Your First Race, Part 4—Gone In 60 Seconds

It’s hard not to feel a lot of pressure when you race. After all, many hours of practice and out and out toil have gone into this race that will last between 3-5 minutes (sprint race) or 17-25 minutes (head race).

I’m asking you to keep it in perspective.

You’ll have amazing races that you’ll remember for years, and, sadly, you’ll have races that you’ll want to forget immediately (but you won’t!). If your race is awesome, vow that you’ll do it again. If it’s a horrific mess, learn from it, let it go, and do better next time (no doubt you will).

Your coach will give you ideas about race strategy based on your unique situation. But our next few posts will cover some sprint race basics—the pieces of the sprint race honored by Olympians, first time racers, and everyone in between. Today, we'll cover the first minute of your sprint race. (Have no fear…we’ll cover head races this fall): Attention...ROW!:

1) Begin your race with five short, fast strokes. My favorite start sequence is ¾ slide, then ½, then strokes get longer and longer, but there are varying theories. Regardless, this combination of short and longer strokes is the tried and true way to get your boat off the line as fast as possible. 

True story: At a race in Detroit when I was still a new rower, my 8+ had such a terrible first five strokes that (according to our fans and our frustrated coach) the boat moved backward over the start line before moving forward. We came in second by mere inches—we literally lost the race at the start. Grrrr. Dear Novice Rower, take starts incredibly seriously. Practice them often and learn to do them well.

NB: This is also the noisiest part of the race. If it’s a coxed race, it seems everyone is yelling like someone has fallen out of a boat, oars are slapping and thunking. For a sport without fans, it was so loud. It shocked the daylights out of me in my very first race. Be prepared for it.

NB #2: Don't forget to breathe with every catch. I spent my novice rowing season forgetting to breathe until the start was over. Very unpleasant, especially when I really needed my breath later in the race. 

2) Next are 10-20 strokes rowed at a very high rate of speed (approaching 40 strokes/minute or higher). These as fast as possible, yet still stay upright, clean, and connected. I see these as freebie strokes. You aren’t out of breath (yet) and you have pent up energy because you are so excited. So take full advantage of them. 

True story, #2: To make sure I really move it during these strokes, I yell to myself, “GET OUT OF HERE!” over and over, and pretend my boat is on fire. (Embarrassing, but true.)

I was once told that 80% of all races are won at the start, and I've seen this to be true in my own experience. If you are ahead when the settle begins (see below), you are more likely to win the whole shebang. So definitely go for it with great love and joyful abandon.

3) The settle. Here’s where you will slow down, stretch your strokes out, and “settle” into your race pace. The first few strokes will feel weirdly slow—like when you exit the freeway after traveling at 75mph. They represent a controlled rating that you can sustain for the next 500 meters (of a 1000m race), or 1,500 meters (of a 2,000m race). Take a long breath here and get into the rhythm.

4) The Crisis of Faith. After racing for between 60 and 90 seconds, a few strokes after you settle, your body will switch gears. For the next 10-20 strokes seconds you’ll feel like you want to stop rowing. Immediately and forever. In my case, this gear switch was also accompanied by a less-than-supportive inside voice, saying everything from I should quit to I never was athletic in the first place. It always shook me up. Every race. For years. I thought of this as my “crisis of faith.” I hated it, but never spoke of it.

It was about 5 years into my rowing career before a coach told me this shift happens to everyone—that it’s physiological, natural, and necessary. What a relief! I mention it here in case you think you are the only one who wants to hang up your oars and take up knitting one minute into every race.

This same coach told me that this shift was a good time to take advantage of your competition. All of your competitors are going through this too, and you could take powerful strokes to combat this feeling and even pull ahead while others give into it. So dear Novice Rower, row hard as your gears shift. Turn that confidence crasher into a confidence booster.  Recognize it for what it is, and you’ll get through it.

I promise.


Coming next post: 60 seconds and beyond, or, the rest of the race.