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How I went from rowing novice to UK top 10 in just two months

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Fiona feels the strain on the way to sneaking into the top 10 in the UK for her age category
Fiona feels the strain on the way to sneaking into the top 10 in the UK for her age category

Credit:
Paul Grover

In the nick of time, I burst into the toilet to expunge the entire contents of my breakfast burrito. This, in its technicolour glory, was the crowning moment of my two-month rowing journey.

Save for the odd workout on a machine down the gym, I had absolutely no experience in the sport. But then someone had the bright idea of me – from scratch and with only a few weeks’ notice – competing in the 2,000 metres open women’s event at the Mizuno British Rowing Indoor Championships.

I had succeeded in avoiding throwing up during any of my training. But Saturday’s vomiting was surely my golden ticket to the elite club of physical specimens who push themselves beyond their perceived level of physical exhaustion. I was indeed a rower.

Minutes before, every muscle fibre had been on fire. Lungs? They were reduced to the capacity of a shrivelled grape, a horribly unfair return for reaching the halfway mark of the 2km endeavour. I had burst out of the blocks as fresh as a daisy, spurred on by the whirring noise of rowing machines – called ergometers, or ergs – around me.

The commentary team, to my horror, singled out the journalist who decided to give rowing a try as I simultaneously questioned my mortality two minutes in. The rest passed in a daze as I powered through in eight minutes and four seconds. It was a whole two seconds off my personal best, but I somehow snuck into the top 10 in the UK for my age category. True, there were only 12 competitors, but it is a victory of sorts.

Once the nerves and adrenalin subsided, I inhaled the enormity of this event, which is arguably one of the most inclusive in the country. This year’s edition saw more than 2,300 competitors descend on the Lee Valley VeloPark, from Great Britain internationals to recreational rowers, juniors, para-rowers and older gems still bossing it.

This year’s edition saw over 2,300 competitors descend on the Lee Valley Velodrome

Credit:
Paul Grover

Shelagh Allen is one of those, as the sole participant in the women’s masters 80-84 category. At 81, the West Byfleet resident is the oldest female competitor at this year’s competition, where she will have a crack at another 2km. She has defied a recurring back problem to be here, a day after receiving some last-minute acupuncture and physio to guarantee optimal performance.

“It’s my competitiveness that makes me go,” says Allen, who took up the sport at 58. “I’m only 5ft 3in. Somebody in the gym the other day said, ‘That must be very difficult for you because you’ve got short legs and short arms’. But that’s the sort of remark I need. I get so many endorphins from rowing.”

I ask her what time she hopes to complete her 2km journey in and am besieged by a feeling of terror that this superwoman might beat someone 55 years younger than her. “Well, on the last two occasions I’ve got 10.35,” she says. “But my best was back in May, before my back problem. It was 10.26.” Cheered on by her husband Tom, Allen finished in 10.42 – a time which would shame most.

So what has my two-month experience taught me? First, that rowing is an unforgivingly brutal sport. It requires a huge amount of discipline and forces you to find levels of mental resilience you never knew you had.

Fiona empties the tank

Credit:
Paul Grover

Fiona feels the burn

Credit:
Paul Grover 

Fiona attempts to catch her breath

Credit:
Paul Grover

Within the first two weeks, my hamstrings were ripped to shreds, my hands calloused from gripping the handle and my body ached every time I summoned myself out of bed for a 5.30am gym start. The volume of training naturally increased week on week and in the final stretch, I was smashing out two lots of hour-long, Wattbike, cardio sessions a week and three sessions on the rower – as well as my weekly “work day”. That was when I recorded my best scores which SAS, British Rowing’s official analytics partner, will analyse to determine how my fitness has improved.

People in the gym who were not pushing hard enough, being over reliant on their arms and barely working up a sweat before gleefully hopping onto another piece of equipment really irritated me. I was stuck with the rower, where my performance was forever dictated by numbers on a screen, notably my split – the time it takes you to row 500m.

Imogen Grant, a lightweight rower for Great Britain who claimed bronze at the World Championships in August, mentored me throughout the process, continually checking in to keep me on the straight and narrow.

This week, I was lucky enough to attend a winter training camp in the Sierra Nevada for a special insight into the British men’s team’s preparations at altitude. My heart rate quickened simply watching these superhuman athletes smashing out 20km rows under the watchful eye of Paul Stannard, one of the most respected coaches in the sport and renowned for launching British Rowing’s World Class Start programme, which has scouted the likes of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning.

In the afternoon, I headed to the emptied ergs to squeeze in some final training, inspired by some of the earlier heroics, when I had seen rowers being put into the recovery position (not quite throwing up like myself, mind). Stannard accompanies us for what I can only assume is to ensure none of us media mortals row ourselves into cardiac arrest at high altitude. He identifies areas to tweak my erg technique: keep upright at the catch, lower the footholds for a cleaner push and to pace my race.

The difference is astounding and I feel super ready to smash it in Stratford. I ask Stannard, a prominent athlete in his youth, if he still jumps on the erg. “You must be joking,” he says. “I gave up when I got old, discovered beer and when the numbers on the screen kept telling me, ‘You’re s—’.

I quickly decide beer is the easier option too. After all, it is always best to take a coach’s advice. But I may go easy on the burritos.

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