It goes way back, I remember it as a kid, I must have been about 8 years old and I used to sneak into the gym and the first thing I would do is go and sit on the rowing machine and start pulling the handle. I remember distinctly that the machine was a Concept 2, the paddle was wooden and there was this chain and I just used to pull it as hard as I could, if I had time before I was caught and kicked out the gym I would strap my feet into the foot holders, this seemed to make me go faster. It was awesome.
That’s my most distant and first memory of my Concept 2 experiences. It’s a machine that I have sat and suffered on so many times over my life but a machine that every time I get on I relish the experience and what it does to me, it is literally unparalleled. I remember being interviewed once and they asked me if I was to be stranded on a desert island what would I want there with me and my response was a Concept 2 rowing machine. Such was my passion for the machine that in 2010 I decided to see how fast I could go on it over 500m, (more of a sprint than my recent jaunt) and I managed 1:17:3 which put me close to the top of the Concept 2 world rankings for that distance.
In the 2013 CrossFit games they had a half marathon row as one of the events, I loved the idea and it was not long before I gave that a hit myself and enjoyed it. And then when I was training for Marathon Des Sables in 2015 I was in a challenging situation where I was unable to run due to an achilles tendon injury with 2 months to go before the race started, a race I was going to finish at all costs. It was then that I turned back to my good old friend the Concept 2. I used varying distances to train my body and mind. It’s strange, people ask me if I find it boring rowing for hours. Like that is the point isn’t it! I wanted at that stage to be able to train my mind to deal with the monotony, the boredom as I knew in MDS in the middle of the Sahara that entertainment would be hard to come by. It was mental training as much as anything. I have learnt on many occasions that this machine toughens the mind.
It was during that training phase and in the lead up to MDS that I woke early one morning around 4am and just felt it was a good time to row, I raced down to my gym, got the Concept 2 out and just over 3 hours later completed 42.2km on the machine. It was an unreal experience, highs, a few lows but I stood up off the machine knowing more about myself and definitely with some good mental training complete.
I sat in Turkey in June 2015 taking some time out to set some goals and think about different ways to challenge myself over the summer of 2015 I wrote down two very simple goals. The first was to run 50km in 50 degree heat (I live in Dubai) in July and the second was to row 100km on a Concept 2 in August. There was a twist though, I wanted to complete both goals with no specific training. Given I had not run more than 5km since completing Marathon Des Sables in April nor rowed more than 5km on the Concept 2 since my Marathon in March you could say they were both quite “interesting” goals. But they were commitments, I wrote them down and they were to be done. On July 31st I ticked the run off in 6 hours 40 minutes, it was an interesting ride for sure.
In May this year I established the “Intisaar Foundation” which gives Emirati Youth a chance to get better at life through InnerFight training and mentoring. (Intisaar meaning Victory) So when I was thinking about the 100km row it made sense to do it in aid of the foundation, it also made sense to involve others and take them beyond their self imposed limits and show them what amazing things their bodies can do.
With 6 teams and I on Friday 28th August 2015 at 8:05 at InnerFight HQ here in Dubai we started our “Row for Intisaar”. The teams would rotate based on various strategies and I would not stop rowing until 100km was complete. It was that simple.
A lot of people asked me what my strategy was for the row both before and after the event. The easiest way to explain it is as I replied to someone on Instagram (@ifms7)
“Pick a pace that you can hold. Relate it to heart rate to keep you in check. Every 20 minutes stand up for 10 seconds and shake your body. Thats the official advice. The unofficial advice is: don’t be a pussy your whole life, set incredibly difficult challenges that scare you and test what you think are your limits, suffer, embrace the pain, it comes for a reason, the longer you are suffering the more you learn and grow which transpires to many aspects of your life. I am a better human today because of what I did yesterday. And finally, as always, SHOW NO WEAKNESS.”
I mean really that is it, there is nothing else to it, it doesn’t need to be any more complicated, glamorous or messed up, simplicity is always the best route.
7 hours 26 minutes after we started my work was done. I had completed 100km solo on a Concept 2. It was strange feeling, unique in many ways, I was empty, in extreme pain but at the same time elated that I had completed it.
Strange questions followed in the hours and days after either to my face or by message, some of them I want to share with you as I think there is a great learning.
The first was: How was it?: This is a fair question and I think I can break this down in to 3 parts, the first 2 hours was no issues at all, plain sailing if you like. At the two hour mark I started to feel pain in my lower back, I had to change my rowing style but that pain reached a certain level and never got worse which I saw as a huge benefit, I could deal with it. The third phase of the journey kicked in at 5 hours, it was horrendous, every time I pulled the handle my biceps started to crap, the pain varied from dull to excruciating but never left me. I tried to move the pressure of the pull onto my back and lats but the cramp was more painful there and shot all the way down my obliques so the bicep pain was the worse of the two evils that I chose to live with. The machine told me I had 2 hours 30 minutes left, I was in hell, my body was breaking down on me, I could not control it, my desire to complete my goal remained but I needed my body to work and it was refusing. This was perhaps the most challenging 2 hours I could remember since my hallucinations in a 2014 ultra marathon. I knew deep down that this is really why I do these challenges as this is where the magic happens, where you learn, where you become mentally stronger and when you are forced to survive. There are so many situations like this in life and the way we react is key.
The second question someone asked me: At what stage did you want to give up? I find that difficult to answer. Giving up was not and is just never an option when you commit to a challenge. Weak people give up. I chose not to be weak. If I am going to do something in life, no matter what it is, once I cross the start line I am committed to finish. For sure I have had to pull out of some things where circumstances have been beyond my control, however the attitude of giving up or quitting I just find too common place in the world today and I have no time for it. At no stage during the row did I think about not completing it or giving up.
Then there was another comment from someone: I didn’t think you would complete that! I mean seriously, you doubted, why? Because you have conditioned your mind to believe that things are not possible, or that there are limits. Well let me tell you that’s only a mental condition and limits are only imposed by humans. I am sorry that you doubted me and I am sorry that you can not see the big picture of testing the human body and mind to preset human limits. I genuinely find this a sad situation and I just want to encourage everyone, no matter who you are to realise that you can do awesome things and live awesome lives if you just remove the blinkers and believe that anything is possible.
I had a great question from another person to which the answer is similar to the above: What did you learn from the row? The simple fact is that if you commit to things and you stay the course you will succeed. For me on that day it was a matter of just making sure the handle went back and forth until there were 100km completed. If that had taken 10 hours then so be it. There has to be a commitment and a dedication. I always apply a quote that I love to these sorts of challenges, “if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl and if you can’t crawl then just be there in the right environment.” Its the same as when people ask me how I crossed the Sahara desert, the answer is simple, by just putting one foot in front of the other.
And a final question that I want to share as I believe this is one of the keys to success no matter what you are doing. “What was the atmosphere like?” I believe that a large % of success is based on environment in every aspect of life. In InnerFight HQ I have tried to create and environment that drives performance and makes people better at life. Hence it was no surprise that the 6 teams that joined me in the row for Intisaar inspired me beyond reason, by being there, by rowing and by their attitude to life. Every single person that attended the event created the environment and are part of the reason why I was successful. I think this is a factor that is so often overlooked in many areas of life and I just want to encourage everyone to look at the different environments in all aspects of their lives and analyse them related to their success, there are so many answers waiting for you.
A natural question which I want to close with is: What’s next? On the Concept 2 rowing machine as of now there isn’t anything planned, throw me some ideas and let’s see which ones sound good. I did think for a short time about completing 100km on the Concept 2 ski erg! I have already done a marathon on one which was again a great experience. Outside of the world of Concept 2 I have two more challenges to complete this year. One being a 160km desert crossing in Oman which I also plan to do in aid of the Intisaar foundation. And the final one is to continue to love and support my amazing wife Holly who every single time I sit down with her and talk about a challenge has nothing but support and motivation for my often “crazy” ideas, without her I would be nothing.
You can follow pretty much all of my challenges and training either on my Instagram (@mjd_smith) or Snap Chat (@ifms7) accounts.
To find out more about the Intisaar foundation and how you can be involved click here.
Thanks for taking the time to read this article and I hope you live an amazing life.