Rowing: Ergometer brings the ego down to earth

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The Independent Online
After the disappointment of finishing last in the single sculls final at the Moscow Olympics,

Hugh Matheson retired from rowing. Seventeen years on, our Rowing Correspondent has decided to take up competition again. He explains why.

It's too late to back out now and there is only 10 days to go. Next Sunday week, alongside 1,200 others, I will step on to a rowing ergometer - a fiendish machine that simulates the rowing action perfectly and exhausts you likewise - in a huge gymnasium in Reading, and race a mock Olympic course of 2,000 metres. The energy put in, and the distance covered, and the various names for sweat - watts, calories, minutes per 500m - are displayed on a small computer which rears up in front of your nose as you slide up to the catch of each stroke.

It will take something over six minutes to cover the distance; just how much more is crucial. There are 24 entries in the 45-49 age group into which I fall, and, according to John Wilson of Concept II, the makers of the machines used in the Perpetual Indoor Championships for the last seven years, the winner will take between six minutes 15 seconds and six minutes 30 seconds, "unless some monster comes through the door".

By that, he meant a monster like Andy Ripley, the former Rosslyn Park, England and Lions No 8. He started on the rowing machine in the early 1980s, as training for rugby, and has dominated the competition since. Last year he won my age group in 6min 9sec. This is only 15 seconds slower than the best times of most Olympic gold medallists. I'm here in part because the famous Ripley should by now have moved up to the 50-plus group; except that he is now trying to become a Master of Philosophy in the Fens, and as a Light Blue Boat Race contender must enter the men's open category. He will probably finish in the top 10 there.

So what else is a shagged-out 48-year-old doing, 17 years after he quit following a disastrous last place in the single sculls final in the Moscow Olympics, making any sort of return to competitive rowing, even indoors? Let us get one thing clear: it is not a mid-life crisis. Neither my figure, nor my marriage, nor my work (part of it as rowing correspondent for The Independent) has gone to pot.

But one thing has changed. For years after failing in Moscow I knew that I had lost my "bottle" in the final. There were lots of reasons, but chiefly it was my last race, and without the "well there's always next year" cop- out, the pressure was different in quality to anything I had known before.

In place of "doing your best", and seeing what comes, was a desperate need to show that the huge amount of training, greater that year than anything that had gone before, would bring a win and nothing less. I was, after 18 months in the single scull, a novice among specialists, but I had strength and racing nous.

I had been assured that physically, as measured by the amount of oxygen my lungs could extract from each gulp of air, there was no limitation on how high I could finish. From the start it went well, and coming up to half-way I was in second place and feeling strong.

Then, wham, I caught one scull on the lane marker and slewed to a halt. I picked up again in last place and threw everything into getting back on pace. I can remember getting back close to the front when the lid slammed shut and there was nothing left in the box labelled pride.

When that has happened at 31, you don't feel like getting out again for another four-year cycle, and what you can't do yourself, you teach. So 10 years of coaching followed, until writing and commentating took over.

But as you get further away from it, watching others do it makes you forget how bad it felt to lose. Then someone suggests that the rowing ergometer is a swifter way of working off unused testosterone than running, and is easier on the overloaded joints. Then you've bought one and you find that 30 minutes at a steady pace every Sunday evening gives you a little more spring on the stairs for the rest of the week.

Six months later, in August, the advance publicity for the indoor champs comes through the door, and then - well, Ripley's gone so there's a chance that some of the old oppo has faded more than you. So you put in an entry. But it is still not real; funk is still possible. It is safe to fantasise while doing your weekly half-hour, which has become two weekly half-hours. Adrenalin is beginning to override the caution that should govern those beginning to lose their hair.

When training on the machine, still to no particular programme, the temptation comes to put in a little burst of flat-out pressure and, curiously, all these years later you enjoy it. As you get a little stronger you sense that, because you have done 10 years' hard labour in the past, every little bit of training now pays bigger dividends.

The sense of extra profit from new work is a stimulant to all the senses and the thought of rowing to exhaustion in competition becomes enticing, not intimidating.

One way to get serious at this point, a couple of months before the race, is to see how the old lung power, known in the trade as VO2 max, is getting along. A call to Dr Henryk Lakomy at nearby Loughborough University sets up a test on the same sort of machine but with breathing tubes stuck in your mouth and standard torturer's instrumentation on the table. There is also Spencer Newport, a see-through distance runner made up from thighs and lungs and little else and Gordon Burton, a heavyweight rower who will be at the champs and tells me his best 2,000 metre time on the ergometer is 6min 23sec. Just about on target to win my age group.

After the warm-up they set me off and panic quickly follows, although the air intake line is far bigger in diameter than my windpipe, I feel starved of oxygen and begin to hyperventilate, grinding to a pink-faced halt.

We try again, with adjustments, but this time I panic to a stop a little after half-way. The third time they only run the VO2 max apparatus for the fifth minute and I complete the test, but in 6min 44sec. Gordon Burton tries not to patronise me, but privately I am sure he's chuffed that this know-all, who came in off the street, has been beaten by the machine. The VO2 is now a shade over five litres a minute; down a good two litres from the peak.

"It should show some improvement doing a straight test, without the breathing apparatus." he says. Damn right. This will do as a bench-mark, but the spur to train is now well dug into my flanks.

Next week: the story of the last month before the race.