My journey to The Boat Race

03 April 2021

On Sunday 4 April, Oxford and Cambridge will go head to head for The Boat Race.

In training for this highly anticipated annual contest, Ben learnt the importance of accepting his Crohn's and being open about the impact it can have on his training.

I first picked up an oar in 2017 when I came to Cambridge to study a PhD in engineering. This same year, I received my diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease.

Living with Crohn's

I met a rower in my first few weeks working in the engineering department, prior to starting my PhD. They saw that I was both tall and into sports and asked if I wanted to come along to an “outing” that weekend. Being new to the city, I was keen to meet people. It turned out that an outing meant a rowing session out on the river, followed by a trip to the pub. I was offered a shot in the boat on the row back home. I was terrible and probably upset the balance for everybody else, but I instantly loved it.

I joined the novice programme at Caius Boat Club and enjoyed a successful first term, culminating with a training camp to Chester. In second term I rowed my first set of “bumps”, a tradition at Oxford and Cambridge where you quite literally try to “bump” the boat ahead. That year, I watched the Boat Race with great interest, witnessing a Cambridge clean sweep with victory in all four races. That was when I decided I wanted to do the race for myself. I signed up to the university development squad, and before I knew it, I was on the rowing machine in Goldie Boathouse, training alongside the senior squad fresh from their Boat Race campaign.

It was during my time in the development squad that I first experienced a bad Crohn’s flare up.

I started to feel particularly fatigued and experience prolonged stints of dizziness. I thought this was down to the increased training load and did not tell my doctor. One day, 250 metres from the end of a 2000 metre test, I went to sprint for the finish. All was well for the next 100 metres as I sped up, in familiar territory to the end of any running race. Then it hit me. In the space of five strokes my body simply started shutting down. I slowed significantly and spent the next hour after the test feeling very unwell, with a migraine, vomiting, dizziness and being unable to control my breathing. Rowing is known to be a tough sport, and I accepted this as part of the package.

Undeterred I signed up to trial for the full Boat Race programme starting in September.

I remember thinking, what is there to lose?

I was so relieved to get my letter inviting me to the training camp. I’d made it. I gained some great experience and finished the season as a “race week spare”, helping out on Boat Race day and on standby should anybody fall ill or become injured. That summer, I read Sir Steve Redgrave’s autobiography on a flight to China, to compete in the 1st World Rowing University Regatta. In his book, he speaks about his battle with Colitis during his final Olympic cycle, and how at times he thought it would prevent him from reaching his fifth gold medal. Reading about this really struck a chord within me, and I started to piece together a consistent pattern between my Crohn’s symptoms and my rowing performance.

It was at this point I opened up to my family and friends about my diagnosis, who took it a lot more seriously than I had.

I went back to the doctor and was prescribed budesonide, a non-anabolic steroid, to control my Crohn’s. I should point out that unlike anabolic steroids, these are not performance enhancing. At the very next rowing machine test, I comfortably surpassed a time barrier I had failed all three times I had previously tested. However, the best part was finishing the test, catching my breath, and being able to speak to my teammates about how their test went rather than escaping to the toilet before my debilitating symptoms set in. It felt incredible, and I couldn’t have been happier.

However, after my course of steroids finished the symptoms returned, and I had my worst post-test experience to date. I was testing alone after missing the test due to illness, so my coach was watching every stroke. He described a very sudden and surprising blow, after I had looked strong just a few strokes earlier. This was the first time I fell unconscious after a test. I had to be collected from the boat house three hours after finishing the test, shaking from the cold despite being wrapped up warm and indoors.

This was a real wake up call.

I returned to the doctor seeking a long-term treatment and was put on azathioprine. It was not as immediately effective as the steroids, but it is much safer to be on long-term. Sure, I still have mini flare ups, but these are not as severe. I was feeling better in time for final selection in March and I achieved my long-term rowing goal of making Goldie, the second crew, to compete in the 2020 Reserve Boat Race. I was ecstatic. I had done it; I was going to represent Cambridge on Boat Race day. Two weeks later, on Sunday 15 March, the whole squad was called to an emergency meeting. The head coach looked incredibly down. You could tell this really hit hard. He stood up and announced, “I don’t know how to say this. The race is cancelled”. For some, this was the end of the road.

To cope with it, I jumped into training even harder. I borrowed a rowing machine so I could continue training at home. Shortly after, I got my government letter. “You are clinically extremely vulnerable. The government advises you to shield.” Again, I dealt with shielding and by training yet harder. Then, just at the right time, my golden ticket arrived. Due to the disruption to my research, I was granted six months of extra funding. This was it. I now had one more chance. Azathioprine allowed me to train at new levels, and I turned up for the start of the 2021 Boat Race season fitter and more determined than ever.

This season has not been without challenge.

Being immunosuppressed, each cold or flu you contract takes a lot longer to recover from, particularly when training twelve times a week. We typically cover over 100 miles a week on the water and the rowing machine plus strength and conditioning sessions on top. I have had a few setbacks with illness, particularly in November and December, but these made me more determined to succeed. I had more time for extra sleep and careful nutrition planning, I religiously got 10 or more hours sleep a night, and I carefully planned my food to keep my Crohn’s at bay.

The January lockdown actually helped in many ways.

In early March, we received an exemption from the government for a small group of us to return to the water to train for four weeks leading up to the Boat Race. All the challenges I had faced with Crohn’s had toughened me up and prepared me for the incredibly intense selection process that was to come. Usually the crews are selected over the course of two months, but this year selection was condensed down to just ten days.

The day after my last selection race, we had our first media day and I was asked to do an interview. I honestly thought they’d got the wrong person, but I politely accepted anyway. Half an hour later, my coach told me that I was in the crew, in the Cambridge Blue Boat. I was going to row in the 2021 Boat Race. That was the best feeling in the world, and far greater than I had ever dared to dream I could achieve in rowing. Imagine sitting on the start line, helicopter overhead, millions of people watching you.

Treat your diagnosis with the respect it deserves.

My takeaway message is clear. Open up to the important people in your life about your condition, be it your family, friends, coaches or teammates. With their support, it is possible to achieve what you never even dreamt was possible.

I’ve been training for four years for this one race. It may sound cliché but the Boat Race is my Olympics.

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