I felt crap for most of the weekend, no doubt because I was fighting off some kind of virus that had already affected half of my household. It was something very similar to when I ran the Marathon in Valencia. These days I rarely seem to actually get "ill" (touch wood), that is to say, with tangible symptoms - but, every so often, I notice that my energy levels are very low and training even at low intensity is like doing a hard workout. It doesn't happen frequently enough for me to worry that it might be "all in my mind" or an excuse to get out of training but it does remind me of something that happened to me when I was 20. I wonder if there are some psychological scars left over from that time.
Summer 1992, Saturday of Eights Week, Oxford. It was the last day of Summer Eights, the biggest inter-collegiate rowing event of the calendar (the Oxford-Cambridge Boatrace being inter-University). All the "Blues" were back in the college boats after their victory over Cambridge. That year I had decided not to try out for the Blue Boat after my experience the year before but rather to focus on my academic work. The Summer Eights is what is known as a "bumps race". Around 160 crews of 8 rowers and a cox (who steers the boat) take part on the narrow tributary of the Thames known as the Isis. As it is too narrow for the crews to race each other side by side, instead they all start equally spaced by 1 and a half boat lengths and must try to catch ("bump") the crew in front before they are themselves bumped. The competition takes place over four evenings so that crews may advance 4 places in the rankings that year (or even more if they manage to perform an "over bump"). If a crew bumps the crew ahead on each of the 4 occasions, then the crew members are entitled to get their "oars" - an oar with the details of the crew and their weights painted on the blade. (If you ever go to the Cambridge Blue pub in Cambridge, on the street where I used to live, you'll see a blade of mine hanging there. It was too big to move to Spain!). The male and female crews that finish at the top of the rankings on the Saturday are crowned the Head Crews and get to burn their boat and have their names chalked up over an arch in the college quad. (Strictly speaking, they burn a crappy old wooden boat - it wouldn't do to burn one of those nice expensive plastic boats they race in.)
On the Saturday of Eights Week, the Pembroke Men's First Eight in which I was rowing was at number two on the river, just behind Oriel who rather boringly tended to be in first place most of the time in those days. If I remember right, we had bumped up a couple of times but failed to catch them on the Friday night. We decided to try something new: "hatchet blades". Hatchets - with an asymmetrical blade that supposedly gripped the water better - had just started to be accepted and, indeed, Oriel and some of the other top crews were already using them. We had been offered to try them in a tune up race we in Nottingham but the Captain had decided that we shouldn't scupper our chances in that race by changing something at the last minute. A wise choice had it been an important race but now, here we were, with the same dilemma. This time we chose to try them out for the very first time.
What the others in the crew were not aware of is that I had blacked out during the day. It is the only time I have ever fainted. I just put it down to nerves. But when I was in the boat, pulling for all I was worth, I could tell something was up. I felt incredibly weak and it seemed that all I could do was just move up and down the boat with the rest to avoid spearing the guy in front in the back with the handle of my oar (or being speared myself, for that matter). I felt like I was letting down the others, not to mention myself. That evening I felt an exhaustion I had never felt before, like I could hardly keep my eyes open.
A few days later I tried rowing again, this time in an Oxford City Four that was headed for Henley Royal Regatta. This time I couldn't even row easy ("light pressure") and I had to ask them to row me back to shore. I went to see a doctor whose words I remember exactly: "If I were a betting man," he said, "I'd say you've got Glandular Fever". Glandular Fever or Mononucleosis is also known as "The Kissing Disease" as it is easily passed by saliva. I don't know where I got it from because my girlfriend at the time was fine (maybe she was immune) but it's something that could even be transmitted by sharing water bottles which was common enough.
A test confirmed the doctors prognosis but the symptoms soon made it clear beyond any doubt. I spent at least a week with my glands completely swollen and almost unable to swallow food. It wasn't nice but it was nothing compared to what was to come.
Some people seem to bounce back right away - in fact, the same thing happened to another guy in the crew some months later (no, we didn't kiss) and he was able to resume training within weeks. I felt listless, lethargic and suffered from panic attacks where my heart rate would start racing for no reason as well as sudden, non-negotiable needs to sleep immediately. The panic attacks made me susceptible to blow ups, where I would fly into a rage. I discovered that smoking a cigarette helped calm me down and this is when I started smoking albeit it one a day to begin with. I found that the fatigue would come in waves and I was convinced that their was some psychological element to it, as if just worrying about it happening was enough to make it happen. This didn't make it any less real or any easier to deal with (if not completely the opposite).
It took months and months to get better - even a year later I was still suffering from it. I was now starting my final year at University which would determine 100% of my final results. My mum did me a great favour without knowing it at the time: her suggestion that I should take a year out of University to recover made me very determined to finish my degree on time, but it wasn't easy. The only long lasting casualty was my fitness. I felt cheated of all the hard work I had done to get so fit and I couldn't bring myself to go through it all again. With hindsight, I think that this attitude was very immature and self-pitying. On the other hand, the way that I had got to that point was through gruelling training which I saw as a necessary evil, thriving only on winning competitions. As soon as the reward was removed and I no longer had a coach cracking a whip over my back, it was easier just to slip into a more "normal" lifestyle. In any case, it would have happened sooner or later. It is a classic pattern: as soon as the results no longer justify the investment - something that comes to all but the professionals at some point or other - you drop out and focus on other aspects of your life like building a career and a family. So I shouldn't kid myself that things would have turned out much differently had it not been for Glandular Fever.
Now with what I have read about fatigue and Tim Noakes' Central Governor Theory - that fatigue is something manufactured by our brains, not something physiological - it is interesting to think about that kind of post viral fatigue I suffered from all those years ago. It seems like it is something psychological but, equally, it is just as insurmountable as the fatigue you feel while you are running the last few kilometres of a Marathon. The question is why is the brain telling us to slow down and what can we do to temper it?