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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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Already my most cherished possession.

Already my most cherished possession.

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.

IMG_3628[1]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.

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.

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.

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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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.

“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).

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

Therapearl Compress. Definitely better than peas.

Therapearl Compress. Definitely better than peas.

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.

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?)

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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When I was a youngster the idea of ever being as elderly as, say, 35 or 40 seemed appalling and inconceivable; anyone over the age of 21 was positively antique. But that was before I was introduced to the world of masters rowing, where with the passing of years comes not wisdom but useful handicaps, and each birthday brings you pleasingly closer to the next age category.

Maybe rowing involves some miraculous elixir that keeps you ever-youthful, because rowers just seem to go on and on and on. And so it was that last night at my club we celebrated the 80th birthday of the legendary John Jones.

I use the word ‘legendary’ advisedly – for John hit the headlines eight years ago when he suffered a cardiac arrest at the end of a race at our very own regatta. He is alive today only thanks to the ministrations of doctors who happened to be on the bank and a defibrillator rushed over from the leisure centre.

Anyway, he is alive – very much so – and not only still rowing but still competing. It only seemed fitting, then, to celebrate his birthday with a scratch regatta in which John competed (and won).

So if anyone ever asks you if there’s an upper age limit for rowing, just sing them a snatch of Ol’ Man River which pretty much sums it up…

You, you and me, you know sometimes
We have to we have to sweat, sweat and strain
Our bodies, our bodies are all achin’
And wracked with a whole lot of pain

But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ a
Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along

Click on images for full size view.

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Shows a photograph of a drama reconstruction of the bloody aftermath of the battle. There are bodies strewn across the field, many with arrows in them.

The aftermath of an erg test

It looked like the scene of a bloodless massacre. Eight bodies lying in the rowing club gym  – some motionless and slumped over, others sprawled on the floor. But look! On closer inspection, it appeared that some were gasping for breath, and the occasional whimper could be heard. Perhaps there were some survivors after all.

This, my friends, is the awful reality of an erg test – the ultimate physical and mental challenge that awaits every rower who is serious about getting competitive. For the non-rowers amongst you, I should explain what all the fuss is about: it involves a test on the rowing machine – a set distance (commonly 5km or 2km) or time. The results are recorded and used to help determine crews (and, let’s face it, all-round swagger – a good erg score is something to feel pretty good about… or so I’m told). You push yourself to your limits… and beyond… and then, in the final sprint, a little bit further, until you’re one of the ones slumped over your machine with your lungs screaming and your legs burning.

You don’t have to spend much time with a rower before you hear them banging on about erg tests – who scored what, why they need to improve next time, when the next one is, how the weight-adjustment algorithm works, how damned hard it is… and on it goes. It’s a minor obsession in most rowers’ lives. And as soon as one is over the next one is there, following them around like a little black cloud.

Asking around before yesterday’s erg test (a mere 1 km – really, you might wonder, how hard could that be?) I discovered that quite a few of us – tough, feisty women with serious jobs and serious priorities – had been feeling sick all day and experiencing phantom aches, pains and other random (and entirely psychosomatic) symptoms. I was jittery and edgy, and as I warmed up I felt as weak as water. Nausea start to rise and my mind began telling me all the reasons I couldn’t do it. “I feel terrible, I feel sick, I’m too weak, I can’t do this, I need to get off, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I CAN’T DO THIS!”

So why the big deal? Surely rowers are used to pushing themselves to the limits? Well, yes and no. We’re used to physical pain and endurance, but there’s something about the personal battle between rower and machine which, combined with the urgent need to score well, makes the erg test particularly tough.

The only way to handle this trauma, I’m slowly discovering, is to have a race plan. So before I started I knew what split I was aiming for, what rate I’d stay at, what I’d say to myself when I got that panicky feeling that my lungs weren’t big enough… everything was pre-planned. And, miraculously, as the test began, that planning, coupled with the season’s training, kicked in and several long minutes later I was there, alongside the other victims, trying to force some air back into my raw lungs.

And that’s it for now. That was the last one before our next big event – the British Masters Champs in less than a fortnight. Crews will be made official in the next couple of days (although I already know that, whilst greatly improved, my scores aren’t good enough to win me a place in a Serious Boat).

But for now, I’m just enjoying the feeling that it’s over. Until the next time.

 

 

 

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The alternative to sit-ups

The alternative to sit-ups

Usually the decisions that you take in the middle of the  night are bad ones. Viewed in the cold light of day, they seem rash, exaggerated, hasty or just plain wrong.

Well, not this time. In the early hours last night I decided to discontinue the Sit-Up challenge. It’s been touch and go for a while. A niggling hip flexor has had a knock-on effect on my back, and no matter how I adapt the sit-ups (trunk curls, reverse curls, even planks), the niggle has got worse every time I’ve done an abs session. On top of that I’ve been suffering from persistent nausea (not ideal for sprint training) which I’m having investigated next week, and I need to rule out any connection with the daily strain my abs are undergoing.

So I need to take a rest from the 100+ daily sit-ups (and counting) and the problem with the sit-up challenge is there’s no rest day. I have come to realise that I’m prone to overtraining – perhaps my medical history is to blame (who knows? – there are so few former M.E. sufferers who have taken up a strenuous sport that there’s no one to compare notes with), or perhaps it’s just that my ageing body isn’t as cooperative as it used to be.

Whatever. I’m taking a few days out from the challenge and after that, when I’m feeling more elastic again, I’ll resume my core work in some sort of adapted form that allows me to have days off to rest and recover. For a decision made in the night, it feels like the right one.

Of course, it’s a shame. I was looking forward to sporting a six-pack worthy of Jessica Ennis-Hill. Perhaps I’ll just draw one on instead, Meet-the-Spartans-style. Now, that’s a look.

 

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Rowperfect rowing chat

It’s award time!

I am incredibly flattered to have been shortlisted for the Rowperfect Rowing Blogger of the Year awards. Each week another great rowing blog seems to pop up, so I am more delighted than ever to have made the shortlist.

Especially as it’s in the athlete category. Alongside, you know, Proper Athletes. The other two bloggers in my category are none other than GB’s very own Nathaniel Reilly O’Donnell and Australia’s Head Coach, Drew Ginn. Pfffft. To find myself – an ageing and seemingly perpetual novice in a provincial club – in any list that includes such high-powered talent is truly humbling.

So, my lovely friends and readers, I need your votes. I obviously don’t have anything like their following so can’t drum up much of a fan club. But if you happen to like my blog, or my face, or just like the idea of supporting the underdog, then please, please, please make my day and vote for me by clicking here and following the instructions. Along the way you’ll have to vote in other categories and hopefully, like me, you’ll discover some really great rowing blogs along the way.

Mwah!

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