As I sit writing this in my room in South Korea, we are just a few days away from our opening race of the World Championships. Six weeks have passed since Lucerne, where we had a very disappointing fourth place finish, but this has been flung right to the back of our minds. We have been through an intense period of training at altitude, where we have broken down our stroke and built it back up again from scratch. We have had a crew order change, refreshed our outlook on the next and most important stage of the season and, as a result, found speeds we weren’t finding before.
Our altitude camp in Silvretta was almost a repeat of last year. We arrived there on the back foot having been beaten and desperately needing to find something new. Jurgen often says, “losers train harder,” and that is certainly what we did. We sat down as a crew and discussed in detail our goals and objectives of every session in that three-week period up the mountain. Every water session needed to have a specific purpose. We needed to move in unison so every mile on the ergo would be side by side, becoming mirror images of each other. Everything was aimed towards becoming as close together as possible in those few weeks and, without going as far as chewing our dinner in time, everything else was done together.
My aim for this year has always been to enjoy what I do, and make the most of this incredible opportunity I have to be a full-time athlete while I still can. While my body is able and my ambition remains, this year is to be enjoyed. London gave me what I needed; now I’m rowing with a little less pressure on my shoulders. With this in mind I took more time to look at and enjoy my surroundings up there in the mountains. I have been visiting this place for three weeks every year for the past seven years and have never really taken the time to appreciate where we are. Thousands of tourists drive, walk and cycle past us every day, taking photos, with our lake being the main attraction. We are the mad English guys rowing round and round, getting changed in the van as they stroll past. We row hour after hour in a dark garage and lift weights in the car park. We are a tourist attraction ourselves for a short time. But to us the lake is a tool. We are in the mountains not for the views but for the oxygen-depleted air, and there are no tourists in our team. We are there to do a job, so just this once I took a few seconds every now and then to stop and look. The amazing spell of good weather helped a lot. In my seven years of training there, at some point every time it has snowed. There has never been a week without wind and icy rain but this year was different. It was as if the mountain gods were smiling down on me, allowing me to soak it all in. Bright blue cloudless skies accentuated the snow-capped peaks and the sun shone down on our backs as we built up the mileage on the water. I really was enjoying myself.
Free time comes in dribs and drabs on this camp. With three training sessions a day, five meals and a 15 minute walk (uphill) from our rooms to anywhere, we are left with very little time for relaxation. I managed to catch an episode of ‘Dexter’ – this year’s chosen series, read my book or just tried to recover from the strains of the previous sessions by lying still. The fatigue builds up over the days and weeks; we are effectively broken down and, just like pacing a race, you must last the distance and cross the finish line. By the end of the camp I was empty and physically exhausted, but in a good frame of mind. The whole crew completed every session very well – this fact alone will bring us an enormous amount of confidence coming up to racing.
As Silvretta drew to a close, we pulled in the buoy line for another year. Most of the long mileage for the season was done, we have the fitness in our legs and our lungs are strong. All that’s left is to introduce the real speed work, to transfer everything we have worked on at low intensity to high racing rates and speeds. It’s here in Korea that we sharpen ourselves up to the point ready to race.
It’s exciting travelling so far to compete in a place we have never been to before. With such intense, hot, humid conditions, South Korea is so different to anything we are used to. It has taken a week to get comfortable outside and the training sessions on the water have been tough, but I’m gradually finding it easier to work and move as my body adjusts to the heat. We have to drink litres and litres to maintain hydration and eating is difficult with a stomach full of fluids. White rice is the staple and I’m fast becoming sick of it. But I’m feeling strong, the speed work is improving every day, the boat moves well and we feel confident we can put some good performances together. Top two in the heat will send us straight through to the final a week later – that’s the aim. Now we must put everything together, do what we have done in training and the result will be there for us. Nothing is going to be easy; our opposition are fast and we must race with guts and heart, but, knowing the guys I’m with, that’s exactly what we’ll do.