Your First Race, Part 3—Getting to the Start

This is one of my all-time favorite sensations in rowing—pushing off the regatta dock and rowing to the start. The emotional rush of knowing what’s coming thrills and scares and used to intimidate me. Now it’s just knowing that an amazing amount of fun and adrenaline is coming.

The regatta dock, as you will find, is chaotic. You have 2 minutes to put the boat into the water, grab your oars, slip off your shoes, stow your stuff, sit in, and shove off. It’s loud, people are ducking to miss getting clubbed with oars or boats—I always feel like I’m grateful to be in one piece when I sit in the boat.

But once I shove off? Ahhhhh. I’ve left the chaos and racket of the dock behind as I row away. It’s a peaceful time. But it’s a weird sort of peace. Not a “it’s time to relax” peace. More of a “time to get to work” peace. A time to get ready, to prepare. It’s like anticipating a strong storm, but you’ve battened down the hatches and you are ready for it.

Dear Novice Rower, this will be the only quiet time you’ll likely have until your race is over. You’ll hear only your coxswain or your bow running you through a warmup as you move to the start. This journey might be 500 meters or as long as 3+ miles, depending upon the race. Cherish it. And use it to your advantage. Here’s how.

Check over your equipment. Are shoes in the right place? Are they tight? Is your water bottle secure or is it going to slip around when you race? Is your rigging tight? Fix it all now. Do this as soon as you can after leaving the dock.

Get the lay of the land. It’s easy to lose track of time and space when you race, so take time to look around when you’re not rowing. Where is the buoy marking the halfway point? Turn around and see where it will be when you are racing. When will you begin your sprint to the finish? With 250m left? 200m? Where is this on the course? Know these answers and set them in your head. It will help you orient yourself during your race.

Row purposefully. I try to row calmly, with confidence, and with my game face on. I don’t look out of the boat. I don’t panic about one misplaced stroke, or a stinky practice start. I don’t try anything new. I don’t try to fix what I’ve been working on in practice. I just row. I think this is one of the most magical times in rowing. I’m rowing automatically. I’m rowing fully focused. I’m rowing for the joy of it. Hopefully this will bring me to the start in a calm and focused frame of mind.

Don’t speak. Only listen. This sounds extreme, and I can’t always accomplish it, but try to say nothing from your shove off the dock until the race ends. I’ve tried chitchat, monastic silence, and everything in between to settle myself down before I race, and silence seems to be golden. I focus on the catch of my oar in the water, my body moving out of bow to the catch and back, how well my movements are mirroring those of the rowers in front of me, and the voice of my coxswain or bow. I ignore everything else.

Get good and warmed up. Your coach should have a routine for you. The end result is that you’ve broken a sweat, you’ve rowed at least 100 hard strokes, and you are breathing hard. Don’t worry about over-doing your warmup. This is pretty much impossible unless you are racing up to the start…which if you have prepared well and launched on time, you won’t have to do.

Focus focus focus. Once you arrive at the start, you’ll likely have more space to warm up. There will be other boats up here doing the same thing you are doing. Your focus will be harder to maintain than it was on the trip up the course, but stay with it. Focusing during the race itself will be an even tougher challenge, so listening and executing each stroke now will make race focus a bit easier.

Don’t check out the competition. Others will argue this point, but I’m all about staying confident and storing up your mental energy for the race itself. Assessing the size, strength, build, and talent of the other boats in your race saps your energy, brings doubts to the minds of all but the most confident, and is, frankly, a waste of time. I’ve been beaten by “wimpy” women who look like they couldn’t stir soup, let along pull an oar through the water, and I’ve slayed Amazon women that I thought at the start would squash me like a grape. Take time instead to go over your race strategy, and keep yourself positive and confident. You’ll see the competition clearly when you are beating them down the course…!

Be prepared to sit, sit, sit. When you reach the start line for your race…you will sit. Maybe you’ll sit at the start for only a few minutes while the referees line you up (sprint races) or call the boats in front of you into the chute (head races). But it could be that you could wait a long, long time. My record is 45 minutes of sitting…and this wasn’t because we were too early. A few false starts, a wind that makes lining up boats more time consuming, an accident that stops racing, a novice race (nothing personal, but your races take longer to execute than those of more experienced rowers), can all extend your wait time. Don’t be tempted to lose your focus, no matter how long you wait. Keep your eyes in your boat, reinforce the positive thoughts that brought you up the course, and stay in the moment.

Once you are in the chute or have backed into the start, listen with all of your might. Know the starting cadence. In a sprint race, the referees line you up, put up a flag (you should be sitting ready to pull your first stroke here), they “call roll,” and then utter the best two words in the English language: “Attention…Row!”

And…off you go!