist, who also takes a sample of blood from my ear to measure the urea content (more indications of our fitness and health). A wash and a protein shake later I’m down at first breakfast eating in silence, the quietest meal of the day. I then head through the maze of corridors towards the Ergo room where the silent black dreaded machines await us. I stretch in silence desperately trying to take my mind off starting this first session. 20km on the Ergo first thing in the morning at this altitude is possibly the worst way to start any day. Eventually with looser limbs I seat myself and prepare the screen to record my session. The coaches are annoyingly jubilant. They seem to take pleasure in watching us suffer and as the camp goes on and fatigue hits hard this feeling of resentment grows; I have to remind myself that I am the one choosing to be here and do this sport! At just 1km in (four mins), I can feel my body is in trouble. So far I have been sensible with the scores I have been pulling in an attempt to adapt to altitude, but as the days go on I want to show the coaches I am strong and able to cope with the training. I have been gradually improving my score, but sometimes this feels like the wrong thing to do. Questions start to ring round my head: can I hold this for another 68 minutes? Should I go lighter? Should I continue and risk having to stop? Shall I just stop and end this pain? I know that stopping is simply not an option and in our sport an unacceptable action. It is a sign of weakness, yet the mental battles continue. As the metres slowly tick past and as my legs grow numb, my arms feel like lead and my lungs burn as I break down the remaining metres into small manageable chunks. Eventually the distance has been completed and I stumble off the machine into the pool of sweat that has dripped from my skin over that last 72 minutes. Another blood sample taken, score recorded and feelings gradually return to my extremities. This is the first of four sessions today and each one is as painful as the last. This training is only possible with the correct quantities of fuel and so five meals and four protein shakes in a day allow me to continue without losing too much weight and perform at the level I need.
As I sit on the bus descending the mountain I can feel the air thicken. It is as much psychological as anything, but it seems to have a healing effect on me. I can feel my strength returning and it is a relief to be off the ‘knife edge’ of illness at least until we get back to England and return to our boats and the training resumes again, tomorrow.