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Record Breaking 24 Hour Rowathlon by Hayley Arthur

“Hey Hayles! I am keen to ergo for 24 hours, maybe we could do it as a publicity stunt to raise awareness about the Ubunye Challenge… are you keen to do it with me?”

I really wish I had answered “No!” Sadly that’s not the case and so here I am sat on my bed, leaning slightly to the right (towards the side of my back that is still in spasm – exactly one week post the event), writing a blog post for the 24hr Indoor Rowing Challenge.

At exactly 1pm on Friday 9 November (11am GMT for all those participating from around the world), Ryan Palmer, Sam Wells, the TUKS and UJ relay teams as well as the Jeppe relay team and myself, took the first stoke of many as we began minute one of twenty four hours of rowing on an indoor rowing machine or Concept 2. And so it began. Ryan and myself were doing the full 24 hours solo whilst Sam was rowing 2 hours on / 2 hours off simulating the schedule we will use when we are actually rowing across the Atlantic.

The event took place at King Edward VII school in Johannesburg and thanks to KES hosting us we were set up outside, undercover with a view, and fresh air; lots of space for the 11 rowing machines we had set-up; food stalls, a bar, and music booming through massive speakers behind us. Sorry to the matric school boys writing exams… I’m sure the David Guetta tracks were helping you through your exam paper with style!

My theory going into the 24 hours was breaking it down into three eight-hour slots: 8, 16, 24… easy as pie!! Ok, maybe 6, 12, 18, 24? No, too many slots. 3 slots is psychologically better than 4 slots. Well all of that became pretty irrelevant straight off the mark. The vibe and buzz out there was incredible! The first 6 hours cruised past! As we went through the afternoon so people started dropping by to check out the action. Friends still in work clothes, parched from a long Friday at the office and ready for a beer were eager to grab a cold one and come chit-chat with the rowers. We were constantly greeted with “Wow, you guys are looking great!” or “Here I brought you some chocolate and sweets”; “What you’re doing is amazing, keep it up!” It was the best form of distraction to have a constant influx of friends coming in, sitting alongside you and chatting your ear off for half an hour before wondering off and their place being filled by someone else before the seat had even got cold. When I eventually registered what was going on it was dark all around me, fairy lights were glowing bright, the cricket field was gloomy and misty in the distance and had I not been on a rowing machine I could have sworn I was at a Rhodes University reunion because we were surrounded by Rhodes mates talking loud, having drinks, laughing and generally having a good time. Their energy flooded through us all and the relay teams and individuals “just kept (rowing), just kept (rowing)!”

Every time we clocked an hour down I would shout out “congrats everyone 5 hours down” or “6 hours down” and so it went on… and before we knew it we were 12 hours down and on the downhill home. It was 1am. Dark was darker now. Cold was colder. Mist was thick and as we exhaled it looked like we were billowing out Peter Stuyvesant smoke. The vibe was still good. We had our night soldiers standing by our sides – close friends and loved ones who had given up their Friday night to stand sentry alongside us: preparing our food, filling up water bottles, keeping the screens on our machines alive while we got off briefly for a loo break, a feed, a quick stretch and massage or a walk around the field to get the blood flow back into your bum.

I looked across at Ryan and found him looking almost exactly like he had at the start… fairly chilled, going through the motions… maybe a little pale but otherwise quick with a smile and quite happily carrying on along his path to clocking a new world record. “Hey Ryan, remember how much I hated you for convincing me to do this with you, before we started? Well I hate you more now!!” Haha… of course I didn’t hate him, thanks to Ryan I was in the process of doing the hardest and most awesome physical challenge I have ever done in my life and quite frankly not something I would have launched myself into had it not been for Ryan’s phone call all those months before. But I was in a world of pain and heading into a cruel and dark phase of my 24 hour row. My ‘darkest hours’ were probably from 2 /3am until 7am. I was having what I call ‘sense of humour failure!’ There were various niggles hazarding me, some aches and pains that pain killers were no longer masking and I hadn’t eaten any food since 11pm as the thought of anything offered to me made me mock charge. I had to think seriously long and hard about whether or not I was going to finish this challenge. Telling myself that it was ok to stop now, that we had already achieved so much having completed 16 hours, was a much easier option! I remember explaining how I felt to my brother, “Wayne, we’ve done 16 hours and my body is really in excruciating pain. We have 8 hours left to do. 8 hours. Do you know how long that is? Imagine going to work at 8am, and only leaving at 4pm. That’s how long I still have to row for!” Needless to say I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I am extremely relived to say that, thanks to the people closest to me giving me advice to push on, I made the right decision and got back on the ergo with smaller more manageable goals to get me through rowing the next two hours after which I would reevaluate again.

With another two hours down we started doing some calculations with regard to the women’s world record and realized that all I needed to do was row 6km per hour for the next 6 hours and I would break the record! That’s when the game changed. It just shows you how much stronger the mind is than the body. And as rowers we know this. 2km sprinting shows us that all the time. When you know the finish line is just ahead you can push that boat with the strength of a hundred men for the final twenty strokes and then pass out over the line unable to take another stroke. I thought I was done and needed to stop for my own good but once there was a realistic goal and a light at the end of the tunnel… I knew I could carry on. I wanted to carry on.

So there we were into the last four hours! So close yet so far! Ryan and I were both very focused on our records now and Ryan even more so knowing that his was the record to beat and every single minute and every stroke were fundamental to him crushing that record. I don’t think Ryan was off his machine for longer than 2 minutes during the entire 24 hours. He is the true 24 hour ergo champion!!

As we pushed through the day: 9am, 10am, 11am so more and more people started arriving. It was an awesome sunny Saturday morning and the KES grounds were buzzing with little red ants playing cricket, parents strolling around having a squizz at the ergo madness, more friends of ours coming to visit or returning for a second visit – plenty of them in training kit and more than happy to pull an ergo for an hour or so. The participation was incredible! From supporters to rowers, everyone was involved in some way!

With about 1 hour and forty minutes left until cut-off at 1pm I broke the previous world record, for my age-group 20-29, of 215km and rowed through to the216km mark. What a moment. Huge relief! Massive euphoria! And generally big smiles and high 5s all round!!! The hardest part was done. All we needed now was to get Ryan through the last 100 minutes or so and watch him set a new record.

I did my best to keep rowing alongside Ryan. It’s fair to say that the 6 year old little girl who had been erging alongside us earlier in the day had been pulling better splits than I was now but all I needed to do was keep moving and ride out the last hour or so before it would all be over. Ryan was looking as focused as ever, one thing on his mind, one precious stroke at a time. He let on that there was some pain and discomfort with the odd grunt and grimace on his face but never before has someone been so determined to reach and crush a record. Massive respect to Farmer! He worked hard every second of that event to claim the new World Record.

With 7 minutes to go until 1pm and the cut-off of our 24 hour challenge, Ryan broke the World Record!!!!

He held himself together and rowed the last 7 minutes setting the new record at 314km348m. I ended on 219km871m. Both of us finished, literally!! 😉
We couldn’t have been happier! And more shattered! It was a hugely special moment to share together and we are so grateful to have had each other the whole way though. I sometimes wonder if Sam had had the harder deal, doing 2 hours on, 2 hours off it can’t be easy to rev yourself up every time to start another 2 hours of rowing again. Can you imagine just as you’ve showered, eaten and settled into a nap your alarm goes off for another rowing session? Another 2 hour rowing session? Hats off to you Samuel. You did it with style and you have test-run what a day on the boat out at sea is going to feel like. Well done!

What a success. What a ludicrous idea. But thank you farmer for setting the bar so high with this challenge and I am so chuffed to say that everyone who participated succeeded and made this into the most incredible endurance event I have ever taken part in!

See you at the event next year?:)



Hayles! Awesome work bud! Congrats to you and the team! Was very cool to read about it as I couldn’t be there to witness it! Sounds all sorts of crazy but amazing!