Sunday, 18 March 2012

Boat Races

"...the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits." Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

'Boat race?' I messaged several friends on Thursday. 'The weather will be nice.' A lie, of course. The weather is rarely nice in London. 'And there will be many tall men.'

'You could watch rugby instead,' came the responding email. Where we would be inside. Dry. Drinking a pint. And enjoying the almost irrationally tight-shirted nature of rugby players.

'Tough choice... Both? Boat race adventure?' I encouraged. Even though it meant an early morning. Even though it meant standing outside in the cold. Because it would be worth it. There's something quiet and beautiful about boat races, about rowers. Something solemn in the way they push out in the early hours of the morning, blades hitting the water as the glint of the sun and the day perch on the horizon.

It's one of my favourite parts of running: going along the river, watching the rowers with their wellies set themselves up with all the formality of an age-old institution. I like seeing the teams working together, lifting and shifting with practised efficiency. I like seeing the single rowers by themselves, moving along, isolated bodies bobbing on the water.

I like races.

So I found myself standing along the Thames post 20-mile run, shivering, wet, with my hands tucked inside my running vest.  Supporters lined the waterway. Dozens were on the Hammersmith Bridge, their little bodies and big umbrellas, shouting as the rowers went past.

My phone buzzed. 'Going to be 10 minutes late!' one friend texted. 'So close now, hope you're not too cold!' another messaged.

I wedged myself between a mom and her husband. She turned to me, her bright blue eyes glinting. "It's his birthday. My son's birthday today. He's rowing in - Tom! TOM! Is that him? The red and black? There are so many red and black boats... Anyways, it's his birthday today. He's 20-years-old. I'm so proud of him."

"I think they're a bit insane, these rowers."

The woman smiled and looked back at the water.  "Which one are you waiting for?"

"I don't know the number."

"What colour?"

"Pink and green." I pointed to the boathouse behind me, the one I have some faint allegiance to, owing to my recent couple stints as a cox.

"Well there's a pink one!" She motioned out at the river as a boat of pale pink rowers rushed past. They were lacking the green. I nodded, smiled, and let out a little cheer for good measure.

By the time my friends arrived, most of the boats had already gone. One brought me a jacket. The other brought an umbrella.

Together we stood in the soggy rain, hands clasped around cups of coffee and a pack of semi-damp crisps/chips. The boats went past, one after another after another, around 300 in all.

"Did we win?" My friend asked, grinning.

"Watching fit men do sport in the early hours of the morning? Of course we won..."

And then we went inside for a pint. 

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