From Budapest – some thoughts on Masters Rowing

I’ve only just recovered from my trip to Budapest for the World Masters. It was much harder work than Sarasota 2018, which I did the easy way (flew to Florida, had a top-spec boat delivered by my helpful suppliers, and took part in one event).

Budapest was a different story. For a start, there was a 4,000+ Km round trip by road from Bergerac, with 6 assorted boats on a trailer for friends, rowing partners and coaching pupils.

And instead of one event, I had entered for three – single scull, men’s double and mixed double – which meant racing many heats.

Is this sensible behaviour for a 51 year old? Maybe not – but there again this regatta is something special, and Master rowing is an astonishingly fast-growing phenomenon which I want to know more about. Maximum participation seemed the way to go.

Souvenir T Shirt designed for stat addicts. Most attention-grabbing number: 3241 competitors, up from 2075 last year at Sarasota.

My fellow driver was Allan Whitwell an old friend and distinguished ex-champion rower who has been running advanced training courses on the River Lot, about 50km south of Bergerac.

As we trundled through France, Italy, Austria and Hungary, we had plenty of time to talk. Allan himself was not racing on this occasion (he said he reckoned he could only manage about 30 good strokes, so would leave the racing to us!) but was coming in support of a group he’d been preparing for the event, and bringing the boats they had been training in.

I was providing similar support for a couple of my Bergerac pupils, as well as racing myself. So logistically, this was an efficient operation: boats, coaches and competitors sharing transport resources.

Support of this kind is especially useful for overseas visitors – Allan’s were from Australia, mine from Canada, UK & Portugal – who can’t join up with groups from their own boat club. If you have the time and can afford the cost, it’s a great solution: you train in ideal conditions in France, and you then arrive at the event to find a familiar and properly set-up boat awaiting you.

Meanwhile less-fortunate contestants are renting a boat with only a 40 minute window from pick-up to race time. (We saw several people hurrying anxiously to the start with their set-up visibly wrong. Personally, I see little point in racing in these circumstances.)

Anyway, we arrived at Lake Velence on Tuesday morning; racing started on Wednesday, so we had plenty of time to unpack and get organised.

Tuesday evening, with all the boats unloaded and prepared, seemed like a good moment to contemplate the sunset while doing a headstand

This is the moment when brief but entertaining social interactions occur, with new arrivals prowling around looking at each other’s kit.

It’s always fun to see how people react to our Carl Douglas boats: we had two of them here – a single and a double. Wooden boats are rare these days, so they always attract attention: but the Carl Douglas ones are particularly beautiful, and several people asked to be photographed with them, as if they were glamorous media celebrities.

One Danish sculler correctly identified my Carl Douglas single as the boat he had seen crashing and flipping over on the way to the finals of the Nordic Masters in 2014, and he remembered that the boat had gone on to win in the final. He was surprised (but not particularly interested) to learn that I was the occupant of the boat at the time. With my permission he lifted the boat tenderly and whispered a few private words to its hull.

Our Nelo boats were also causing interest, as they’re comparative newcomers to racing, and of rather unconventional design. One of my pupils (Mark Alloway, of Tideway Scullers) had just finished setting up the Nelo he had been using in Bergerac, and was embarking on a practice paddle when a large German from Mark’s age group appeared, and asked me in hushed tone “are they fast, these Nelo boats?”. We were cycling along the bank watching Mark who was moving the boat nicely “I am very competitive in Germany…” he added, mysteriously.

“Well,” I replied “all I can tell you is that Mark keeps an Empacher in Portugal, it’s a boat which he loves, and he used that and a Nelo in successive years at the Portuguese Masters – and was a little faster in the Nelo in the second year. Maybe the boat had something to do with that result – but maybe he’s just one of those lucky people who get faster as they get older – who knows? We see a lot of that in Bergerac…”.

“Ah, I see” he said thoughtfully, and turned to go. I wished him good luck as he cycled off. I think he got a third place.

Next day the regatta got off to a fantastic start with Mark winning his single in the F class (age 60 or over). Not only that, he also won a second time in the E class, the younger group than his.

He had been hesitant about even entering with a single, as his main focus was on the double, which he would be doing with me. “Might as well give it a try” had been his attitude, and how right he was.

Everything went to plan: representing Tideway Scullers, but using Imperial College colours with Croker S39 standard blades, he established a good strong leg-based rhythm which helped him move the Nelo with superb speeds.

The F final saw a classic close contest with a very fast Russian, who took the lead at the start, was overtaken by Mark, but quickly regained the lead. Mark then pushed through to win in the final four strokes. Exhilarating stuff! A perfect example of how confidence, good technique and perseverance can come together at the right moment.

Mark is congratulated by friend Nuno Mendez, who rows for Portugal

How did he do it? Many people would have given up when overtaken for the second time. But one of Mark’s strengths is his attitude to pain. He takes the view that if his legs are burning, then the other person will be feeling it too, so he pushes even harder rather than easing off, consciously taking the pain to a new threshold.

This hard-line mind-set works for some people, but others (like me) need a different strategy. When I hit a pain barrier, I try to focus on my breathing to take my mind off the pain: if I concentrate hard on my lungs, I’m less aware of the discomfort in my legs.

These are subtle psychological differences, and there are many variants: but the main thing is to have a clear strategy and stick to it.

My own race in the 1x class was, for me at least, even more exciting. My friend Berend, who recently moved from London to Berlin, had warned that there was stiff competition coming from that direction, and the line-up in the final was indeed intimidating.

But Mark helped to bolster my confidence by reminding me of a saying often heard in Bergerac: “You’re a good sculler – so even if you’re not as fit or as strong as them, you can still do it..”.

As we started, I put these words into a background loop and looked carefully at what was happening. At the 250m mark I was in seventh place, out of eight, but I was tapping the boat along nicely and soon I was overtaking. 500m only three boats were still ahead of me, but not by much.

At 600M I stopped looking and started counting down the strokes left, while thinking hard about how to deal with the patch of rough water I seemed to have met. I adjusted my stroke slightly, threw in the last reserves of power, and just caught the leader, who had led from the start, in the last ten strokes.

A close win. It would never have happened had I believed that superior size and strength would inevitably come out on top.

The technical issue which came to the fore during the last 300m was something I might have missed in the Carl Douglas, but was easy to spot in the lighter-weight and shorter Nelo.

As I added extra power to the leg-drive, it felt as if the boat was hitting waves, such as the wash from a motorboat. Except that there was no wash: the extra power was just bouncing the boat. No point in easing off the power if I wanted to maintain the higher momentum – but the bounce was clearly wasting energy. What to do?

I held my legs down a moment longer, smoothing out and calming down the rock-over; and I pulled the finish up a little higher, aiming for a clean and smooth extraction, making sure that my wrists were as flat as possible, and that I was pivoting the arm from the elbow rather than from the wrist. I also tried to actively relax the upper body. You can see in the photo above my face is tense, arms and shoulders as well. I actively relaxed these.

And guess what: the bounce ceased, and my speed increased, with no further addition of power. What exactly was happening here? One thing I know is that I would not have won if I had not made these technical corrections.

What I don’t know is whether this is a particular Nelo issue to which I have discovered a particular Nelo solution: or whether it is an issue which applies equally in other boats, but is simply more detectable in the Nelo. Some further investigation is called for here!

I try not to look at data too much while actually racing, but I do a lot of measuring, and it can be instructive to analyse the details afterwards.

For me, what was most striking in this race was the fact that the second half was so much faster than the first – the opposite of what happened when I won the C Championship single at the British Masters and was capable of a sufficiently explosive start to grab the lead from the outset. I was stronger then – but now perhaps I’m better at showing that strength isn’t all that matters.

Now that we have the technology to view in graphic detail the relative changes in Distance-per-Stroke, Strokes per Min and Heartrate, not to mention Oar Angles, Power delivery and even Bounce, there are all kinds of new insights and small-but-crucial improvements to be found.

My Mixed Double partner was Jackie Darling of Barnes Bridge RC, former LOSBC membership secretary and general club heroine. As she’s just turned 70, our average age is 60.5, which puts us in the F class, where we had a comfortable and decisive win.
Three gold medals: not a bad haul for one trip. Make that seven if we count Mark’s three and Jackie’s one !

That’s enough technical stuff for now, so I won’t go into detail about the other two highlights of the trip, which were our wins in the Men’s Double with Mark Alloway (Mission Accomplished, as they say!) and also the Mixed Double with Jackie Darling – both clocked up in the Carl Douglas, and thus the subject of much awe-struck commentary at the time by lakeside pundits.

Congratulations to Mark and Jackie for two tremendous results!

With Jackie Darling, cruising to victory

If you’ve read this far you’re quite likely to be a sculler, or at least an aspiring one: so may I suggest that you find some space in your Calendar for a visit to Bergerac this summer? You could not only have a great time out on the Dordogne, but also do some serious work on your technique, and find out what a difference Yoga can make to your sculling. We’d really like to hear from you.

Arriving back in Bergerac from Budapest, I went straight out onto the river with the last guests of the season, who had just arrived from London.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to know more about the Nelo boats (now a major element in our Bergerac flotilla) here’s a video in which the Austrian Nelo agent Phil Spivey discussing the single with Arum Lemmerer, a producer of rowing analysis and training videos online. The video is about 19 mins, and gives a good introduction to the boats and their new hull design.

What next?

After so much 1Km racing, my thoughts are turning to longer-distance events. Later this month I’ll be off to Boston for the Head of the Charles (3 miles against the stream with lots of hazardous bridges and bends); then back to London for the Tideway Sculler’s Head (4.25 miles with the stream).

Both events are likely to be tough going, and optimism-levels are not high as I write. But a month is a long time in Masters rowing – so let’s see what happens.

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