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Exciting news, river-lovers! Girl on the River has made the finals in the Bloggers’ Lounge Blog Awards 2014, in the health and fitness category. That means I’ve been chosen by the judges as one of the top five health and fitness bloggers, so as you can imagine I’m pretty damned pleased.

It doesn’t end there, though. In regatta terms, I’ve got through the heats and am warming up for the final. But as you all know, the final is invariably the hardest bit. You’re up against the crews that have beaten all their opposition and you’re in for a head-to-head, lung-busting final effort. In this case, I’m up against four classy (and popular blogs), with great content (check them out) and fabulous design. One of them has more than 14,000 Twitter followers, so you see what I mean about popular.

Happily you (can you tell I’m pointing at you here?) – yes, you – can help me nudge over the line. All you need to do – and I’m not ashamed to beg – is to click on the Bloggers’ Lounge picture on the right (or here, if that’s easier). Then scroll down to the health and fitness category and click on Girl on the River. You don’t need to register or give details – just one click. I timed it and it takes about 16 seconds.

Would you do that for me? In return for your kindness and your 16 seconds, I can offer you only undying gratitude and thanks, but think of it as a karmic investment.

And if you need further motivation, “I have their bow, now give me clear water”.

About Bloggers’ Lounge

I stumbled upon the excellent Bloggers’ Lounge a few weeks ago and have found it a fantastic source of brilliant blogging advice. If you’re a blogger (or are thinking of starting a blog), I heartily recommend them. Saying this gives me no advantage in the contest – just thought you should know.

 

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How to cox a head race

How to cox a head raceIt was bound to happen at some point. A dangerous combination of short stature, small frame and an unfeasibly loud voice could mean only one thing. At some point I was inevitably going to end up coxing a race. However much I might protest – and protest I did – coxing was always going to be part of my destiny.

And so it is that I shall be making my coxing début this weekend, at a tricky, upstream head race with a nasty bend. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the answer is quite a lot, according to the many coxswains I have consulted over the last few weeks. After all, as the cox you are in charge of an expensive boat, at the mercy of your crew’s reactions and the good sense of other river users, navigating a capricious (and often unfamiliar) river. And all at race pace. Gulp. Oh, and did I mention that whilst you’re worrying about all of this, you’re also supposed to come up with fabulously motivational calls to keep your crew rowing their hardest?

Anyway, after much research (and a few sleepless nights) I have been able to compile a handy, cut-out-and-keep guide to coxing a head race.  Now all I have to do is execute them.

Navigating

Do your homework. Get hold of a map of the course (the host club may have one on its website) so you can plan your race and work out your steering before the day. Use google maps to get a visual picture of the course.

Know the rules and marshalling instructions. Different courses have different rules of navigation. Some races have sections where you’re not allowed to overtake.

Speak to locals to ask about landmarks, or ask a marshall where the main landmarks are on the course. Don’t know any locals? Twitter is your friend.

If the course involves a nasty bend, practise steering around bends at speed.

On the day, walk as much of the course as you can.

Know where the start and the finish are.

Get an understanding of the stream so you can steer the fastest line. Throw some sticks in and see where the stream is the fastest – stay in or out of it accordingly.

If possible, do a couple of test runs of the course. Sometimes to get it right you’ve got to get it wrong first.

Steer as little as possible by plotting your course as far in advance as you can so you’re not taken by surprise by a bend or another crew.

Race plan

Talk to your crew (and coach, if you have one) in advance to work out a race plan and find out what technical calls they want you to make. Your crew needs to be committed to a race plan and so do you.

Have a plan to keep the rowers focused.

Plan the row up to the start; know how you will warm the crew up, though be prepared to be flexible as there will be a lot of other crews on the river.

Calls

Encourage the crew throughout the race; don’t make them feel bad, even if they fall behind.

Don’t go quiet; your crew will get spooked.

Conversely, don’t shriek all the way. Give the crew time to respond to calls and save your excitement for when it’s needed.

Give the crew simple, specific things to do, such as, “Finishes, go”. Stick to one thing at a time, eg. catches, finishes, length, etc..

If you’re gaining on another crew, tell them (best not to track progress if they’re losing ground). Also push into and away from obvious landmarks.

Let them know how far into the race they are.

Have a fund of pithy phrases. Keep it simple, varied and save one or two new ones for the tough bits.

Generally

Find out in advance when and where the coxes’ briefing is so you don’t have a panic on the day.

Make sure someone (probably you!) has brought the cox box and life jacket. Rowers are likely to forget the cox’s equipment in all the excitement.

Make a list of what you need to remember to do on the day, before the race as well as on the water - basic things like checking top nuts and getting the crew to check their foot-plates and rigger screws before they start.

Put a rigger jigger in your pocket.

Dress up warmly. You’ll be glad of the layers.

Think calm thoughts!

Afterwards

Be positive, no matter how the race has gone.

And finally and most importantly …

Bring cake for your crew. You can get away with a huge amount if you bring cake.

Special thanks go to awesome GB supercoxes Zoë de Toledo and Morgan Baynham-Williams who kindly took time to offer advice; to Helena Smallman-Smith for sending me a whole sheet of tips about coxing a head race and to the countless others who stepped forward with advice, tips, dire warnings and horror stories. Sorry I haven’t got room to name you all individually.

If I’ve missed anything out, be sure to let me know.

Above all, wish me luck. I may just need it.

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I was interviewed by a journalist this morning who wanted to know if rowing was a posh sport. I’ve blogged about this briefly before, but it’s worth saying again, as it’s something I feel quite strongly about.

Now, then. Let’s get a few basic truths out of the way. Rowing is an expensive sport. There’s no getting around the fact that a decent boat will set you back many thousands. Even second hand shells don’t come cheap. Add to that maintenance costs, oars, safety launches, coxing equipment, and somewhere to house all of this, and it’s no surprise that it costs more than a sport like  running.

It takes lots of these to run a rowing club

It takes lots of these to run a rowing club

Which is why most state schools can’t run a rowing club, even if they want to. Of course there are some notable exceptions. My own club in Monmouth shares facilities with the excellent Monmouth Comprehensive School boat club, which turns out some really good rowers, including GB hopeful Emily Richards, who’s making quite a splash in the rowing world, and rightly so.

Schools like Monmouth Comprehensive fund their sport by constant fundraising, which is hard work. You may remember the posts I wrote a couple of years ago about Cheney School’s efforts to set up a rowing club. It took huge amounts of dedication and persistence to make it happen.

So yes. Go to any schools rowing event and you will mostly find private schools competing.

Nat Schools

What, then, of elite rowing? Well, again, let’s look at the facts. You have to be young to compete at elite level in a sport like rowing (Greg Searle is the obvious exception, but he started at school and certainly didn’t embark on the sport later in life). The pool of talent will, inevitably, be from young people who are established in rowing. Many, though by no means all, will have come from schools rowing and thus mostly from private schools. Some will have done their early training at town clubs or comprehensive schools, and others will have come from programmes like Sporting Giants. But, youth rowing being what it is, there will be a sizeable percentage coming from independent schools. That, by the way, doesn’t mean they are posh. It does mean that someone, somewhere paid their school fees, and yes, that does put them in an elite.

What, then, of club rowing, which is what most of us do? Well, this is where it gets interesting, and much more egalitarian. The monthly fees at my rowing club are £24/month (much less for juniors, students and retirees). For that I train up to four times per week, can use the gym, the club house, get some training and all the other benefits of rowing. That compares pretty favourably with, say, health clubs which typically charge upwards of £60/month without even getting any blisters to show for it.

And as for the club members? Posh? No, seriously, no. But, look, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what a friend of mine has to say about her rowing club, which she describes as “not posh at all”:

“We have plumbers, builders, electricians, gardeners, students, Mums, Dads, primary and secondary school teachers, teaching assistants, tax inspectors, accountants, medics of assorted specialities, university lecturers, taxi drivers, scientists, computer bods of all sorts, geologists, managers, bookkeepers, carers, county council workers, city council workers…  and that’s just the ones I can think of off the top of my head! And lots of juniors, lots of retirees, lots of recreational rowers……a wide ranging mix of people from all walks of life.”

So here’s the thing. If you’re posh, if you have a cut glass accent, if you adore swanking around in a boater and a blazer, if you like drinking champagne and eating strawberries, if you have a second home in Henley… you could well be a rower, and maybe a good one. And that’s great – you’d be more than welcome in any club, especially if you’re going to be generous with your round of drinks.

But if that’s all you have to offer – if you don’t have grit and guts, if you don’t fancy the early mornings, the cold outings, the blistered hands, the burning lungs, the aching muscles, the sweat, the fear and the downright pain, then believe me, you have no place in a rowing club. Except, perhaps, as a sponsor.

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When I tell people I’m a rower, the second thing they say is invariably, “Wow, you must be super-fit.” (The first thing is, “Really? You don’t look like a rower,” but that’s another story.) So when Simply Health laid down a challenge to bloggers to write about their top three healthy habits (as part of their Healthy Habits blog), it was pretty obvious which my first one would be, right?

1. Rowing

Ross WD4+The thing is, I didn’t always have the exercise habit. There were always so many more interesting things to do. Like cleaning the loo. Or sorting out my council tax. So how did I get the habit? Well, first of all by finding a sport I actually enjoyed, and one that I could do outside. And yes, right now as I type, I should be at an erg training session, which kinda proves the point. The other trick is to find a sport where other people rely on you to turn up.

The downside of all this is that my house is dirty and my paperwork is a mess, but hey, you can’t have everything.

2. Water

Glass of water

A one-woman campaign to drink the nation’s reservoirs dry.

The last time there was a hosepipe ban, my husband suggested it was because I’d drunk all the water. And it’s true that I do drink a lot of water. Which is a good thing: if you’re dehydrated it makes you sluggish, it’s bad for your skin and it gives you bad breath.

So how did I manage to pick up such a healthy habit? Hmmm, I think it was being bored at work back in the days when I had a Proper Job. A visit to the water cooler gave me something to do. And the habit stuck. That’s fine. A habit doesn’t need to have a pure motivation to be healthy.

3. Meditation

Ommmm.....

Ommmm…..

I can’t claim this one as a habit just yet, but I’m working on it. I’m half way through a mindfulness course which involves a daily meditation as part of the deal. Now I’ll admit that sometimes my daily practice is disrupted – like when halfway through this morning’s session a bailiff knocked on the door looking for the previous tenant – and there are days when I run out of time, so the habit is a bit wobbly so far.

What I can say, hand on heart, is that on the days when I do manage it, I’m calmer, more cheerful, better able to cope with whatever life throws at me. That sounds like a pretty sound reason to stick at it. And to deal with the bailiff before he comes knocking again.

But before you start picturing me as some pious, zen-like, lentil-chomping, fitness freak, I should say that I have plenty of reassuringly bad habits. I have a penchant for pork scratchings (classy), rarely a day goes by without slurping down a glass or so of wine, and I still really, really hate the erg. It’s all about the balance.

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I dare say most of us have – occasionally and fleetingly – considered taking on an extreme physical challenge. Climbing Everest, sailing around the world, rowing an ocean… and then most of us, very sensibly, have instantly dismissed the idea. Heck, I find a 20 minute erg enough of a challenge – I’m hardly ocean rowing material. Yet there are increasing numbers of people who, having had the thought, hold on to it, share it and then devote years of their lives to making it happen.

Salt Sweat and Tears Rackley

SALT, SWEAT, TEARS – the Men Who Rowed the Oceans, published by Penguin last month, is ocean rowing survivor and former fund manager Adam Rackley’s account not just of his own experience of rowing the Atlantic with Jimmy Arnold, but of those of his predecessors – the brave, driven and frankly reckless people who have thrown their energies and risked their lives to propel a tiny and vulnerable craft across shark-infested, current-riven, wave-tossed oceans. Some lived to tell the tale – others, tragically, were lost at sea. All deserve our respect and awe.

When I was sent this book by the publishers, I can’t deny my heart sank a little. Ocean rowing, whilst still a niche endeavour, is increasingly popular and you don’t have to go that far in the rowing world to meet someone who’s done it. I’ve interviewed several and whilst each one has a tale to tell, the stories do tend to merge into one long tale of blisters, sunburn, exhaustion, fear, fatigue, claustrophobia, waves, more waves, sharks, boredom, self-discovery, big skies, loneliness and relief. It seems harsh to say so when the endeavour is such a hard one, but it all becomes a bit… repetitive.

Not so with this book. Whilst Rackley’s own experiences pretty much fit the mould, what makes this book stand out – and had me reading deep into the night – was the stories of the early ocean rowing pioneers like George Harbo and Frank Samuelson who in 1896 ignored everyone’s dark warnings and made it across the Atlantic in a craft that wouldn’t look out of place on a boating lake in the Home Counties… and then were largely ignored by the world.

Harbo and Samuelson

Harbo and Samuelson honest made it across the Atlantic in this

Then there’s John Fairfax, pirate, smuggler and Giant Personality, who thought nothing of hopping out of his boat to brandish a knife in the face of passing sharks. There’s Peter Bird, who in 1983 was the first to row solo across the Pacific, only to… oh, I won’t spoil the story. You just have to read it for yourselves.

This is a cracking read. It’s beautifully written – and I don’t say that lightly – with vivid descriptions that never resort to cliché. If you’ve ever taken the idea of ocean rowing beyond that first, flickering thought, this book could send you off on a path that will eventually take you on to the high seas. Otherwise it’ll make you very glad you’re waking up on dry land each morning. I heartily recommend it.

SALT, SWEAT, TEARS: The Men Who Rowed the Oceans, pub. Penguin, ISBN: 978-0-14-312666-9

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At last!

At last!

It had been a long time in coming. 35 long, hard, disappointing races, to be precise. But when the Monmouth boat crossed the line in the final of the WD4+ at Ross Regatta yesterday all the blood, sweat and tears finally melted away. There it was. We had won. Actually won. Nobody stepped forward to say we’d been disqualified. Nobody ran over to say that it had all been a ghastly mistake. Nobody commiserated or said, “Never mind, it was a good race anyway.” We’d done it. I was no longer a novice. And finally – finally! – I’d earned that elusive first pot.

I can’t deny that the odds were stacked in my favour. Thanks to the fact that it was August and many of the MRC creme de la creme were on holiday – and perhaps because someone thought I needed a break – I’d been put in a boat with three of Monmouth’s strongest and neatest rowers, not to mention one of the classiest coxes in town. If I just could hold my nerve, not mess up and row like I’d never rowed before, then maybe – just maybe – we could pull it off.

Between me and my first point, though, there were three tough races. Not for us the luxury of a straight final. I won’t bore you with lengthy race reports – partly because the races are mostly a blur of sitting up, lengthening, pushing off, sitting back, lengthening again, burning legs and burning lungs – but I can say we earned that pot.

Man, it feels good!

Man, it feels good!

My only regret was that my novice-buddy Susy wasn’t there. Winning without her felt somehow incomplete after all we’ve been through together, and I can’t wait to fling her into the river, too. Watch this space, people, watch this space.

 

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If you enjoyed yesterday’s Rowing Mother Stereotype, thought you might enjoy another. Willing to bet you’ll spot her this weekend.

Nat Schools

This is the first year that Lisa’s had to go up to Nat Schools on her own. For some reason Tony didn’t seem that keen to come. Frankly she’s finding the whole thing much better without him. It’s so much easier to concentrate on the rowing when she doesn’t have to explain every last thing to him, though last year he seemed more interested in that silly woman serving the teas in the school’s marquee – the one who thought that a tight skirt and strappy sandals were suitable attire for a rowing event, and who giggled every time someone mentioned the cox. What Tony saw in her she couldn’t imagine.

Anyway, this year Jack is in the J17 four and she has high hopes for him. She’s furious that he was left out of the first eight, but what can she do? She’s already told the coach who ought to be in the crew and where their starts are going wrong, but you’d almost think he was avoiding her. Every time she approaches him to offer some advice, he seems to vanish on some important errand.

Tony says that Lisa’s obsessed, but as far as she’s concerned she just takes a healthy interest. She only gave up rowing herself because her back was playing up, and at least she knows what she’s talking about. Let’s face it, most of the parents are totally clueless, and the coaches aren’t much better.

Jack isn’t helping, either. He’s refusing to speak to her since she challenged one of the umpires during the heats. He even muttered something about switching to rugby next term but he wouldn’t do that. Would he?

She can’t help noticing that he’s been hanging around the marquee of one of the smart girls’ schools over the other side. He claims he was just admiring their Empachers (another thing that made that silly woman giggle), but Lisa has her doubts, especially since she found a packet of condoms and a cigarette lighter at the bottom of his kit bag. She’s sure they belonged to someone else, but she’s starting to wonder about his attitude.

When he comes in fifth, Lisa has to go and have a little cry in the loos. It’s not so much the losing as the fact that he didn’t seem that bothered.

Still, there’s always Henley to look forward to. At least everyone takes the rowing seriously there.

 

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Since it’s National Schools Regatta this weekend, I thought I’d have a rummage around in the archive and dig out a guest post I wrote for another site a few years ago. It’s a bit unkind – all good stereotypes are – and I know (having been a rowing mother myself for a while) that most rowing mothers are not like this. But I bet you won’t have to go too far this weekend to find one who is.

Nat Schools marquees

This will be Annabel’s last visit to the National Schools Regatta and she can’t say she’ll miss the dreary trips to Nottingham.

At least ‘Mima’s school puts on a good show. The turretted marquees always look terribly jolly, and the lunch has been a lot better since Hugo’s brother started providing the venison from the Estate. Times are hard, though: the champagne at the Headmaster’s reception was distinctly inferior this year.

Annabel simply can’t understand why so many other schools just don’t make the effort. She took Bertie for a walk along the bank and had a good nose around the 2nd Division encampments; gosh, it was grim. Mouldy tents, parents in Gore-Tex eating limp sandwiches and drinking tea out of polystyrene cups – some of them hadn’t even bothered to bring a marquee. ‘Mima was furious when she was beaten last year by one of the oik crews. They didn’t even have onesies, for God’s sake – no team spirit.

Of course, Annabel ought to enjoy the rowing. It’s in the blood; Daddy was in the Boat Race when he was up at Oxford, though she can’t bring him along since he tried to pinch the coach’s bottom last year and told her what he’d like to do to her with a Macon blade. The first sign of dementia, Mummy said, but Annabel’s not so sure.

In truth the only bit that Annabel really enjoys is watching the teenage boys with their lycra rolled down to reveal smooth skin and taut muscles. Looking at Hugo in layer upon layer of corduroy and tweed, Annabel supposes that he must have looked like that once, but she can barely remember it.

Anyway, they won’t be coming back next year. ‘Mima has announced that she’s giving up rowing at the end of term. Ever since she caught a disastrous crab on the Friday, her crew have refused to speak to her and she’s been curled up in the back of the Range Rover, crying and refusing to eat. Hugo tried to tempt her out with a venison roll and the promise of a new onesie, but she wouldn’t budge.

When the racing is over, some of the keeno parents stay to help clear up, but Annabel and Hugo make their excuses. Nottingham is ghastly enough without having to skivvy as well, and ‘Mima has got even more sulky now that her iPad has run out of juice.

Still, there’s always Henley to look forward to. You don’t even have to pretend to be interested in the rowing there.

 

 

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“Tell me you didn’t just eat those peas,” I said to my son as he put his bowl in the sink. He nodded. Oh.

“Those peas” were the frozen peas I’d been using on my fractured ankle to bring down the swelling. They’d been in and out of the freezer every two hours every day for the last week. Frozen, thawed, frozen, thawed, frozen, thawed. And now eaten. Nice. Not just dodgy from a food safety point of view, but also depriving me of my ice pack – an essential part of the RICE formula (rest, ice, compress, elevate).

Tasty and good for you. But best kept frozen until you eat them.

Tasty and good for you. But best kept frozen until you eat them.

Well, now we don’t have that problem. I have been sent a genius bit of kit that is already proving invaluable.

The TheraPearl Compress is a nifty, re-usable cold pack that you keep in the freezer and use on knees, ankles, backs, necks, black eyes – any bit of you that needs a bit of cold application. They are better than the solid cool gels I’ve tried before, thanks to the little ‘pearls’ inside that make the pack pliable, even when it’s frozen. And unlike peas, they don’t cluster into hard lumps. Or get eaten by hungry children.

Therapearl Compress. Definitely better than peas.

Therapearl Compress. Definitely better than peas.

My husband road-tested the compress on a black eye and sore rib after his boxing bout and said it was just the ticket. It didn’t get wet as it rested on his skin and was, he reported, more comfortable than frozen peas. And there were peas left over for tea. Win, win.

Therapearl Compress, £7.99 from Boots.

 

 

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What I didn't win...

What I didn’t win…

By rights I shouldn’t really be smiling. At the end of two hard races, I came home empty-handed from yesterday’s British Masters’ Champs (better known as Nat Vets), and that’s something that would normally have me sobbing gently as I licked my wounds.

We’d gone there with high hopes. After a frustrating season when we hadn’t quite got the chemistry right in the novice squad no matter how we rejigged the crew, we finally, with just five days to go, settled on a crew that just somehow worked. Admittedly, we didn’t have much time to get to know each other – before the actual race we’d spent a grand total of 20 minutes on the water together (one warm-up, one four-minute seat race, to be precise). And admittedly, one of our crew had only been rowing for six months and never raced before. But still, when we got in the boat together it just felt right. Something, at last, had clicked. For a novice crew we felt our rowing was, well, not too shabby at all.

If that wasn’t enough, our stroke and I had been blessed in training with a lucky omen in the form of bird droppings all down our backs. What more did we need to make us feel confident?

And yet it wasn’t to be. Up rocked Ardingly, with some impressively fine novice rowers who were, quite simply, a length faster than us. We dug deep, and deeper still, but they outrowed us and I liked their style.

Later that day saw our novice 8 rowing up in the IM3 eights event. I won’t go into the gory details of the four-and-a-half minutes that it took us to get down the course, but let’s just say it wasn’t our finest hour and is best forgotten. The only consolation was that I had quite a few friends in the winning crew. If I couldn’t win, I was glad it was them.

So why am I not distraught? Why did I not take up my usual spot in the ladies’ for a silent weep after the race? Well, for one thing, I guess I’m finally learning a bit of perspective. I’m slowly discovering that it’s not always about the ba-bling, ba-bling – that a good race, hard fought, against worthy opponents, can be truly satisfying even if it doesn’t result in a win (who knew?)

2013 blogger of the year - ATHLETES

The real reason, though, that I’m smiling today is that I did get one win over the weekend – one that has made me exceptionally proud. I discovered this morning that thanks to the lovely, kind people who voted for me (heartfelt thanks!) Girl on the River has won Rowperfect’s Rowing Blogger of the Year in the athlete category. That, I think you’ll agree, is most definitely reason to grin.

 

 

 

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