First, why does anyone do this to themselves? Take their mind and body voluntarily into a commitment so long and gruelling that mind-games and physical lows are inevitable.
The stop-start exertion, with each round grinding you down a little more. Sitting in your corner waiting to be called again and again.
Like crew rowing, carrying the responsibility of knowing that your potential failure would not be a contained personal event but dooms the team.
You need a catalyst, in this case Ian McNuff, whose determination knows no limits and who practically and emotionally drags you into the ring.
Deep down though there needs to be a desire to know – can I do it? And you must find someone else, preferably as strong as an ox – physically and mentally – that will share the burden with you. Step forward David Dix, man mountain and, handily, indoor GB and World indoor rowing championship medallist.
So, Dixie and I agree to have a crack at the 50-59 100km tandem world record, alongside Ian and Clive Roberts (rowing legends) who will simultaneously go for the 60-69 record. The attempts will be held in the gym at Molesey Boat Club, as part of an open day of activities including boat naming honouring the club’s recently returned Olympic and Paralympic heroes.
So, we had a date… but how do you prepare? This is where it really helps to have a coach like Eddie, who understands that the training is not just a physiological exercise but also psychological. Preparation is needed for the mind-numbing repetition. As a group of athletes, along with our official timekeeper and organiser, Tony Ward, we shared tips and debated practicalities.
How best to fuel and hydrate, what were the optimum interval times and how to manage changeovers. It was Eddie’s seven-week programme that formed the base of Dixie’s and my confidence. The programme is maybe best described as extreme bifurcation.
The biggest sessions were weekend intervals, gradually increasing in volume to peak at 60x 2mins on and 2mins off, close to WR pace (sub 1:43/500m). With a warm-up and wind-down these sessions were chewing up big chunks of time, but ultimately giving us the belief that the challenge was achievable.
We finessed our approach and agreed to start with 1.5 minute intervals.
Inevitably the day finally arrived, along with that pit-of-the-stomach dread. Perhaps naively I believed that we were physiologically and psychologically well prepared, but we still had execution risk.
We had never even attempted a handover. Fortunately, Dixie, along with his (extremely patient) family, had practised and had a plan. One large snag – getting Dixie’s size 14s in and out of the foot straps efficiently – solved with a flash of inspiration.
A few low-pressure practice handovers were all we managed. The 60s had already started – we were trying to chase them down… and then we were off. Learn on the job.
The first hour goes past quickly. Off too fast of course, getting used to sending messages to each other via our helpers – to be passed on during the next recovery. Gradually calming and finding something sustainable.
Our plan to be a few tenths ahead of the record pace for the first half, building in likely fade. Each piece off high for 10, gradually lengthening, then cruising slightly into the handover. And repeat.
Somewhere in the second hour the negative thoughts arrived in my head. The slight labouring in the piece, the voice telling you just to walk out. But you don’t. You look up, see the support, tell yourself that the only way you leave is if they carry you out.
Hopefully, like me, you also see your tandem partner smashing it along – carrying you physically through your low, giving you another reason to push on. Looking back now the middle 2 or 3 hours were in a trance – the low had been passed but it wasn’t safe to think about how far was left. Both of us continually haunted by mental demons, but not wanting to let each other down, knowing that we had endured Eddie’s programme to be here and the gradual realisation that we could and would prevail.
Then the strangest, most wonderful, thing happened. I started to feel stronger and almost joyous. It was a completely new experience – something you don’t expect after competing for the best part of 4 decades.
Now it was my turn to lift Dixie and help hold the splits. Remarkably we had only let our average split slip by 0.1s over the preceding 3 hours. Banging out those final turns with the gym full of cheering support was magical, with the experience undoubtedly amplified by our physical state.
As a wise man once said, life is about meaningful textured moments. Dixie, Ian, Clive, and I certainly lived that day.
Results: David and David set a new 50-59 heavyweight men’s 100km tandem World Record of 5 hours 41 minutes and 24.0 seconds on 12th September 2021. This is an average split of 1:42.4/500m
Ian and Clive set a new 60-69 heavyweight men’s 100km tandem World Record of 6 hours 2 minutes and 2.1 seconds on 12th September 2021. This is an average split of 1:48.6/500m
Photo credits: Vicky Gillard
David Gillard, October 2021