Pain was never like this before. Pain that whips your breath away, that snatches all your energy from you in a matter of seconds. You can’t think, you just hear the screams.
Three – two – one!
You start the race with three strokes at three-quarter slide. You need a good start; you need to be ahead of the other crews right from when the umpire shouts, Attention… go! Short and sharp, quick in, quick out: the person in bow should really be tapping the boat up the whole time so you’re already moving.
Five – four – three – two – one!
The next five strokes, and then the ten after that, you push as hard as you can with your legs. You need to give yourself the greatest chance of keeping ahead, right from the start. After that, you lengthen the stroke: it’s essential to be able to maintain the rate and pressure you use for the rest of the race.
I’m in line with their cox! I want to be in line with their stroke!
The race is two kilometres. It’s between Memorial Bridge and Millennium Bridge; if you look behind you, you can see the second bridge, but it looks so far away, and you mustn’t look behind. You must focus on the person in front of you. Two kilometres. I haven’t reached twenty years yet. How can I row twenty hundred metres in seven minutes?
Push with your legs! I want you to die at the end of this!
You’ve got to focus on the person in front of you. There’s a bone at the top of the spine that’s all knobbly – it’s more visible when she reaches forward at the catch. You’ve got to slide as far as you can without lifting your heels, and you square the blades and place them into the water before pushing back with your legs. First you use your legs to power you backwards, then your arms and finally your body. Then you tap down, feather, and slide forward, slower, so you have time to breathe.
Time, time is worthless, though: there is no oxygen. My body has converted all the oxygen into carbon dioxide and it’s poisoning me, and the air’s tearing at my throat with knives. All I can see is the knobbly bone at the top of the spine, and the sheen of sweat that’s coating the neck.
I’m in line with their stroke! I want to be in line with number three!
My arms ache; my legs ache. The pain burns, but it’s impossible to douse the fire, even though the blades catch on the icy iron-grey water and drench me. The handles slip from my hands as they become wetter and wetter, but I must not let go. I must cling on for sixteen more hundreds of metres.
Push for ten! Go! Ten – nine – eight –
It’s as if the river; the cox with her determined screams; my desperate mind that claws at me with talons as sharp as daggers: all are taking out their vengeance on my body. It’s being ripped to shreds, and the pieces are crushed and violated and plagued by pain.
Seven – six – five – four –
I didn’t think it was possible to push any harder than I was. I’m waging a war against the river: against the current that’s fighting to hold me back, against the wind. The wind that’s battling the blades as I slide forward, and I chase the knobbly bone at the top of the spine in front of me. I don’t know if I’m winning, I’m struggling blindly: all I can see is that bone.
Three – two – one! We’re halfway! You’re doing well!
The cox’s yells are whipped away on the wind like a cat o’nine tails that flashes through the air before you have time to register its presence. And then the pain that follows…
Think of the medal! Push with your legs!
In one kilometre this will be over. We must win.
Oh, high heaven, the pain!
We must win.
My head pounds. It pounds like someone’s taken a hammer to my skull. The cheering of the crowds on the banks hits us: it slices through the air like a bullet, and the hammer hits harder.
I’m in line with number two! I want to be in line with their bow!
There was a protestor in the Oxbridge boat race. He could have been killed: the blades could have shattered his skull. We have a potential to kill, like this. And I feel like I’m dying…
Where is the oxygen? Every day, the cold Atlantic air whistles in from the west. Every day. Today, though, it’s grey, but it’s not cold. The pain burns like the fires of hell, but it’s impossible to cool it, not when the air sticks to me.
In together, out together, keep in time!
The tide’s coming in. It’s in our favour: we’re in the strongest current, in the middle of the river. We’re winning, but the other crew is gaining on us again. It’s a race between us for first place now. Their cox is glaring daggers at us, but I feel like I’m being stabbed over and over anyway, over and over, over and over, and the pain sears my body.
The third boat is falling behind, and we’re winning, but we can’t relax. You squeeze every muscle until the cells use up all the oxygen and you have to respire an-aerobically; but you can’t survive without oxygen. And the less oxygen you have, the more the lactic acid builds up and makes your muscles ache afterwards.
Five hundred metres! I’m in line with their bow! Tapping down, squaring early!
It’s hard to think about technique, when all you can think about is the pain, and the knobbly bone at the top of the spine. But you must: you must make sure you’re in time. The blades go in together, they come out together. Tap down and feather, so the blades don’t skim the water. Square early, so when it comes to the catch, you’re prepared…
Four hundred metres. Surely.
I rushed this morning. I barely had time for breakfast, and I hate being stressed. I need to be calm, to race. They say nerves help you perform. It’s hard to believe, though, when you’re so nervous you feel sick.
My head pounds so badly, like the Devil’s knocking on the door, come to take me to hell. I need oxygen, I need a drink, but I must keep going. We must win.
Hell, where the fires are even worse.
Oh Lord, please, please, I want to win.
Let us win.
The cox is still screaming, she sounds desperate now, as desperate as I feel.
You’re nearly there! You can do it! You’re in the lead!
Her screams are chants, rhythmical chants – and then finally, finally, the finishing bell, twice, in quick succession –
Have we won? Oh God, have we won?