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Wednesday 25th February 2004

It was the good rower me that got out of bed this morning. My boat lag had gone and I was ready for the challenge that awaited me (well, as ready as I'd ever be. I was still slightly scared).
The cab arrived at 7.20 and Helen and Emma were already aboard, both smiling and filled with excitement and anticipation. Helen kept trying to make me eat some honey sandwiches that she'd brought with her, but I had already had a hearty rowers breakfast so declined.
The morning was dominated by the fact that Grub Smith from the Cambridge boat has gone down with food poisoning and so wasn't sure if he'd be able to row. He had had dinner at Toby's house on Sunday night and claimed that the chicken they had eaten was to blame. However, Toby had feasted heartily on the chicken and showed no ill effects. This led to the accusation that Toby may have deliberately poisoned Grub to get him out of the race. This would certainly have been in keeping with the practices of the dwarvish race from which he springs but have been a foolish move by the controversial journalist. If Grub wasn't fit to row then he would have to be replaced and the talk was that one of the Cambridge coaches would be taking his seat. In a boat already crammed with professional sportsmen and women and oarsmen and women this might make our Frodoan task even more impossible. I wondered if the whole tale was a Cambridge lie, designed to unsettle and unfocus us. If it was it seemed to be working.
I thought that it was much more likely that Grub had contracted rat syphillis and speculated that this wasn't a result of having gulped down some river water, but because he had been having sex with rats. The TV people kept asking us how we felt about Grub's illness and when I expressed delight that one of my enemies should be incapacitated, the interviewer (TV's Joe Mace) asked if I felt bad about such schadenfreude I merely shouted, "He had sex with rats! Don't start trying to make us look bad. He's the one who prowls the river pathways looking for rats to satisfy his carnal urges. He deserves everything he gets." This might be liable, but I think you'll find that Grub Smith will not sue. Draw your own conclusions. Later I said on camera that I hoped Grub would die from his mystery illness. Perhaps I have started taking things a bit too seriously.
We went out for two short morning sessions and the sun was shining and the water was flat and I think I rowed better than I ever have. I was completely in the zone and only messed up a couple of strokes in the whole hour or so on the water. The whole boat was moving beautifully and it seemed we had hit our peak just at the right moment. The experienced rowers were already predicting that the water would be much more choppy and difficult in the afternoon. This was good news for us: we were rowing on this stretch of water for all of last week, whereas Friday aside, the Cambridge crew were on a smooth lake with no tides or waves. Would our confidence in choppy waters give us the edge?
Before lunch came the all important toss, the winner of whom could choose his station. Whoever started on the Fulham football ground side of the river (or Middlesex as I believe it is known) had an advantage, because they could gain almost a length if they steered round the bend correctly. Cambridge won the toss and predictably chose Middlesex. We boldly claimed that this would be the only thing that the Tabs won all day, but in my heart I wondered if this was true. We'd lost the pub quiz, we'd lost the toss. Were we doomed to be losers again?
After lunch the nerves began kicking in. Although we had raced the course in stages, we had never done the whole thing at race pace. I was worried about how physically exhausting and painful it was going to be. But then this was the last time I was ever going to have to row and it was what all the previous pain and discomfort had been leading up to. I was scared that I was going to bottle it. If I could row like I'd rowed in the morning, then win or lose I would be satisfied. But what if the pressure got to me and I rowed like I'd rowed last Thursday? What if I caught a crab? What if a whorish rat threw itself at me(no man could resist that kind of temptation) and I contracted rat syphillis?
At 2pm we gathered for a team talk. Martin and Tim have prepared us brilliantly for this race and this was our last chance to prepare ourselves mentally. The atmosphere in the room was electric; I don't think I've ever experienced anything like it. The team bond was stronger and we were more focused than ever. Helen was asked to say something first and true to form she came up with something so pithy and emotive that it felt as if all our stomachs lurched as one, and again I had tears forming in my eyes. When it was my turn to speak I found it quite difficult to talk without my voice cracking and although I didn't blub I wasn't far off. We had worked so hard and we wanted this so badly. Emma had made a CD where we all chose a song that inspired us (which had earlier led to the marvellous sight of controversial journalist Toby Young dancing like a loon to "Jump" by the Pointer Sisters). As we exited the boat club, one by one for the camera's benefit, to go down to the water Jonathan's choice "Ride of the Valkyries" was playing. We were pumped up and ready to go.
We did a few more exercises to warm ourselves up and aside from the difficulty of rowing into the strong wind that was building up it all seemed to be going fine. We were starting at stake boats by Putney Bridge and Tim had advised us to be late to the start and keep Cambridge waiting, as it's quite tough keeping the boat straight in the moving water. The plan was to psyche them out and annoy them and apparently this worked a treat.
When I looked across at the Cambridge boat I was surprised to see that it had been painted light blue. It looked very impressive. It actually slightly intimidated me in return, which I guess was the point.
We tried to blank out the shouts of the supporters and the noise from the boats behind us and the helicopter flying overhead. I didn't feel all that nervous, weirdly it hadn't quite sunk in that this was actually going to be it.
Sir Steve Redgrave was the umpire and thus would start us off with a "Cambridge ready. Oxford ready. Attention! Go!" We were meant to dig in our blades on attention and then squeeze out the first difficult stroke on "Go!". After Steve had said "Oxford Ready" the Cambridge cox put up her hand to inform him that they weren't ready. He gave them a moment to straighten up. I was expecting him to start with "Cambridge ready" again, but instead he very quickly shouted "Attention! Go!" before I was quite prepared. It felt like we got off to a fairly sloppy start.
The race was full of excitement and incident and at the end of it either one team had won or it was a dead heat. I am not allowed to give details as the TV people want to keep it as a surprise for the show, which is fair enough. So you'll have to wait to find if rat rapist Grub Smith was well enough to participate, and who took home the spoils (and had their choice of the prettiest rats on the river). I will say that there was danger and surprises and a lot of icy water sloshing into our boats and at one point I managed to accidentally hit the Cambridge (female) stroke in the face with my oar. I was both appalled and delighted by this. Which possibly again shows how important this contest has become to me.
But to find out what happened you will have to watch the show, or return to this entry on March 27th where a full account will then be added.
After the race several rowers appeared to be on the verge of hypothermia. We got changed and headed back to the start by minibus. It would have been a lot quicker to row back.
At the medal ceremony the winners were presented with a pint tankard and a medal both labelled "Winner" and the runners up got a half pint tankard and a medal, somewhat ungraciously labelled "Loser". I thought this was a shame, as these trinkets were symbolic of the entire experience and I don't think any of us have lost anything. Though the conceit is amusing, especially for whoever it is who won the race, it means that the team that lost are unlikely to want to do anything but hide their medal and tankard away.
But mere trinkets were not to take anything away from the experience, which win or lose or draw (whichever one it was, and lucky it wasn't a dead heat, or the medal ceremony would have been fucked) was one of the most amazing of my life. To be given my winner's/loser's medal by Sir Steve Redgrave himself was just one more surreal moment to add to the many that I've encountered because of my tentative agreement to take part.
I drank long into the night after my week on the wagon, toasting my team mates with my pint/half pint tankard full of champagne. Even once all this was over we exchanged few words with the other side. And though I no longer hate them or wish them to die (and nor do I think any of them have sex with rodents, but if they do I am sure the rats are consenting) the division still exists. The fact that one of us had beaten the other probably made bonding all the more difficult.
So the struggle is over. I've climbed Mount Improbable and canoed down some stairs on the other side.
If you ever see me getting into a boat again then shoot me.
But only with a water pistol, because I've only got one medal so far, and like Sir Steve I might fancy a few more. Hopefully they won't have "Loser" written on them. To find out what's written on the one medal I have, watch this space.......
OK here goes
Had I been in Grub’s position (which I wouldn’t be, because I don’t fancy rats and anyone who says I do it lying) I would have wanted to row however ill I was. In fact even had my legs and arms been snapped off, I would still have been anxious to take my place in the boat, clasping my blade in my teeth if necessary. We have simply been through too much to think of stepping aside now.
Luckily I think Grub felt the same (and was also feeling a bit better as well) and decided to race. It would have been a shame to have made the competition any more unbalanced by replacing him with an experienced rower. Of course this would also give Cambridge an excuse if they lost, but even so it was good to know that we were going into battle with the team we had been expecting to face.
After the slightly sudden start I found it a bit difficult to get into my stroke. I was certainly nowhere near as competent or focused as I had been all morning. Just knowing the Cambridge boat was alongside us, and fearing that it might be pulling away was enough to take my mind away from the job in hand. Every time Jonathan gave us a report of our relative positions I would panic and either tense up or miss a couple of strokes. I could tell we were close as the light blue of the boat was in my peripheral vision. We might have been very slightly ahead, but we all knew that Cambridge had the bend to take advantage of. Though it didn’t feel like the race was really happening I was still unsettled and got annoyed that I wasn’t contributing more. But the conditions were already choppy and the wind was blowing and I think everyone was finding it difficult. Particularly in the light blue boat, where the tides were a thing of mystery. Even their experienced Stroke had previously only raced on flat water.
There was also an early panic when I caught a very minor crab. I felt my blade disappearing into the depths, but was at least on the ball enough to instinctively twist it and rescue the situation and be back with an additional ferocity on the next stroke.
Wheelie was shouting at Jonathan to move the boat across towards Cambridge. I don’t really understand the technical side of this, but they were encroaching on our water and thus we were permitted to force them over. There was an early minor clash of oars as we attempted to gain control, but as we got to the bend things got a lot more serious.
Connie Huq has not had as much training as our hero Gandalf Aitken and has not being taking it as seriously and the Cambridge boat was out of position on the bend and in danger of losing its advantage. Wheelie again bellowed at Jonathan to move the boat over. Jonathan did this, shouting “You’re in our water”. Again our blades started to clash. Our boat had had experience of this in both our races last week against the crews of young boys and girls so we knew we had to plough on regardless and make our strokes count. Every other time, however, the clash has been on the stroke side of the boat. I am on the bow side and so had never had to physically carry on rowing through a barrage of clashing oars. I decided to be brave and focused and just do the best I could, even though all oars were coming in high and almost hitting us and even though a couple of the experienced Cambridge rowers tried to get beneath the spoon of my blade and force me to catch another crab. The boats got closer and closer and I thought that Wheelie in front of me had been hit. It was at this point that I became aware of the tip of my blade catching the Cambridge stroke, very close to her eye. For the first time I stopped rowing, worried that I had hurt her. Anna behind me, oblivious to this development was shouting at me to carry on rowing. She seemed to be telling us to be tigers. It was very exciting, like being in the heat of a lance-based aquatic battle. And it was clearly pretty dangerous. Luckily the Cambridge stroke was not badly hurt, but she had lost a contact lens. And there was a part of me that was pleased that we’d been strong in the thick of things and that I’d managed, albeit accidentally, to hurt one of our opposition.
Sir Steve, in the umpire boat behind us, saw that things were getting scary and called for us to stop rowing. The clash was Cambridge’s fault and he gave them a yellow card warning (and afterwards admitted that he really should have disqualified them for their trespass, but was aware this would be unsatisfactory both for us and the TV cameras). Although the clash was down to Huq’s inexperience, this is something that happens in proper grown up racing. In fact when Wheelie was in the boat race he had endured almost exactly the same thing at exactly the same point. That time he had gone on to lose. This time we knew we had to win.
It took a while for us to turn our boats and get to the point where Steve wanted to restart the race. The wind was blowing and it was bitterly cold. The waves were high on the river and we’d already been splashed by a few in the race, but even more icy water flew over us as we waited to begin again. Luckily it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Tim had noted the conditions before the race and put masking tape on our riggers, which stopped a fair percentage of the water from getting into the boat. Obviously water adds weight and slows you down. As the Cambridge giants were on average a stone heavier than each of us their boat was lower in the water and taking on even more excess liquid. The clash and the stoppage did not intimidate us at all; in fact it gave us a chance to focus on the remaining half of the race. But Jonathan told us that Cambridge were looking shocked and upset. They were also finding it difficult to cope with the cold. Anna behind me was probably the coldest person in our boat, but instead of complaining or moping she just told us to keep our hands warm and to keep focused. We had chosen her as President last week and it is a job that she has been magnificent in.
The conditions were certainly the worst we had ever encountered and turning round seemed quite perilous and we got wetter and colder. But we all knew that this was worse for Cambridge. We could almost sense their spirits being broken and the episode just gave us more time to focus on what we needed to do. For me this was an excellent turn of events as up to this point I had been failing to achieve my full potential and making mistakes and not relaxing. I had a chance to get my mind back into the boat and start creating strokes of the length and power that I knew we were capable of.
I had expected to be exhausted and gasping for air at this point, like I had been on the erg, but was still feeling fairly fresh. Obviously the stoppage in the proceedings gave us time to recover, and also funnily enough meant that we were never going to get to row the course all in one go.
At the restart we really got our act together, whilst Cambridge seemed to be broken men (and women). We edged ahead almost immediately. My technique was still going to pot a bit and I seemed to have stopped feathering at all, just keeping my blade square most of the time, but even though the wind was biting and the water was rough I did a much better job of putting on the power. Toby in front of me was rowing like a demon, his competitiveness harnessed and proving very effective and Wheelie kept bellowing and keeping us focused. Jo kept her head and our strokes were becoming more and more effective. Roger and Anna were also providing me with great advice, mainly to relax. I couldn’t see Emma and Helen in the bow- I suspect they were having a picnic at this point (Helen probably still had some honey sandwiches left over) – but I could tell from the balance that we were maintaining and our speed through the water, that their crumb covered faces were not stopping them from putting in their maximum effort. The team was working together well. Occasionally it felt like someone was about to sneak a turd into our socks, but mostly it started to feel magnificent. We had been told that in the last part of the race it would come down to who wanted it more. We always knew this would be us.
Suddenly I was able to see the Cambridge boat behind us with water in between, and we were still pulling away. This was the sight that I had always hoped I would get the chance to see. I felt like laughing, but knew I had to concentrate, but being ahead just made me more focused on my strokes. There was still some way to go; to catch a crab now might slow the boat down and hand it to them. I could see the Cambridge crew flagging, their blades splashing in the water and we just seemed to get better and better. We called for a Power 10 (ten strokes at maximum pressure) and although I missed a couple of them our lead was increasing. We knew we’d got them now, we just had to carry on with what we were doing, and I still felt like I had fuel in the tank. The end came much sooner than I had expected. I heard shouts from supporters on the bank and then the horn that signified we’d crossed the line. We’d fucking beaten them. Convincingly beaten them and I still had so much energy left that I felt that I could have carried on to Chiswick and the end of the actual Boat Race.
At the time the victory, though sweet, felt slightly anti-climatic. I had expected to get emotional, but I think I was slightly disappointed that I hadn’t rowed anywhere near as well as I could. It was still pretty amazing, but just not quite as I had imagined. Towards the end of last week I had let myself start to believe that our determination and training might see us through, but logic dictated that the bigger, stronger crew, where even most of the non-rowers had not only rowed before and one of whom was an Olympic gold medallist, had to defeat the largely non-rowing midgets. I think that the conditions on the water had helped us, but more important was our unshakeable resolve. We weren’t going to be put off by the cold or the wind or a boat full of water. We weren’t afraid of clashing our blades, even when the oars were flying high and in our faces. We had worked harder, trained more and taken it as seriously as we possibly could. We wanted it more. And we got it.
It was a remarkable and wonderful victory. It just took a while for all that to sink in.
Seeing Martin approaching on a launch with the biggest smile on his face, helped me appreciate the scale of our achievement. Throughout the last six weeks I think we have all mainly wanted to please him. We had succeeded.
It took a while for us to get into the boathouse, though on the stiller waters after Hammersmith Bridge we started rowing beautifully again. We saw Cambridge coming ashore and saw how much water they had taken on when they turned their boat over. The masking tape of the riggers had been a master-stroke. As we paddled towards the St Paul’s boathouse, with our backs to the action, Jonathan told us we were ready to land, but then added dryly, “Hold on. Cambridge have just dropped their boat.” We had broken them.
Once ashore we hugged and congratulated each other. Anna looked so cold that I was worried she might collapse. It had been a difficult and brutal race, but we had survived.
And later I received my winner medal from Sir Steve Redgrave and following the example of our unimpeachable President poured my champagne into my pint tankard and enjoyed the slightly metallic edge this gave to the drink. We watched the race over on the Plasma screen TV, and enjoyed another weird experience of being commented on by Barry Davies and Sid Waddell. At the starting line Barry said, “Richard Herring, writer and actor. Last October he wrote a book called ‘Talking Cock’” with a slight pause between “Talking” and “Cock”. Because of me Barry Davies will say “Cock” on BBC. I can die happy now.
I drank pints of champagne into the night and pretty much forgot to eat. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I didn’t have to get up and row in the morning.
I am not sure that I am ever going to take my medal off.

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