A popular question I get asked a lot when I tell people I’m going to row the Atlantic is “Why?”. It’s a good question but the answer is not so straightforward. You often hear slightly clichéed answers like “because it’s there” or “for the challenge” but these are merely sound bites that don’t really tell the full, or in fact any of the story. My answer starts when I took up rowing at University in Dublin in 1995. Although I had always been very active before that, it was the first “serious” training I ever undertook. With up to 9 training sessions a week it often felt more like work than play but it was the most rewarding experience of my life to date. Character building doesn’t start to describe it - I gained 15kg in my first 9 months training jumping from a somewhat light 65kg to a fairly significant 80kg. The gain was pure muscle - in fact probably more than 15kg of muscle given the loss of body fat along the way. Every week we did three 90mins cardio circuits followed by a 30mins run; two on the water sessions each lasting about 4 hours; 1 heavy weights session; 1 hill sprint session. And that was just early in the season. Before the Irish Championships we were at 9 sessions a week. But the physical transformation was just the tip of the iceberg. The mental toughness we learnt sometimes verged on brainwashing - a coach repeatedly shouting at you that you don’t feel pain, that your mind controls your body and that you will not accept pain. It was remarkable. But it made us mentally strong. Very strong. It enabled us to block out the demands our muscles made to stop and literally dragged us through the pain barrier time and time again. Such are the demands of competitive rowing.
I did a little over a year of rowing at that level and then decided it was simply too time consuming and decided to enjoy the rest of my University experience. In the 20 years that followed I used a rowing machine for fitness purposes, occasionally challenging myself with marathon distance rows just to see if the mental strength was still there - it was. I recently sat in a rowing boat for the first time since University, having just joined my local rowing club in preparation for the Atlantic. It was like I’d never been away - the clunk of the oars as everyone feathers their blades in unison, the familiar burning in the legs of lactic acid, the inevitable hand pain as blister form and tear on the oar handles. It was like I’d never been away. So rowing was a sport I loved. It was formative - physically and even more so mentally - and represented the biggest challenge I had ever undertaken.
At University I had heard of Ocean Rowers but quickly wrote that off as either a myth or fool’s errand. Rowing 5km on the erg was hard, really hard, how on earth could someone row 5000km? When Cracknell and Fogle famously completed the challenge in 2006 I followed it closely. Having read the book and watched the television program, it became clear that this was ultimate test of mental strength. How do you get back on the oars for yet another 2 hours rowing when you are exhausted and in pain? You do it because your mind is still strong and tells your body to do it. This was the challenge for me. I don’t like altitude or sheer drops, so mountain climbing has never been my thing. So rowing the Atlantic is my Mount Everest. It’s the ultimate benchmark for mental strength and that is why I want to row the Atlantic Ocean.
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