From early September, the days seem to be still sleeping when you wake up. The first few rays of sunlight herald a new day and new life into the coffee-aroma-filled room. But not today. Just as the weather forecast had predicted, it had rained in the night and the sky was leaden. Forecasts are rarely wrong these days! Even after sipping my coffee, the semi-darkness of the grey morning remains. Not too different from my mood.
I face the window and look out. I try to hold on the hope that the distant break in the clouds has cut through the dense nebulous gloom, heavy with rain. Will the weather change? In a few hours? Maybe. But we can’t hang around. Morning training is looming. We have to be moving by 8.
Finishing is the thing
I drive across the bridge to get to the seafront at Bari. The dark, turbulent waves of the sea are uninviting. It’s rougher than we could have imagined, inspiring respect. Since the end of June, the heat and colours of summer have framed our training. Today, the tones and temperature seem to signal the colder months. We leave the changing room in silence. We walk through the disagreeable drizzle to the gym. And there they are, waiting for us. Intimidating. Backs turned to us. They seem resentful. We’ve neglected them for too long. Carefully, we lift the two metal legs to shift the machine’s weight onto its front wheels. We move them, avoiding obstacles, towards the gym door in the hope that the view outside will be less boring than looking at ourselves in the mirror.
I adjust the height of the feet and the drag factor. I start rowing. A little later, Jimmy and Roccia join me. 15 minutes of warm-up. After 7 minutes, I declare decisively, “I’m warmed up!” “What? Already?” replies Jimmy. “I started before you!” I’m lying but I am quite convincing. We get ready for 5 sets of 15 strokes. Ready – go! Done already! Great! Now what? The training plan says how much us Masters rowers have to do: 12 km at a constant rate of 22-24 strokes per minute. Steady state. A monotony that can throw the most experienced and motivated of professional rowers! But for three Masters – two F and one D, 174 years old altogether – on a gloomy late summer’s morning, why would we do that? I ask the delicate question. Even thinking of my lunch – potatoes, rice and mussels – isn’t enough motivation.
Before I find an answer to my existential doubts, Jimmy and Roccia set off. I reset the display and set off too. I watch the read-out – 2:02/500 m. I need to try to stay at this output. I hope this will keep me motivated through the session. I’m fixed on this number. One, two, three, … What am I doing? Counting strokes? Mmm, if 12 km equates to 12,000 metres and if there are 120 strokes for about 1,000 metres, I’ll need to multiply 120 by 12… Erm… Get that out of your head! The total could well be devastating for my morale. I search for the number of metres already covered on the display. Blimey! Only 700 m! I quickly disconnect from that notion and carry on. “Full strokes, right to the finish!” Bepi Altamura’s voice pops into my head. I drive with my legs, finish with my arms and chest. And then, away with the hands. I don’t look at the display. I focus on the movement. I only think about that. I look at the readout. It shows 900 m. I don’t believe it! I lift my gaze and look outside the gym. I recognise a group of umpires who’ve just finished their hour of running. This distraction helps me to catch up a few metres. One more stroke. That’s it! Finally! I’ve done 1,000!
I go back to focussing on my stroke. I’m still quite cool. In this initial section, physical effort helps to overcome any mental weakness that comes from exercising in a miserable gym. One stroke. Another stroke. I still haven’t gone very far. I look at my rate. I’m at 24-25 strokes per minute and I’ve gone down to 2:05/500 m. I focus on better finishes. I need to concentrate on that. One stroke. Another stroke. My nose starts to drip with sweat. My glasses are annoying me, and I want to get my nose sorted out. I try to reach them with my shoulder on the recovery. The effort was clumsy. I’d have to stop. No. I can’t! I look at the display, 1,850 m. One stroke. I’m sweating. The display reads 2,000 metres. I look at the minutes taken. Little over 8. I want to say that if I multiply 8 by … No. It’s more than eight. I round it up to 9. No, let’s do 10. The calculation’s easier. Good, 10 minutes multiplied by what? Yes. Well, 12,000 metres makes 6 times 2,000 metres. So, 6 times 10. No! 60 minutes? Too long. If that’s right, I really will be late for work!
I look outside. It’s drizzling. There’s no way out of this torture! In the background, I can hear the noise of the air being blown out of my companion’s erg vents. I’m in front of them. I can’t see their times on their displays. Usually we pretend not to be interested in someone else’s output. But we all know that’s not true. I have to row harder to finish the distance first. One stroke and then another. 1:58/500 m. 1:55/500. My cardiologist’s words come into my mind. Yesterday I did the stress test – obligatory at our age. More round than tall, more a comedian than a doctor, he reminded me, with a wry smile, “Be careful!!! At a certain age … you need to be wary! An artery might burst!” See what happens to me now? I slow down. 2:02/500 m. 2,890 m. Yes. Soon I reach 3,000 m. One stroke. Another stroke. And another. My mind is blank as I go up and down the slide. I look at the display. At last. Past 3000 m. I row and my mind rows, in search of thoughts. Come on! If I can get to 3,300 m, psychologically I’m nearly at 4,000 m. Yes, at 4,000 I can do a simple calculation, I need to multiply the time taken by three. That’s a point. How long have I taken so far? Almost 13 minutes and I’m working at 2:06/500 m. No! That’s no good! Come on. I need to work on the finishes.
2:04/500 m. Another stroke. 2:02/500 m. Like that – that’s OK. I look at my watch. It’s 7.15am. Well, I really need to work out when I’m going to finish training. It won’t be my fault if I have to stop before the end of the session so I’m not late for work! A glance at the display. 2:03/500 m at rate 24. 3,600 m. I hadn’t realised, but I was nearly at 4,000 m. One stroke – then another. I think of nothing. I don’t want to look. One stroke. Another stroke. Shall I look? No. One stroke. 3,890 m. I can’t give up. Come on – almost there. One stroke. Another stroke. Done! Past 4,000 m. Now, there’s no rush. I haven’t yet done 17 minutes. I round it up to 17. Times 3. How many minutes? One stroke. Another stroke. How long? A glance at the display. 4,320 m. So, 17 x 3, nearly 50 minutes. Yes, come on. I look at my watch. I’ll finish in time. And today I’ll not waste time sorting out the boat and blades.
I look at the display. 4,860 m. I’m nearly at 5,000. At 6,000 I’ll be halfway through! Let’s go! This idea spurs me on. 2:02/500 m, 2:00/500 m! What do I need to think about? Shall I work out the time again? Why not. I work it out. One stroke. Another stroke. 5,330 m. Soon I’ll pass 5,500. I shut my eyes and focus on the rowing movement. One stroke. Another stroke. And another. Come on! 5,900 m. Almost there! 6,005 m. It’s stopped raining. Now I’m only concentrating on the physical effort. The worst seems to be over. 6,350 m. My finishes are strong. I drive my legs down. 6,550 m. The next milestone – getting to 7,000. There. I shut my eyes. 7,300 m. Approaching 7,800 m. Oh yes. Then it will be 8,000. Everything seems to be going faster. Even how I’m narrating it. 8,400 m. One stroke. I pass 9,000 m. I think of nothing. Everything speeds up. 9,900 m. Here we go! 10,000 m! 11,000 m! The last 1,000 m. I’m breathing hard now. I close my eyes. One stroke. Breathe. Finished!