View of the cox

Marble Arch to Arc de Triomphe – 300 miles of running, rowing and cycling

Party poopers. That’s the French. We had run 90 miles in relay from Marble Arch in Central London to Dover; we had rowed 26 painful miles across a lumpy, brown English Channel; we had cycled 185 miles from Calais to the Arc de Triomphe in the chaotic heart of Paris. After cycling a loop around the roundabout of the Arc, we swerved into the middle and walked beneath the triumphal French monument. Two police officers were on us in seconds. ‘No bicycles.’ One photo, we begged. One led to two, then several more, with the officers loitering close by. We had just enough time to pull on Bradley Wiggins face masks before we were shooed to a bar on Avenue de la Grande Armée. And – courtesy of officious French police officers – there ended a four-day, 300-mile Arch to Arc adventure that pushed mind and body to their limits.


Team Arch to Arc – Nick, Tom, Will and I – set off from Marble Arch on a Saturday morning as Olympic volunteers swarmed towards a Hyde Park that would later host the women’s triathlon. The start of our personal triathlon took us to Victoria, then over Vauxhall Bridge, where – as planned – Tom continued alone, while Nick, Will and I met our directeur sportif, Nick’s dad, Steve. One of us would be running continuously for the next 14 hours. Escaping London via Crystal Palace, West Wickham and Biggin Hill, we then followed the rough lines of either the North Downs Way or the Pilgrims Way to gain Dover.

We ran, some quicker than others. It wasn’t terribly eventful. Nick earned a few hoots and cheers by virtue of running in a Team GB vest; we only got lost on one occasion; I had a lovely piece of coffee and walnut cake in Charing. We ran the last 5.5 miles – from Capel-le-Ferne to Dover – together, arriving in time to watch Jess Ennis win heptathlon gold on the big screen in Dover, and taking our personal daily totals beyond 30 miles. Ordinarily, I’d write more about a run, particularly a 90-mile one, but something awful was about to happen.


First, a back story. The four of us had only rowed together on three occasions. Those occasions were very hard. My longest row on a rowing machine was 80 minutes. None of us are natural rowers or have any real rowing experience. We were, in hindsight, setting ourselves up for failure. We didn’t fail, but success would prove desperately hard. It all started so well, however: a steady row, a good rhythm, to emerge from Dover harbour. We watched those famous white cliffs recede very slowly and – gradually – began to detest them. Three hours in and we were almost half way. Nick and I were taking turns to stroke. We were eating and drinking regularly. Spirits were relatively high. It was magnificent to just be there – in the middle of this great expanse of water, a vast sky above us.

The sea became choppy and crumpled. Waves buffeted our bows. The boat went silent. What followed was some two hours of dreadful exhaustion. We were rowing through concrete. I was shattered, overawed by the waves, watching them approach, watching them slap our gig. Our pace dropped alarmingly. The French coast was a grey smear on the horizon, a million miles away. The cliffs of Dover – clearly still visible – mocked us. I can’t remember feeling much worse in my life, physically annihalated. We pulled through. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how. It wasn’t pretty or heroic. It was gritty and bloody-minded at best. What kept me going was the knowledge that others were probably suffering more. Nick’s hands were badly blistered and bleeding. I at least had the benefit of recent experience of endurance events.

If it were possible, there were worse moments. France was at last looming large; we thought we were nearly there. Oh no. Five miles to the beach, the information came from our pilot-boat. An hour later there were still two miles to go, although in far calmer sea. As much as we had hated the cliffs of England, we abhorred the cliffs of France. They formed a cruel optical illusion. Seemingly so close, but never getting closer. Stroke by stroke we got there until our pilot-boat stopped us going as far as the beach at Sangatte. Rowing crossings agonisingly stop some 20 metres shy of the beach, apparently. I imagined all of us had been hallucinating about dragging ourselves onto a French beach in the style of shipwreck survivors. It wasn’t to be. A rib would fast-track us to Calais. Never mind, we had rowed the English Channel – 26 miles in all – in seven hours and 26 minutes, of what, frankly, had been a hellish undertaking. Redgrave-esque statements about never stepping into a boat again were muttered. We meant it. Yet, wandering through Calais I was struck with the realisation that I will do few greater things than row across the busiest shipping lane in the world – and being able to say that was just about worth the seven-and-a-bit hours of agony.


The cycle had always seemed to be the easy bit. While running 30-odd miles in a day would be hard and rowing a marathon a logistical nightmare, the challenge of a ride to Paris paled into comparison. We were wrong on that front too. We departed Calais (Nick’s hands bandaged to prevent further aggravation) in pouring rain and proceeded on a surprisingly undulating route south. Fields of wheat and maize, and towering wind turbines, framed much of our route as we dropped to Desvres and Hesdin. The general idea was to cycle together, but our quartet was continually splintering, with the man up front typically determined by the terrain. I prefered the climbs, Nick the flat, Will and Tom were solid all-rounders. We had split up again as we entered Amiens, but, miraculously reunited at the cathedral, ending 96 miles of effort.

After easing weary, stiff bodies out of bed, and eating another unhealthily large but entirely necessary breakfast, the day two journey was more of the same – wide rolling fields and undulating roads – all the way to Beauvais. Leaving Beauvais we had our first accident: Nick was alerted by Will to the fact that the quick release bolt on his rear wheel was open. So shocked by this news, Nick immediately tried to bring his motion to a halt, only to be unable to drag a foot from a cleat. He clattered to the floor, cycle and rider flailing across the road. Luckily, the driver immediately behind him was his dad. Tom and I had cycled on obliviously, having only been alerted by a passing motorist. We cycled back, expecting the worst, relieved to find Nick unscathed.

We launched into the Paris suburbs at Taverny and passed through an area twinned with Clydebank in Scotland before finding our passage blocked by cycle-free tunnels. We teased a way through, finding a less severe tunnel to dart through, bringing us to Puteaux. Soon we were pedalling through the Bois de Boulogne and then after two hours of tiptoeing progress through Paris we turned a corner and there it was, the Arc de Triomphe. We cycled briskly over the cobbles of Avenue de la Grande Armée to gain the roundabout ringing the Arc and simply rode straight across, forcing French drivers to either stop or run us over. They did the former, fortunately. If only the gendarme could have shared the motorists’ temporary generosity of spirit.

There is a point to this. We are raising money for two charities, The Stroke Association and Kith and Kids. To sponsor us, please visit this site. At the time of writing, we have raised more than £2100.


London to Paris: running, rowing and cycling – please sponsor!


Remember comedian John Bishop crossing the English Channel in a rowing boat to raise money for Sport Relief? Bishop raised more than £3million for charity in his so-called ‘week of hell’. He cycled from Paris to Calais and rowed the Dover Strait before running three marathons in three days to reach London. He looked pretty tired at the end.

A fortnight today Team Arch to Arc will be following Bishop’s route in reverse, with our starting point Marble Arch (if we can reach it in the Olympics melee) rather than the Arc d’Triomphe. We won’t match his extraordinary fundraising effort (although we will be rowing in the same boat), but we hope to do our bit for two charities: The Stroke Association and Kith and Kids. Beyond charity, we want to cross the English Channel (and the land-based parts) in the spirit of adventure, because, as Mallory said of Everest, ‘it’s there’. 

10 reasons to sponsor us –

1. John Bishop’s rowing team boasted two sporting ex-professionals (Freddie Flintoff and Denise Lewis). We have none.

2. Nor do we have Davina McCall in our team, unfortunately. Our team is made up of two journalists, a teacher and a farming lobbyist.

3. Rowing is really hard. Sea rowing is even harder. See my last post.

4. However, if we get a move on, we’ll be the fastest four-person team to row the English Channel.

5. Rather than running three consecutive marathons, we will relay run the entire London to Dover route over around 12 hours, with each of us averaging at least 30 miles.

6. We will be cycling some 180 miles across France having run in excess of a marathon and having rowed the English Channel.

7. We are all going to grow Bradley Wiggins-style chops to sport on our cycle to Paris. Okay, that isn’t quite true (as I’d have needed to start growing them in January), but we will be wearing Wiggins face masks in the run-in to the French capital.

8. The Stroke Association needs little introduction, but Kith & Kids is a lesser-known worthy cause: the charity provides activities, opportunities, information and support for people with a learning disability or autism, their parents and siblings.

9. Giving money to charity will make you feel better about yourself. Apparently.

10. And, finally, we (and the charities) will really appreciate it.

The hardiness of the long-distance rower

I am well-acquainted with the loneliness of the long-distance runner; now I understand a little of the hardiness of the long-distance rower. It was on the second of two four-hour stints yesterday that the magnitude of rowing the 20-odd miles of the Dover Strait became glaringly apparent. We were rowing across the waters of Langstone Harbour on England’s south coast. A fine rain was falling in our faces and Portsmouth – to our right – looked grey and miserable.

We were rowing against twin enemies: the jaws of a Force 6 gale and the incoming tide. After an hour, our cox, Mike Gilbert, told us we had covered a mere two miles, equating to a slow walking pace. It wasn’t like we had been slacking. We were pulling hard, showing our best, most united form yet. We were tired, nevertheless; rowing is still a relatively alien pastime to us all. The blisters from the previous day’s four-hour effort were stinging. Then there were the individual aches and strains: necks, shoulders, backs, legs, feet and stomachs. Hunger and thirst would also gnaw away at us. Rowing harasses the body like no other sport, it seems.

Two miles from the northern tip of Hayling Island didn’t even take us to the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour. Beyond the relative safety of the harbour was the English Channel and somewhere hiding beyond the horizon was France. It seemed an impossible distance. After rowing on for several minutes, we teetered on the edge of harbour and sea – a windy, choppy, nasty place, haunted by the occasional big roller – before Mike ruled that it would be unsafe to circumnavigate Hayling Island as we had hoped.

Turning back wasn’t necessarily the easy option. Yes, the wind was with us for the first time that day. Yet the tide wasn’t. We had turned; the tide had turned.  That antagonist remained. Mike – wanting to prepare us for the potential worst – was a tough taskmaster. We would occasionally pause to change positions in the boat, but generally we pressed on. If someone needed to eat, drink or answer a call of nature, the other three would continue rowing. The difference from four rowers to three was great. Instantly, the water got heavier and you count down the moments before that fourth person rejoins. With the team four-strong again, the blade suddenly feels lighter.

Unwittingly, we have chosen a hard option by having a four-man crew. The vast majority of crossings are in six-men (or women) boats, or more, so much so that if we succeed in our efforts we will only be the third four-man crew to ever row the English Channel. Potentially, in the right conditions and with the right mindset, there is also a record to break. There will be, however, a major difference between our attempt and those of the other four-man crews: before we even get in the boat we will spend more than 12 hours relay running at least 100 miles from London to Dover.

Our rowing training is over. There is always the rowing machine, of course, but there is little as tedious as sitting on a rower for two hours. The next time we get in a boat it will be the real thing: the  crossing of the English Channel. If we make it – avoiding ferries and tankers, and hoping that the authorities allow us to land on French soil – we’ll just have the trivial matter of a 190-mile cycle to Paris to accomplish.

Our Arch to Arch challenge is seeking to raise money for two charities: The Stroke Association and Kith & Kids. Please visit this webpage to sponsor or to find out more about the event.

Rowing the English Channel: a (tricky) introduction

I have long admired the graceful fluency of rowing that masks the reality of the brute force being applied. This fluency is more apparent, naturally, the more there are in a boat, like in the Boat Race when eight men pull in perfect, beautiful symmetry.

We are a team of four – although possibly swelling to six – but on day one of preparation for the pivotal rowing stage of our Arch to Arc expedition from London to Paris, there was little beauty in my debut sea rowing performance. There’s only so much blame I can attribute to the force 7 weather that yesterday swept the south coast of England.

We were in good hands, nonetheless. Our mentor was Langstone Adventure Rowing’s Mike Gilbert, whose CV of Channel crossings includes John Bishop’s mega-fundraising effort earlier this year for Sport Relief.

After introductions, a health and safety briefing, land-based stretching and careful negotiation of the harbour, we were in the open water of the Hayling Island estuary, ready to row, a keen southwesterly tugging on our oars. Mike had put me in the ‘stroke’ position at the front (or is the back?) with my responsibility being to set the pace. I went off like a train, a train that accelerated, decelerated, missed strokes and, on occasions, slapped aimlessly at the water. I wasn’t a natural. Mike needed a metronome; he got the opposite: an erratic, hurried, unpredictable novice.

We swapped positions. I fared little better when following the stroke, repeatedly failing to stay in time. I did get better – slowly. I would pull 10 or 15 fluent, in-time strokes only to jump ahead or catch my oar in the water. I wasn’t consciously losing concentration but that must have been the problem.

We returned to port for a break, but we were back on the water half an hour later, briefed on how to work better as a team. This seemed to be the essential problem for me. Following years of competing in individual sports, the need to cooperate with others was alien. As much as I wanted to do my own thing, I couldn’t – and that was hard.

My rowing second time round was generally more accomplished, but, if anything my performance was punctuated by more mistakes. Mike, in the role of cox, shouted at me – again and again and again. Apart from my first newspaper editor, no-one had ever spoken to me like that before. It was refreshing – to be told explicitly that you are wrong and why. It made me dwell on pedagogy; I mused whether such a forthright, direct approach would work with sensitive children.

Back on land, we debriefed again. Physically, I was fine. My hands were a little blistered, but gloves would have prevented that. It was the technique that left me floundering. We have two potential training sessions left, both of them hopefully lasting four hours, one of which should see us into the big water of the English Channel.

I went to Hayling Island an innocent rowing novice. I remain a novice, but my innocence has been swept away. This challenge isn’t just about the doggedness of keeping going, of running unthinking over hills for hours. This involves concentration and timing, team work and technique. It is, therefore, in many ways a greater challenge than the Bob Graham Round. For that, I knew what I was doing; it was my sport. Rowing is utterly different, transporting me from all I know, exposing me to areas that – at the moment – are way out of my comfort zone. I’ve got seven weeks.