It Hurts So Good
For people who think too much, the end of school and the start of university is a strange and occasionally terrifying time. Despite all the evidence to suggest it would never happen, your school years are over, and you’re forced to accept that time will continue to move. In my case, the discovery of life’s finiteness meant that it suddenly felt imperative that I really did something with my first year at uni, beyond the standard mixture of beers/weed/clubs/marathon runs of Breaking Bad/Domino’s/10 hour sleeps/pondering whether university is all it’s cracked up to be. I’m often prone to introversion when faced with freedom, so without some kind of kick it would be easy to slip into a dull and potentially lonely routine.
In retrospect, what I really wanted was an intense experience, and due to various factors there were only two obvious ways of achieving that. Option 1: take an enormous amount and variety of drugs (this is hardly rare amongst Philosophy students) and plunge head first into Bristol’s underground clubbing scene (to describe it as drug-orientated would be an understatement, see the logo for one of the most popular nights to the left). Option 2: Rowing. At the time I wasn’t thinking like this at all, and had no idea how all-encompassing either lifestyle could be. [Don’t worry: This isn’t a debate about healthy living at all; that’s an attribute of rowing too obvious to be worth writing about]
I have never considered myself/been considered a sporty person; I see the attraction but tend to be more comfortable in other areas. And yet, for some reason, I picked up a sport which demanded 12 training sessions a week, a handful of which would easily dominate a list of my life’s most physically painful experiences.
A 2k test, for example, is when you are sat on the worst contraption ever devised by mankind: a rowing machine, and then have to row 2000 metres as quickly as possible. From 0-500m, you try to keep cool and calm – aware that pain is on its way – and attempt to maintain good technique. From 500-1000m, various parts of your body begin to send warning signals that all is not well. From 1000-1500m those signals turn to screams, often echoed by the members of your squad clustered around you demanding that you give your all. At this point you will likely decide that you should obviously quit rowing as nothing is worth this, and yet as my teammate put it ‘something innate at the back of your mind makes you realise that you can’t let your crewmates down because they’ve put in just as much effort as you‘. From 1500-2000m all that matters is holding on; with little consciousness of technique left, the extension of legs-core-arms has merged into one ‘go faster’ button which you hammer with whatever energy you have left. Our captains used to sum up with mindset necessary for a successful 2k test with the phrase ‘body in the oven, head in the freezer’, and the experience of having 800 metres left to go is described quite nicely by the cartoon on the right.
I have seen rowers collapse or vomit at various stages of these tests (a special mention must go to Henry Mellen, who once managed to throw up before his began), and yet they keep coming back for training the next day. Why on Earth would you not quit rowing the moment it becomes clear that you’ll be asked to put yourself through this anaerobic hell again? Because just as hedonistic highs are followed by comedowns, masochistic pains are followed by deep, fecund pleasures.
The actual act of rowing in an 8-person-boat is often bizarrely satisfying; every member has to contribute to the power, rhythm and balance, and so the sound of a unified ‘chunk’ (at the end of a stroke) becomes pleasurable to the point of mild arousal. A successful performance comes with the knowledge that not only are you doing your job right, but so is your whole crew, and the residual respect built up as a result justifies any clichéd claims of ‘brotherhood’. On the gym side of things, it’s impossible to explain the feeling of getting a 6k time which you would have been physically incapable of reaching a month ago; pride doesn’t quite cut it. Funnily enough, drugs are actually a pretty useful simile to use, as the serotonin that floods your brain after extreme exercise is the exact same chemical triggered by MDMA, and the enjoyment I’ve garnered from the simplest post-session meals would suggest hefty post-weed munchies. (Other benefits of rowing include being allowed – nay required – to eat enormous amounts of food, telling everyone within a 5 metre radius of you that you row, and being paid to attend nightclubs due to the crowd of adoring fans who will doubtlessly follow)
I recently met up with an old friend who went to the same university as me, considered rowing just as I did, and went instead for continuous drugs and clubbing. She found it odd that despite being a music fanatic and living in Britain’s most musical city, I chose a lifestyle that prevented me from frequenting its critically acclaimed clubs and absorbing their vibes with the help of various narcotics. However, rowing has allowed me access to a completely different plethora of musical experiences. Having the ‘right song’ come on whilst out clubbing is exciting, but having it come on when you are just starting a 6k and need to keep calm and concerted, or when you’re near the end and need to be dragged over the finish line is far more intense. I still get an mild adrenaline rush when listening to Kendrick Lamar’s verse from Control, it’s just natural association by memory.
If you want to try out an lifestyle whereby you experience extreme highs and unavoidable lows, it’s impossible to say which will make you happier overall. You may never again have the freedom that a student loan, overdraft and first year course gives you, to take shitloads of drugs with little consequences. Equally you may never again have the opportunity to push your body to its limits and experience the unique highs and lows that come as a result.
If you’re still not bored of hearing about this rowing lark, below is a montage my crew made about our rowing camp over Easter. It takes itself very seriously, but to be frank most rowers feel that they’ve earned that right; when consulting a fellow rower (and occasional writer) about this article he suggested I end it with the Chris Hedges quote ‘The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug’, something that may sound ridiculous to any non-rower, and utterly justified to anyone else.