Star trek challenge: Africa or bust
So you thought winning Olympic gold and rowing the Atlantic was gruelling? See what James Cracknell is up to now
In preparation for a Sport Relief challenge, I’ve been trying to decide whether it is a blessing or a curse having to train for separate disciplines. Having spent a worryingly large amount of my life training for a sport that required me to be good at only one thing (rowing), the variety has been a welcome change, but I won’t know if I have favoured one discipline until it’s too late.
I am aiming to get from Britain to Africa under my own steam as fast as I can, rowing the Channel and landing at Cap Griz Nez, hopping on a bike and cycling south into Spain and down through Andalucia, then swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar from Tarifa on the southern tip of the Spanish mainland to Punta Cires in Morocco. If I say it quickly, it doesn’t sound too daunting.
I have never done anything remotely amusing enough to justify getting involved with Comic Relief. But Sport Relief? That’s more my area of expertise. This year it is Sport Relief’s turn to raise money for projects in the world’s poorest countries as well as in the UK. With a motto of “Rise to the Challenge”, it is encouraging people to be active to raise money.
Well, I have accepted the challenge — whether I can rise to it remains to be seen.
The project certainly got off to a challenging start. First I had to get permission to row across the Channel. Sport Relief has shifted its big weekend from July to March, and the French coastguard wasn’t keen for me to attempt a crossing at this time of year.
Persuading the coastguard was, however, a damned sight easier than convincing French Customs that I wasn’t going to mount a one-man assault on France when I jumped out of my boat, on to a bike and disappeared into the countryside. There was talk that I would have to go back to Britain to catch the ferry across and clear Customs. Fortunately, the good people at Sport Relief convinced them that I was relatively harmless.
You underestimate a stretch of open water at your peril, but I’ve had a rowing boat built especially and have enjoyed being back out on the water. I have been granted a five-day weather window by the French coastguard between February 26 and March 1 to try to ensure I get a decent day, with a planned departure date of February 28 from Shakespeare Beach at Dover.
Having spoken to several endurance athletes, they say the hardest leg of the journey will be the cycle ride. I’ve set myself a target of covering the 1,400 miles in about five days, an average of 280 miles every 24 hours. At this stage, although talk is cheap, I will probably be cycling between 18 and 20 hours a day, and there is no way of knowing how I’ll cope with those distances day after day.
The cycle has also been affected by Sport Relief’s date change. Instead of a warm July evening in Bordeaux, I’ll be wrapping up warm and forced into a longer route to avoid high ground and snow.
The coastguard in Gibraltar was not about to be denied his chance to moan at the timing. “Nobody swims across at this time of year. Why not do it in July?” he asked. Having managed to smooth the waters with him, the Strait will not be so easy. Although it is much narrower than the Channel (about 12 miles where I will cross) the water will be rough and a cold 11C.
As the event draws nearer, the importance of the swim is growing. I know the cycle ride is going to be tough, but at least I can stop for a break. I’m not aware of a shallow end in the Strait of Gibraltar, and I have never swum this far, so when the experts say it’s not as hard as the Channel, that doesn’t help much.
At least I’ll have company. David Walliams is going to join me for the swim. The comedian raised the profile of Sport Relief, a huge amount of money and the bar for any celebrity who fancied taking on a challenge when he stormed across the Channel in 2006.
My main fear is that, having completed the cycle ride battling to stay on schedule, we will be held up at Tarifa waiting for good weather — or even worse, I will fail to complete the swim. It is vital that I get there with energy reserves for a six- to eight-hour swim.
With less than a week to go, I am feeling the familiar pre-race cocktail of nervousness and excitement. I keep asking myself: “Why am I doing this?” That question is easier to answer than it was for other challenges I have done. What started as a personal ambition has changed immeasurably since I visited Ethiopia recently and saw first-hand the effect Sport Relief has and the number of people who still desperately need help. Every pound I raise will make a difference.
When the journey gets difficult, the harrowing sights I saw in Ethiopia will remind me how lucky I am. By making it, I hope to help people who aren’t as fortunate.
Sport Relief weekend is March 14-16. To track James Cracknell’s progress, guided by Nokia maps, and to donate to Sport Relief, see www.challengecracknell.com. Sign up for a Sport Relief Run at www.sportrelief.com.
Gold standard: James Cracknell in training (main picture) for his gruelling attempt to row, cycle and swim from Britain to Africa — that’s if he gets past French Customs