Tuesday, November 9, 2010


The 2010 World Championships is over, and now it's done I feel I need to take it all in. Despite the fact it was a long time coming and the weeks and months of training running up to it felt relentless, my over-riding feelings are sadness and a I'm a little shell shocked that I'm back in London with it all behind me.

The past 6 months pushed me to the brink - from the brink of quitting, the realisation of the importance sculling is to me through to understanding that it's international racing that now drives me. It's been a hell of a ride. Looking back, every element played a role in this World Championships being completely different to the last - despite looking exactly the same on the surface. Same crew, same order... different result. But it's not just the result that was different, it was the whole process.

The biggest difference is obviously that this time I wasn't the new fish (although I was still the baby of the crew, racing with 3 seasoned veterans... again!). However, a bigger element in my opinion to making this season so different was doing the World Cups. Looking back, I had no idea how those races would change my perception of racing and what I'm capable of. Bled presented me with the toughest race of my life. That's banked and believe me I keep going back to it when I need to dig deep.

Secondly, and for similar reasons to be honest, my rib injury played a huge part in making this season what it was. Two months out of a boat and the gym in the middle of trialing, with only a watt bike for company, pushed me to the limit of my personal capacity to handle situations. Some people would relish the opportunity to do something different. I resented it and - being brutally honest - hated every second. Anyone who would rather do 2,400 squats in one go than get on a static bike definitely has issues! When I needed to find something extra in the last 500m of my Worlds final last week when I already felt like I was on the line, I thought back to my 30min watt bike test. Sweating blood, tears and a lot of self respect taught me that I can definitely go harder when the limit has already theoretically been reached.

So, in the next couple of days before I have to head back into the office, I'll be taking some time to get things straight. Then I'll think about getting back in a boat.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Back where I belong

The headline says it all really - I'm back in a boat, and it feels great. Ok, so the speed isn't what it was - it's going to take time for the 7wks of no weights or being in a boat to be overcome - but I'm getting there. I just have to have faith and determination. And I have the latter in bucket loads, even if sometimes the former begins to falter, which it has done a couple of times.

My crew mates have been amazing. Going out in the 4x the other day, one of the girls from the crew with me last year turned to me and said it was great to have me back - that made my day! I told her exactly what I was thinking - it's great to be back.

The Worlds feel an eternity away and we are still not entirely certain of the final line up (or whether I'll even be involved) but one thing is for certain - I'll have earned my seat if I am, and I'll put in a worthy performance to prove it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

You don't know what you've got until it's gone

Well it's now August and a lot (or rather not a lot) has happened since I last posted... I'll explain.

Having felt rather pleased with myself and very lucky about being robust and almost the 'last man standing' as the other lightweight women almost seemed to take turns in taking a few days/ weeks off with injury, the inevitable happened - I got injured. Looking back I had it coming. I started with a dull, niggling pain in my back on arriving in Munich but having been reassured by the physio that it was nothing to worry about I did just that and didn't worry about it.

After a fun 24hr experience on diclofenic (how was I to know it could cause water retention and a resultant massive weight gain in a few short hours... not exactly ideal for a lightweight rower!) I resorted to ipubrofen to ignore the persistant - but shallow - pain. Having shortened our initial paddle due to my 'niggle', I prayed it wouldn't affect my racing ability. Luckily, I felt nothing in the pre-paddle (drugs are amazing things!) and racing went as planned with no significant impediment to my sculling. In fact, I'd go as far to say that I didn't notice it when racing. Kinda busy focussing on other stuff! Anyway, we got through the weekend successfully, registering the highest ever position for a GB WLwt2x second boat in the process (4th), and I went home happy, the beer helping along with the drugs no doubt!

It wasn't to last. 4km into my first session on day 2 the pain switched from niggling to intense. It was like someone flicked a switch in my ribcage - the pain in my chest and back was immense and like nothing I'd experienced before. We decided to stop - not something an athlete does easily. This time the physio looked more concerned, and so was I. He packed me straight off to the team doctor who instructed me to take 2 days out of the boat and off the erg. 2 days? Sure, I can handle that! Almost like a holiday!

That was 7 weeks ago. I haven't been back in a boat since. OK, I tell a small lie - I tried 2 wks ago. I didn't get far. After numerous different diagnoses, those in the know deemed that I had a rib stress fracture. Apparently this is good news. A rib stress fracture takes only 6 - 8 wks to heal (ONLY?!) and when it's fixed, it's fixed. It could have been far worse; cartilage issues, disc issues... the list is endless. It's been 7 weeks and it feels like an eternity. For someone who hasn't been out of a boat for more than a week in the past 2 yrs, 7 wks is a lifetime. Worse still, the only thing I have been allowed to do is get on a bike. No running, no swimming, no erging and definitely no weights. Seriously? I HATE cycling. Don't get me wrong, I can handle a 30min commute to work, but 100mins on a static bike in a gym? Are you kidding? I'd rather stand and squat at 30 reps per min for 60mins straight. (Which I did in the end, by the way).

If you ever want to punish an elite athlete tell them to 'rest'. Then tell them once they feel ok to breathe deeply without pain to get on a watt bike and not get off for 7 wks. I've not felt this bad about life since my Mum grounded me for the whole summer holiday in 1992. (And that was pretty bad - my sister was grounded as well and we shared a room. Brutal). However, the past few weeks have given me a lot of thinking time, and I've come to realise something fairly crucial - rowing is pretty important to me (no shit I hear you cry). Seriously though, when you do something day in, day out - and have done for 11yrs - you kinda take it for granted. You see it as something you have to do. You start to resent getting up at 5.30am to go and get in a boat. You start to wonder what it would be like to go to work having not already done more exercise than most people do in a week. When the truth of the matter is that this is what I choose to do. In fact, it goes further than that (and this is what kicked me hardest) - being a sculler defines me. It's who I am. It's what I like most about me.

Without sculling, I'm not the same person. Let's be realistic about this - my whole life would change. And at some point it will. And it's going to be really difficult - but nowhere near as difficult if I choose when to stop, rather than being forced through injury or failure to make a boat. Suddenly the importance of making the crew for the World Champs and winning the gold we all so desperately want - and are capable of achieving with the athletes we have - became incredibly clear to me. And when you're sat on a watt bike watching your team mates out on the water that's a really tough realisation! I'm desperate to get back in a boat. Not because I love sculling. Not because it's what I do. Because it's the most important thing to me at this point in time. Nothing has ever been this important to me. And that makes the next few weeks the most important in my life. I don't want to spend them sat on a watt bike...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Short update

2hrs 40mins until our repercharge. I'm dreading it but relishing getting it started both at the same time. Bit like how you feel before an exam. You're not looking forward to it, but you know you're as prepared as you can be so you're looking forward to getting it started, doing something constructive (rather than the horrible final hours before hand where you're just worrying about it) and finding out the result. In these last few moments in my hotel room before I get on the bus to the course and we go through the racing day motions... practice weigh (always unnecessary), waiting, weighing in officially, waiting some more, waiting some more, going to the loo, getting race kit on, going to the loo AGAIN, heading to the boat for pre-race chat, walking the blades down, wondering if I need the loo once more, deciding it's just adrenaline, hands on the boat, walking to the pontoon, pushing off, warm up, waiting for a race to go past, continuing warm up, questioning why I'm doing this, waiting for another race to go past, heading up to the start area, removing final kit, hearing the start list and the inevitable '5 mins' read out in a vague European accent, getting attached, waiting.... before all that lovely 2 and a bit hours, I like to remind myself that the result is not yet acheived, the inevitable is not inevitable, that history has not yet been written. I can still influence the result. It is still anyone's race. I am constantly reminded by myself, coaches and my fellow athletes that anything can happen. If you're on the start line you have a chance. It can be anyone's race. Nothing is guaranteed. So matter how the race unfolds, you stay alert, stay on your game. In international races things DO happen and they tend to happen in the last 500m, if not the last 250m. There is no giving up, no finding yourself in 4th place and thinking 'oh well, this is always where I thought I would be'. EVERYONE fights, even if all looks like it is lost, nobody gives up. It is a fight to the death, to the last stroke. You only need to win by a bowball - if you can still hear the other crew you still have a chance, even if you can't see them. So, I'm preparing myself for a battle. There are 5 crews, 2 spots in the A final and 10 women on that startline who all want it and know that on their day they can acheive it. Only the others can stop them and they're going to make it damn hard. I'm getting prepared to make it the hardest race they've ever had.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup take 2

I'm currently sat in a hotel room in Munich having arrived earlier today ready for the second leg of the World Cup starting the day after tomorrow. It's absolutely persisting down with rain and it's forecast to remain that way until we go home (joy) so rigging and rowing was not at the top of my list of things to do this afternoon, especially after I got into the hotel room and immediately fell asleep for the hour we had between lunch and leaving for the course!

To add insult to injury (quite literally) I'm also on painkillers and anti-inflammatories for a spine/rib joint injury which is getting worse by the hour. It's ironic that the only time you ever appreciate not being injured is when you're exactly the opposite. I've gone from being nervous about racing to just wishing I could race feeling 100%.

If there's one thing an athlete struggles with it's admitting defeat, and today I had to admit defeat and confess to Andrea that I thought we should go in rather than finish the outing - we'd done 5km out of a scheduled 12km. A back/ rib injury is not something to mess with and we only have approximately 36hrs until we face another gruelling race in the LW2x against the best athletes in the world.

Slovenia was amazing, a massive learning curve and an emotional rollercoaster of an experience. After an appalling display in the heat - we came 5th - we faced the repercharge the same day. Having discussed the heat, we focussed our attention on putting right the wrongs. It was a good job we prepared ourselves for a fight as we drew the Greeks and the Italians - two crews that are always fast. There were 5 boats in the race and only two went through to the A/B semis - we had to beat one of them. We were in 3rd place at 1500m, a good two lengths down on both the Greeks and the Italians, who were battling it out together in front. I have said since and I'm not afraid to say it again that if I was on the bank I'd have put money on the fact that we were out of it. However, Andrea had other plans and took the rate up to 38 with 500m to go. With 300m to go it wasn't enough and we knew it so she took us up again - to 41.5 strokes per minute. Just as I thought I was going to pass out we heard 3 beeps to say all three crews had crossed the line. It was so close nobody knew who had made it through. All three crews sat and stared at the results board, too tired to speak, holding our breath. We waited. The Greeks had won. We waited. We had come second, 3/10ths of a second behind them. Then the Italians had come 3rd, 3/10s of a second behind us. At that precise moment I felt I'd never deserved anything so much!

So to the semi, which we won fairly comfortably - a sweet experience after the heat and repercharge! However, byt the time the final came around we were tired. Happy, but tired. Our aim had been to make the A final and we had acheived that, but neither of us would have been happy with a mediocre performance - we were in it to race hard. In the end, we came 5th. It wasn't an outstanding performance, it wasn't terrible. Ultimately, we would've liked to have come 4th as we were pipped by 0.5sec by the Dutch who we'd beaten the day before in the semi, but you take small victories were you can - we beat the Irish!

So, here we are in Munich. Different boat (we're in an Empacher rather than a Filippi) but same focus. Far less crews - 13 instead of 23 - and no Greeks, Italians, USA, Dutch or Irish - but no less difficult. Andrea and I are here to show the world what we're capable of and a back injury is going to have to go a long way to stop me doing that. So, bring on the painkillers and the anti-inflammatories - I'm going to need them...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Doubt and the lesson it brings

Well yet again I have failed to update my blog in an age. I am starting to see a trend though... my last post was on my day off training; today, unsurprisingly, is my first day off training since then. So, I will make a mental note to ensure I complete a post on at least every day off. Anything more than that is a bonus!

The past couple of weeks have been those kind of weeks that every athlete dreads but knows (after 10 years) are inevitable and an important part of improving performance - every session I've been performing under par. My erg scores were miles off my usual for what felt like ten times the effort, my HR was high, my legs felt like they were disconnected from the rest of my body, my arms ached like they were doing all the work and my general enthusiasm for my sport (read: life) was evidently missing. Yet I wasn't ill, I was trying hard to get enough sleep and I'd done nothing differently.

And it's those last three points that are the most pertinent. Any athlete knows that staying 100% all of the time is simply not possible. When you put yourself through the level of training we do whilst trying to maintain a job, a relationship, a social life and still have downtime it's a fait a complit that you are going to, at some point, be under the weather as your immune system shouts loudly 'hey, give it a rest, damnit!'... And when that happens you learn to accept it, back off a bit, and treat yourself with a little bit more care until you feel back to your usual self. In the long run, you will benefit more that way than trying to battle through it. However, when you don't feel ill and everything seems normal yet you simply can not perform, that's a whole different kettle of fish. You start to ask questions of yourself... and that's when the doubt creeps in.

Self-doubt is an athlete's biggest enemy; it is a well known and widely held belief that an athlete who sits on the start line questioning their ability or, worse, thinking that there's no way they can win has already lost. An important part of being an athlete - as important as training and everything that goes with it, diet, sleep, etc. - is mental strength and belief in yourself. It is sometimes mistaken for arrogance. However, there is a big difference. I looked up the definition of arrogance to be sure of what I'm talking about: 'having or showing an exaggerated opinion of one's own importance, merit, ability, etc.; conceited; overbearingly proud'. When you look at it like that you can understand why the lines between self-belief and arrogance are often perceived to be blurred; no-one goes to the World Championships/ Olympics believing they can't win or at the very least are the best that their country can send. In other words, in either case you have to believe that you are the best. You have trained hard with the same focus in every session - to be the best you possibly can be. Granted, there are athletes out there that have an inflated opinion of their capabilities - however, if they race often enough that should be rectified - but in the vast majority of cases, it isn't arrogance you're witnessing; it's weeks, months and years of training, both mentally and physically, to believe that they are the best in order to face the challenge that lies ahead of them.

But I digress... my point is that over the last two weeks - after enjoying a long run of getting faster and faster and producing PBs over and over - I rapidly started to go the other way. And that caused me to doubt myself. To question my abilities. To wonder if I was right all along when I looked at the erg screen and thought that there was no way the scores I was producing could possibly be real. If in fact it was all a run of luck, a bit of a dream. And that made me miserable - worse than that, it made me fearful. As an athlete, your body is your daily job and your performances the measure of how your work for the day has gone. A bad score is a bad day at the office. And the repercussions of persistent bad days at the office are the same as in any job - you lose your position or, worse, you lose your job altogether. And there a lot of people who want my job, and there a lot of people who can do my job - to a better or worse capability - and therefore I have constant benchmarks.

So, facing this weekend's task of a 2k speed order to rank and confirm the crews for the first World Cup was a daunting one off the back of the last two weeks. Essentially, all the proposed crews for the World Cup team race over 2k and are then ranked on % gold medal speed in order to compare boats of different classes. Those who are not performing to the level expected will be reconsidered. In my case, I'm currently in a 2x with Andrea Dennis - a fantastic athlete who I admire immensely and consider it a huge privilege to be training and racing with, not least as she beat me by 13 seconds at, and won, the April Final trials. My reasons to desperately want to to do well were therefore much more than just for me and all the training I have done to get this far; the Wlwt2x is the Olympic class boat so it is a fantastic opportunity to race this class at the World Cups against the best athletes in the world, with one of the best athletes in the world.

I wasn't nervous - I was doubtful, and fearful. And that's far worse than nervous. Nervous means you have an opportunity, you know you have a chance, and you're going to have to race hard to beat your competition. Doubtful and fearful means you've already convinced yourself that you're out of the race and you therefore have to race yourself in your mind all the way down the track to beat your own fears. All this without telling Andrea how I felt as I didn't want to affect her race over and above what I already felt were my physical limitations. So, I told myself it was a process, one that I'd done hundreds of times before - in the majority of cases under more difficult circumstances (like racing a single scull at final trials as your first 2k race in that boat class!) - and as much as I didn't feel up to it/ excited/ nervous about it, it was my job so I just had to get on with it. Just another day at the office. I just had to ignore the hangover of an underpar set of sessions...

I won't bore you with the details (well done for making it this far... you must be really bored, have nothing to do or be avoiding something...!) - we did really well and I personally had one of the best races of my life. The rhythm was fantastic, my legs were strong, my calls were good and the result was reflective of what we are capable of. It was a fantastic learning experience and one that I will carry with me into future races: have faith in your training, have faith in your crew and, most importantly, have faith in yourself. Even when things are not going well, remember the person you are when things are good and you feel strong - because you are still that person.

The first World Cup is in 2wks in Bled, Slovenia. It will be tough, it will be fast and it will be require me to bring my A game. No matter how I feel, how nervous I am, I know I will have packed it somewhere, even if I think I forgot it. Bring it on.

Monday, April 26, 2010

An apology...

Wow, it was the end of November since I last posted. The shame burns. If anyone is still following this blog, good effort - you clearly have more stamina than me! Mental note to self: must write blog more often.

Clearly being a part-time athlete/ part-time marketing consultant/ full-time knackered person I have a slight excuse in that if I'm not training/ eating/ sleeping/ driving between the office-Caversham-Putney/ pretending to work, I'm sleeping some more... Take this weekend for example; I had grand plans to take full advantage of the afternoon sunshine after wistfully imagining what normal people were doing with the gloriously sunny day that was this Saturday just gone whilst I was busy ploughing my way up and down a 2km lake all morning. I drove home excited about the potential the afternoon had, raced through the door... and fell asleep on the sofa. For 2.5hrs.

To be honest that pretty much sums up every day, although there's normally approx. 4hrs work sandwiched between the training and the sleeping on a Mon-Fri. Anyone who thinks that being an international athlete is glamorous is seriously mistaken! It's early mornings, lots of driving, planning your day to the minute and generally feeling like you have zero time to yourself even though you haven't seen your friends and family in weeks and don't feel like you've been out of the flat. If I didn't have my shopping delivered by a nice Polish guy in a van I wouldn't eat! God bless Ocado.

So yes, I'm making excuses for being rubbish at maintaining my blog. Must. Try. Harder. Story of my life! (All put on myself by me I might add. My Mum would tell me to relax, have a glass of wine and take the weight off, bless her). Even now I haven't written about what I was going to. I had grand plans to update you on the last 5 months but to be honest there's FAR too much too tell you! I'll save that for my next entry - I PROMISE it'll be in the next 7 days! For now, I'm going to continue trying not to fall asleep whilst waiting for the shopping to get here. Where has that Polish geezer got to...