Feb 16, 2011: Lowden Grange prison, Nottinghamshire, England.
The first question John McAvoy had was, What time to start the clock? When you’re about to bear down for 24 hours straight on an endurance record, timing matters.
“If you start in the morning, you’re going to finish in the morning,” said Darren Davis, a guard at Lowden Grange penitentiary. “And what’s going to happen then is, your sleep pattern’s going to be completely wrecked. The best thing is to start at four in the afternoon. That way you’ll finish at 4 the following afternoon. You can eat dinner and go to sleep at 7 and you’ll be fine the next day.” McAvoy had to admit this made sense. Davis was speaking from deep experience as an endurance athlete himself, so “I put my trust in him,” McAvoy says. Plus, McAvoy liked that Davis was planning beyond the horizon of this big impossible task, making it seem a mere speed bump on the road to richer times and a better life ahead.
McAvoy’s current life, you see, wasn’t working so well.
Twenty-seven years old, he had spent the last seven and a half years in British prisons, for possession of firearms and conspiracy to commit bank robbery. But thanks to that rarest of beasts, an actual jailhouse epiphany, he’d vowed to make a future for himself. It started with proving that he could harness his restless energy for the good. He and Davis had hatched a plan: on a Concept 2 rowing machine in the prison gym, McAvoy would ply the waters of a pretend ocean, raising money for charity and, with luck, breaking the world record for furthest distance covered on a rowing machine in a single day.
Davis tacked on the wall a white board to keep track of McAvoy’s time, pace and calories consumed — the nitty gritty of extreme human performance. He put a motivational poster in McAvoy’s line of view. “Pain is temporary … but quitting lasts forever.” As other inmates milled about, wrapping up their workouts in the last scheduled exercise block of the day, Davis ran over the last few details. McAvoy could only come off the machine if were for a very good reason. It had to be an effective break, or else it’s just time wasted. “Remember,” Davis told McAvoy, “you’ve got to be consistently great – and that’s from the very beginning to the very end.’” No one had ever talked to McAvoy like that. Consistently great! No “predominantly badass” or “surpassingly menacing.” Consistently great. That felt good.
At 4pm, Davis counted down from 3, and McAvoy brought the oars back, and his cantaloupe shoulders engaged.
As afternoon became evening, the machine’s flywheel hummed. Davis sat on a stationary bike beside McAvoy, offering him encouragement. To McAvoy, it felt strange to be free at night. In six years he had not been outside his cell after dark. (“What you’ve got to understand is, This is a category-B high-security prison,” Davis says. “At night it’s completely and utterly secure.” Only after Davis appealed to the governor was an exception made for this one special occasion.)
McAvoy plowed silently on. He visualized complete dominant effortless mastery, just as Davis had taught him. By midnight he was ahead of world-record pace.
And then around 2am, something happened.
“I suddenly felt awful,” he told me recently by phone. “I was in a very dark place.” He wanted very badly to get off the bike and lie down and sleep.
Davis got down beside him. “Trust me,” he said, “When your brain’s telling you to sleep, that’s when you have to keep rowing.”
“Have I gone out too hard?” McAvoy asked.
“No,” Davis replied, “you haven’t. You’ll feel better soon. I promise you that at 6 or 7 am, when you’re usually used to waking up, you’ll come out of this dark spell and you’ll be okay.” Davis hand-fed McAvoy jelly beans to keep his energy up.
For the next four hours neither one spoke.
Then, round about 6am, something re-ignited in McAvoy. “It was like this massive burst of second wind. I felt completely refreshed and revitalized.”
As other prisoners began to wake, word moved through the prison that their man was still on the wheel, and ahead of world-record pace.
A couple of other prisoners were allowed into the gym to watch McAvoy shatter the record. In the end, he had rowed 263,396 meters in 24 hours — the equivalent of 163 miles.
McAvoy lurched back to his wing like Boris Karloff’s Mummy, the muscles in his back and legs all locked up. The other inmates burst into applause. McAvoy was chuffed. It was the first time in his life he’d received respect that hadn’t involved pointing a gun at somebody.
If you haven’t heard of John McAvoy, here’s betting you soon will. His heroic effort that day inside Lowdham Grange prison won him a little bit of recognition. What he’s done since has won him a lot more.
Since his release from jail in October of 2012, McAvoy has utterly devoted himself to sport — not rowing, but full-distance triathlon racing, and he has gradually edged into the elite ranks. Last month, at Ironman UK in Frankfurt, he placed 14th in his age group — first among British competitors — closing with a blazing 3:05 marathon.
Sponsors, normally allergic to any association with convicted felons, are coming out of the woodwork to back him. He has become a source of inspiration and a magnet for troubled youth who see in his story a better ending for their own. In mid-December he signed a deal for a memoir.
And it all started with that one Big Day.