It started out as a love story.
Well “love” may be over-egging the pudding slightly but it was certainly a crush.
She was a 19 year-old swimming teacher and I was a 21 year-old 100-pints-a-week, 40-a-day smoker whose sporting experience was restricted to school cross-country which we only did because we could stop off in the pub mid-run and the odd game of rugby where I’m sure I was only picked as I was a “bit of a big lad”. The only exercise I was doing as a 21 year-old cigarette sales rep was playing for the pub darts team and the odd game of squash in which as soon as any decent opponent realised I had no sight in my left eye they would simply serve to my backhand and it was literally pretty-much game over.
Lesley had just started teaching swimming at the Arthur Hill Memorial Baths; a newly-refurbished Victorian pool – and only had one client. So I did what any smitten, twenty-something would do and signed up for a course of six lessons!
I could actually swim, but I couldn’t. Well actually what I would do was swim about three strokes of head-up, front-crawl before my legs would sink to the bottom where I would be forced to stand. So I was put into the “improvers” class. I say, “class” but it was me, just me; I WAS the improvers’ class. However I didn’t care; I was the only other person in the pool so this just gave me more of an opportunity on a Sunday morning to work my chat-up lines for the full 45 minutes lesson.
It is often said that there are definitive moments in life where a sea-change can be pinpointed and this was one of them. I spent almost the entire first lesson using every bit of “latin” charm that I could muster to woo the lovely Lesley and to be fair there was very little swimming done. Half-way through the second week however and it was clear to anyone (except myself) that my affections were not being reciprocated and especially when she said “I suppose I ought to actually TEACH you something” that I should have seen the signs! However THIS was moment that it changed. A couple of drills with polyethylene floats later and I swam a whole width – nine metres. Then I saw on Lesley’s face what I thought was the look of love and happiness but later was to learn was the merely the usual look of triumph from any swimming teacher when one of their pupils achieves something for the first time! I quit smoking later that day.
By the end of that six-week course I had progressed to a complete LENGTH of 27.432 metres (or 30 yards in Victorian measurements) and was now also able to do a few strokes of both back and breast-stroke and by the end of the second course of lessons I was starting to go for distance awards and after I completed my first non-stop mile, Lesley suggested I logged my (now daily) metres on a little card issued by the Amateur Swimming Association. Within a year I had swum one million metres, joined the RLSS lifesaving club and qualified as a swimming teacher myself. I may not have found the love of Lesley, but I had found the love of swimming.
Lesley was still however a major inspiration and when she left to go off to university, I not only took over her job as swimming teacher but also signed up to take A levels at evening classes and followed the same route for a degree in Leisure. To say my life had moved down a different path was an understatement. She also continues to inspire today as she completed an English Channel relay swim just a few weeks’ ago.
It was at this time that a local fitness coach by the name of Mike Ellis approached me and asked if I would be a swimming coach to his band of warriors who were planning to travel to Nice, France to take part in a new sporting event; a triathlon. This event was to start with 1500 metres of swimming, followed by 100 kilometres of cycling and finishing with a full 26.2 miles marathon run. Non-stop. Without a BREAK!
After the success of the half-dozen or so Brits who completed the first-ever Nice Triathlon, Mike had the idea of bringing the sport to England and asked me at first if I would like to take part (as I “did a bit of running” and cycled to work) but once he realised that was never going to happen, persuaded me “help instead” and to take on the role of the Swim Race Director.
So it began… The year after helping to stage the very first UK event, I returned with some of my fellow students to actually race in the 1984 Wellington Country Park Triathlon and I was hooked. During the next few years I completed more than 100 triathlons and duathlons before suffering a back injury which forced me to retire and take up the reigns as Events Director for Banana Leisure and organise a further 389 running, cycling and triathlon in the nineties and noughties.
Although my body would no longer function as an athlete, in my mind I remained one. More importantly I continued to eat as one. In the 1980s I think it is fair to say that triathletes were ahead of the game when it game to diet and nutrition and I was certainly an advocate of the “marginal gains” before it even became a “thing” with British Cycling in the noughties. I (like many of the top ten triathletes in the world) followed a largely Pritikin diet. No oils, no meat, no MSG, 80% carbs, 10% protein, 10% fat. My concession was that I ate a little too much dairy and there was no way confectionary was ever going to see the door. I was Pritikin – except for the cheese and chocolate. Pritikin-ISH.
In all other dietary aspect however I knew my stuff and kept to it. On more than one occasion I rinsed normal cottage cheese when I could not get the non-fat version and I had written my dissertation on sports nutrition. I was also working occasionally lecturing and writing on the subject for national magazines and I continued with the high carb, low-fat, low protein regime. Even after the back injury.
I didn’t notice it at first. A few pounds here, a few pounds there and a year after I had completed my last triathlon I got married. I was a stone heavier than racing weight but hey, I could lose that. After all I had shed almost three stones when I started triathlon and as soon as the back was better it would be easy and I still was not “heavy”, heavy – just under 12 stones for a six-footer plus. Honeymoon was to be in Hawaii – to coincide with the Ironman Triathlon – and although not competing, we could not miss this.
I also could not miss the opportunity to train on the course. So I swam the swim course (along with several hundred others each day) but we had no bikes with us so I drove around the bike course in our open-top hire car and then ran the last four miles of the run route. This was part tribute and part course “recce”. After all, I would be back one day to race this beast.
After the race we flew to back California to finish off the last week of our honeymoon and stopped at a place called Carlsbad. Another triathlon shrine, as one of the “big four” (and probably the coolest of them and who had his his own designer tri-gear) Scott Tinley lived and trained there. So I swam in the ocean where Tinley swam, hired some bikes from the local bike shop so we could ride along the South Coast highway where Tinley rode and then finally went for a run along Moonlight Beach, where Tinley (might have) run.
It was here that disaster struck again. Just as it had 18 months earlier my back went big time! I could not walk without severe pain and literally had to crawl back to our hotel room. I sat in the hot tub all evening and we found a chiropractic the next day who told me that it was going to be a long while before I could safely run again, possibly never. He did however have me walking within 24 hours which meant I could travel home on the plane with only minimal discomfort. He was a miracle-maker and to this day I have held the belief that he was probably Tinley’s Chiropractic too!
So running (and cycling) were off the agenda but hey, I had races to organise. At this time I was staging around 40 a year so the injury was a bit of a blessing in disguise; I could focus on the important stuff, and my weight increased just a few more pounds.
After several years of ‘focusing on the important stuff’ however my weight had increased to around 16 stones and although I knew I was now a little overweight my cholesterol levels were still very low and my resting pulse was still only 52 (it had been 29-30 when I was in full training mode) and the average for a man my age was 72 so I knew it wasn’t too bad. I was still pretty “fit”. Right?
As it hit 18 stones a few years’ later I decided that it was far easier to weigh myself metrically now – 114 kilos. It was “easier” but it also seemed kinder. I now realise that this was simply a trick by my subconscious mind to avoid the dreaded 20 stones barrier and I passed that without even noticing. My back was no longer aching daily – although it did flare up every six months or so just to remind me not to run or bike and I knew now that I was fat but resting pulse at 60 and cholesterol levels still pretty good so I was all right.
Towards the end of the 20th century my daughter was born so the focus was on her and organising the races. I had thought of changing direction but a bitter dispute with the sport’s governing body which involved some dirty tricks and even led to a committee member leaving abusive telephone messages on our answering machine just sent me into “bloody-minded” mode and so I carried on until British farmers beat us with the sharp practices which led to the Foot and Mouth outbreak and meant a nationwide ban on using the footpaths we needed for our triathlons and running races.
After a year; I started to contact our event team staff but most of them had drifted off to work in the local supermarket or garden centre and were no longer interested in helping at the weekend events again. I knew it was time to call it a day and so went to work at a local charity as a fundraiser and events organiser; the Sue Ryder Hospice at Nettlebed. This was a bit of nostalgic return for me as one of the jobs I had before becoming a swimming teacher was working as and administrator in a shed in the back of someone’s garden in The Fairmile in Henley – just down the road from Sue Ryder. Then for a year I alternated between here and Wallingford for my “lunch” stop. Every summer I used to see the marquees for Henley Royal regatta go up but it was all a bit of a mystery. Like the Kenton Theatre, somewhere of which I was aware but never visited. Different worlds.
The Sue Ryder Hospice is based at Joyce Grove, a Jacobean style country house built for Robert Fleming in 1908 and where 007 author Ian had lived for a large chunk of his early life where the admin centre including my office was on the top floor. Up four flights of stairs including the last flight which were very narrow. They had installed a lift although most of the staff didn’t use it except if transporting equipment. On one particular day I had been up and down the building around half a dozen times and I chose to use the lift to get up to the top floor for my final trip. As the lift door opened, my boss was there on the landing and simply looked at me and said “Peter! That’s not going to help is it?”
What could he mean? Was he suggesting that I was FAT? Surely not? My pulse was still only 62 ish – except when I had to climb four flights of stairs. Is that how people saw me?
I brushed it off but I left the job soon after.
A few more years passed and my daughter Katie was now beginning to show an interest in taking part in some triathlons. My wife Rose, who was still competing had bumped into an old triathlon teammate of mine, Nick Green, whose son was now taking part in children’s triathlons and trained at the local velodrome with a cycling club and suggested she came down. So one Saturday morning Rose took her down to Palmer Park Stadium in Reading but it was unfortunately the day of their club championships. However they lent her a bike and allowed her to join in where she promptly won two club titles and trophies. She was hooked and after hearing of her “success” so was I. I became a “cycling dad”! I went along the following week and was impressed with the set-up – around sixty kids all riding bikes, racing, training, drills. It was brilliant and this was now “our” thing.
So Katie trained for a few weeks and then entered her first triathlon at Bicester and on her heavy old mountain bike finished second! Another trophy and now she was hooked even more. The following season, she became a bit more serious and raced in every triathlon she could but there was one girl who was always ahead. They were about equal at swimming but the other girl was a better biker and a fantastic runner and although she came close, Katie could never beat her.
The final race of the season however was a bit different. A rowathlon. A 500 metre row on a rowing machine would replace the swim section and we had a slight advantage as Rose was manager of a leisure centre and meant Katie could try out a machine a couple of times before the day.
On the day itself, Katie set off on the rowing machine and finished in 2:27 – about 40 seconds ahead of the other girls and proceeded to blast around the Thruxton Motor Racing circuit on a borrowed bike which was an improvement on hers with dropped handlebars and thinner tyres. She came in at the end of the bike ride still in the lead and although her “rival” was now in second, the gap did not seem to have diminished. Katie held on to take the win – her first ever in a multi-sport event and the first time EVER she had beaten the other girl. Later we checked the time of her row against the Concept 2 Indoor Rowing Rankings and found she was the fastest under 10 year-old in the world that year for 500m.
So now this was SERIOUS. As a fully-qualified coach in three sports; swimming, cycling and athletics, it seemed logical that I would put together a training plan for Katie and my wife as they decided to tackle the British Indoor Rowing Champs. Rose was first up and won a silver medal. Katie followed shortly afterward and won gold with 484 metres for the two-minute row and still had another year left in the age group! The following year she went back again and won the event again as well as beating all the boys and recorded a new championship record with 522 metres. Rose also raced again but was not happy – even with my training plan, she had clocked just outside the “barrier-target” in 8:00.5 and even with her faster time was only good enough this time for the bronze.
In 2007 she was looking at three in a row when my 11 year-old daughter could not take the pressure and had a melt-down in the holding pen. What a wimp! She didn’t want to race, felt that the pressure was too much and so although having signed in, pulled out. She sat and watched as the winner took gold with a total 8o metres less than Katie had done in training two days’ earlier. She cried in the car all the way home.
She did row again in the team event with three other girls the following year where they won the gold. She had won three BIRC golds as well as three silvers at the National Junior Indoor Rowing Champs but as far as competitive rowing was concerned that was now it! Shortly before her 12th birthday however she did break two all-time world records, the 10km and half-marathon – reducing the latter by nearly two hours and a record she still holds.
She threw herself into cycling with relative success, she never managed to win a British Cycling National title but won several Regional Championships and seven British Schools’ Cycling Association National golds. She also won more than 150 races overall. At the age of 15 however after a tortuous two year-period of bullying and mental abuse by some officials, Katie walked away and has not entered a cycling race since. She is now 21.
Much to my frustration, she did absolutely nothing for six months but then we persuaded her to have a go at “proper rowing” and in January 2013 she joined Wallingford Rowing Club where she immediately fell in love with the sport and the people. With the help of a fantastic coach, Emily Booker she won her first regatta a few months later and followed this with GB Junior trial the same year. A year later she picked up another silver at the NJIRC ergo champs as well as a bronze medal in the British Junior champs on the water. She now rows for Oxford Brookes University and has truly “found her sport”.
Meanwhile, I was getting fatter. I was encouraging from the sidelines but still getting fatter but I had just started to use Twitter and it was a chance “virtual encounter” with Olympian Pete Reed that was to see (yet another) seismic shift in my lifestyle. He had started a campaign to get people doing something and a little more every day. His challenge was push-ups. On January 1st it started with one, two on the 2nd and so on so that by the end of the year we would be doing 365 push-ups in one day.
It started well, and even with my considerable bulk I could manage the first day (albeit push-ups on the knees), day two came and went and then I kept it going every day until 29th January. I had completed the 29 for that day – two 10s and a nine. They didn’t have to be done all at the same time just as long as you hit the total (thanks Pete), but if you missed a day you were out.
After leaving Sue Ryder I had gone back to working as a swimming teacher and coach but that evening I had agreed to help out at the local newspaper by covering for a van driver who was off sick. Whilst loading up, I turned around and promptly fell over a pallet. If ever I fell over it was always loud – I had tripped running around in a circle demonstrating “through and off” to a group of cyclists at the National Velodrome in Manchester the previous year and the entire arena looked around at the “thump” but I just brushed myself down and laughed about it. This time however I knew I had done something reasonably serious as my arm went limp and felt immediately sick. I could not lift anything and even holding the steering wheel was painful. However I had made a promise and so still had to drive to Swindon, Oxford and back to Newbury in the early hours of the morning so that people living in the outlying villages could have their newspaper the next day.
I went home and although struggled to sleep with the pain, I woke up the next day and started to explain to my wife and daughter what had happened when suddenly I felt very hot and the next thing I knew I was picking myself up from the ground. I had passed out. An ambulance complete with blues and twos took me to A&E and after various tests which showed up negative a doctor sat me down and gave me “the talk”.
“You are going to die early!” Whoah! No sugar-coating from this guy then? “Do you want to die early?” Katie looked ashen. “If you don’t do something about your weight and lifestyle you WILL die early, not might, not a possibility. You will!” “I know that” I said, nodding and I did. I was well aware of the facts about premature death, obesity and so on and whenever anyone mentioned the possibility that my lifestyle was not healthy I normally just agreed and said I knew what I had to do.
“Well why the hell don’t you do something about it then?” “You don’t seem like a stupid man but if you know this you and are still doing nothing about it then you ARE stupid”. This doctor was not letting me off this time. He gave it to me with both barrels. In the car journey home I promised both mother and daughter I would change.
I kept my promise. I tried to do the push-ups later that night but I simply could not put any weight on the shoulder so I was out of the challenge but as soon as my shoulder was better I would start. Definitely. I promise myself. I will do it. I didn’t. My shoulder injury went on for weeks; I had to quit my job as a swimming teacher as I could no longer demonstrate the front crawl arm movement but more importantly I could not jump in to save any swimmer who found themselves in trouble. Weeks turned into months and months turned into more months and before I knew it, it was Christmas and only a few weeks before the new Pete Reed challenge would begin. “Definitely going to start then!”
Then he announced the challenge – sit-ups. Last year had been push-ups but this year it was to be sit-ups! “I’m not effin’ well doing that!” I exclaimed. With my 44 inch waist (still measure this in inches as they are smaller than centimetres) I could probably manage one, maybe two but there is no way on this earth that I would be able to get to 365 in a day – even with a year to build up to it. I was not going to quit though. I will do my “own” Pete Reed challenge. I would start with push-ups for January and then do something different in February. That way I could still get to 365 “things” by the end of the year but with less chance of injury.
January push-ups came and went; fine. February; a short month so I did sit-ups. Up to 28 plus the 31 push-ups, no problem. So March came along and what to do? Well there was this rowing-machine or ‘erg’ sitting in the garage. Katie and Rose had both used it to train for their events but it had not been used for a while. Katie was now training at Wallingford and Rose had simply said “I never want to hurt like that again” after missing her target by 0.5 seconds and she meant it.
So I started on March 1st with 100 metres. Easy. 200m on the second and so on. By the end of the month and 3100m a day. Sometimes it was difficult to fit the time to do this as well as the push-ups and sit-ups and on more than one occasion I was rowing at 20 minutes to midnight to just make sure I was still “in” the challenge but by July I was doing around 30 different repetitions of seven different activities each day. Every day.
Then we went on our first holiday away for years. Since Katie had started her competitive sport at eight years’ old, we had not taken a major holiday. Summer was the cycling and triathlon season and we could not afford to miss any major events and of course once the end of the season came along in September, she was back at school and could not therefore take time off. Christmas was also out as this was “family time” so we could “not possibly” go away.
It was Scotland and I spent most of the first day trying to find a gym with a concept 2 rowing machine. As the day wore on it because ANY rowing machine and by ten to midnight at the 1950s’ style (and not updated since) hotel, I conceded defeat. Derailed again and I was out of the Pete Reed challenge for another year. I had made it a lot further this year however. End of July instead of end of January and as we were going to do a lot of walking this holiday I did not feel too bad.
Two days later my back “went”.
So everything stopped again until yet another saviour came to my rescue, Sam Blythe of Fitness Matters in Devon. Sam was organising his first-ever indoor rowing event in September but was over the longer distance of 5000 metres rather than the more-standard 2km. After a couple of months of using the rowing machine each day I set myself a target of entering this race but now I was scuppered. It was August Bank holiday and I had not rowed for nearly two months and my back still ached a bit. Sam said “Come and do it anyway. It doesn’t matter how slow you are”. I knew I was possibly setting myself up for humiliation but remembered Katie’s face at the hospital and just thought “to hell with it – even if they do, I shall beat them by mocking myself first”.
At this point I became ObeseManRowing.
Two weeks’ later I was on the start line in the “slow heat” – along with my wife on one side and 84 year-old Charles Morley on the other. It started well enough and I was ahead of Rose until the wheels started to come off at about halfway and in the end the only other person I beat was Charles – and even that was not by much. No-one mocked – in fact they even cheered – and although it felt a bit like the “sympathy clap” for those who come in the end of a marathon they were genuine. Charles sadly died a few months later so the only person I had actually beaten was an 84 year-old man who was now dead but I was hooked.
A few months later the New Zealand rower Emma Twigge posted a challenge on Twitter for people to row for an hour and although this was only a few days notice and I had only done a maximum of 5k before hand, I had a go and completed it – albeit slowly. I completed my first half-marathon a few days later.
There have been a few ups and downs since then and more than a few derailments and a few months where I have had both unenforced and enforced breaks but the Twitter crew (more very nice people) have kept me coming back to the erg.
But I have now set myself this challenge – and I blame them! All of them.