Commentary

Journey to start line of Boat Race as important as finish

Updated: March 28, 2008, 9:56 AM ET
By David Billings | 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 -- My high school had a strong tradition of sending rowers to Cambridge University. From the age of 14, we were shown reruns of old Boat Races, with various Cambridge crews held up as paradigms of good rowing. When the time came for me to consider which university to apply to, Cambridge was the obvious choice. I spent my first year on the fringes of the university rowing scene, before fully immersing myself in the lifestyle of a Cambridge University oarsman in my second year. I finished the year stoking the reserve boat, Goldie, to victory over our Oxford rivals.

I began this, my third and final year at Cambridge, with high hopes. A year older, and a year more experienced, I felt that I was a much better athlete than the previous seasons. After a summer of hard work in the gym, I began the training process by lining up against my peers for the 2k ergometer test that marks the start of our Boat Race campaign. It became apparent that the competition for places in a boat this year would be particularly fierce. Around 40 athletes, from various corners of the world, completed the test and set themselves up for a gruelling six months of selection for the 2008 Cambridge Blue Boat. I would spend my season competing against athletes from Britain, America, Mexico, Poland, Canada and Australia.

Five months later and the weeks have rolled by quickly, filled with 75 minute ergometers, 25 kilometer rows and 190 kilometer weeks. It is now only a few days until the race, and I find myself in Goldie once more. Our official role is to help the Blue Boat to win its all important race. We do this by providing them with athletes when their number is depleted through illness or injury and, perhaps more importantly, by providing them with a fast eight to race against in training. This is a task we relish, taking on our underdog status with gusto and savoring every opportunity we are given to prove ourselves. However, we also have our own race against the Oxford reserve boat Isis. It is the last objective that dominates our thoughts once the crews have been selected -- providing the Blue Boat with competition helps both crews to achieve their respective goals on March 29.

The Boat Race draws a great deal of media attention in the UK. While this obviously focuses upon the Blue Boats, the large crowds that the event draws -- those who turn up to watch the race live number in the hundreds of thousands -- combine with the weeks of training poured into the single 17-minute race, to produce an extremely high pressure event. We spend the week leading up to the race preparing ourselves for this. The taper in training -- now our rows are around a third of their normal length -- leaves us overflowing with energy. The weeks spent living and training day in and day out with the same eight men produces not only lasting friendships, but also occasional tension as nervous energy forms a catalyst for camaraderie to turn into petty squabbling.

With just two days left until the race, it is now possible to count down the number of training sessions left on one hand. It is, of course, the race that dominates our thoughts from very early in the season. However, I know from experience that the huge build up to the impending 17 minutes of competition that caps of our season will soon prove anti-climactic. Whilst the race has the capacity to put a duller or brighter sheen on the memories that I take from the year, it is really the six months that lead up this day that will dominate my memories of rowing for Cambridge University. Although losing would, undoubtedly, leave a hole that may take several years to fill, and winning would quickly put a happy gloss on all the months of hardship and self-deprivation that characterize the Cambridge rowing program, in some sense, it really is the taking part that counts.

I know that I have a kinship with all who have gone through a Boat Race program. We have all cranked out the vast mileage on the river and ergometer, we have all felt the great weight of tradition on our shoulders as we continue a legacy that is more than 150 years old and we have all rowed the four and a quarter miles from Putney to Mortlake. Perhaps this in some way makes up for the very binary nature of this winner-takes-all race. On the day, it will be the thoughts of the hours of training I have invested into winning that will add to my nerves. I would not be a worthy competitor if my desperation to win and revulsion at the thought of losing did not dominate my thoughts.

However, win or lose in a day's time, I know that after the intense pain or wild revelry have sunk into the shadows, I will take with me the same fond memories of friendships forged in the pressure cooker that is a Boat Race campaign. I doubt that I will be a part of a group that has the same unity of purpose again, and the feeling that this generates will stay with me for a very long time. In this respect, it is the entirely binary nature of the race we are about to participate in that really does make the journey to the start line almost as important as the journey to the finish.

David Billings is in the third and final year of his bachelor's in Philosophy at Caius College Cambridge.

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