Vets Head of the River Race 2019

The Vesta Veterans’ International Eights Head of the River Race is a rowing race held annually on the River Thames over the Championship Course. The direction in which the event is raced changes from year to year, dependent on the time of the tides: ideally it is raced from Mortlake to Putney but other years it will be raced the other way. It is open to veteran (now known as masters) eights (and quads), who race in categories determined by the average ages of the eight rowers.

Helen Middleton (coach with Norwich High School for girls) and Jo, her friend from the Lea Rowing Club conceived the idea trying to race a very fast boat to race the Head of the Charles in Boston, USA in October 2019. They have got ex-internationals like AnnaMarie Phelps and Jo Toch involved and my work last year for BRIC earning me a reputation as an Erg Monster gave me an invite to join along with other members from the Lea Rowing Club ladies 1st eight, to which I obviously jumped at the chance. Unfortunately with everybody’s other commitments we were struggling to organise training outing, but when the opportunity to race Vets HoRR came up, suddenly many of the crew became available.

Helen unfortunately didn’t race, as she is suffering with a back injury at the moment, but she still came to London to support us. We met at Thames Rowing Club for our only practice paddle in the morning in the Lea’s Fillipi first eight.

As we rowed up to the start, our cox, Richard from the Lea, said afterwards that he knew we were a special crew, he could tell that there was competitive vibes in the boat because he felt the boat really pick up every time we paddled “lightly” past another crew. We practiced a couple of race starts - squeeze for two strokes at steady rate, then up the rate in one stroke to 34, settling at 31½. Vesta had changed the order of racing, sending the women’s crews out first for a change, so we started 19th.

Rowing the boat race course on the tidal Thames is always special and challenging as wind is often against tide, creating some monster waves. The early crews certainly had plenty of lumpy water to contend with! Our start felt amazing, the boat just picking up under us. We settled into race pace quickly, and then began overtaking crew after crew after crew. Each crew we passed gave us another hit of adrenaline to take us up to the next crew. Richard expertly coxed us with technical and motivational calls and demanded slower crews gave way to enable us to have a great line.

One benefit of being fast was that we were first in the showers after the racing, so there was still plenty of hot water! Then we derigged the boat and kept a close eye on phones as the results began to emerge. We soon realised we had won our age class, and eventually found we were the fastest Women’s crew of the whole event. A beer and some food at Thames, then another beer at Vesta while we waited ages for the official result and prize giving where we proudly received our pots and two pennants.

My children said, “Mummy it’s just like any of your other pots”, but I know different and how special it is to win Vets Head. The grin is still all over my face!

So what has been important in getting me there? The erg results from BRIC over the last few years have been instrumental in the recognition, but my 2018 personal best time could not have been achieved without the coaching I’ve received from Rob Kay, he worked with me on one to one basis setting personalised programs and monitoring progress. He even tailored my race plan to suit my mental and physical nuances.

Rob started coaching me in a boat in Summer 2018, and since he and I joined YBC in November 2018, he has coached my technique in a scull and changed my style to make more efficient use of the leg drive and have better poise.I converted from sweep oar to sculling 3 or 4 summers ago and bought my own boat soon after. For years I have been trying to scull in harmony with the boat and to feel confident enough to square earlier in preparation for the catch. Over the last couple of months, Rob has shown me how to achieve that goal. He broke it down into component parts; first he had me doing poise and balance exercises standing on the erg rail, flexibility exercises on land, learning how to utilise my shoulder stabilising muscles properly in the gym, followed by patient coaching using specific drills to illustrate each small movement pattern in the boat.I have then gone away each week and practised the exercises on my own ready for the following coached session.

Over the last couple of months my sculling abilities have improved dramatically, faster than ever before, and I can feel the boat moving more sweetly through the water (some of the time) with less effort, doing the work for me.

I now no longer dread doing Paddy’s run, and in fact relish the next event. The improvement in my efficiency means that I enjoy the run without stopping and my times are tumbling. I must say the results I’ve achieved in such a short time are dramatic, especially bearing in mind Rob claims he’s not a fan of sculling (or "the work of Satan" in his words), so thanks Rob for teaching me how to actually scull! I am now actually “enjoying” the investment I made in my boat, but the icing on the cake for me is being taken seriously enough to be considered to join such a crew as that with the Lea at VHoRR.

I’m now looking forward to getting back in a sweep boat in preparation for the Head of the Charles!