Sunday, 29 June 2008

A Day Off

I've had a day off. A real, proper day off. By this, I mean I had a whole day when not only did I not go to work, but I also didn't go rowing (or running, or erging, or doing weights, etc.). As far as I can recall, Friday was the first time this year that I have achieved both not working and not rowing without also either visiting relatives in hospital, or having dysentery. Consequently, I have very low expectations of days off.

My day off had an inauspicious start. I woke up in the Harlow Travelodge at about 1am. (This narrowly beats having dysentery, but hardly constitutes advanced holidaying behaviour.) I resolved to go back to sleep and try again.

By 8am, I was ready to give the day a second chance. Having made our morning ablutions, Dr Why? the Elder and I made our way to the station to get breakfast and a train to The Big Smoke.

A short trek from Liverpool Street lie some Turkish baths. I'd endeavoured to book a session at The Sanctuary for Dr Why? the Elder and I, but was sadly out of luck. Searching for alternatives, I stumbled across these baths. A session in a spa had been a brainwave I had whilst studying the training plan for the week. Alongside running, cycling, yoga and pilates, Friday contained the option of swimming, which I immediately seized upon as the only option in which my mother would voluntarily accompany me and which not only be sociable, but also earn me brownie points. Having eliminated all possibilities for Thursday's session aside from weights (and the non-option of a day off), I figured that a swim the following day (and ideally a spot of sauna-ing) would be a good plan. Having failed to book the Sanctuary, and having happened across this place with its 30m pool and extra bonus Turkish baths, it seemed I'd found my ideal training session.

Having made our way on foot to the baths, we descended into the cellar to steam, sauna, plunge and be pummelled into relaxation.

The first thing which struck me as being a little remarkable was that the changing rooms were pretty much non-existent. There were lockers, there was a bench, and they were located in a corridor behind a room full of beds. At the end of the corridor was a water fountain, beyond which lay the baths. A heavy mist hung in the air. Having followed the handy instructions on how to take a Turkish bath (Step 1: get undressed) and stashed our stuff in the lockers, we headed into the baths.

The second remarkable thing was the seemingly overwhelming number of showers. They appeared to be everywhere. One was occupied by a rotund pensioner taking a vigorous shower. After exchanging pleasantries and establishing from her apparel that clothing was in fact strictly optional, we discovered she was a regular, having been using the baths each week for 30 years, and was only too happy to point out the facilities to any newcomers. The plunge pool was round the corner. A steam room lay at the end, three connected saunas of increasing heat in the middle, and the plunge pool at the far end. There were no Koi Carp here, just terracotta tiles, the odd marble slab and much wooden benching.

The steam room was hot and contained several people in varying amounts of swimwear. Having ascertained from the afore-mentioned pensioner that clothing was indeed optional, I didn't delay in stripping off and enjoying the heat permeating my sore, post-weights-session muscles. I could feel the tension in my back lessening by the second. It was more than welcome, it was verging on heavenly. (Coming from an atheist, this is high praise...) It didn't matter that the wooden benching was verging on the slimy, or that the room had a faint musty smell. If anything, it added to the old worlde charm of the place and its unapologetic, almost brutal, functionalism.

A quick shower and a plunge later, we headed for the sauna. After the small steam room, the size of the hot rooms gave a misleading sensation of coolness, causing us to head to the hottest of the three rooms. After cooking ourselves at 80 degrees for as long as it took us to notice the temperature gauge, the plunge pool again beckoned and the cycle started again.

We'd earlier booked massages, and as Dr Why? The Elder disappeared to have her shoulders realigned with human anatomy, I sweated buckets in the sauna. Later, and a few pails of perspiration lighter, it was my turn to have my shoulders pulled, pushed, twisted, and pressed back to shape, my lower back encouraged to move again, and my iliotibial bands massaged to excruciating effect. The benefits of all this were that I got to talk about rowing a lot (always a bonus...), have discovered a range of motion in my shoulders I had forgotten was possible, and I got to borrow the Concise Book of Muscles to read whilst I recovered from my pummeling. It also enabled me to later surf at my leisure and discover some ingenius stretches for my rather over-worked (and over-squatted) ITBs.

A bit of swimming later, training for the day was over, and a spot of lunch was in order. Thanks to the miracle of mobile phones, we made our way to a pub half a mile away to find my brother (Mr Why? Junior) seated at an upstairs window. A group of people wearing fluorescent yellow gas masks and CBRN suits were strutting their stuff on the street below. (That sort of thing doesn't happen in Harlow.) Perhaps they were demonstrating, or perhaps they just like wearing yellow CBRN suits. It's hard to tell with some people...

A short jaunt underground to London Bridge preceded shopping for very lovely foods at Borough Market. As with all trips to Borough Market, I came away the happy owner of some expensive and very yummy sun-blushed tomatoes, and with some very exciting sausages. Dr Why? the Elder came away with less cash in her purse than she started with.

Having returned to the Why? flat and briefly rested market-weary legs, we packed a picnic of the best sort (a bottle of red and antipasti) and wandered along the river to The River Cafe. It's currently being refurbished, and the only way to eat there at the moment is to bring your own food and make use of the outdoor furniture.

We sat down to our picnic as what appeared to be a minor hurricane swept through Hammersmith. I've never picnic-ed during an extreme weather event before, and wasn't entirely sure what protocol was. I did however assume that this was some variation of the law of nature which states that the probability of rain occurring on any given day is directly proportional to the square of the number of barbeques planned for that day. After sinking a bracing half bottle, we repaired home to finish off the rest in more windproof surroundings, and to continue putting the world to rights (always a popular activity after a bottle of wine).

At some point in the process of getting increasingly sozzled, it became evident that a meal was called for. Having had only one decent meal from a restaurant within walking distance for a tired and sozzled rower and her slightly merry mother, the local Somali restaurant was patronised. I was slightly surprised to discover that amongst Dr Why? The Elder's many talents (including tap-dancing, knitting, prolific cake production, elementary butchery and an ability to keep Mr Why? Senior alive and with a realistic stretch target of him being able to kick with his right leg in the near future), she has an embryonic command of Somali. My mother's myriad talents never cease to amaze me. I hoped they would extend to getting her home safely following the earlier imbibation.

A tasty meal and a full stomach later, it was high time for an early night in preparation for returning to the rowing grindstone on Saturday morning. It must have been at least 8:30pm...

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Summer solstice silliness

Yesterday was the summer solstice here. To mark the occasion, some bright spark on the other side of the erging pond thought they'd come up with a challenge for the longest day: a 21km erg race. I'd put the date in my diary a few months ago when it was sufficiently far into the future as to seem like a good idea.

After Saturday morning's arm-beasting outing and a session in the gym squatting some reasonably heavy weights, we repaired to a local cafe for 'breakfast'. It was by then about midday. I was declared mad by the rest of the crew for contemplating returning to the club for what was likely to be more than an hour and a half of constant erging.

I wasn't too concerned by the distance, though I supposed my butt might be a bit sore by the end, and that I'd need to be diligent about rehydrating during the session and for the rest of the day (no more tea or coffee). 21km is just under twice the distance I've been rowing regularly in training, so I figured I could managed that without too much trauma, with maybe a few drinks breaks along the way to get some carbs and fluid in.

At about half three in the afternoon I started erging.

I finished shortly after 5pm, having got through a litre and half of carbohydrate drink, acquired a blister on my right heel, sweat rather a lot, and developed (as I had suspected) rather sore buttocks. Having said that, all things considered it was rather less strenuous than I thought it would be.

I didn't feel too bad this morning - I had a little soreness in my quads, but it was no worse than I would have anticipated following the squats from yesterday. If anything, I suspected I was rather less sore for having followed up with a long erg and a satisfying session of stretching afterwards. I'd also been relatively good at making sure I refuelled with plenty carbs and protein (thanks in no small part to a double outing the following morning and Tuesday's 2km test erg being at the back of my mind).

This morning's outings were hard. The water was frenzied, and we were rowing into a silly-stiff headwind at times. Having recently changed sides, rowing on stroke side is proving mentally exhausting per se in the absence of testing conditions. With the wind trying to rip my blade from my fatigued grip with every stroke, and yesterday's half-marathon efforts making themselves felt in my thighs, I don't think I could have been concentrating harder on my technique if my life depended on it.

And I rowed pretty well.

I've always liked a challenge, but until today I hadn't realised how much easier I find it to switch on and concentrate when I perceive things to be tough. Properly tough, such as having four bow-siders in the same four with two rowing on their disfavoured side, in rubbish water, with a silly headwind, and with my hands shredded from yesterday's stroke-side exploits. I can concentrate pretty well under those conditions.

It was hard work, though.

It's 7pm now, and there's no way I can write off the stiffness that has lodged itself firmly in my thighs as being wholly due to the squats I did yesterday. The erg and some tough outings have caught up with me, and brought with them much pain. It hurts a lot. Climbing stairs is tough. Descending them is nigh-on impossible.

It's two days until the next test erg, and I hope I'm recovered in time. If not, it's going to be tough. Mind you, perhaps (given today's realisation) that would be for the best...

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Impending weights

I have somehow managed to get through the last few months doing remarkably little work with weights. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • I placed a higher priority of getting rid of the lard that had insulated me whilst living in the unheated glass box in Guildford than on building extra bonus thigh and bicep;
  • I didn't trust myself not to be over-ambitious with the weight and damage myself before I'd at least built up some rudimentary muscle between my joints;
  • My lack of cardiovascular (CV) fitness was a much bigger problem than my lack of strength;
  • I seem to recall from my college days that the approved way to build muscle was to row in the 1st VIII and be fed subsidised steak with a couple of pints of semi-skimmed, a small mountain of salad and a correspondingly-sized portion of chips. The Steak Table was pretty much compulsory for 1st VIII rowers. Weights weren't. It may not be as effective in building muscle, but being fed steak is far, far easier than lifting heavy weights and is a far more appealing thing to be doing at dinner time.

Unfortunately, having shed some of the spare lard I'd laid down to see me through winter, grown a bit of muscle, and made progress with my CV fitness, I'm running out of excuses not to do weights.

Ugh. I'd rather be eating steak.

And, anyway, I'm hardly a waif as it is. The last six months of training has already had sufficient effect to grow my neck to the point where it is possible for me to strangle myself by wearing my own clothes. I discovered this on Tuesday, when upon adding extra layers following my evening's workout before stepping out into the cool evening for the walk home, I was deeply disturbed to find that my neck has grown to a sufficient diameter for me to be strangled by my own Helly Hansen short-sleeved Lifa top. Could there be a more embarrassing way to die? I can see the headstone, now: Here lies But Why?. Born an Essex girl, tragically strangled at the age of 28 by her own tech top. The best that can be hoped for is that the tragedy of the dispatch would draw attention away from my unfortunate birth location...

Really. I think I might re-organise my wardrobe according to neck circumference so I can risk-assess my likelihood of death from asphyxiation from wearing each garment. And the danger doesn't stop only at asphyxiation - there's also the hazard of cutting off the blood supply to my limbs.

I dislike weights with a passion previously reserved only for brussel sprouts. Mind you, I grew to like those. Perhaps I could learn to love weights? I think it's unlikely. I have good reasons for hating weights:
  • They are heavy;
  • They hurt;
  • They are quite, quite boring;
  • Doing weights makes my normally gangly, simian frame becomes increasingly gorilla-like. This is A Look Which Is Not Good;
  • They are expensive. (On previous occasions when I have done regular weights sessions, I found I had to replace my wardrobe over a period of about four months as one by one all my clothes became too small to enable my thighs, shoulders, chest or arms to fit into them.)
Against that background, I suppose it's not surprizing that my heart sank a little to read the latest issue of the social life replacement scheme (aka the training plan for the week) and find it featured a new weights regime (aka Gorilla Plan).

My pre-gorilla plan measurements:
  • My (morning) height: 5' 11 1/2"
  • My (pre-erg) weight: 12 st 7 lb ish
  • My neck circumference: 15 1/2"
  • Upper arm (left) circumference: 11 3/4"
  • Upper arm (right) circumference: 12"
  • Thigh (left) circumference: 23 3/4"
  • Thigh (right) circumference: 24"
  • Chest circumference: (inhaled) 38 1/4"; exhaled 35 1/4"
  • Waist: 34"
  • Forearm (right) circumference: 10 3/8"
  • Forearm (left) circumference: 10 1/4"
Sum total of measurements = Not A Waif (though I am cheating in many of these measurements by including lard contribution in the measurement.)

My transformation into a relatively hair-free gorilla begins this evening. Heck. Not again. (I had enough of scraping my knuckles on the floor as teenager.) This time, though, I'm making plans in advance. I shall be ensuring that any clothes I buy in future contain sufficient lycra to stretch to fit. I wonder whether I could ditch the concept of wearing a suit to work and instead get a range of lycra unisuits made up with a variety of sombre-coloured pinstripe and check designs, and hope that no-one notices the difference.

Weights. Ugh.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Happy days

Yesterday was A Good Day.

Work was in many ways very rubbish - it was already becoming apparent that I have too much to do to deliver something of the quality I'd be happy with by my end-of-the-month deadline (assuming I continue my endeavours to keep myself healthy through eating and sleeping and training), then following a meeting I'd prompted, it transpired that a colleague is in near dire need of a lot of support to get him through to the end of Thursday if the large workshop we're holding is not to appear a badly-organised amateurish affair (which would be A Very Bad Thing). Luckily this takes priority - not getting this right by Thursday will be embarrassing and damage our reputation, whereas my delivery of draft material will be a minor inconvenience. It thus will take some of the sting out of my late/draft delivery (if and only if we get Thursday right). Organising workshops being neither one of my core competencies nor a task in which I have much (any?) experience, it makes for an interesting change. I still have a lot of work on for the customer, but with Thursday's event and an exciting away day coming up the following week, the slog through to the end of the month seems tractable.

Meanwhile, The Mother Ship (aka my employer) continues to provide a steady stream of overhead and administrative work which has been keeping me busy in the evenings. This should taper off towards the end of the month and last night I'd crossed enough off my To-Do list to make my current batch of work look tractable and (dare I suggest such a thing?) on target.

By 8pm (and for a 12 hour working day) the day was going so surprizingly well that things really couldn't get much better. I took the time to check my email and found the training schedule for the week had winged its way to my inbox. It convinced me to down tools for the day and head to the gym for a long erg. On the way, I passed one of my crewmates heading home from her session. We exchanged a few words - it transpired another crewmate was pleased to have beaten my score from last week. This was motivation enough to persuade me that a serious sweating was called for.

45 minutes of erging later, I'd stuck just over 400 metres on my score from last week, and in the process notched up a best for the season (and drenched myself in thoroughly justified sweat). This was turning into an unlikely but Very Good Day. When I take another three seconds off my steady state 500m split time or, equivalently, add another 362m to my 45 min distance, I might have a beer to celebrate. (Incidentally, I think the last time I had a beer was the "Did I ever tell you" night. Evidently the occasion was sufficiently traumatic to persuade me that repeat performances were not called for. (Postscript: I am of course talking rubbish. My last beer was of course on the Circle line. Just another beer forgotten in the alcoholic haze of time...)

I wandered home in a state of extreme post-erg brain-mush, taking in the stillness of the river, the reflection of Hammersmith Bridge on its glass-like surface, and the last of the fading light to the west.

I wonder what today will bring?

Saturday, 14 June 2008


We took a quad out on Thursday evening for our first outing after last weekend's regatta.

I have a fear of quads. Years of rowing in eights has convinced me that the correct way to arrange eight blades is staggered over a distance of some ten or so metres. Certainly not arranged in claustrophobic pairs with the spoons encroaching on my personal space in the boat.

I have a keen sense of the amount of space which it is right and proper for me to occupy, and rowing boats are most definitely in scope of this sense. Most of the club's eights are spacious and capacious, leaving adequate room for me to do my blade work. A single is neither spacious nor capacious, but I don't have to share that small space with three other people and six sculls beyond my control. Given that my sculling leaves a huge amount to be desired and that I still have difficulty in getting my two hands to do something reasonably similar at the same time, the prospect of an outing in a scratch crew in a quad was not immediately appealing. The excessive inboard length of the sculls served to make me feel even more like a poorly-coordinated orangutan, accentuating the awkwardness of the stroke.

The first few minutes were telling. Spoons dragged on the water. Even with one pair sitting the boat, stabilising it with their blades, the boat lurched from side to side. The short jaunt to Chiswick would seem terribly protracted.

My doubts dissolved as we returned under Barnes bridge. The strokes were strong, the timing secure, and the evening turning into one of those glorious summer moments when there is nothing I'd rather be doing than being in a boat. The sun was low in the sky, casting an increasingly orange streak across the river. The puddles from our blades reflected the turquoise sky, starkly contrasting with the orange glimmers from the setting sun. It was perfect. For a couple of strokes, the sculling was sweet, and the light was divine.

A duff stroke focused my attention on technique. I closed my eyes to concentrate on the tensions and forces in my body, the pull across my shoulders at the catch, holding my core during the drive, anchoring my finish. I love the sensation of sculling when singling, being in sole control of the motion of the boat. Reining in my indulgence in that sensation to scull together to the rhythm of a crew is for me like being in a warm sea and not being able to go swimming. I itch, I yearn for that freedom to take the rate down, stretch out and draw through long strokes in my own time.

But I can't do that. I have to concentrate. But it's so beautiful an evening. I want to indulge. I want to soak up the poetry of the motion, the light, the peace of the river amidst the city's activity. No doubt this would change the moment competing in a quad was on the cards, but at the moment, it's an opportunity to improve balance and blade work, and my sensitivity to boat feel. The setting is just making this a little more difficult than it needs to be.

A push on my wrist as my bow side scull hesitates in the water for a brief moment at the finish persuades me to concentrate on sculling rather than mentally composing the blog post I'll write later. It's agony. Such beauty, such poetry - crying out for appreciation. I have to ignore it, else I scull like a monkey. I close my eyes again to concentrate on the sensation, and open them to see only the back of the head of the woman in front.

A sculler's sunset

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Post-erg brain mush

I am useless after long ergs.

Well, useless at anything which might be considered useful. I'm relatively stretchy after a long session on the machine, and able to drink impressive volumes of fluid, but also unable to walk straight, formulate a coherent argument, or finish a train of thought.

Despite this (or perhaps because of it) I am usually extremely content following long ergs. Content, de-stressed, at peace with myself, and without inclination to do anything. Even the need to eat seems a monsterous imposition on my otherwise wantless state.

I erged earlier.

I could quite happily live in the post-erg state. It's so very, very untroubled, though I did trouble myself to eat. I'm good at making myself eat even though I may not want to.

I am useless after ergs.

I can't formulate coherent anythings.

I don't mind.

It is not important to formulate coherent things. Not now.

I am content.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The last round

From today, drinking alcohol and carrying open containers of alcohol on the tube is banned.

Last night, The Law of Unintended Consequences swung into play, ushering something which really wasn't a problem towards being one: a party had been loosely organised via various social networking sites to mark the occasion. The rules of engagement were generally thus:

  1. Turn up with alcohol in the last carriage of a Circle Line train from 9pm onwards.
  2. Party.

I was travelling home from Whitechapel on the District Line at 7pm, and thought I'd pick up a beer to mark the occasion before submerging myself in the London Underground. I may have been the only person drinking, but I was indulging my right to look like a somewhat addicted billy-no-mates which, as of this morning, I can no longer do in this way. I shouldn't have been surprised to be the sole drinker - I've been in London six months now, and I can't recall ever seeing more than a few sparsely distributed  groups of people drinking on the tube in any one carriage. Despite not yet being on the Circle Line, and the party apparently not starting until 9pm, I was a little disappointed. I had hoped that the spirit of telling Boris what he could do with his flimsy and knee-jerk ban would at least have ensured the occasional commuter would be carrying a can and exchanging knowing sentiments with other drinkers. But no. Nothing.

At Tower Hill, curiousity got the better of me and I hopped over to the Circle Line to do a bit of research. As the train drew up, I headed to the final carriage where parties were supposed to be, and bumped into a few people carrying likely looking cans of booze and bags of spare alcohol. Keen to find out why other people were doing this, I rapidly introduced myself by waving my open container of alcohol in their direction, and asked the question: why?

It turned out they were mostly booze-on-tube first-timers, drinking because they could today and couldn't tomorrow. And, because, well, why not?

At the next stop, people from a carriage further up jumped on to join the last carriage party. They had got organised. They had party banners, streamers, plastic wine glasses. This looked like a good crowd to hook up with for a jaunt around the circle line. One bunch met the other bunch, clinked glasses and cans and got on with the party.

We'd just pulled into Monument when a cheer rose from the other platform. A larger crowd had gathered there, and looked like they were well organised. It was time to follow the gravity of the pack, abandon the original plan, and travel in the opposite direction.

We were by now maybe fifty people, standing on a platform, armed with nothing more than a few drinks and good humour, waiting for a Circle Line train.

A District Line train pulled up. "Boooooo!". Ten minutes later, another train. District Line, again. "Boooooo!". A few minutes later, another District Line train. "Boooooo!". And then, looming out of the tunnel, the one we'd been waiting for. The Circle Line train. A cheer rose from the platform. They were in good voice.

The last carriage was already half full of party-goers. We all piled on, made acquaintances, and carried on meeting, talking, and drinking. A couple of stops later a chap with his 25th birthday party entourage got on, bringing with them much-needed music. They also brought beer, and offered to exchange my empty can for a full one. I accepted, but this would be my last - the train was filling rapidly, the party spreading several carriages up the train, and the space to dance being swallowed up as at every station more people squeezed onto the train. In fact, the party was very quickly resembling rush hour, but with people in far better humour, and the smell of sweat masked by the general beery aroma. Many were asking the question: Why did we wait for drinking on tubes to be banned before organising this?

By the time we'd got round to High Street Kensington, I'd drained my can, though it was becoming an increasingly difficult battle with the ever-swelling numbers packed into our party carriage to reunite my can with my mouth. Partying in confined spaces not being one of my favourite things, and with more than half a mind on the morning's double outing, I bowed out and watched the party depart to continue on its subterranean circuit. It was about half eight. It was something of a relief to get off the train, and the party wasn't due to start for another half hour. It was going to get messy.

I watched a few more trains go past as I waited for one which would take me in a homeward direction. Every Circle Line train now had several carriages full of increasingly loud parties, with more people and alcohol pouring into each train. The commuters who'd found themselves caught up had mostly relocated to the front carriages and seemed largely untroubled, which suggested to me that, rather than banning alcohol from tubes, perhaps the last carriage on all trains should be a designated drinking carriage, with music to help encourage sozzled drinkers to gravitate towards it?

Sadly, it was with little surprise that I woke up this morning to hear that seventeen arrests had been made, and that train drivers and station staff had been assaulted.