The Romance of EnduranceSidelined from running with an injury, Men's Running blogger Chris finds a new way to build endurance as he rows his way to fitness.
Monday 18 March 2013
In early January, in the midst of an intensive marathon training schedule, my running was stopped dead in its tracks by a sharp and unforgiving calf pain.
While what would eventually be diagnosed as exertional compartment syndrome prohibited me from running, fortunately the nature of my injury meant that I could still partake in any exercise that could be considered ‘low-impact’ alongside a rigorous course of physical therapy.
Without the disposable cash available to spend on a road bike and unwilling to take up synchronised roller skating, I tracked down an affordable gym that offered a one-month rolling contract and proceeded to sign away (at least 30 days of) my life.
The contrast between running in Central Park to exercising on a static machine was initially quite shocking. It reminded me of the time I first joined a gym and began the struggle towards attaining some semblance of a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining my motivation became a major concern.
In my first few weeks it became more apparent than ever that I run as much for the enjoyment and the challenge of constantly improving as I do for the health benefits. Now, in this new environment, it felt like two of those three reasons had been taken away from me.
I felt like just another ripple in an ocean of bored faces, monotonously going about their identikit routines in the stale, recycled gym air while hopelessly searching for some kind of distraction on television screens showing nothing but celebrities or fast-food challenges.
After desperately hunting for something more engaging than the languid experience offered by the cross-trainer or reclined bike, I finally found the one machine that promised to offer some kind respite from the tedium.
Sat in the corner of the gym, completely disregarded by the masses, was one solitary rowing machine. Trust me, if it was possible for an inanimate object to look unloved, then this rowing machine would have been a prime example - I almost wanted to take it home with me.
Now, I have to admit having a soft spot for the rower ever since I discovered it to be one of the few disciplines that I excelled at during my six months stint last summer at Camberley Crossfit. As a result, my first priority was to focus on recalling the techniques I had been taught at Crossfit and then putting them into practice over 2000 metres - the furthest distance I had ever rowed.
I enjoyed it; though I wasn’t entirely sure why, because at the same time I hated every moment of it. It hadn’t struck me at the time, but there was something about the sheer grit and determination required from the start that struck a chord with me.
After a couple of sessions working on my form, while at the same time missing running more than ever, I decided to up the challenge and attempt 5 kilometres. This distance seemed to be appropriate as just two and half years earlier, when I pulled on a pair of trainers and went for my first run outside, five kilometres was the distance I covered.
It certainly wasn’t easy and what quickly became clear was that the as the row progressed and the fatigue began to set in, maintaining an efficient stroke became increasingly difficult meaning that at times the end seemed further away than ever.
With five long, hard kilometres completed, I once again set myself the target of improving my pace; starting steady but strong, maintaining, then finishing strongly. As I gained confidence, my next challenge was to take the leap to 10 kilometres and after a month managed my first sub-40 minute 10km row. It had become obvious that I had found the perfect distraction from running. I still wanted to, but at the same time I had found something that I could focus and improve upon, which is critical to maintain motivation. As tedious as my surroundings continued to be, the feeling of achievement at the end of each row, regardless of the time, encouraged me further.
In an attempt to move on from there, I set myself a time goal; an hour of non-stop rowing. I eventually covering just over 14km in that time and, embracing social networks as I do, I took to Twitter to post the achievement, along with a reference to the fact that it was one of the most challenging things I had attempted in quite some time.
The first response I received was from a friend I used to Crossfit with:
"That looks miserable..." read his reply.
Well. Here's the thing.
It was miserable. Over that hour I went through a number of different emotions and for only about ten minutes was that emotion one of the confidence in my ability to complete the challenge.
My hands burnt, my thighs ached and the monotony began to wear me down. I had nothing to distract me from the pain other than my music and a tiny LCD minor displaying the agonisingly large number of metres left to row.
Earlier I had complained about the monotony of the standard gym equipment and certainly, rowing is incredibly monotonous; but I find the monotony is overcome by that constant awareness that a loss of form can lead to everything becoming tougher than ever.
It’s an absolutely ungratifying experience at times, but rippling below the discomfort and desire to just stop is the grit and determination that urges you to push forward. It’s the same feeling when running, the knowledge that it won't be over in ten or fifteen minutes; that you are signed up for a prolonged session of discomfort and pain - and it’s all your own fault. You have no one else to blame but yourself and that as a result, you will do everything within your power to justify your decision.
My friend’s comment raised a question in my mind: why did I take something that Crossfit deemed perfectly acceptable over 2000 metres and, just, keep going?
Then the answer came to me. It’s not enough for me to find something challenging, then do it well, but as fast as possible. I want to find something challenging, do it well and keep doing it well over a prolonged period of time, while at the same time ensuring I am always working at the limit of my capabilities.
The draw of the endurance aspect of sport is the tactical approach you have to develop and adhere to throughout to ensure that when you cross the line, you aren’t left thinking about what might have been. The knowledge that pushing slightly too hard in the first half an hour could have a detrimental effect on your performance in 2 hours time is incredibly daunting, but at the same time thrilling and hugely satisfying when mastered.
Finally, most of all, the feeling experienced after hours of perfectly answering every question you’ve asked of yourself is unparalleled and the reason I continue to punish myself over long distances.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Endurance is doing the same thing over and over again but getting stronger as a result.