24-hour challenge

6th January 2023 a message received from Kieran “my mate Albert Maher is attempting a 24hr world record (over 50s) and wanted me to ask you if you’d be interested?”. My response “pretty sure I’m not interested”. Yet here I am, writing another blog!

Chatting to Albert later it was clear that this was happening, with or without me. It was likely a once in a lifetime opportunity and I didn’t want to regret having missed the chance. Albert was already working with Eddie in preparation for individual record attempts, and Eddie kindly offered to guide the group in key training sessions leading into the 24-hour attempt.

There was also Eddie’s “invisible hand” making connections across his athlete and support network, bolstering the line-up, and bringing key insights and advice – including from Rachel Armstrong on nutritional planning.

With a Concept2 “small team” of 10 it was inevitable that unexpected commitments or injuries would cause line-up changes in the preceding months. It wasn’t expected that one of these would be a broken arm from tripping over an ergo … but Albert always had a contingency plan.

That flexible mindset was critical, since even on the day you don’t know what will happen. Injuries, illness, and exhaustion can all hit during the piece and render planned rotations and rest periods redundant.

One of the team, Kenny, seemed to recover from a lingering illness through the piece – almost certainly not the orthodox approach recommended by modern medicine.

One way to consider the challenge is that each participant rows a (roughly) full marathon, in intervals, within the 24-hours, on one machine. The highest risk approach is to keep intervals short and have everyone on rotation all the way. Something like 30s on, 4mins 30s off, continuously for 24 hours.

The risk is extreme tiredness without significant rest, limited easily digestible food options and increased chance of injury and drop-out (which in turn increases the pressure on the remaining squad). The high-risk approach also requires slick handovers to minimise the flywheel deceleration and a large support team (foot-straps etc.). Long intervals are clearly not ideal for optimising speed.

Albert, Dixie and Eddie designed a “civilised” compromise approach. We would start with groups of 3, completing 20x 90s (and therefore 180s rest), with rolling replacements as each set was completed. With a 1:38pm start we would see how this was going heading into dawn the following morning and reassess. After a set of 20x (1hr 30min) each person then got 3hr 30min to shower, eat, rest and use Brian’s Normatec pneumatic leg massager before their next sets.

Off first was Niall “Tooler” O’Toole, then Steve Turner, Albert Maher, David “Dixie” Dix, Brian Collins, Kenny McDonald (Garda), Sean Jacob, Denis Crowley, Philip Healy and lastly me.

These 90s work blocks were then the cornerstone of our preparation. Bifurcation, with the higher intensity sessions focused on increasingly lengthy sets of intervals – with lower rest than on the attempt itself – at close to target pace (1:40).

We were fortunate that Cathal Brennan (Garda) agreed to be our project manager, time-keeper and official recorder. Cathal arranged exclusive use of the Garda Síochána Boat Club through the challenge, with the erg positioned close to the balcony doors, a perfect spot to walk off each piece overlooking the Liffey. We were also extremely grateful, both to have and not to need, on-site emergency medical cover from the Order of Malta through the whole event.

However, Albert’s plans for a rolling army of volunteers to help with the changeovers did not materialise. He sensibly kept this quiet, alarmingly confident that a solution would present itself. Three things prevented the rowers from having to do it themselves: Dixie’s homemade Velcro straps, the longer intervals, but mainly the almost unbelievable commitment from a small group of partners and friends who went from expecting to be supporters and occasional helpers to 24-hour assistants.

With no residential neighbours to disturb, Dixie’s 14-hour Spotify playlist could be cranked up for our own Highway to Hell (track 26). Albert’s second home, Commercial Rowing Club, a short stroll away, could be used for those that needed a respite from the Uptown Funk (track 58) – complete with beds for snoozing.

Then we just got on with it. Heads down, brains fogged by the efforts, minimising energy expenditure on anything that wasn’t necessary. Many reported that the worse they felt was after the first 20x set. Certainly, plenty looked like death warmed-up. But nobody faltered. After the full first 20x rotation the split average was 1:39.9 and 10 hours later was sitting at 1:40.3 – these old boys know how to pace themselves.

We celebrated the small milestones – 100k down, 200k down, the end of a rotation – with a cheer.

By the early hours we had laid the foundations and still had the whole squad to call on. Our transition were – just a little – less clunky after 14 hours of practice.

We could now think about changing up. From the end of my (as last in the rotation) early morning shift (3:08am-4:38am) we decided to move to 10x 90s on, remaining in the same rotation pattern, then a couple of rotations later to 6x 90s.

We started to chip away, slowly, at the average. It’s a bit crazy to realise that the equivalent of the last 500m in a 2k is 6 hours for a 24-hour effort… the last gear change was “all in” – a straight 10-person rotation starting with 90s each and down to 60s for the last 1 ½ hours.

Now in daylight, all together around the erg, the atmosphere built. There was a huge cheer with about 1 ½ hours still to go as we passed the old record.

The Zoom call was connected so that Eddie, family and friends could watch the final stages. Photos show a Renaissance-like scene, Caravaggio’s Taking of the Erg. In the last few strokes, with Albert bringing us home, the average split ticked down to 1:39.8

Despite knowing we would disappoint Eddie, we skipped the wind-down paddle and headed for a pint of Guinness. What an incredible weekend in Dublin.

The squad would like to express their enormous thanks to all who supported us, both there in person and through messages and donations. The support of Garda Síochána, including a visit from Assistant Commissioner Angela Willis of the senior leadership team (who only shortly before were coordinating President Biden’s visit), was incredible. We hope they will accept our offer of a framed photo to commemorate the event, to sit alongside those of the many club legends.

Previous record:
405,113m Texas Rowing Centre 21 st – 22 nd December 2019 (500m average split 1:46.6)
New record:
432,724m Team Gavin Glynn 15 th – 16 th April 2023 (500m average split 1:39.8)

Team Gavin Glynn were supporting The Gavin Glynn Foundation www.tggf.ie with close to €20,000 raised from over 300 donors raised at the time of writing.
David Gillard, April 2023

Photo credit for Vicky Gillard.

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