Friday, July 4, 2014

Oxford blues

This weekend I spent in Oxford, at my 21 years since graduation reunion (or "gaudy" as they insist on calling it there). I shouldn't really have been surprised to have found myself the only person not wearing black-tie (I was wearing a suit and tie, mind) but I couldn't find that naff clip on bow tie I used to use and I refused to buy a new one (and my Oxford education didn't extend so far as showing me how to tie one). I sent a photo to my kids (not reproduced here out to protect the reputations of my fellow colleagues) as I knew they would appreciate just how Harry Potter the whole thing was. It was pretty freaky staying in my old room and seeing all these familiar but strangely different faces. As you can imagine, it was a fairly alcohol fueled evening (I even smoked a cigarette!) that went on late by my recent standards. To really emulate a weekend of my youth, I had arranged for a friend to pick me up at 7 am, slightly hungover and only 4 hours sleep the better, to take me down to the river for an "outing" (in a rowing boat).

I don't think I have seen Mike since he kindly brought my records from Oxford to my parents' house in Cambridge, where I was recovering from glandular fever, almost exactly 22 years ago to the day. I had been rowing in a boat with him the day I discovered I was ill - it was the day after the intercollegiate Summer Eights rowing race, and we were training for Henley in a City of Oxford crew (Henley Royal Regatta is taking place as I write). I felt so weak that I couldn't even row "light pressure" and the others had to row me back to the boathouse. Mike was also in the crew I had rowed in the previous year, which I had joined just after having been dropped from the Oxford University squad.

Just as well I had a lot less records in those days
I may not have found my clip on bow-tie, but I was able to find my old City of Oxford lycra one-piece as well as some OUBC (Oxford University Boat Club) attire, complete with the then ubiquitous Beefeater Gin sponsorship. We drove down to Wallingford, to the very same stretch of water I had splashed incessantly up and down with the university squad all those years ago, but had not been back to since. We were very lucky to have a window of beautiful weather which only just lasted longer than the outing itself. We were quite a motley crew: Mike had assembled a couple of other friends - one of whom was an "ex-blue" (that is to say, had rowed in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race) and past Henley champion, in incredible shape considering that he was 70(!) years old. I assumed the "stroke" position (the one at the front, setting the rhythm), while Mike steered - if he remembered to - using a rudder which was attached to his foot via cables. I was pleased to see that not much had changed since I had last been in a boat (I think I have rowed about 3 times in the last 20 years). We used the "hatchet blades" which have an asymmetric spoon and were introduced around the time I was rowing seriously. In fact, on the last day of that Summer Eights competition in 1992, we switched to them for the first time in a desperate attempt to get our "blades" (oars awarded to those who finish first or "Head of the River"). Otherwise, it was just like riding a bike: I didn't have to think about what I was doing (although the others were probably just being polite in not criticizing my technique).

One thing that I had forgotten as it was the sort of thing that only "novices" suffered from, was that you tend to get terrible blisters - more precisely, open wounds - from the wooden handles of the oar, and the twisting motion ("feathering"). It's actually pretty disgusting to think of all that human blood and sweat which has soaked into the handle and starts to seep out in a kind of greasy gunk as you row.

A picture of my hand: makes a change from pictures of my feet
Apart from the soreness of my hands which only became an issue towards the end, I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the amusing running commentary from Mike a couple of seats behind me. We did a round trip of about 14 kilometers and we weren't too shabby. I mean, I wouldn't describe ourselves as spritely, but the boat was stable enough (presumably because the experienced guys behind me were able to compensate for me) to be able to row without worrying about "catching a crab" (when your oar suddenly gets stuck in the water, with the possible consequence of the handle jumping up and hitting you in the chest). I have to admit that it was tiring, though and I didn't feel as though I could wimp out. I'd forgotten what it was like to have that pressure of not letting your fellow crew members down: a crew is more than just a team - if you stop, you get whacked in the back by the oar of the guy behind you. Since I fell off my bike and tore the ligaments in my shoulder, I have had surprisingly little trouble (so far) - I was able to complete an Ironman soon after - but my shoulder did feel worse for wear the next few days.

After the outing, we had a shower in the boat club and had some breakfast in a local cafe. I felt slightly jealous of Mike living in a quaint village, where he seemed to know everyone we passed, all of whom seemed to be rowers. I made a resolution to get back into cycling in a group when I got back to Madrid. When I am preparing for a specific competition I like to train on my own and I tend to be very focused end self-motivated, but these days I am suffering from a bit of a lack of direction and motivation, especially with the problems I am having with my foot. I got the MRI scan back today, and the conclusion is indeed that I have a Morton's Neuroma (if not two of them in the same foot). I'm seeing the podiatrist next week so I await slightly nervously the prognosis and recommended course of action. In the meantime, I have been cycling a lot more and running a lot less; also, finally, my feet have recovered from my rather unwise sockless run some weeks ago, so I can again run in my slightly more than minimalist Merrill Trail Gloves.

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