Why I’m taking on the toughest race in rowing

Across more than three weeks theirs will be a demanding timetable of two hours rowing, two hours off all day and all night. Their food will be dried army rations. They will drink water drawn from the sea and run through a solar-powered desalination machine. They will clean themselves using wet wipes. They will go to the toilet in a bucket, which will then be chucked overboard. At no point will they stop or accept any assistance. Never mind taking a chocolate bar from a kindly passing fishing boat, even to moor up in harbor during a storm is against the rules of engagement. The splattering of vomit visible down the side of the boat as it comes into dock at Hayling Island is indicative of the physical difficulties ahead. And that was after three days on a sea resembling a mill pond.

“It’s not going to be like this all the way round,” says Triggs Hodge, surveying the calm surface of the water. “Somewhere – and it could be anywhere – we are going to face really bad weather. This is Britain after all.”

‘Rowing left me with back, heart and hip problems’

And for him there is further trepidation: he has hardly touched an oar since he retired from the sport after winning Olympic gold with the GB eight back in the summer of 2016.

“Rowing left me with a chronic bad back, hip problems and AF [atrial fibrillation, a heart condition],” he says. “So, no, I’ve not been anxious to get back in a boat.”

Such is his lack of engagement that after three days on the training run a crop of blisters has bloomed across his palms causing him to wince when he shakes hands.

“When I was rowing full time I had rock hard calluses,” he says, gingerly poking at his inflamed skin. “These days my hands are soft as butter. I’m really physically not the man I was.”

Which begs the question: why on earth is he doing this?

“They were badgering me to get involved for ages, and I kept saying no way,” he explains. “Then they made Active Row the race charity, so I had no choice but to agree.”

Active Row is the organization for which Triggs Hodge has worked since he retired as an Olympic athlete. Its purpose is simple: to get more children involved in the sport. Currently they have more than 5,000 kids across the country picking up an oar. But he reckons there is no limit to the numbers who could benefit from such engagement.

“It’s a unique sport that enables non sporty kids like I was to be sporty,” he says. “When I was young I was completely useless at anything involving a ball or running. But I was lucky rowing found me. And I was white, middle class, male, so culturally I fitted in. For a lot of kids it’s just not seen as a sport for them. But it could be. And that’s what we’re trying to do: present it in a way that makes them not just want to do it but feel they can.”

And he thinks the GB Row could be something to inspire youngsters into a boat.

“All people ever see of rowing is the Olympics or the Boat Race, when it’s people going flat out in a straight line,” he says. “It’s like if cycling was only the Tour de France. But with cycling you’ve got mountain biking, BMX, cross country, all these other ways of doing it. We need to find rowing’s equivalent of those. Maybe this event could be rowing’s mountain biking: still a tough challenge, but one completely different.”

There is another reason Triggs Hodge was intrigued by GB Row. Each of the three participating boats will carry equipment continuously to sample things like noise pollution and water quality, scooping up between them the most comprehensive collection of data ever gathered.


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