The fifteenth annual Welsh indoor rowing championship was held this weekend in Cardiff. The event sees keen rowers pitting themselves against each other using rowing machines. Adam Smith went down to Channel View leisure centre to find out more about the sport and meet some of the competitors.
By Adam Smith
This Saturday 410 competitors from across Britain descended on Channel View Leisure Centre in Cardiff for the 15th annual Welsh indoor rowing championship.
Spandex clad men and women of all ages and builds raced on 20 ergometers competing against each other and themselves, hoping to improve on personal bests and test the limits of their endurance.
Event organiser Mike Hnatiw said: “It’s man against machine basically. They’re not playing, they do actually push themselves to the limit.”
Hnatiw, who works for Cardiff Harbour Authority, said: “Theres a mixture of rowers and what I call gym monkeys who are basically indoor rowing anoraks.
“They don’t just go to the gym to do weight training and anaerobic exercise, they actually work full-time on the rowing machines while the rowers use it as a training method.”
This latter category includes Tom Allen and James McGee, 20-year-old students who represent Cardiff University at rowing.
McGee, who studies medicine said: “the phrase within the rowing world is that ‘ergs don’t float,’ but they’re a pretty good predictor of how fit and strong you are.”
“I’ve done a couple of different sports before like martial arts and rugby but this is without a doubt the most difficult and the furthest I’ve pushed myself.”
You wouldn’t expect this inconspicuous sports hall in Grangetown to be the scene of such extremes of endurance.
At the near end of the room competitors warm up in the shadow of a climbing wall while on the far side they weigh in beneath a basket ball hoop.
Between races competitors and their friend mill around the area chatting light-heartedly. But when the participants are summoned for their heats the laughter stops.
“I get the same thought patterns going through my head, I think: ‘why am I doing rowing?’, ‘why did I bother to do this?’,‘this is ridiculous’,” said McGee.
While Allen, a business student, said: “to be brutally honest I don’t have any thought patterns at all i’m just like ‘must pull harder, must pull harder’.”
The gentle whir of the ergometers belies the intensity of a race as the competitors go through their whiplash motions, feet straining in the saddles as they pump at the machine.
Their exertion is represented by a little boat which edges its way across the large digital display; a tiny yellow marker representing their position in the race.
The competitors are urged on by their trainers and team mates until around the fifth minute when the crowd takes on a silence as though acknowledging the rowers’ dwindling reserves.
Then one by one the racers reach the finish line and the brief calm is punctured by the crack of released handles smacking into the ergometer’s frame.
Many of the competitors are bent double with exhaustion and need their trainers to unstrap their feet, then free from the machines they stumble away seeking some privacy in which to confront their fatigue.
“It’s a massive amount of pain. You feel a lot of pain during the race then it’s a completely different pain afterwards it hits you for 15 minutes or longer.” said Allen.
“You feel sick and your legs are killing. It’s the lactic acid moving its way around your body and your body is trying to get rid of it. It’s a horrible feeling.”
The losers must swallow this pain alone while the winners put on a brave face and mount the podium to accept their medals.
You have to wonder what draws people to this punishing sport which leaves grown men prone on a hard gym floor, gasping for breath and clutching at blue plastic sick buckets.
Allen, who took home silver in the mens under 23, said: “ The failures I’ve had in the past drive me on at an intrinsic level. Without even having to think about it I want to do better.”
While McGee who took home gold in the same category said: “ these long rowing machine sessions pay off when you’re fast in the water and beating other crews in a big race. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”