Racing through 2021

Early in 2021 my plans for a season of Sculling-with-Yoga courses at Bergerac had to be abandoned due to the French travel restrictions. So I decided to turn, instead, to a training programme of my own. Less preaching and more practising. I would enter some of my favourite Masters events, try to get myself fit, and see what happened. This would give me the opportunity to test some of the technical stuff I was interested in – metrics devices, rigging variants, blades etc – in a real-life competitive context. It would broaden my knowledge of the racing venues and their special characteristics. And of course, it would be fun to do – especially if I could win something along the line.

I’ll be writing in more detail later about some of the many technical issues which came up. Meanwhile, here’s an informal account of how it all went. The six events I signed up for were: Henley MastersJuly. Scullers Head – London September. Head of the Charles – Boston October. Head of the Schuylkill – Philadelphia November. Veteran Fours Head – London November. Aerobic Monsters – Portugal December.

Henley Masters – July 2021

The Henley Masters takes place in the week following the Henley Royal Regatta. This event limits the numbers of entries, and, unlike many others which give priority to fast crews from previous years, allocates places on a first-come first served basis. This has two main consequences.

One is that people who don’t do their own entries (e.g. they have to go through a club committee to get their entry in) and want to enter for the popular events such as the singles, often find themselves excluded.

Another consequence is that the standard of racing is completely unpredictable. Relative beginners can find themselves lining up next to former Olympians in the two-lane gladiatorial knock-out contests Henley is so famous for. The parallel booms are up, on either side of the course, keeping the racers and energy contained, side by side, and it can be either horribly humiliating or really exciting in a way that sequential starting times races cannot match.

Here’s the kit I was using.
Boat: 2003 Carl Douglas 78kg Single, 159cm span
Blades: Concept 2 “Comp” (2020), skinny shaft, vortex edge: 286cm length, 87.5cm inboard
Monitoring: NK Speedcoach (Training pack 2); Garmin dual Heart-rate monitor strap & 920xt watch.

It started out well. In the first round I was up against against a sculler from Mortlake RC – the club on the opposite side of the river to my own Putney Town RC. I had a good start and was able to hang onto my lead. The next race was against an old friend from Quintin RC, another Chiswick-stretch club which is well known for the speed of its masters scullers and crews. I knew this one might be difficult, because I had raced against him before and knew that on one of his good days he would be more than likely to win – potentially by a substantial margin. Sure enough, he went off like a rocket and he was soon ahead by about a foot. I held on until about 200m to the finish, and then put in a tank-emptying sprint which he couldn’t quite match, allowing me to finish ahead by a good margin.

The unpredictability of form is one of the things which makes masters racing so enjoyable. You never know how fast someone is going to be, even if you’ve raced them many times before, until you are into the race. With older athletes, physical condition can change very quickly. Work, illness, injury or family events can interrupt training schedules, and fitness levels drop off far quicker and take longer to restore than in earlier years. There are ways to fend off these problems. Cross-training, especially when based on particular Yoga routines, can be used to keep fitness and strength maintained during involuntary “dry” periods. But I digress: let’s get back to the races.

Henley had started out well, with everything going to plan; but disaster struck in the finals. My big mistake was to assume that the journey-time from my home in Kew to Henley would be similar to the dozens of previous jouneys I have done on this route over the past 20 years. I had allowed a half-hour for unexpected delays, and a further hour for preparation and warm-up – so as I set off after breakfast, the timetable was the least of my worries. Until I saw the sign saying that the M4 was closed, and then joined a stationary tailback at the diversion.

I got to Henley only a few minutes before the start time for my race. I parked the car, ran to my boat, threw it into the water and jumped in. No time to go to the loo, have a coffee, put on my heart-rate monitor and stroke coach (which gives me useful real-time info on strokes per minute and speed), get my water bottle, take a swig of beetroot juice. These are the little rituals which I like to perform before a race. They may or may not be truly helpful but they do calm the pre-race nerves.

So there I was with just my boat and my oars, bladder complaining and nerves jangling. What was worse was that I couldn’t warm up properly as I paddled to the start. I had a boat behind me and another ahead and only made it to the start with seconds to spare. My opponent Richard Shirley, a formidable competitor from Molesey RC, had a fantastic start. I did not. He had effectively won within the first thirty strokes. He had open water and I wasn’t strong enough to bridge the gap.

Could I have won if I had arrived on time and been properly race-ready? Probably not. But who knows? Lessons at any rate have been learned. The main one being that you’re never safe from Murphy’s Law.

Scullers Head – London Sept 2021

Note the minimal blade clearance. Great on a smooth surface but awkward in rough water…

The Scullers Head is one of my favorite events, and I’ve raced in it many times. Normally run from Chiswick to Putney (4.25 miles) with the stream, running the opposite direction from the Oxford-Cambridge boat race on what’s known as the “Championship Course”.

Kit:

Boat: 2003 Carl Douglas 78kg Single, 160cm span
Blades: Concept 2 “Comp” (2020), skinny shaft, vortex edge: 286cm length, 88cm inboard
Monitoring: NK Empower Oarlock and Speedcoach (Training pack 2); Garmin dual Heart-rate monitor strap & 920xt watch.

The first half of the race was fantastic. I had been training in Bergerac after the Henley Masters and was feeling good. An excellent start: then I hit a good rhythm and overtook a string of scullers, including some of very high standard. I was pulling away from all the scullers I could see behind, and the breathing was under control. I was loving the new Comp blades which were connecting really well at the start of each stroke. I had lowered my gates by a cm, having lost 3kg while training in France. It all felt right and the boat was moving beautifully.

It all changed after Hammersmith Bridge

Until, that is, I got to Hammersmith Bridge. Then suddenly everything changed. After the bridge there was wind against the stream and a nasty chop blew up. My comp blades were deeper (wider from top to bottom) than the normal “smoothies” and also I had lowered my gates. This combination of variables had been perfect for the first half of the race, with a powerful-feeling catch and send; but it made the second half almost unrowable. As soon as I squared my blades up in preparation for the catch, they would hit the waves. My already short stroke shortened further and power dropped, just when it should have been rising. My strategy for the Scullers Head has always been to follow the advice given to me by Sue Appelboom (a multiple Scullers Head winner) to remain competitive to Hammersmith Bridge, and then start to race in earnest. Physically and mentally I was ready for this, but my rigging setup, with its combination of lower gates and deeper blades, made this impossible as soon as I met the chop, at which point my catch and finish stopped being clean.

So slip (the amount the blade moves after you put it into the water before it is effectively “locked on”) increased as did the wash (the amount the oar moves after the connection with the water has been lost and before you take it out of the water), making my effective stroke an astonishing 5 degrees shorter!

Nearly everyone struggled in the second half, but some fared better than others. I would have made faster progress in the rough water if it I had not lowered the gate – or indeed if I had been using conventional blades. I should also have been paying closer attention to the wind and chop forecasts, and adjusting my rig accordingly. As it was I had landed myself with a double whammy, and paid the price.

Richard Shirley beat me again, this time by 16 seconds and we were both beaten by M Duffy from City of Bristol Rowing Club. My friend Kosta was second in his category with a time nearly a minute ahead of me. (Each of us tries to be the faster half of our pair/double: he is currently ahead; previous years it was me.) Hugh MacKworth-Pread was also flying. Well done to them all, and to the many others who handled that terrible water better than I did.

Another lesson learned., anyway. There’s more to say on the subject of blade design and rig adjustment, and further research work to be done too. Be warned: I shall be returning to the subject soon!

Head of the Charles – Boston Oct 2021

The Head of the Charles is one of the largest rowing events in the world, famous for the complexity of its course. People come to it from all over the world, making it a truly international festival of rowing and sculling. This year, sadly, there were hardly any international competitors because of closed borders; just a few US-resident aliens or dual-nationals like me who were able to slip through the net. But it was still a huge and exciting affair.

My objectives were simple. First, to do better, relative to my peers, than I did on my previous visit in 2019; this would mainly involve steering a better line. Second, to stay competitive with my friend Pat (who had come all the way up from Texas with his boat and his personal trainer!). I had beaten him by a second in 2019; and wanted to repeat the acbhievement. Third, I just wanted to enjoy the privilege of competing in this wonderful event, and to do well enough to qualify for the next one.

Kit:
Boat
: 2021 Peinert rear-wing 25’ Single (see http://www.sculling.com), 160cm span
Blades: Concept 2 “Smoothie”, skinny shaft, vortex edge, softflex: 286cm length, 88cm inboard
Monitoring: Speedcoach (Training pack 2); Garmin dual Heart-rate monitor strap & 920xt watch.

I had brought my Empower oarlock with me, but unfortunately the pins were slightly mismatched (metric vs Imperial) and the gate was a little loose so I decided to not use it. I estimated my catch angles while setting up, aiming for 65 degrees – and I think this is about what I was hitting.

The Charles River meanders through Boston in a long series of tight turns, huge obstacles and unpredictable currents. For a rower, this puts a premium on detailed research and preparation, and familiarity with the 3-mile long course. This was why I felt sure that I could improve my position by becoming more familiar with the water, and steering a more efficient course. The afternoon before Pat and I had paddled over part of the course again. I took the final bridge badly, so I went back and did it again. Can I get that line right the next day? It would make a big difference if I could. I then counted out the final 30 strokes from the finish and made a mental note of where I should empty the tank for the final push.

Competitors awaiting the start of HOCR

On the start next morning, my position was no. 14, with Pat two behind me at No.16. From the start, I could tell that my line was improved, but I was still going a little too wide on almost every bend. This is conservative risk-management: I didn’t want to hit any of the markers or banks, so was leaving a few extra meters clear where a few feet would probably have been fine. As with a slalom skiing course, this meant that I was travelling slightly further than necessary; but I was comfortable and not worried about hitting anything. My pacing also was much better than in 2019, for the same reason.

One of the useful technical features of this race is the fact that they give quarterly timing points for each racer. So after the event I could see that quite a lot of people had beaten me over the first two or three timing points, but then lost to me overall. This vindicated the Appleboom strategy I had tried unsuccessfylly to apply in the Scullers Head: “be competitive to half-way and then start really racing”. I was happy with my pacing, and although I could have gone a bit faster in the first half, I was was delighted with the end result. Objectives all reached, with my position advanced and Pat beaten again (he finished in 26th place, 45 seconds behind me: he’d had a difficult year and was not fully fit). The medals were getting tantalisingly close (officially 2 places away, although really that should be 3, as the extraordinarily fast Greg Benning had chosen to race in a younger category). Hats off to number 11 (James Ball from Albany Rowing Club) who hit the final bridge just ahead of me – the very bridge I had practiced the afternoon before. I heard a crunch, followed by an expletive and a splash as he went into the water. As I passed, he was already getting back in his boat and still managed to finish 119th out of the 123 who completed our division.

One unexpected gain was to beat Ransom Weaver, a multiple USA national Champion who had beaten me by a decisive 3 seconds at the World Masters in Florida in 2018 (where he won our category, leaving me in second place). The timing data shows that he was well ahead for the first three quarters, so my gains were, once again, all made at the end.

Another big name competitor I was surprised to beat was Troy Howell, director of the wonderful Craftsbury Sculling Center in Vermont (where I will be doing some Sculling-with-Yoga coaching later this year). He was well ahead for the first half of the race, but dropped back in the second. Our timing data comparisons were all the more interesting because we were, as it happened, in identical boats – Pienert single, both red rear-wing-rigger 25’ – although he was using Comp blades.

Looking ahead: if I make it back to Boston next year, I should be starting at no. 7, assuming all the others who finished ahead of me also return. I’ll have to think hard about risk management, line strategy and how to go faster over the first three quarters without burning out before the finish. It won’t be easy, but I like to think there’s still room for improvement!

Head of the Schuylkill – Philadelphia Nov 2021

The Undine boat house has changed little since 1860.

The next stop in this US trip was Philadelphia, Ransom Weaver’s home town, for the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. The architecturally imposing boathouse at 13 Boathouse Row belongs to the Undine Barge Club, and Michael Naughton, the head coach there, had kindly invited me to boat from the club.

He also agree to take me for a practice paddle the morning before the race. This was not just useful, it was also a great experience. The light was mysterious and the skyline magnificent, and Michael gave me many tips about the currents, winds and obstacles I would have to negotiate. He also shot this evocative video as we headed downtown.

The Museum Steps routines

I had never been in Philadelphia before, and spent most of my first day there seeing some of the sights. As you would expect in the birthplace of the Constitution, there is much to be seen – museums, art galleries and other attractions, one of which is a statue of Sylvester Stallone with arm outstretched at the steps by the city museum. Perhaps because of Rocky, this huge flight of steps has become a gathering place for fitness-training fanatics, so I ran up them just to say I had!

Next morning, as the competitors lined up punctually, somethiing occurred which would be unthinkable at Henley: a delay. Someone important had not showed up. Who could it be? Or had they lost the starting gun? Anyway, ten minutes went by, and someone yelled out at one of the umpires: “Hey, you can’t do this to us – we’re the Prostate-Problem division, I was up three times last night!” “So was I” someone else calls out… “I was up twice!” another voice chimes in… Joking aside, though, this was a real issue: people had timed their hydration and coffees and might not be able to wait an extra fifteen minutes on the start in cold wet rowing kit!

Finally we went off and I had a good start. About a third of the way in my left blade hit a submerged log (it had rained a lot the night before) which threw me off rhythm. I soon recovered my pace, but the cadence dropped and I didn’t get it back to the same bright springing stroke I had earlier. It was a minor setback though, and nothing else went wrong. It turned out to be a memorable race and I was surprised and delighted to come in second. Ransom Weaver took the gold.

Collecting my Silver. A theatrical moment, complete with pumpkins.
John Kelly (1889-1960) on the Schuylkill

Philadelphia occupies an important place in rowing history, having been home to America’s greatest-ever sculler: Jack Kelly, a three-time gold medal Olympian, and the father of Grace, Hollywood’s favourite princess.

There’s a wonderful book about him called Kelly: a father, a son, an American Quest, by Daniel Boyne. It’s brilliant on sporting obsession, perhaps one of the best written books I’ve read on the subect, and a real page-turner. It gives an insight into old Philadelphia society, the complicated rivalries of Boat House Row, and a fascinating period in the history of single sculling, including the extraordinary row over the rejectionof his application to compete in the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley in 1920.

If you ever decide to enter the Head of the Schuylkill (a decision I can heartily recommend) I recommend also that you read this book first!

Veteran Fours Head – London Nov 2021

Putney Town Rowing Club has been trying to win this event for a long time. The 2021 crew had a strong Italian identity. Salvatore at stroke is an actual Italian; Chris at three was born in Milan and speaks fluent Italian. John at bow owns a very fine Italian boat and can do an excellent Italian accent. I was the odd man out at two, with no obvious Italian connection. When invited to join I was assured that this wouldn’t be held against me.

Kit: Empacher 4x with one pair of Croker S39 blades, and three pairs of C2 smoothies, with vortex edge.

Putney Town – C 4x Veterans’ Fours Head of the River 2021

The training had gone well. We were being coached by Tim Male who had driven up from Wales the previous week to coach us for two session – a routine he had been following regularly for this unit. We were feeling fit, fast and confident. This was going to be a fun race.

Tim set Salvatore a stroke rate of 34 to hit for the entire race, and that is exactly what he did. It was an effective and controlled 34 strokes per minute for the entire course, performed with metronomic precision. Nothing rushed about it at all. Complete control and lots of work. Well done Salvatore – beautifully done! John steered a perfect line, and we ended up winning our division comfortably.

Every so often, you find yourself in a race where everything goes according to plan, nothing goes wrong, and you win. This was one of those rare occasions.

Aerobic Monsters – Portugal Dec 2021

Trying out the new, improved Nelo 75kg 1x with Dreher Apex RX blades

This regatta, which I had been to once before, was an enjoyable and well organised occasion. One might have expected it to be a bit diminished in scale by the non-appearance of many of the usual international competitors (even when allowed to, many of them did not want to travel). But the event rolled itself out as usual, with much joie-de-vivre and plenty of local rowers ready to fill the spaces. This resilience in adversity reinforced my view that Masters events are a strong and growing force in the rowing world.

It was a suitable event to end the year on, too, because for me it highlighted some important technical and medical issues.

Low marks for prep

Our pre-race preparation was dreadful. Mark Alloway and I arrived the afternoon before, having driven the 1,200 Km down from Bergerac. We were given a room in a shared dormitory, with a young Italian and three scullers from the North, two of whom snored really loudly. Having lain awake for several hours trying to work our whether it really was possible to snore with a Yorkshire accent, I moved to the weights room and found it full of flies who were even more annoying than the snorers – so switched to the common room area,. where I finally got to sleep just in time to be woken up by the cooks coming in to get things ready for breakfast.

Breakfast wasn’t great either. I had brought my own porridge, but did not cook it properly. All this meant that I arrived at the start underfed, overtired and stressed. My heartrate recording from then on shows what can happen when you are exhausted and push yourself hard. Numbers going far too high – definitely not what the doctor ordered. The adrenalin came to the rescue, though, and I came second by two seconds, which over a 6km course is s a very close margin.

Aerobic Monsters prizegiving..

Time for some self-criticism

It was a good result and I was delighted to get it. But in retrospect I have mixed feelings, because I think some self-criticism is called for. At my age, and with the poor pre-race preparation I had done, I shouldn’t have pushed so hard at the end of this race. We should have arrived a day earlier, and booked in to a proper hotel room. Once on the water, my advice to a pupil would always be to watch the heartrate numbers and ease off it they go too high. And I should, like BOJO, have followed my own advice.

In the event, no harm was done, but allowing my Max Heartrate to go well above 200 was an unnecessary risk, and one of my 2022 resolutions is to take greater care in future.

Postscript: Long Covid and Rowers

The risks involved in over-exertion while rowing are more relevant than ever now that the effects of “Long Covid”, especially HR (Heart Rate) volatility, are becoming apparent. I have some direct experience of this, having suffered an unaccustomed period of exhaustion, accompanied by high HR readings, after testing posititve for the Omicron variant justs after the New Year.

The effects of Covid on HR seem to have been fairly mild in my case, but I know several other rowers who have been having a much harder time of it. One friend, a scientist based in Germany, and one of the strongest and fittest rowers I know, has been out of action since Novermber 2021, and it is becoming clear that it will take a long time and a lot of work to get back to anything like his former condition. We have had some long discussions about how to tackle this problem in terms of training activity, and we hope to get together in Bergerac soon to look at our data and try to find a way forward.

We’re in laregely unknown territory here, and more research is needed on what exactly is happening. What is a sculler’s best strategy for fitness recovery while affected by post-Covid symptoms? As my computer sometimes says in response to a query: “Working on it …” If you’ve had any experience in this area, do please share this via comments below) or Contact.

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