Your First Race, Part 5--The Middle and the End

Welcome to the body of your race. A million things can happen here. A few examples:

·      You could be so far out in front that you’re laughing. (This happens in all of my rowing dreams. And, once in a great while, in real life.)

·      You could be bow to bow with five other boats, fighting for any advantage you can get. (Physically painful, but an exhilaration like nothing else. Especially if you beat those five other boats.)

·      You could be so far behind that the referee’s launch is right on your stern. (Horrible horrible horrible. If beating five boats is a high, this is a rock-bottom low for me.)

·      You could hear people flipping boats, breaking oars, running into things, stopping for no apparent reason, yelling, swearing….

Rowing races are never, EVER, dull.

Here’s where focus and persistence and mental toughness come in. Don’t look out of the boat. It costs your crew a second every time you do this. (Is rubbernecking a flipped boat worth a second? I think not.) Stay present--don’t think about that big sip of water you desperately need or wonder what the stain is on the back of your teammate’s racing jersey. Think about it when you are done.

Sometimes staying with it is easy, sometimes it’s more of a fight than you can imagine, but here’s where races are won and lost. Even if you are dead last, continue to race your race. Your competitors could mess up enough to give you an advantage. Only admit defeat after you have been defeated at the finish. Never before.

Not to be discouraging, dear Novice Rower, but during a race your body will likely hurt in a way that can defy description. This happens to every rower who is rowing his/her heart out. World champion rowers face the same thing.

Know this: your mind will always give up before your body. We can all row harder and faster than we do. Have confidence in your training, in yourself, and fight the fear that you won’t be able to finish. It will get easier with experience, as you finish more hard practices and more races with your body and mind intact. Staying focused on the task at hand (as I do after leaving the dock and on my way to the start) helps me combat this. 

Sometimes before you know it, the sprint is upon you. With 500-250 meters remaining, you’ll increase your stroke rating by 2-4 strokes per minute and make a mad dash for the finish. If you’ve raced hard these will hurt like crazy. It’s possible that you’ll really want to stop now, you’ll want to slack off, you’ll want to look around for the finish line. Don’t. Stay focused. Try to stay calm. Try to pull absolutely as hard as you can. Your core will want to collapse here, but sit up straight (two words: more sit-ups!). Know that it will all be over in 1-2 minutes. Stay mentally sharp, keep your strokes clean, and resist the urge to fall apart.

The finish is usually marked with an air horn, sounded by a referee or volunteer “off stage,” off the race course. Don’t stop rowing before your horn blows and your coxswain/bow tells you it’s over. Laying off early, looking around, and stopping at another horn instead of your own are natural reactions when you want to make the pain stop. They'll also lose you races. Resist resist resist. Be sure you are really done before you stop rowing.

Yet “the end” is not “the end”! If you are on a short race course, you may have to row off the course quickly to make room for other boats finishing. Pay attention to your cox or bow and continue to listen for instructions. Like world class rowers, you’ll have to row your boat back to the dock, pull it out of the water, and carry it to slings or to your trailer or to your boathouse.

I love this part of rowing—that the work continues for everyone until you set your boat down. Teammates celebrate wins, comfort each other in loss, talk about the highs and lows, and get ready to do it all over again.