Anyone who’s been following Girl on the River for a while will know I am a passionate convert to saunas and their beneficial effects, ever since I raced in Finland a couple of years ago and a lakeside sauna session transformed me from a wobbly, aching, potentially-injured mess to good as new. Since then I’ve been on the lookout for more authentic hot room experiences – all the more so since I was given the go-ahead by the lymphoedema service to sauna to my heart’s content post-mastectomy (hurrah!) So when I got the chance to try a morning at a traditional Russian banya – Banya No.1 – I leapt at the chance. I’ve been struggling with recovery after rowing and weights in the last month or two as my final cancer treatments are increasingly taking their toll on my body, so I wanted something that would give my tired muscles a boost. Banya No.1 did all that and more.
I’d been to a Russian banya once before, many years ago, but I was pregnant at the time so couldn’t go into the steam room and find out how it differed from a Finnish sauna. In common with my experience in Moscow, where the banya was in a dull-looking residential street in the Moscow suburbs, Banya No.1 is located in an unpreposessing estate in north London, but don’t let that put you off – if anything, it just makes it all the more authentic. I was greeted inside by a charming Russian receptionist who told me the timber for the wooden panelling came from the same region of Russia as she did, so I instantly felt I’d stumbled on the real deal. Somewhat to my relief, I didn’t see any sign of the terrifying high pressure hoses that provided entertainment in the Moscovan banya back in the day, but it did have everything I had hoped for.
You divide your time in the banya between the steam room (more akin in style to a sauna than the kind of steam room you find in a spa) and the lounge where you can order Russian food and snacks (I didn’t go for anything stronger than herbal tea, but you can opt for beer, vodka or kvass, if that’s your thing). Starting in the steam room, and wearing a fetching felt hat to protect your hair, you’ll notice it’s a bit different from a Finnish-style sauna. The temperature is lower and there’s a bit more steam in the air. The therapists will happily leave the door open for a minute or so and don’t stress about letting the heat out because once they throw water on the furnace, the steam that blasts out provides plenty of heat.
Next to the steam room is a thrillingly cold plunge pool and a row of wooden buckets mounted high on the wall which douse you in icy water at the tug of a rope.
All of which is great – really great, and incredibly invigorating – but what I was really there for was the parenie – the traditional massage with a fragrant bundle of birch, oak and eucalyptus twigs (called venik). I had pictured myself being whisked with something dry and scratchy and expected it to be a primarily exfoliating treatment, but it was quite different. What I hadn’t understood was that it’s really a thermal treatment, whose aim is to get your skin infused with steam so that it sweats profusely and to release the essential oils in the twigs. It’s designed to boost your circulation which should, in turn, relieve muscle tension, stress and joint pain, and the oils are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect – just what I needed.
You lie on a bench in the steam room (naked or in a bikini or trunks – your choice, unless it’s a mixed session in which case you must be clad. I went naked, because it felt silly to be all western and coy about it). You rest your head on a couple of bunches of twigs that have been soaked in hot water and are much softer than they look. The masseur (and yes, they were all male) performs an extraordinary ritual with two hot, soaked bunches of twigs, shaking them and waving them above his head to trap the steam in the air, before whisking them over your body, both front and back. At times he’ll press the twigs firmly against your feet or your back until you start to think you can’t take any more heat, before resuming the whisking and shimmering and swishing. At some point in the treatment the original masseur is replaced by another, who continues the ritual. Eventually you sit up and he works the twigs up and down your body before whacking you a few times with them. Finally, he escorts you outside to be doused in cold water, before a rest in the lounge.
It was an amazing, surreal, intense experience that left me buzzing. My senses felt heightened and my skin tingled and felt meltingly soft. I was treated to a brilliantly robust honey and salt scrub massage as well, this time by a female masseuse, which provided all the exfoliation I’d been expecting from the parenie.
Afterwards I felt relaxed to the point of exhaustion and slept the sleep of the innocent that night. My DOMS didn’t vanish entirely but the next day I felt refreshed and zingy. Interestingly, my resting heart rate came down that week and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the two things were connected.
So would I do it again? Yes, absolutely, in a heartbeat. I’m already trying to figure out when I can get back – this time hopefully with some girlfriends to make it even more fun.
Oh, and by the way. I didn’t look ANYTHING like these pictures of smooth-skinned, lithe millennials when I was at the banya. Here’s me wearing the felt hat and looking distinctly uncool.
Three hour packages at Banya No.1, including treatments, start at £95 which by London standards is astonishingly good value. I was lucky enough to be treated to my banya experience, but would gladly pay full whack for it. You can find all the details here.
So the entries are in, and as things stand I’m going to be racing in a 2x at the Worlds Masters Championships in Hungary in September. Which is completely ridiculous. Even I can see that. So far we’ve managed to come second out of three in a band 2 race, at a local regatta – not exactly world class. The idea that racing at the Worlds will result in anything other than complete humiliation is ludicrous.
To make it even more crazy, since Nottingham Masters just over three weeks ago – the one where I ended up in the event ambulance strapped to an ECG – I’ve not really managed to resume any really strenuous training. Not long after that regatta I came down with a horrible cold (hardly surprising, really) which I haven’t been able to shake off. I feel like each herceptin injection (the immunotherapy injections I’m on to keep the nasty cancer cells at bay) takes a little more out of me and my reserves are low.
But still I’m doing it. Why?
Well, quite simply, because I can. This time last year, when I was in the throes of chemotherapy and my body was getting more ravaged by the week, racing was out of the question. A year on, it might be difficult and I might not have much in the tank, but I can just about do it. So do it I shall. Since I had cancer I’ve been much more inclined to seize opportunities whenever they come along, whatever the consequences. And I can’t think of a better opportunity than the World Masters in Hungary alongside the really serious rowers of my age.
Oh, and by the way. My doubles partner, Helen, and I have agreed that if we win (pfffft – see above) we will both get crossed oars cut into our hair. Actually, don’t tell Helen, but I’m going to do it anyway, win or no win. Because if we win (again, pfffft) I’m gonna get me a big old rowing tattoo, just because I can.
So there it is. We’ll probably come last. Let’s be honest, we’ll probably come last by a minute or two. But whatever happens, I can tell you the result:
There are people out there who, when it comes to race day, just fling an all-in-one in the car and consider themselves ready to go. I am not one of those people. I like to be super-prepared with a lengthy list of essential items to throw in my kit bag. I also need to feel comfortable when I race (and before and afterwards), so having the right kit (and not just my racing strip) is part of that. This is where the dryrobe comes in. You may have seen these amazing changing robes on outdoor swimmers and surfers, but they are so good they are finding their way into different worlds. I’m reliably informed that they’re popular amongst sailors, and I’ve seen them on a film set, keeping the actors toasty in between takes. I’ve now trialled one at rowing events and am completely sold.
If you haven’t come across a dryrobe before, it’s the souped-up and vastly improved version of the two-towels-sewn-together that your nan might have produced on the beach when you were a kid to protect her modesty as she stripped off to go swimming. That description really doesn’t do it justice, though. It’s incredibly cleverly designed so that you can get your arms easily in and out of the sleeves to change underneath it, with a nice, chunky zip up the front that opens from both the inside and out and from both the top and the bottom. It has a lovely big hood that will fit over a hat, huge pockets (yay) and the cosiest lining you can imagine which draws moisture away from the skin to dry you out when you’ve had a soaking.
I trialled it first at the Vets’ Head, where I was coxing. Obviously I didn’t wear it in the boat – it’s way too bulky for that – but wore it when we were standing around in the cold, rigging the boat and afterwards when I was chilly from racing. Lots of people cast an envious eye over it and asked where I’d got it from.
Since then I’ve worn it after my increasingly regular swims in the river Wye – brilliant for changing when you’re freezing and your hands aren’t working properly and for warming up again. Significantly, I met GB ice swimmer, Cath Pendleton, on one of my swims and she was a convert. Hers, brilliantly, was covered in badges from the events she’s competed in.
The only regatta I’ve competed in so far this year was Nottingham Masters a couple of weeks ago. As I reported before, it was crazily hot and sunny that day so the dryrobe wasn’t really needed. It soon went back in the car. I’m sure it won’t be long, though, before I find myself at a wet regatta, and I’m pretty sure it will be invaluable there. You know that feeling when you come off the water after racing, soaked to the skin, shivering, and you need to change out of your wet kit RIGHT NOW, but there’s a queue the length of today and tomorrow for the loos and you don’t want to strip off in front of the world? That’s when the dryrobe will be an absolute godsend.
And to demonstrate quite how easy it is to wriggle in and out of an all-in-one inside your dryrobe, here’s a little video I made to demonstrate.
There are lots of different styles of dryrobe, from the full-on long-sleeved one that I have to the basic towelling model – you can find them all on dryrobe’s website, here. They’re not cheap, I’ll admit – they range in price from £30 for the basic towelling robe to £110 for the long sleeved one, but are worth their weight in gold to keep you feeling warm, dry and comfortable while others are chilled to the bone. They come in lots of funky colours including a cool camo version (I went for navy to go with my club colours – yes, I’m that matchy-matchy!)
You’ll be seeing much more of mine over the summer. I’ll be wearing it this weekend when I go to an outdoor cinema showing and when we go camping in a few weeks’ time. And when the weather turns cold again you can be sure that I’ll be draped in it at any event that involves standing around (parents of sporty kids, take note!)
And no, before you ask, you can’t borrow it. I’m nice but I’m not that nice!
Note: I was given my dryrobe FOC but as always my review is independent and honest.
As Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, you’re probably now fully aware that mental health problems can be a real challenge for a huge number of people. The press and social media have been full of tragic and worrying cases of people – especially young people – afflicted by all manner of mental health disorder and the chances are you’ve been affected by your own or a loved one’s mental health issues at some point. The thing is, though, awareness is all very well, but what do you do with that awareness? It’s easy to hear the words without really turning your mind to what you can do about it. So I thought it might be helpful to try to bring it meaning – first of all by introducing you to a great campaign, Rowing Together for Healthy Minds, secondly by encouraging you to support a brilliant fundraising endeavour taking place in my own rowing community and finally by offering some advice for what to do if you think someone in your club (or elsewhere in your life) is struggling with their mental health.
1. Rowing Together for Healthy Minds
If you’ve been to a regatta already this season, you may have seen crews wearing RTHM tech tops. Rowing Together for Healthy Minds is a campaign founded by two students in memory of rower René Zamudio, who took his own life in January 2017. Their aim is to get people in the rowing world talking openly about mental health, to educate athletes and coaches about the symptoms of depression and other disorders, and ultimately to make it easier for people suffering from these issues to reach out for help in future. More than 100 clubs have signed up and the fundraising tops shown in the picture (the profits of which go to mental health charity, Mind) are selling fast. They’re producing a poster to be displayed in clubs with a charter committing to making mental health a priority, and they’re working with British Rowing to get them to include a minimum amount of mental health training within every rowing club across the country.
You can follow the campaign on social media here. If you’d like to get your club involved, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. If your club isn’t affiliated, you can still buy the kit here.
2. 150km Row for Mental Health
In July of this year, four young rowers in Monmouth will be rowing 150km over two days to raise money for Minds Matter and to support the RTHM campaign. They’ve been planning the row for some time, but it has been lent particular significance and poignancy as just a few weeks ago one of the boys’ closest friends, a lovely young man called JJ, took his own life. Like so many in his situation, JJ was universally popular, incredibly talented and came from a loving family – a stark reminder of the fact that mental health problems can strike anybody, at any time. Here’s a short video they made to promote the row.
Charity Row Promo - YouTube
My own club is figuring out ways to support the boys’ row, but in the meantime the more money we can give them the better. You can donate to their fund here.
3. What to do when someone is struggling
If someone at your club is showing signs of of mental distress – acting out of character, perhaps, or seeming withdrawn or flat or just not themselves – here are some tips, shared by Rowing Together for Mental Health, on starting a conversation:
– Choose somewhere with no interruptions.
– A relaxed activity like walking can make the conversation less intense for them.
– Make sure you have enough time and won’t have to rush off anywhere.
– Respect their privacy and focus on thoughts rather than behaviours.
– Try to reflect on what you’re listening to; using phrases such as ‘It sounds as if…’ help show your understanding and care for their situation.
– Avoid asking ‘why’ questions. ‘What is it about this situation that worries you?’ might sound less aggressive than ‘Why are you worried about this?’.
– Explore what they have found helpful in the past, and what they could do in the future.
After an initial conversation, you can help them take small steps towards overcoming their situation. If they have been withdrawn from the squad, invite them to a low commitment social activity (e.g. going for a coffee near where they live). Do not expect them to recover quickly and appreciate that setbacks are common. If the problem becomes worse and they are not already seeking professional help, encourage them to do so.
I hope this has given you a few ideas about what you can do, individually and as a club, to improve mental health in our sport and beyond. Let’s keep the conversation going beyond the end of the week.
It started with a grandiose plan, as so many things in my life do. In a sudden rush of blood to the head I signed up for the World Masters Championships in Hungary in September, not really thinking too hard about what that might involve. I knew I wasn’t really worthy of a place in a crew, but I was willing to cox and knew there might always be someone from another club desperate for a sub when I got there. Then a foolhardy friend offered to enter a double with me, so before I knew it I was actually going to be rowing (or rather sculling) at the Worlds as well as coxing. Which meant that I urgently needed multi-lane practice.
Along came Nottingham Masters Regatta this weekend, conveniently offering 1km PRI-banded races on our favourite multi-lane venue, Holmepierrepont. Perfect. Except for one thing.Two things, actually. First, I’m still building up my stamina post-chemo so wasn’t going to have much in the tank. Secondly, I’m still on immunotherapy jabs every three weeks which leave me under the weather for a few days and I had one of my jabs just two days before the regatta. But still, multi-lane races are few and far between and it was too good a chance to pass up, so we threw caution to the winds and entered our double anyway, on the understanding that we’d probably come last but would treat it as practice and a useful marker at the start of the season.
Arriving at Nottingham, we wondered if we’d come to the wrong place. Bathed in sunshine, with blue skies, glassy water and not a breath of air, it was a far cry from my last experience of HPP when it was blowing such a hooley half the races were cancelled. Nottingham Masters proved a lovely regatta – calm, friendly, low key, run like clockwork, excellent prizes. So all that remained was the small matter of the race itself.
As my partner in crime and I don’t have any sculling points we were in Band 2 with just Sudbury and Broadland to contend with. After a catastrophic practice start (crab, near-capsize) our start was a bit like a second serve in tennis – a bit tentative – and Sudbury surged ahead immediately. We held on to second position but try as we might couldn’t make up the distance and lost by three or four seconds, I think (haven’t seen the results). Anyway, it felt like a decent race – incredibly tough, as all races are, but no disasters. The video clips I’ve seen confirmed the areas I already knew I needed to work on but didn’t show anything new, so that was all great.
Until we got off the water, that was. I expected to feel a bit wobbly until I’d had something to eat and drink and got my breath back, but an hour later I was still feeling lightheaded. As the medication I’m on can affect your heart, this was something to take seriously. I’d been given the OK by my medical team to do strenuous exercise and I have regular heart scans which have all been fine, but still, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I sidled up to the first aid cabin when my shipmates weren’t looking and asked if they’d give me the once over.
I thought they’d just take my blood pressure and send me on my way, but before I knew it I was in the event ambulance attached to a tangle of wires, having an ECG and various other checks. The crew couldn’t have been better or more thorough. It turned out I was running a temperature (quite common on the medication I’m on) so they gave me paracetamol, and my blood pressure was a little elevated (hardly unusual, given that it was race day and I still had a race to cox) but my heart was just fine and my oxygen saturation was perfect. Several more checks and a lot of questions later I was given the all clear and sent on my way.
Sadly we didn’t win in the race I was coxing later in the day (pretty disappointed not to come home with one of the superb hip flasks they were awarding for masters races) but I came home with an ECG printout as a souvenir, and at least I was able to get that vital practice manoeuvring on to the stake boat.
So what’s next? Well, once I’ve had a good rest (before you start fussing!) it’ll be back on the river to work on technique, back in the gym to work on strength and back on the erg to work on fitness. Business as usual. In the meantime, a massive thank you to Nottingham City for an excellent regatta and to CMS ambulance services for looking after me so brilliantly.
It was just a regular Thursday afternoon when I accidentally split the rowing community in two. All I did was tweet a fleeting thought that had passed through my mind, little imagining that the next 24 hours would be taken up in a flurry of intense notifications, crazy gifs, hilarious replies and strong – and I mean STRONG – opinions. So what kicked off this furore? I asked a very simple question. What do rowers wear under their AIO? I wanted recommendations for pants (and for my American friends, by pants I mean underwear) that didn’t chafe, ride up or show through AIO, shorts or leggings. Well, wow. Before I knew it the rowing world was rent in twain, split between those who swear that going commando is the ONLY WAY (and there were a LOT of guys in this camp, by the way) and those who prefer some trusty pantage to keep everything nicely in place. It was a revelation. So here’s what I learned.
These are the people who wear no pants at all under their AIO or leggings. The advantages, they claim, are many. No VPL. No extra fabric to ride up and chafe. Less sweaty. Even the Queen of Kit herself, Di from Rock the Boat, whose favourite expletive is “knickers”, was in favour of this option (sensibly, for the sake of hygiene, advocating a spare AIO for day two of a weekend regatta).
There are a few caveats. If you’re going down this road you may want to follow the advice of British Cycling who, for obvious reasons, have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and who urged their athletes to stop shaving, waxing and depilating. Even doing this may not spare you discomfort, though. We all have surprisingly different anatomies and many people, women in particular, find going commando really uncomfortable. Most leggings and AIOs don’t have a gusset or covered seams (if you make rowing kit and you’re reading this, take note: it would be a very welcome development in kit manufacture. Think of how swimwear is designed and take it from there). Even with well-designed kit, a lot of women just prefer a bit of pantage there for extra protection, so finding the right underwear remains an issue.
One other thing. If your club kit is white or light-coloured below the waist, think very carefully before going commando (sorry).
For those in favour of underwear under kit, giant pants (or Granny-bashers as one rower called them) are a popular option, but you’ve got to get the right ones. I’m not going to suggest any particular brands as it really will be a case of trial and error and the right style will depend entirely on your size and shape (and possibly your rowing technique!) All I will say is that loads of manufacturers now make light, seam-free pants which are mostly excellent and tend not to ride up or chafe. But if you find that good old cotton knickers work for you, then carry on as you were.
The thong probably divided opinion more even than going commando. Many regard them as the instrument of Satan, akin to wearing a cheese wire. But for a lot of rowers they are an answer to prayer. You get a bit of protection in your nether regions without any VPL or riding up and without having a seam under your sit bones. One rower reported having done the Boston (rowing) marathon in a thong, without difficulty. Again, it’s a question of anatomy – some people are better designed for them than others.
If you’re going for this option, choosing the right version is crucial. All I’ll say is that wearing a thong with uncovered seams during a three hour endurance race is a bad idea. Ouch. Happily, finding seam-free thongs is increasingly easy. Shop around until you find what’s right for you.
Let me know if you have any top tips or recommendations, especially for comfortable kit with covered seams. And one last thing. If you’re a fan of Big Pants and need something to make you feel a bit more brave on race day, may I recommend a good old pair of Superhero Pants? They saw me through some scary chemo days last year and made me feel like a warrior.
It was only a matter of time before Girl on the River became Girl IN the River. I’m not talking about capsizing here – though admittedly I’ve had the occasional dip that way as well – but actual, voluntary, full-body immersion in the river, by way of a wild swimming workshop. If you’ve only ever seen wild swimmers as annoying obstructions when you’re rowing, think again. Swimming in the river is one of the most life-affirming, exhilarating things you can do – and all the more so when it’s cold (there’s science behind this, but I won’t bore you with it – just take my word for it).
The sun may have made an appearance a few times recently, but that doesn’t mean the river was warm by any means. April is one of the cold months in water temperature terms, and the river was delivering that bone-gripping, eye-popping kind of cold. Admittedly, fellow swimmer Cath Pendleton, who’s represented GB in ice swimming, probably found it pleasantly warm, but to normal human beings it was parky as hell, so we were kitted out in (borrowed, in my case) wetsuits and hats, with some of the others in booties and gloves as well (I wished I’d had those extra bits of kit). Cath was rocking it in just a bikini, but that wouldn’t be a good idea if you’re not acclimatised, as she is.
So, what happens at a wild swimming workshop? Well, safety in wild swimming is paramount so our coach, Angela Jones, gave us a talk on where and how to swim safely, what to look out for in health and river terms, and swimming technique (it’s slightly different for outdoor swimming). She took our temperature to ensure we were all healthy and tested our oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter (mine was 99, which apparently is a good sign). We did a grip test to see which arm was stronger (interestingly for me, as a bowsider and right hander, my left arm came out stronger) and tested our lung capacity. Finally, we tested for hyper-flexibility, which can be problematic for some (though as nobody in the group was hyper-flexible we didn’t go into the whys and the wherefores). We talked about the importance of strong glutes for swimming and general fitness (rowers will be nodding along here) and did some warm-up exercises.
Then, finally, we hit the water. I say hit, but it was more lowering gently, as Angela had emphasised the dangers of diving or jumping in. Wow. Just wow. I knew it would be cold but I was still quite startled by quite how cold the water seeping in around the edges of my wetsuit was. The worst part was my arms (my skinniest bit and suffering without gloves). Angela gave me a float to raise myself out of the water with and I kicked vigorously with my legs which warmed me up a bit, and from then on I was fine and able to start enjoying the experience.
We swam downstream to our meeting point, where we emerged, exhilarated and victorious. It wasn’t a long swim but as an introduction to cold water swimming, just perfect. That wasn’t the end. Warming up quickly after cold water swimming is essential so we after a quick survivors’ photo we got swiftly dressed in warm clothes, had hot drinks and got moving to ensure our body temperature rose again (Angela took our temperature and we were all on the low side, so we did a lot of jumping around the car park).
So will I do it again? Absolutely I will. I loved the buzz both during and after the swim – endorphin central – and the feeling of peace as we paddled down the river. I’m already booked in to another workshop in a couple of weeks’ time and can’t wait to get back in the water. I’ve even been googling wetsuits, which is a sure sign I’m hooked.
If you’re thinking of wild swimming, please be sure to do it safely. Do your research on safety before you go – the Outdoor Swimming Society has loads of sound advice and can put you in touch with other wild swimmers in your area, as it’s not a good idea to go alone. A workshop like I did was ideal (here’s the link to Angela’s site) but otherwise find someone you trust and who knows the river or sea and go with them.
Oh, and don’t forget to let me know if you give it a go!
Perhaps you were tricked into it. Maybe you’re doing it for a dare. It might be a bucket list goal checked off or the next step in your coxing career or even a last-minute stand-in because nobody else was available. Whatever your reasons for coxing the Tideway for the first time, the chances are you’re feeling a bit daunted. And with good reason. The Tideway is a magnificent beast, but she must be approached with caution. Her moods are unpredictable and she can turn on you in an instant, going from calm and serene one moment to raging and lashing the next.
Pic by Ben Rodford Photography
Having survived my first ever experience of coxing the Tideway yesterday, I’m here to give you my top tips. Let me start, though, by telling you what this won’t be about – just, you know, for the avoidance of doubt. This isn’t about steering the perfect line, about second lamp-posts from the right or the two-thirds-one-third rule. It won’t tell you about the best calls or the most convenient clubs to boat from. Those matters are dealt with more thoroughly and with much more expertise than I can offer by Proper Elite Coxes who genuinely know their stuff; you’ll find them quickly if you google “coxing the Tideway” (make the 12-minute official minute video your starting point, but be sure to watch others, too; it gets quite addictive).
No, this is about the stuff you only find out about when you’ve done it for the first time and still understand how scary it is to be a newbie.
Bring the kitchen sink
The weather forecast can be deceptive. Remember what I said about the Tideway being unpredictable? That. So despite my weather app telling me it was a mild, dry day with a light breeze, the reality was that I was coxing the Tideway in what the Vets’ Head laughingly called “frisky conditions”. What this actually meant was a nasty, stiff wind blowing against the flow which meant that it was bumpy and lumpy and we had waves breaking over the boat. And then, just to mess with my head, on the way back the wind dropped, the water went glassy and the sun came out (again, not predicted by my app) and I wished I’d brought my factor 50 (I caught the sun).
So basically, bring kit for every eventuality. Pack more layers than you think you’ll need, and if you’re not a local, ask a cox at your host club what they’re planning to wear. Bring sunnies even if it is cloudy, and wet weather kit even if they’re predicting sunshine. You can leave stuff at your host club if you’ve overdone it. You’ll almost certainly need wellies or flipflops for boating and think about what you’ll wear on your feet in the boat (not wellies, obviously). I put Sealskinz socks on over walking socks and that worked well, but it wasn’t a terribly cold day.
On top of that, bring your notes, your race plan and a map of the course if you don’t by now have it firmly committed to memory (useful for last minute revision). Pop in your usual coxing paraphernalia (I keep meaning to blog about what I bring to every event – remind me!!) plus (I know it’s obvious, but it’s easy to get so distracted that you forget the basics) your cox box, life jacket and charger. Pack snacks and food for the day, unless you’re happy to rely on your host club, plus a bit of cash. Don’t forget your phone – and remember to put the Race Control number into your favourites. All of this, including my wellies, fitted into a standard overnight bag. Here is Cyrus, my enormous cat, showing you how big the bag was.
Because I’m nice like that, I brought flapjacks for the crew and Prosecco for afterwards (a bit of a club tradition), which filled another bag (partly because, being a perfectionist, I also brought picnic fizz glasses) but I guess that’s not essential. Finally, when I was travelling and rigging I wore my new favourite item of kit, my dryrobe, which I’ll tell you about in a later post. It’s looking set to become a must-have for me.
Don’t forget, all this kit may affect your transport arrangements. I wouldn’t have fancied lugging all of that on the Tube.
Remember to smile
Pic by Ben Rodford Photography
It can all get a bit stressy out there. No matter how well you steer the boat, at some point you’re bound to have someone yelling at you. On the whole I found the marshals to be genuinely helpful (though I’m still smarting at the 10-second penalty we got for our boat missing its ID number following a recent repaint – I’d been ticked off on the water and had reported it back to the club, so assumed that would be the end of it, but hey). The officials do genuinely want to get everyone safely down the course and have to make themselves heard, and it can come across as more aggressive that it’s intended to be. I found that a smile and a wave was usually returned. Above all, acknowledge their instructions and warnings by raising your hand briefly, so they know you’re on the case – communication needs to be a two-way thing.
Keep your head if other crews are aggressive – and they may well be, however friendly they are off the water. When you’re marshalling, communicate with other coxes and be nice to everyone. They all just want to get up to the start in the right order and on time, and they may be nervous themselves, so give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
You may well encounter some attitude during the race, too. I was probably too easily pushed about on the start, where the marshals started us closer together than was comfortable, which put me in a spot right from the beginning, but by the second half of the race I was starting to hold my own a bit better.
Don’t hit the black buoy – the biggest coxing the Tideway cliche
By Pointillist at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Every guide to coxing the Tideway mentions it, and it was top of my list of Things To Remember. To my great frustration, though, I came uncomfortably close to the black buoy (not even black, as you can see) – close enough to bring me out in a sweat, thanks to another crew that pushed me over and over and wouldn’t give me enough room to pass. Gratifyingly, they got a massive telling-off from the marshall (and from me – by this time I’d found my voice) and I moved back into position in time. Another lesson learned. Phew.
Prepare for the row back
Your job doesn’t end at the finish line. Unless you’re boating from somewhere near the finish, you’ll have to row a fair way after the race when everyone is exhausted. Good preparation makes a massive difference. A crew can get horribly demoralised and weary as the adrenaline wears off, especially if they didn’t have the best race.
I told my crew that there was to be absolutely no sightseeing on the way down, but that they could look at the landmarks to their hearts’ content on the way back (we boated from Putney Town, right by the start). We did different things at different landmarks on the return, so for example as we passed Chiswick Eyot I got them to sharpen up their catches and do a mini-push.
Decide in advance how you’ll get everyone rehydrated, refuelled and reclothed. I dropped them out in pairs and sometimes in fours when it got snarled up, which it often did.
You may find your crew is a bit crazy and unfocused, and you still need everyone to keep their wits about them on the return journey, so think about some easy drills. You can do these when it’s all a bit stop-start in the busy parts – maybe roll-ups or pause rowing. It’ll help pass the time, too.
Finally, I blethered on a lot and tried to keep them laughing (often at my expense – hey I’ve no pride) for the four long miles back to the club. I’m sure by the end of it they were heartily sick of the sound of my voice. Even I was.
Celebrate, no matter what happened
Whether you had a great race and won a coveted pennant or came last in your category (cough), you should encourage your crew to celebrate. As I said to my ladies before we set off, they already deserved a pat on the back just for getting to the start line – for doing all that training and having the guts to enter the race. It’s a heck of an achievement racing on the championship course, even if things don’t quite go as planned. And being brave enough to cox the race and take responsibility for a boat and a crew on such a challenging course is reason alone to celebrate, whether your line was perfect or a zig-zaggy muddle.
And then there’s the aftermath. It’s easy for what you thought was a great race to turn instantly into a disaster when the results come through or you see the photos (or, worse, video footage). Don’t beat yourself up (I’m the worst offender here, so I’m telling myself this as much as you). By all means, learn from your mistakes but try to keep it constructive.
So there you have it, my survivor’s guide. What are your top tips for coxing the Tideway? I’d love to know.
When I last wrote, my chemo had just come to an end and I was about to embark on my first race in a single, at Ross Regatta. And somehow another six months have passed without me posting, so it’s high time for a Girl on the River update.
As you can see from the picture, I managed the race (that’s me on the right, obviously) and lost by a respectable three lengths. It was tough – I was weak as water, as it was still only four weeks after my last chemo infusion – so I was just glad to finish in one piece without crashing into anything, but I was absolutely determined to give it my all. My GP had given me strict instructions not to go above 50% effort, which she well knew meant I might take it down from 100% to about 90 (she knows me too well). I’ve no idea how hard I really did go – only that it felt like the longest 750m I’d ever done, and that I needed help to get off the water! Anyway, it felt like a massive achievement and it was amazing to be back in the game.
Since then I haven’t had as much time on the water as I’d have liked. Life has been busy and at times complicated, and I was knocked sideways by a Christmas flu bug that took as much out of me as chemo did (or so it felt). But despite all the setbacks I’ve made steady progress with my fitness. I’ve been working away on the erg and the split for a 20 minute piece is now just four seconds off where it was before the whole cancer thing came along. I’m hoping that when I come off the immunotherapy drugs in the summer that’ll give me an extra boost.
I’m now back to crew training on the river – hurrah! – and the headline news is that in a sudden rush of blood to the head I’ve signed up for the Worlds in Hungary in September! I haven’t made any of the current crews – no surprise there, given my fitness levels and general rustiness – but I’m hoping there’ll be a spot for me in an eight somewhere and I’ve offered my services as a cox which should give me a few races. It’ll mostly just be exciting to be there. And HUNGARY!!!
I’d love to say that going through cancer treatment had changed the way I viewed my rowing. I’d love to say that it had given me a new, mature perspective. I’d love to say that I’d found a new serenity, that I could rise above the stresses and angst of racing. But no. The sad fact is I still get as nervous about an erg test as I ever did and am getting serious butterflies in my stomach each time I think about the course I’m coxing this weekend (the bend! The bridges!) So really, I guess that means it’s business as usual at Girl on the River, and that has to be a good thing.
On that note, I have every intention to post more regularly now that life is settling down a bit, so watch this space. Until then, happy rowing!
Wow, what a lot can happen in six months… When I last posted, in early February, I was about to have surgery for primary breast cancer, and at the time I thought that would be it. After a few weeks of recovery I’d be back on the river and life would return to normal.
But life doesn’t really work like that, does it? When the results of the biopsy came back it transpired that I did have some invasive cancer after all, and a pretty aggressive kind (mercifully not in my lymph nodes), so my medical team recommended four months of chemo, followed by a year of immunotherapy injections. So that’s exactly what’s been going on since then.
My recovery from the mastectomy was, happily, pretty swift and straightforward. The brilliant NHS provided physio, starting nine days after my op, and with the physiotherapist’s guidance I managed to get back on the erg (very, very gently!) and even back on the river (again, gently) by early April. I did lots of walking and felt like my fitness was starting to return by the time I started chemo.
Chemo, needless to say, was another matter. There were days when I felt really rotten and days when I felt weak as a kitten. The final cycle in particular took it out of me. But even chemo wasn’t going to keep me off the river. I decided at the start that I would confine myself to a single, so I could cry off at any time. With some sound advice from paralympic champion rower Helene Raynesford about hand hygiene and pacing, I headed out on the water, at first tentatively and then with more and more confidence. I only rowed in the weeks when I felt stronger – usually about two or three outings per three-week cycle – but I still managed to carry on through all six cycles (which I never expected at the beginning).
Being able to row did me so much good. For an hour I could forget all about side effects and fatigue and the next appointment. It was just me and the boat, with just the occasional swan for company (or swimmer or canoe).
What has really kept me going through the last, gruelling six months, though – even more than being able to row – is the support I’ve had from the rowing community. I’ve been simply overwhelmed by the love and encouragement I’ve had from rowers all around the world. I’ve had messages and even gifts from people I’ve never met, and more than ever before have felt the amazing strength of our fabulous network of rowers.
I’ve tried to reply to as many messages as possible but sometimes lost track, so can I just take a moment now to thank you all, sincerely and from my heart, for keeping me strong. It really did work – I felt completely buoyed up by the love.
It’s not over yet, of course. I still have a year of injections and am still feeling the effects of the chemo (and will be likely to for a good while yet). I’m sure there will be tough times ahead but what I know now is that with your help I have the strength to cope with whatever is thrown at me.
Oh, and being me, I’ve entered a single at Ross Regatta this weekend. I’m sure I’ll be knocked out in the first heat and may even set a course record for slowest person ever to complete the course, but it will be wonderful to be there, feeling part of things again and feeling the adrenaline at the start.