Sunday, 27 January 2008

Race-day psychosis

You would never have guessed I'd missed a week of training and half a week of food - pacing around the changing rooms and club room before boating for yesterday's race, I felt exactly the same as before every race.

Yesterday was a head race, a 4km time trial with the tide, from Chiswick to Hammersmith. Head races are notoriously painful affairs, being far longer than most regatta courses and, without a crew side-by-side to race down the course, far harder to maintain the necessary gee-ed-up-ness to work through the pain. When I woke yesterday, it was with the fear - the queasy disquiet at the thought of the looming, entirely self-inflicted pain - already firmly lodged in my core.

The hour before boating is the worst. Fear of the pain, uncertainty in my fitness, ability, technique. But as we go to get the boat out, a switch is flicked. All of a sudden, my usual calm demeanour slips away, replaced by that of a single-minded, rowing thug. I pace around, I focus inwards, I'm not about to get out anyone's way, and one look at my eyes will tell you that. I transform into a sado-masochist. One of the symptoms of this transformation is that the sorts of words and phrases which appeal to me change from things which I like the sound of, such as:

  • lascivious;
  • kumquat;
  • delectable;
  • gesticulate;
  • onomatopoeia;
  • oleaginous;
to things which raise my stress levels, blood pressure and presumably my ability to perform, things like:
  • kill;
  • death;
  • rip;
  • kill;
  • explode;
  • power;
  • kick-ass;
  • "I'm-gonna-stuff-my-presence-on-the-water-down-the-throat-of-any-passing-norovirus"; and did I mention my favourite psyching-up word...
  • kill.

I'm sure you get the idea - anything aggressive pretty much does the trick.

I get properly psyched up. From the moment I'm in the boat, I'm switched on and hyper-sensitive to every sound, sensation and presence. I sit up taller, set my jaw to super-psyched rower position (very similar to aggressive thug position, but with marginally more gorm...) and block out any other crews on the water. They are not there, and on the off-chance that they are there and intend racing, they will lose. I'm not into making conversation with the opposition. Some people do - they go in for a bit of chit chat with their opposite number whilst waiting for the start, but I'd rather kill my opposite number. But before I stuff it to them out on the course, whilst we're paddling down to the start or waiting for the off, I'll use every inch of my height and reach, and every reserve of technique and composure to intimidate the opposition.

Any other day, I'd be convinced that all this is rubbish, and I'm intimidating no-one. I'm sure it is rubbish, and any other day, I wouldn't want to be intimidating anyone, but on race-day it's a vital part of the storyline forming the parallel reality that needs to run through my head to get me through the race. Yesterday, on top of the normal level of self-delusion required, I had to work extra hard to counter any concept that my preparation for the race may have been less than ideal. In addition to usual pre-race fear of pain, I was deeply worried that I would let rip only to find the tank very empty (thanks to Mr Norovirus and three days without food or adequate fluid intake), that perhaps a couple of minutes into the race I would find I had nothing left to give. But you couldn't have told me that on the start, oh no. By the time we'd got to the start, in my parallel reality I Was In The Shape Of My Life. I Have Been Fit As A Fiddle All Year. (I certainly hadn't spent most of it in close proximity to my toilet...)

The start of a head race always feels good - the built-up nervous energy and adrenalin carries us through our start, into our stride, and the first couple of minutes disappear in a display of real, sexy rowing - controlled power, smooth technique. Eight working as one. It feels fantastic. We're closing on the crew ahead, and the crew behind is disappearing into the distance. We're going to power down this course, and blow the other crews out of the water. The landmarks along the Thames pass by quickly. The pain creeps up more slowly, and more sinisterly.

Five minutes in, we're still moving well, but now my legs feel heavy. My body feels heavy. The rating seems unbelievably high and I have no idea how I'm going to continue to do this for the rest of the race, I just know that I am. I will. Norovirus can go hang. Every stroke I take tightens the noose on the virus. I can feel it. My pain is killing it. Every stroke. Every stroke. More pain. More Pain. Love the Pain. Love the Power. Kill. KILL.

My lungs are bursting for air, my abs are screaming for a rest, my legs feel like lead, my forearms are full of acid. Holding the technique is hard work, but I'm concentrating on the music of the boat, the strength at the finish, the smooth (increasingly ragged) glide up the slide, water trickling off the blades, the splash of the catch, the deep growl of the drive. I'm loving the visual symmetry, seeing the synchronised blades in the periphery of my vision. Forwards and back. Describing symmetric arcs (with a bit of translation and reflection). Nurture the Symmetry. Keeping it Tidy. Holding the Beauty. Loving my Blade. Loving the Crew. Loving the Music. Nurture the Pain. Nurture the Pain. Nurture the Pain. NURTURE THE PAIN.

There's a cheer. We're a minute from the end. The rest of the club is standing on the raft and cheering for us - this really is time to block out the pain and row sexily for the cameras. We're powering through. The finish. We're there.

The adrenalin drains away. We're shattered. We can't speak. It's bizarre how disabling losing the need to compete can be. We can barely move, yet seconds earlier we were firing on all cylinders, tired, but coordinated, and moving pretty quickly. Immediately past the finish, we might as well have been haggis for all the speed we could give the boat. The pain had vanished, but the energy was gone.

There were an awful lot of boats at the finish. It's striking - I had barely been aware of them at the start, and only aware of one during the race (did I not mention there was a bunch of schoolkids chasing us down the course?) They look as wrecked as we feel - no doubt we all look pretty rough. I know I'm a bit broken. Gone are my pre-race delusions of being in the shape of my life, my parallel reality sank at the finish. I don't need it anymore. It has done its job. It got me through...

The transition from wannabe killing-machine to knackered rower is extreme and exhausting. The adrenalin has gone. The competition has passed. I'm not interested in aggression. I no longer want to kill anything. I'm satisfied - it was a good row. As we paddle back to the boathouse, food, water, and sleep resume their customary positions at the forefront of my mind. My race-day persona is put away, shut back in its box, not to be seen again. That is, until the next race. And even as I file away my personal race-day sado-masochist, I can hear her declaring: Bring it on...

Thursday, 24 January 2008


12:30am Monday 21/1/8. But Why is asleep. She will get up early for work as she has some pressing stuff to get finished by 9:30am. She is dreaming. In the dream, she has a very sore abdomen, which makes sense, as she has been training so hard she has broken not one but two rowing machines.

12:31am I was dragged from my dreams by my conscious and subconscious self having a disagreement. My body occupied that space between sleep and wakefulness, alternately paying attention to the opposing forces, waiting to see who would win.

Subconsciousness: Psst, Wake up!
Consciousness: Hrrrrugh?? What time is it?? [Looks at clock.] 12:30am? I know I'm having an early start, but 12:30am early wasn't quite what I meant. And I don't care how many sadly mistaken blackbirds are singing, this is completely inappropriate wakefulness. Now shut up and sleep.
SubC: Erm, hello? Stomach pain...?!
C: Yes, yes, yes... It was a dream, remember? Now shut up yer moaning and let me sleep. [Conscious self shuffles to a more comfortable position and tries to sleep.]
SubC: Look, dude, I've tried to break this to you gently, but you leave me with no choice...
[Conscious self is surprised to find that she is hurtling across the landing with the rapidly clarifying aim of being in close proximity to the toilet in time for the commencement of 12 hours of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhoea.]

And a very grim twelve hours they were, too.

Now, I know that vomiting is unpleasant. I have vomited previously. It has, without exception, been unpleasant. It may have provided some relief, yet I am fully aware that vomiting per se is not something which I eagerly anticipate. Despite this, every time I vomit, I am for some reason caught off-guard by the sheer unpleasantness of it all: beforehand, the stomach gripes, the excess saliva production, the adoption of the pre-puke, toilet-hugging posture, the retching, the sight, the sensation, the sounds, the smell...

The first session was unpleasant enough. The monotony of the puke/wait-to-puke/puke/wait-to-puke/repeat-as-necessary cycle was only slightly relieved by the intermittent requirement for urgent emission of diarrhoea.

I was getting rather bored of the unceasing necessity to puke and crap. Eventually, when I seemed all puked- and crapped-out, I toddled back to bed and tried to replace some of those fluids.

Big mistake.

A couple of minutes later I was back at the toilet, rejecting all the water I'd taken on and any other fluids kicking around for good measure. And this time, the lemon-fresh smell normally associated with the toilet was conspicuous by its absence, replaced with that special scent of sickness - the one that lingers around hospitals - a special blend of cleaning products and the products of diseased bodies. The first session was unpleasant enough, and it would only get worse as the night wore on...

Another abortive trip back to bed, a couple of sips of water and a few moments of feverish sleep later, the cycle repeated itself.

And so on...

And so on...

Some of these were vomit-only excursions, others required a delicate judgement of the direction and timing of emissions, and an unfeasible chunk of coordination and reflexes to avoid carpet disasters. I could rather have done with a handy bucket to provide for both eventualities, however, the bucket was up a flight of stairs and, on Sunday night, climbing those stairs constituted an insurmountable feat of athleticism, and, more pressingly, would have placed me worryingly remote from a toilet.

Two loo-rolls later, I admitted defeat on the dehydration front. I'd had enough of the routine, gave up on trying to drown the pesky norovirus, and collapsed into bed for a couple of days.

I guess it's what comes from rowing on the cleanest Metropolitan sewer river in Europe...

Friday, 18 January 2008

Bear with me...

...and I will try to explain.

I will try to explain why it is that on Friday night, I am heading to bed with a bottle of water, a tube of Deep Heat, and a bottle of Surgical Spirits for company.

I will try to explain why it is that every piece of me aches.

And then, I will try to explain why it is all so fun.

Last week, I was feeling pretty chipper. Positive developments were threatening to materialise at work, training was going well, I had fun plans for the weekend, and I was generally on top of everything: health, life and work-wise. I was remembering just how absolutely good it felt when I was a student - very little stress, excellent health, busy social life, plenty sleep. Nothing looming on the horizon.

I spent five or six hours on the river last weekend - a long outing Saturday morning, and another on Sunday. Saturday's was great. Sunday's wasn't so good. Not only had I had less than five hours' sleep, but ten minutes after getting on the water, I felt sick. Properly sick. Like a fool, I assumed it was some combination of the previous night's lack of sleep, perhaps one beer more than was prudent, and the goat curry. So, feeling properly sick and rowing like a sack of spuds whilst our coach barked increasingly impossible commands at me, I spent the rest of the outing attempting to coax my ailing body towards the unreasonable feats which formed The Plan For The Outing. I muttered many expletives under my breath. In fairness to the coach, it should be pointed out that, as I assumed I was entirely responsible for my sickness, I didn't actually complain that I felt two strokes short of death for most of the outing. I was hoping to get though in one piece without anyone noticing I was a bit worse for wear. That's part of the mentality - mustn't show weakness...

Walking home after the outing, I felt well and truly spent, I assumed from the morning's exertions. I retired home via the supermarket, and picked up kind, gentle foodstuffs to recover at home with. Or so I thought. I went to bed in my post-prandial lull, about 3pm. I stayed there until Monday morning, leaving only to dash to the loo for bouts of the sort of violent explosive diarrhoea that make you wonder just what pressure the gut can withstand.... I have no idea how I went from feeling so well to feeling so rubbish in the space of a few hours, but somehow, I managed it. And my, did I feel rubbish.

To top it all off, as I lay in bed on Monday morning composing my email to my line manager, a few people I was going to be meeting later in the day, and my rowing buddies, to explain why I wouldn't be at work/training, it occurred to me that I didn't feel quite as appalling as I felt an hour ago. And actually, I could probably make it into work. Training might be a step too far, but work... Well, I thought I could manage eight hours sitting at a desk within running distance to the loo.

I didn't train again until Wednesday - a six mile jog along the river. It was slow, and it was unduly hard work, but it felt good to be working my body again, for it to be working for me and doing my bidding instead of declaring war on my ambitions, even though my bidding was something as truely pointless as running to Chiswick bridge and back again. As I suffered no ill effects from this on Thursday, I took the gamble of going to circuit training.

I should explain why this was a gamble:

  1. I hadn't eaten in the afternoon and had resorted to gobbling an emergency maltloaf whilst jogging to circuits;
  2. Circuits are my most hated form of exercise ever. It's hard to get motivated to do the jumping around bit, and the only thing which keeps me going is the thought that everyone else is and not going is letting the crew down;
  3. The coach is a well-meaning sadist. It was entirely likely that there would be a new and excruciating exercise or ten added to the plan;
  4. Once I had shown my face at circuits, there is no giving up, no pulling out with a sicknote from the doctor, no explaining that perhaps it's better for me not to push it too hard right now... That mentality doesn't fit.

Circuits consists of twelve stations, one minute per station. That's 48 minutes of high-intensity exercise straight off. Add on a couple of miles' jog there and back, and a hundred or so extra bonus squatjumps just to ratchet up the lactic acid in the thighs, and my quite ridiculous pride and stubbornness, and you have the makings of a very painful outcome.

And so it is that a day later it's Friday evening and I'm lying in bed covered in deep heat. And for good measure and olefactory delight, I have given my palms and soles a good surgical spiriting. I smell like I've had a bad accident with a cleaning cupboard (and I'm not convinced that the skin around my shoulders where I've just applied some more deep heat wasn't grazed. Ooooooh, that stings!) Tomorrow morning I have two outings - 7:45 am at the boathouse. On one level, I wish I could turn my alarm clock off and stay in bed all day. On another level, I love it.

It's that other level that I need to explain, but right now, it's bedtime (bedtime for rowers, at any rate), and because I love rowing, I'm going to sleep now and will blog that bit some other time.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Incomprehension part II: Shopping

The energy and devotion which some people reserve for shopping leaves me immeasurably baffled. I am notoriously bad at shopping - most trips to the shops which are for purposes other than buying food leave me concluding that I don't need whichever article I thought I needed badly enough to wander round numerous shops until I find one which fits my body and budget, and for which I would gladly stand in a queue in an over-heated, stuffy and uncomfortably-lit shop for sufficient time to conclude the purchase successfully. My tolerance of such activities is atrociously low, unless I'm helping someone else to shop, in which case I will happily pull things off rails, march them into changing rooms and offer my opinion of colour, fit and comeliness, and continue this process for several hours without showing signs of fatigue.

So I am left rather befuddled that my latest shopping trip has gone so well - I have new trainers. And I had a very, very exciting time doing the shopping for them, which involved rolling up my jeans, exposing my ankles, and running on a treadmill whilst having the backs of my ankles filmed for analysis and afterwards engaging in detailed discussion of my feet, ankles and knees, and trying another pair of shoes until I found the right one. At some point in this process I managed to ingratiate myself with the customer service agent sufficiently to be offered (having visibly flinched at the price) a 10% discount because she liked me because I "picked up on things and didn't give me a hard time for having waited so long to be served". That was very kind of her, but it still left me slightly pining for feet which stopped growing at a slightly cheaper size and shape...

Nevertheless, after all that effort to find decent shoes, I am happy. Ecstatic, in fact. They fit really well. And I look great in them, in the sense that my ankles and feet do all the right things at all the right times, which is important because I weigh a ton (well, twelve stone something) and I'm supposedly running a half marathon in a couple of months. In a ball dress. (Note to self - next time wait to be under the influence of alcohol before agreeing to do such things...). Now that I have my ruby slippers, I have very few excuses to not attend the ball.

The ruby slippers

Well, I must be off - hours of sweaty fun with my shiny new toys await...

Thursday, 10 January 2008


There is a rather good canteen at work. It produces standard canteen fayre and distributes it using standard canteen processes (users collect a tray from the piles outside the canteen, assess what they would like to buy, put their tray on a rail, put a plate on their tray, and put the desired items onto a plate. They then pick up the tray/plate/food ensemble, walk to the tills and pay. Finally, they collect any necessary cutlery and condiments, take a seat and consume their purchases.)

Hitherto, it had not been felt necessary to provide diners with instructions for this part of the dining process. Waste separation and recycling are infinitely more complicated processes and handy idiots' guides have been provided in the vicinity of these facilities for some time, but the food purchasing system was assessed to be sufficiently simple to not warrant the attention of the perhaps slightly overly cautious people in the Health and Safety department.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, I present you with the latest and greatest contribution to Health and Safety in the workplace.

Look closer...

I found this on Monday. Those are not cheap signs. They are heavy duty things with what I can only presume is a bit of custom printing on the front (I sincerely hope these are not stock items...) I am reluctant to comment on what this suggests for the assumed levels of intelligence of canteen users. I am quite, quite speechless.

Post script 18/1/2008: In an apparent u-turn, the signs have been removed. No doubt scenes of food-spillage chaos will await me on Monday.

Astha eerbinuppeer?

Ehem. Forgive my lapse into my native tongue. One of my colleagues, a self-confessed Londoner, amazed me the other day. She has never been further north than Watford. As she rightly points out, it is warmer if you head south. Being from north of Watford myself, I have all too often joked about the folk down south who think there's nothing of any value north of Watford, but I had been yet to actually meet one in the flesh. I certainly didn't think that they would take the form of a well-rounded person, and I couldn't possibly imagine that they might be the sort of person I could get on well with. But they are. She is. The revelation left me gibbering slightly in my dulcet Yorkshire tones.

In the absence of northern family or friends, the reason to travel north of Watford is to experience those awe-inspiring slivers, urban and rural, which nestle between the folds of the country. I scraped five together to evidence my assertion that there were places north of Watford that were worth the journey, even if that journey involves the M25 and M1. Here's my off-the-top-of-my-head list of locations:

Scotland: If you don't make it north of Watford, you'll die without seeing the Highlands. If the scenery doesn't move you (assuming the weather has been kind enough to permit you to see it), check your pulse and if still viable, take a crash course in spirituality. Edinburgh's up in Scotland, too. Definitely worth a trip, and not just for shortbread retail therapy.

The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford: I cannot understand why this place is not rammed full of visitors gawping at its shrunken heads, war quoits, and the spoils of the Victorian Smash-and-Grab approach to cultural exchange. It has an amazing and wonderful (though quite ill-gotten and somewhat higgledy-piggledy) collection of anything that interested our explorer types on their overseas jollies, and which they fancied relieving the natives and noble savages of and bringing back home. So visit the shrunken heads, the mummies, the random collection of boats suspended overhead. Take time to reflect. Pause for thought at the scale model of the sun, earth and moon on the balcony above the natural history collection on your way out, and say hello to the dinosaurs - they don't bite.

Berwick Upon Tweed: I defy anyone to visit this little town and not fall in love with it. Forget any notion of going to Durham. Have a potter round Berwick instead. Sinner's Coffee shop is truely fantastic, and the only coffee shop I could ever envisage spending a whole day in and enjoying. It's well-hidden, but that's part of the fun and joy in discovering it.

Kinder Scout: Kinder on a winter's day is the sort of territory that lets you know in your heart, if not in your head, that parts of the UK are in fact at the same latitude as bits of Siberia. Kinder Scout is a big lump of land in the middle of the Peak District. Bleak and Beautiful. Hags and Groughs. Yin and Yang. Go there and restore your balance, and retire to a log fire at a pub by one of the edges at the end of the day. Try not to spend the night on Kinder unless you planned to do so. Local hostelries may be warm and welcoming. Kinder is not.

York: Heck, if you don't know why you should go to York, you really need to go there. There is a fantastic pub which serves very good beer and an excellent range of tapas (and does all those traditional log fire things as well), but that's not the primary reason why you should visit York, though. History - that's why. They have it in spades up there, with a couple of millenia worth of the stuff on display. They also have Betty's tea room, a visit to which for the purposes of consuming a fat rascal is nigh-on compulsory.

There - five good reasons to head north of Watford, without recourse to the Lake District, Northumberland, Newcastle, Snowdonia, Norwich, Stratford upon Avon, Whitby, an abundance of Morrisons, the birthplace of Warburton's, Henderson's relish, Pontefract cakes, and so on. Plenty reasons to visit and spend your hard-earned cash, but don't ever think of moving there. It's grim up north...

Thursday, 3 January 2008


I'm not my usual cheery self, and it's not due to the news that my current customer wants to extend me for another year (which a few months ago would have been reason enough to send me over the edge). It's this:

A little over seven years ago, incompetent hanging, dimpled or pregnant chads caused the US election result to be disputed. This was inconvenient for Americans, who waited reasonably patiently for the result to be determined, but was the source of much amusement on the other side of the channel. Some of the jokes being made were even rather humorous - the declaration of the revocation of Independence being one of them.

The 2004 elections were similarly derided this side of the pond, initially because the "Murkans" elected the wrong guy (again), but were also criticised for more sinister irregularities in the vote, less easily dismissed as incompetence. Still, to the best of my knowledge, no-one died in the aftermath. True, service personnel and civilians are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, and possibly in greater numbers than has they picked the other guy, but I don't recall reports of wide-spread election violence and Gore supporters going on the rampage.

Not so in Kenya. There's nothing funny about the happenings there following Mwai Kibaki's disputed victory over Raila Odinga. People are dying. This is horrific. There is no democracy in killing.

The reports we get of the violence and massacres seem to conclude that they are almost inevitable given Kenya's tribal composition. Are they? Are they any less obscene and saddening for their motivation? Or are we missing what seems to me to be the most obvious observation which is that there really is nothing excusable or inevitable about inter-tribal violence and perhaps instead of trying to explain these occurrences, we should rediscover a sense of horror and incomprehension?

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Resistance is fertile

Happy New Year. May 2008 bring you joy and success in your new diet/exercise regime/job/home/family/hobby/stage of life/state of mind*.

Over the last year, I've frequently found myself thinking that I really ought to spend more time indulging in satisfying if somewhat illicit night-time activities.

I heard about guerrilla gardening in this piece on Radio 4 a couple of years ago. The notion of gardening as a political weapon and improving otherwise barren, wasted public space, and committing to its maintenance was immensely appealing. I immediately developed a mental image of well-spoken, welly-wearing, mild-mannered, green-fingered, trowel-wielding nocturnal activists explaining their illegal acts of civil disobedience to the slightly confused members of the local constabulary called to investigate reports of illegal earth moving by suspects armed with forks and trowels. It occurred to me that it would be rather fun to join in...

My then home town of Farnham (a well-kept and blooming town with a decidedly ageing population in green and leafy Surrey) was perhaps not the most likely place in which to germinate successfully the seeds of horticultural discontent. I resolved to get involved in this movement on some level, at some later time, and most likely in some other place. Unlike Farnham, London is a veritable hotbed of guerrilla gardening activity.

In keeping with my earlier intentions, I have as of last week enlisted as a wannabe guerrilla and will be making myself available during the gardening season for raids on ignored and unloved patches of soil around the capital. Dispatches from the front are posted here.


*Delete as appropriate.