Rowing: Pleasure and pain as man returns to take on the machines

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The Independent Online
On Sunday at the Perpetual Indoor Rowing Championships in Reading, Hugh Matheson, who reached the singles sculls final for Britain at the Moscow Olympics, finished second in the 45-49 age-group. Here he describes the agonies and addictive ecstasies of his return to competition.

It was a marvellous experience to go back through the last two days' preparation before a real race. You forget how, for a week beforehand, the body produces a series of complaints about what you are going to do to it.

Last Wednesday, my knee ached when I practised, and it sent a couple of sharp lances up the central nervous system to make sure I'd got the message. The next day, my back was up to the same tricks: "You can't race like this, especially at your age. You could do permanent damage. No amount of pride is worth it. Ring them up and say you'll come, but just as a spectator."

At the same time any attempts at the speed work that I was supposed to be doing were pathetic. I couldn't even find a pace at which I could expect to keep up for the whole of the simulated 2,000 metre course.

So, knowing from distant memory how the body and brain were colluding to maximise the discomfort now so that it would feel so much better on the day, I trusted to hope and did as little as possible apart from a 15-minute practice on the rowing machine each day.

And yes, the aches eased miraculously throughout Saturday and a light paddle on the ergometer that evening ended with a brusque 500 metres of controlled ferocity which told me that I could achieve my target pace of 1min 35sec per 500 metres.

On Sunday morning I showed up at the huge sports hall in Reading early, and put in 20 minutes' warm-up just to get all the systems moving right. The body dredged up no real complaints. Several hours then passed in a now familiar haze - some nerves, some calmness, some concentration on the task ahead.

They are fun, those last couple of hours before you test yourself really hard. The tingle of nerves heightens all sensations. You hear, see, feel more clearly. Then after another little warm-up it is time, and you step over the little picket fence into the ring.

There are rows and rows of machines but mine is No 4 in the front rank, because I have predicted a time of 6min 35sec for the full 2000 metres equivalent. I find myself next to a man who is vaguely familiar, though his grey beard disguises his features. He introduces himself as Brendan Sullivan, a Boat Race contemporary of mine who I haven't seen since he dropped out of the National squad 25 years ago to concentrate on his medical studies. I hope he's now a genius consultant, because he missed out on a lot when the rest of us were winning medals.

The countdown is quick and remorseless, no time for a quick rethink or any adjustment to the equipment. I do have a moment to remember that as a coach I always say, before sending my crew to race, "Enjoy yourself." This is not a penance; it's supposed to be a pleasure. If you are not capable of enjoying the physical urge of racing you should drop out. So I whisper it again to myself. And I believe it.

"Ready... set... go." Expecting a different rhythm I move early, but gently. No false start is recorded and we're into it. It's like an auction, this. You decide a pace you can manage beforehand and stick to it. Others racing alongside tempt you via the best drug on the market, adrenalin, to go faster, do more. It feels ridiculously easy. To match my target 1min 36sec per 500 metre quarter, I drop the number of strokes per minute to a cruising 27, even lower after one minute.

The commentator, Chris Baillieu, an old friend, has me in the lead and the little box on the computerised monitor agrees, but shows the margin as only a few metres. I am certain half-way through that things don't feel too bad and that I should not do anything extravagant, just hold the lead at a narrow margin and save any spare juice for a final push.

In the last 500 metres, the commentary is fading and the rate of strokes per minute is rising, but there is no panic. I can finish like this and even put in a little flourish. Then the box says I've dropped to second place. Okay, put in a 10-stroke burn and get it back. Four strokes later my closest pursuer is three metres behind and there's only 300 metres to go. I stop watching anything but the remaining metres as they click away.

The rest of the world has gone quiet, except for the voice of Simon Larkin, who I coached as an under-23 international in the single sculls and is one of the few voices I could accept at this point in the race. He is at my shoulder quietly telling me, "You're in front, just keep it going". As we come down to the line I am concentrating utterly on the fluctuating margin of the lead, sometimes one metre, sometimes three. We are down to the last few metres and with Simon's urging I think I'm there. But as soon as we stop it is ash and not nectar. Silver, not gold. John Mottram, from the Cambridge Free Press Club, has nipped in front in the last few strokes and I am left cursing.

This is a new experience. In my previous competitive life I rarely lost a nip-and-tuck finish, and I'm astonished to have it happen now. So much for Mr Control. Didn't know when to throw caution to the wind and get stuck in, did he? Let a tougher, sharper racer take him on the line. I'm ashamed that one who has preached so often that, come what may, you race through the line, not up to it, should let himself down in this way.

The difference between winning and losing is also about how you feel the physical damage. This time it hurt. But you soon forget and start making plans to train for more than six weeks before the next competition and to set the target well ahead of this one. Already, less than an hour after the race, the blood is up. Damn it. I'm hooked again.