No middle-aged man who takes a lot of exercise can fail to be perturbed by the reason Andrew Marr has given for suffering a stroke – a burst of intensive activity on a rowing machine.
At 55 - two years older than Marr - I am just such a man myself. This weekend, for example, I did a 60-mile bike ride and pushed myself so hard on one of the climbs that when my companion and I stopped at the top – I’m only slightly embarrassed to say that we’d been racing each other – I was slumped over the bars for a minute or so and couldn’t speak. The next day I did the same 60-mile bike ride all over again.
Naturally I think this is doing me good. And this morning I do feel pretty good. But I feel a bit less good now that I’ve read about Marr.
I’ve occasionally used a rowing machine myself. For all-round exercise, I’m not sure it can be beaten. It uses more muscle groups than cycling, running, or any other sport apart from perhaps boxing. It explains why you never see an athlete in greater physical distress than a rower. Within a few seconds of crossing the line, an Olympic 1,500 metres champion can be jogging round on a victory lap. Olympic rowers, on the other hand, sometimes have to be helped out of the boat some minutes after the race has finished.
I am reminded at this point of an insight I cherish that was offered by Matthew Pinsent after he and his crew won the men’s four at the Athens Olympics in 2004. He revealed afterwards that the crew had made a pledge with each other. They all agreed that they would max out 10 metres before the finishing line. Not crossing the line - BEFORE the line. That way, Pinsent said, they would always know that, whether they won or lost, they had given their all.
Giving your all in the Pinsent sense is a degree of effort that is beyond most people’s imagining. But in our own way, we lesser mortals do give our all, deluded though we may be, and that, it seems, is what Marr was doing.
It’s not as hard as it might seem. You can easily get carried away in the moment. The urge to prove something to oneself – which may indeed be a middle-aged male thing – is strong. The suffering and the pain contend with an intense desire to top previous performance, to go on improving, to achieve new goals, all of which urges might be gathered under an overall desire to laugh in the face of Time. Which some people might find a bit pathetic.
Then again, I don’t exercise in order to buy a longer life. I don’t believe it confers on me any entitlement that is not available to anyone less physically fit than me. I do it simply because I enjoy it. It’s about the exhilaration, living in the moment, creating a sense of wellbeing, and the satisfactions of putting oneself to the test.
Quite how much of a part the rowing machine effort played in causing Marr’s stroke can’t really be known. Overwork may also have contributed. Either way, the fitness industry possibly isn’t thanking Marr for his comments, still less the manufacturers of rowing machines. He might have put people off exercise, and that’s a shame because it is incontrovertibly a guard against heart disease, and other ailments. The old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may suddenly seem less appropriate, but getting fit of necessity involves increasing your heart rate.
Extreme effort, in very rare cases, is risky. A man of 23 died running a marathon in Brighton this weekend. A tragic case but it would be ridiculous to conclude that people should stop running as a result of it. And I fear that Andrew Marr won’t stop me trying to ride my bike up a hill as fast as I can.