Too many people in my life – and I’m willing to bet in yours, too – have either had cancer or are in the throes of it right now. Young, old, fit, slothful, saint, sinner – cancer doesn’t discriminate. The haunting memory of ashen-faced, bewildered children at funerals and tense conversations with tight-faced doctors is enough to make me want to do something – anything – to help. So when I had the chance to participate in last week’s launch of the Great Row, Cancer Research UK’s fundraising campaign to get people rowing and raising money for life-saving research, I didn’t have to think twice. Even the fact that it involved rowing a relay marathon on the rowing machine – my least favourite piece of equipment – wasn’t enough to put me off. Because research does help. Breakthroughs in treatment and understanding of the disease mean that survival rates are improving. So if I could help raise some money and get the message out there, I was delighted to do my bit.

I was in the celebrity and media team (pictured below) alongside Made in Chelsea’s Akin Solanke-Caulker (centre), TV presenter Olivia Cox (second from right), Crossfit blogger Georgina Spenceley, better known as Fitcetera (second from left), fitness blogger and journalist Sophie Hines, aka Ldn Fit (not pictured), and a rower called Devin (left) who’d been hauled in to provide some muscle. Competing against a dozen other teams, which included gangs from the Telegraph and Financial Times, a bunch of people from British Rowing and some seriously strong Crossfitters, we had to row 26.2 miles on the ergo as fast as we could.

Like most teams, we rowed in bursts of a minute before rolling off and letting the next team member on, holding their feet to keep them in place and generally encouraging them. As usual, I was the smallest person in the crew, but I hoped that my (admittedly patchy) rowing technique would let me hold my head up. Triple Olympic champion Andrew Triggs Hodge opened proceedings and stayed on hand to offer encouragement and even contribute a stint of his own to one lucky team (in bare feet, bizarrely – his preferred way to erg). Some of the Women’s Boat Race competitors from both Oxford and Cambridge sportingly came together to help out, too – the raffle prizes consisted of 2,000m sprints by Oxbridge’s strongest.

The atmosphere was electric. There was a DJ in the house pumping out tunes and the distance each team had rowed was shown on a leaderboard. The Crossfitters set off at a blistering pace, which they maintained throughout and won by a country mile. It soon became apparent – not surprisingly – that my team wasn’t going to come anywhere near the top, but still, I had underestimated my team mates. Despite hurting his knee early on in proceedings, Akin gamely carried on one-legged and put on a massive sprint to take us over the line at the end. Olivia and Sophie, despite being slender and dainty, turned out to be major powerhouses. And as for Georgina and Devin – well, they were absolute beasts on the erg. Huge, huge respect to all of them.

As for me – well, I made my customary ridiculous race faces and rolled around on the floor in histrionic fashion after each piece. I found it harder than I’d bargained for – you can see the pain and exhaustion etched into my haggard-looking face in this picture, which was taken during my final sprint. But for all the fuss and drama-queenery, I achieved more on that damned machine than I’d ever thought I was capable of. When it got really tough I would do five strokes for each of my friends who are going through cancer treatment now and five more for those who are no longer with us, and somehow found reserves of strength I genuinely didn’t know were there.

So what about you? How can you get involved in the Great Row and pull together to beat cancer’s butt? Well, all you need to do is sign up on the Great Row page here and commit to doing a fundraising challenge on a rowing machine. You don’t need to do a marathon – you can do 2,000m, 4.2 miles or a half marathon – whichever best suits your fitness level and availability. To help you along, you’ll be entitled to a free pass to do your training at a David Lloyd Club on a number of dates in March.

If you’re still wavering, just pause for a moment to remember how lucky you are to be able to think about doing it. Cancer stops far too many people from having that chance. Let’s pull together and stop it in its tracks.

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