Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Ergo Marathon: An expedition to nowhere

Years ago, I coxed a crew which was interviewed for a student magazine, and we all had to put down our hobbies and ambitions. One bloke, with a wit unusual amongst occupants of the three seat, cited his hobby as "exploring the frontiers of pain", and his ambition, "to have a map next time".

Well, adventuring in the wilderness is all the rage these days, so if you're considering erging a marathon (and I've put the idea in your head now, so you can't not do it, [evil chuckle]), here's something like a map.

Like most people who have no intention of ever trying to run a marathon, I know that it's "26 and a bit" miles long. Being a normal Brit who lives in a pluralist unit-of-measurement world where our road signs are in miles, but our ergo workouts are in metres, I had never particularly thought about how far the marathon distance (26 miles 385 yards, actually, but I had to look that up) might be in metres. When I accidentally came across the fact that it's 42,195 metres, I inevitably thought, "Oh, that's only twice and a bit the 3x6k outing I do on the ergo when I'm in training for one of the more serious rowing marathons" and, just as you're now experiencing, I realised it was perfectly doable and therefore had to be done.
Ergo marathons are not necessarily something to smile about.

At this point I should perhaps confess that I'm a WaterRower devotee – it's quiet enough that you can listen to the 6.30pm comedy on Radio 4 when you're training after work which I find whiles away the time better than music (except when the comedy is SO funny that you laugh out loud which tends to be ruinous to your split), it's gentler on my faintly dodgy lower back, the calibration is more generous, and anyway, my husband won it in a raffle (albeit one where the tickets were quite expensive).

But please, remember that I have admitted the calibration is generous and don't even think about comparing the scores mentioned below with ones you'd get on a Concept 2.

On the subject of which, if you do use a Concept 2, you now also know why the apparently random distance of 42,195 is one of the presets.

Top tips for making a bad thing slightly better
Possibly my greatest asset as a long-distance rower is the number of friends I have who are far too easily persuaded to join me. On this occasion, the Main Mug was Jon, with whom I skiff regularly along with Steve. Steve announced that he wasn't going to join us because "long ergos are boring" (the irony of this statement will become apparent a little later), but he did agree to do the first half hour, so we thought we'd get some other members of Thames Valley Skiff Club along to do a "relay" on the third machine once Steve had vacated it.

This turned out to be a completely brilliant idea as the general coming and going of people kept Jon and me distracted from the ongoing pain and even just the plain ongoingness of it all, and with a mix of men and women, middle-aged and, er, even more middle-aged (there are very few young people in skiffing), skinny and having-eaten-plenty-of-pies, meant that the finish turned out to be remarkably close.

Tip 1: have a relay team alongside.

To break things up further, I grabbed a drink and two Jelly Babies every 6km (whilst paddling gently with my left hand). These were laid out on a tray beside me.

Tip 2: pause at preset intervals for Jelly Babies.

And I'd also made a list of the various locks upriver from our club for a distance of 42,195km, which I had on the floor beside me (it's on the side you can't see in the picture), so altogether there were three sets targets to work towards, which broke it all up and as we all know, the way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.

Tip 3: come up with some other way of breaking it all up.
The VALUE in breaking it up as much as possible and having lots of interim goals, is that you can count strokes towards those goals. I find that one stroke is slightly less than 10 metres, so once I'm within 1km of a goal, I count 100 strokes, and then I only have to do a few more to get there. If I lose count en route, well, fine: the whole point has been to distract me. I just check how far it is go to, then start counting again.

Tip 4: count.

Seated on day on the bubble wrap...
Now, when we skiff, Steve endlessly teases Jon and me about the lengths we have to go to avoid various bits of our bods falling apart. In Jon's case it's his hands which he encases in tape AND then puts gloves over the top for every outing, and in mine it's the massive piece of foam I sit on to avoid the outer layers of my bum bring removed (yes, I'd like it to look smaller, obvs, but layer by layer isn't the way to go about it). Strangely, on the ergo, these issues were largely reversed: I did some fairly serious taping of a few fingers before we started, whilst Jon... well, you can see what's going on in the picture..

Tip 5: Princesses my need to sit on a lot of mattresses.

We listened to a 1980 radio station throughout (there's no comedy on Radio 4 on Saturday mornings), which happened to deliver "Eye of the tiger" at just the right point for me at around 8k to go when my splits were dropping below my 2:15 target, and there didn't seem much I could do about it. With full service restored, and the last two Jelly Babies on board, I was, however, a little disappointed to find myself powering to the glorious conclusion of all this to Boy George crooning "Do you really want to hurt me?" (to which the logical answer at this point was "No, I'm hurting myself quite enough as it is, thank you"). I suppose that's why young people have those playlist things.

Tip 6: pumping rock is better that soulful ballads, but you probably knew that.

Jon finished in 2:59:55 (Concept 2), I did 3.05:56 (WaterRower) and the relay team, which included people who had never been on an ergo before, did a respectable 3:07.47 (Concept 2).

And that's it really. No cultural observations, no unexpected sights, no lovely wildlife moments like you get on a proper rowing marathons. Although I was mildly amused that, having refused to row for more than 30 minutes with us, Steve did hang around at the club for the rest of the marathon watching us, which surely must have been even MORE boring, although he claims it wasn't because he had a cup of tea.

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