Confessions of a dryathlete

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Last night I went to a restaurant and had to have some ginger shit instead of any number of awe­some-looking beers and wines. Then I went to a pub and had two and a half pints of lime and soda. Then I went to someone’s house where the only available soft drink was water. Reader, I drank it.

On a mild Sunday in December, shortly after the end of term, I was driving to Oxford with a screaming hangover. I was making this woe­ful return journey purely in order to work. In December. This felt so unreasonable that I had gone out in London with some graduated friends the night before and painted the town 50 fairly bright shades of red. And it was on this fateful day that I was driving back to Oxford ex­hausted and now a delicate shade of green.

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I was listening to Capital FM and not my usual, and more reasonable, choice of Radio 4, and why I was influenced by a radio advert about waving goodbye to alcohol for the entire month of January. In theory it sounded great. No hangovers for a whole month. No waking up wondering what the hell happened the night before and why my pillow was covered in Hasan’s. I might be able to get some serious work done. I might be able to take up an edify­ing new hobby. I might even lose some weight.

What really hit home was hearing that the charity being advertised was Cancer Research; my aunt had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Going dry would be a way of do­ing something that showed this had affected me, that the experience hadn’t just passed me by. I would be able to raise some decent money for charity along the way. That day, I signed up to become a ‘dryathlete’.

Having told my friends and broken the sad news to the legend that is Wadham’s barman, there could be no turning back. As a result, the festive period was spent getting as drunk as I reasonably could. Indeed, the fact I was go­ing to be embarking on the Dryathlon journey became a helpful excuse whenever my parents accused me of drinking to excess. I approached New Year’s Eve like a death row prisoner ap­proaching his last meal. I was going to binge and gorge my way through my last night of li­batory enjoyment.

This was achieved with such success that I got through the first few days of January with­out too much difficulty. The first problem I encountered was my father challenging me to drink whilst sharing out a bottle of wine amongst the family. Otherwise, however, the fact that early January has become a period of acceptable detoxing and healthy living in mod­ern Britain meant that I was generally in com­pany in my abstinence.

Indeed, a few friends even misheard me and thought I was going several steps further and training to take on the Brownlee brothers in a Triathlon. Sadly not. They were rather unim­pressed and significantly less amused in dis­covering the true nature of my challenge. By comparison, it paled.

The first real test came towards the end of the first week. I was getting ready to come back to Oxford and wanted to see some home friends who I had not yet managed to fit in around the succession of enforced family social occasions that we call the Christmas period. Unsurpris­ingly, they wanted to meet in a pub and catch up.

This was not a problem in itself. I have, on the very rare occasion, been to a pub before without drinking. However, this has only ever been as a result of compulsion, under that un­fortunate title of designated driver. Sobriety was being enforced for good reason and with legal consequences for disobedience. This time, however, the only restraint was my will­power, which is, at the best of times, weak. (During an unsuccessful period as Wadham Boat Club Captain, I was in charge of imposing two week-long drinking bans. I was the only person unable to stick to either of them. And that was after just one day.)

My friends took it upon themselves to mock my choice of non-alcoholic drink (lime and soda, an entirely reasonable choice) and to try and tempt me with their pints after the arrival of each round. Being the strongly willed indi­vidual I am, I made it through unscathed.

This, however, was scant preparation for the return to Oxford. I had thought that I would use my abstinence to take up something new at university. I’d had high-minded ideas about getting involved in one of the many societies on whose Freshers’ Fair mailing lists I still lin­ger. Or I was going to use my evenings to get seriously fit or cover some of those books on a reading list that do not have a star next to them. At the very least, I was going to take ad­vantage of Orange Wednesdays or go to some plays.

Reader, I am ashamed to say that I have achieved none of the above. Instead I have mostly stuck to my normal social life which almost entirely revolves around licensed estab­lishments. The consequence of which is that I have become very used to being the butt of jokes for not drinking. A few friends have, to their credit, reduced their own consumption out of solidarity. However, most have done ex­actly what I would have, and mocked me relent­lessly.

Some particular evenings have stretched my resolve. At the end of 0th week, I handed in two pieces of coursework which make up a consid­erable element of my degree. After the stress of getting them finished, all I wanted was a nice pint of college bar Ansell’s. Instead, I was re­duced to drinking Shloer in hall before spend­ing the evening nursing a squash in the bar.

I had to compensate for this by watching a particularly good episode of Sun, Sex and Sus­picious Parents, which, to some degree, did in­deed persuade me of the benefits of not drink­ing. Then there was the first bop back, most of which I spent trying to persuade people signifi­cantly under the influence to drop any money they had into a collecting pot.

Essentially I had to get through a weekend of people celebrating the end of collections, a bop which, without alcohol, was quite a revelation, and a Sunday evening without a single beer. Wadham Bar was fast running out of Pepsi. I soon feared I’d have to move onto squash per­manently. This is what my life had become.

Since then, there have been many other eve­nings spent in the bar nursing a Diet Coke (the stocks of which I have now exhausted – apolo­gies to anyone who has been craving one over the last couple of days) and there was a small test at a darts match when all I could drink was sparkling elderflower cordial.

But the most difficult test of all came a few days ago. It was the first time in my four years that I had managed to book in for Burn’s Night in Hall and I had no intention of missing it. In advance, I had reluctantly agreed to give my tot of whisky to a friend who could not conceal his glee. So I was prepared for disappointment as soon as I stepped through the door.

Having to refuse wine while my dining mates revelled in getting extra helpings was, however, immensely more tedious than I had imagined. And the greatest injustice of all was when I realised that the pudding, a Scottish take on the Eton Mess laced with whisky, had to be given away so that I could not possibly be ac­cused of cheating. I am aware that this sounds like the ultimate ‘first world problem’ but I am usually an incorrigible glutton, so I was pissed off. Much of the meal I had paid for was going to waste on others in the room.

To suggest that the first 19 days of this have been any serious ordeal would be embarrass­ing. It would suggest that people who do real things for charity like those who run mara­thons, or even those who do proper triathlons, are on a par with someone giving up a treas­ured pastime and, worryingly, it would indi­cate that I was an alcoholic.

So I am relieved to say that it has not, on the whole, been too bad.

Furthermore, to end this article with the benefits of abstinence and a stream of plati­tudes about feeling better (indeed I do feel marginally better, although there has been no discernible reduction of the waistline) would be self-righteous and misleading.

However, I have realised how central booze is to our social culture (especially student so­cial culture) – and how much I like it. I have undoubtedly made it harder by not avoiding boozy situations, but the latter is remarkably difficult.

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The most testing element of being a dry­athlete has been getting used to being handi­capped in most social situations. What I can impart to anyone who might be considering such a dry spell is that, in many social situa­tions, a sugar or caffeine high can be almost (although not quite) as effective as a drink. I have been relieved to find out that being sober among a group of drinking friends does not necessarily make one into a social pariah.

I will, however, resume drinking with con­siderable relish on the 1st of February. Before that sainted day arrives, I have a couple more hurdles to surmount. I have not yet attempted to sample Oxford’s clubbing scene without a drink, having made my excuses at every possi­ble opportunity so far. I feel I should really take this on before I can declare my Dryathlon a suc­cess. And on the last night of sobriety, I will be in attendance at a Boat Club Curry which will mark one last night of difficult temptation.

Finally, it would be wrong of me not to shamelessly plug the charity I am raising mon­ey for and to beg of the charitable amongst you out there (who have made it to the end of this excessively long article) to spare the price of one drink – ideally an expensive one – for a very good cause. I will buy you one in return and watch you drink it with bitter envy.

www.justgiving.com/dryathlete-john-owen

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