This morning I awoke covered in sweat and feeling a bit like a crumpled up piece of past its sell by date lettuce. I’d stupidly gone to bed late last night, and sleeping on the bottom bunk in a large dorm, thick green duet and youth hostel pillow under head hadn’t left me the most refreshed. At home I like to sleep with the windows wide open, exposed to as much fresh air as possible, so I wasn’t yet used to a dorm full of people and windows closed. The air had that stale odour of snorers that only guest houses, hostels, and tents have, but I was also feeling incredibly nervous. As milestones to the reality of preparing to row across an ocean go, this was a bigee!! My very first fitness assessment with the one and only Professor Greg Whyte OBE, at his clinic in Harley Street. Greg is not just an Olympian, Professor, or world leader in sports fitness, but he’s also worked with an array of famous people, such as Davina McCall, David Walliams, Eddie Izzard, and has advised the Olympic committee and the BBC. At least I would be in good hands.
I was aching already, and my muscles still felt exhausted from a busy weekend on Lake Windermere, followed by a day of traipsing across London with my heavy backpack. The cooked breakfast at the hostel looked tempting, but I knew I’d regret it, once my stomach was being squished on the rowing machine, so I decided to opt for croissants, grapefruit, and muesli instead. A large mug of tea, was just what I needed to get my body and soul a little more awake.
It was a beautiful morning already, as I crossed the greenery of Holland Park. It was like a social hang out for owners and their dogs, and I’d never seen anywhere as friendly as this place. But I wasn’t able to bask in the sunshine for too long, as I needed to duck underground as I took the train from leafy Kensington to Harley Street to visit the Centre for Health and Human Performance. I’d been here once previously, when I first chatted with Greg about the expedition, so I wasn’t too worried about finding the way, but I was nervous about crossing the busy side roads, and just how hard Greg might push me today. Either way it was going to hurt! But I didn’t get too much time to dwell on my emotions, as there were lots of logistics to take care of first, and my mind was distracted elsewhere.
Unbelievably I was early. In fact I was so early, and my mind was so distracted, that I almost walked straight past Greg and a film crew who were busy carrying out an interview in front of the clinic. Still sleepy, I gave a quick, mumbled, ‘Good Morning’ before checking myself in at the reception. At least I had a bit of time to get my head into order and wake up a bit. I was already sweating from the commute across London, and in my Crewroom rowing unisuit, so I knew this was going to be tough.
It wasn’t long until my colleagues arrived, Tony and Tony from Sports Science Innovations (whose cool wearable technology I’ll be using for training and the expedition), and my two PhD Supervisors from Roehampton University, Drs Lewis and Leigh. It was nice to have a quick catch up with everyone, and soon enough it was time to enter Greg’s room.
He set me up on the rowing machine for a ‘warm up’, at which point, I was already feeling it…eek! Next, it was time for the ECG stickers to be put on my back and chest, before the blue mask was put over my mouth and nose to monitor my breathing. If I wasn’t hot already, then the mask certainly made me hot, and as it pinched my nostrils together and I began breathing through my mouth, my mouth and throat became dry, making it difficult to swallow….we hadn’t even started the assessment yet!!
“You’ve got three minutes at 230”. It sounded like an instruction for cooking a turkey. I was so not going to survive this. The demons in my head already willing me to fail. What was I doing. I was going to fail before I had even started. This was to be a battle of wills. I picked myself up quickly, remembering Debbie’s positive words when we had trained a bit on the rowing machine last year at Leander when she kindly took me under her wing. It didn’t matter for this assessment. That was the whole point. To get a baseline measurement of my fitness (or unfitness) now, so that Greg could then put together a programme that would help me to get my basic fitness, before building on it, to become a bit more of an athlete. This was an opportunity for me, to overcome my inner challenges, to get used to performing under pressure with others around, and to find strategies for mental strength.
“Its all about storing gold in the bank for the future”. Greg’s words made complete sense, and reminded me of something I’d realised for myself of late. I’d already been storing away positive moments, that I could use when I was struggling at sea. Greg’s philosophy was that the more miserable the training, the better the experience later on, when its needed. I couldn’t agree more.
Greg got me to row for three minutes at a time, each time getting progressively faster or harder, and each time we stopped for a minute’s rest, he would take a small amount of blood from my right ear lobe, to measure the blood lactate in my muscles. I was at my threshold right from the off, so I knew that Greg would have his work cut out, to get me from zero to hero over the next 9 months.
The final part of the assessment, was a four minute row, giving it all I could. I was fine for the first minute, but as I became tired and overwhelmed by how long four minutes suddenly seemed, the demons in my head struck again, and I just couldn’t push myself mentally to give it all I had left. Its why I’ve never been competitive, as soon as it becomes a challenge or a race, I go into some kind of relaxed, defensive mode, like I have an inner rebel that refuses to do anything it is told. Definitely something to work on with the mental strength conditioning. I could see Greg was disappointed, and I worried that I had let him down. I had worked hard, but I wished that I could have been fitter than I was. This was much more than just getting fit, this journey was going to be about learning who I was and what made me tick.
But it was also a really positive experience, and I couldn’t help but feel incredibly privileged. Everyone was here to support me, and had given up their time to help. It was down to me now, to give my all, to do the best that I could. It was a great opportunity to introduce some of the team to each other, and to spend time building up those relationships. We were all just at the start of a long road ahead, with the destination unknown….but full of excitement.
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