Commentary

The Boat Race is once-in-a-lifetime experience

Updated: March 28, 2008, 11:27 AM ET
By Spencer Griffin Hunsberger | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race is one of the world's oldest sporting events. The first race was conducted in 1829, and now annually attracts more than 250,000 spectators. To get an insider's perspective, we asked two members of Cambridge's rowing team to write about their experiences in The Boat Race. This year's race can be seen Saturday at 12:45 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

CAMBRIDGE, England -- The Boat Race is a funny thing. There were days during the year when I wanted to jump out of the boat into the icy waters of the River Ouse and run away from the sport -- and the race -- forever. Days when the wind was driving so hard that one could not hear the coach, perched in a launch just a few meters away, screaming through his megaphone. They say that the early settlers of North Dakota were driven away by its barren plains and incessant winds, a plight I can sympathize with and a choice I envy after a year toiling on the water through the long British winter.

[+] EnlargeCambridge Boat Race
Carl De Souza/Getty ImagesCambridge spends six grueling months on the river, preparing for 17 months of competition.

But now, sitting in our house in London with less than three days to go, after just returning from a press dinner with members of the 1968 crew, I want this experience to never end. The tradition that surrounds the event, literally seeping out of every moment of its 180-year history, makes the thousands of hours sacrificed seem like a rather trivial price to pay.

The race announcers have a plethora of figures they can fall back on when they want to illustrate just how significant the preparation for this one race is. Two hours of practice for each of the 650 strokes in the race, seven months of dedicated training full of 40-hour weeks, all for one race that offers nothing more than the cold reality inherent to a binary outcome. The numbers are striking, but pale in effectiveness when compared to one look at the two crews' faces upon crossing the finish line. Those in front mirror an elation that supersedes accompanying agony; those behind are warped with horrors akin to Dante's most innermost rings.

As an American, this was my introduction to the race. I would watch Cambridge and Oxford contest what seemed like a ridiculous event with little more than a detached curiosity. I would marvel that athletes in the peak of their lives were sacrificing Olympic spots for just the chance to make one of the university crews. And it wasn't until I showed up wide-eyed and expectant to Cambridge in August to begin preterm training that I had any real sense of what the event was all about.

Most of August was spent indoors gaining strength and fitness in the bleak confines of one of the club's gyms. We spent a week in August cycling through the Alps, followed by a race in Moscow against Oxford and the University of Washington and a win in Germany against a host of European National teams.

September marked the official start of training, with roughly 50 rowers of varying abilities all doing their best to stave off a meeting with the coach -- the sign of impending cuts -- as long as possible. Numbers were dwindled down in this manner throughout the fall, while the increasingly small squad participated in several British races used to measure speed against other university and club crews.

December culminated with the annual Trial Eights race, arguably the largest event on our calendar apart from the Boat Race itself. The coaching team selected two even boats from the top 16 oarsmen at the time and raced them over the full-length course between the Putney and Mortlake Bridges on the Thames in London. The race also offers the first real public portrayal of our speed, enticing pundits from the international press to come forward and compare our speed to Oxford, who runs its own version of the race on the day immediately following ours.

At this point in the season there is a veritable pause, as the athletes take a breath and enjoy a few days of rest over the holidays with their families before reuniting in Spain on Dec. 29.

And in Spain the real fun begins. The bulk of selection for the final 16 spots occurs in the small town of Banyoles, two weeks of side-by-side racing with implications that reach into the rest of one's life. The top eight athletes are separated into the Blue Boat, with the next eight finding spots in Goldie, Cambridge's second boat that races Oxford's second crew -- Isis -- 30 minutes prior to the Blue Boat races on Saturday.

Upon returning to Cambridge in January, each member of the team is faced with the most grueling stretch of the season, the days of relentless cold and wind, which stripped me slowly and methodically of my sanity. These weeks are also full of the most demanding training sessions. Weekends regularly offer more than 100 kilometers of rowing, set against early morning weight workouts that end before the sun begins to rise.

And this is when crews are formed, champion crews that are separated from those spurned on by less pure motives. There are few things that can get someone out of bed every morning for the lonely trip down to the boathouse, navigating dark narrow lanes beneath 800-year-old buildings full of our sensible counterparts sleeping off a night out. There are countless reasons to come to Cambridge other than to "bob up and down on the river, pissing away a world class degree" as one reporter so eloquently put it. But the chance to beat Oxford in one of the oldest sporting traditions is too great an opportunity to pass up, and the only force strong enough to see someone through to the week I find myself in now, Boat Race week.

It's seeming reward for a year's worth of training, although the ultimate reward -- that which can never be guaranteed -- looms just a few days away down a 4¼ -mile stretch of winding, choppy river. The two boats -- Blue Boat and Goldie -- live in separate houses in London, training twice daily amidst the media frenzy that is yet another of the lasting curiosities this event provides.

Despite the hectic schedule and the backdrop of a city as alive as London, there is a sense of calm sweeping over the team. The work has been done, the hours invested, and there is nothing left to do now but rest and taper for the race. We are stripped of our academic responsibilities as term has come to an end, and the shift from Cambridge removes the majority of distractions any university town can provide.

So as we rowed down the course Monday afternoon, and the regular howl of a strong wind gave way to the heavy clouds that can only signal impending snow, all seemed to be right with this crazy event we call the Boat Race. We spun around at the top of the river and turned home, a blanket of new snow absorbing all the sounds of the city and letting only the steady drone of the coaches' boat pass through. And amidst the silence I realized, that despite all the times throughout the year I thought I had enough, I would give the world to do it all again.

Spencer Griffin Hunsberger is studying for a master's in management at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University.

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