Thursday, 30 October 2014

Riding for the Disabled Association - Eastern Regional Conference

The day after Brit Champs I was riding at the RDA's eastern conference, which was held in a fantastic new venue called Houghton Hall, just outside Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. For several weeks, we had been practising a 'quadrille' during our RDA sessions - a musical ride made up of four sets of rider + horse.

Riding is such a lovely activity! I was really looking forward to this part of my weekend, especially after the rowing racing was cancelled. I like being with the others, and with the horses, and it's such a supportive atmosphere that I feel confident and comfortable even if my body isn't working properly. On the horse, I can ride with one hand and he doesn't mind. If I tried to row with one hand the boat would just tip me in! Also, it's easier for the instructors and volunteers to help us out than it is for anyone outside the boat to help you in a scull. I find that the riding challenges me without making me feel frustrated and helpless when my body won't work the way I want it to - instead, it's easier to find ways around difficulties.

Another thing about riding which is quite nice is that you actually have to make an effort to look good, which I don't spend much time on either whilst rowing or in everyday life. However, in honour of the occasion my mum plaited my hair - this might sound small but it's something I can't manage myself because of my awkward hands, so it definitely felt a bit special!
Fancy (ish) hair - next time there will be ribbons ;)
Anyway, my mum and I arrived at the venue the night before the main event so that we could all (horses and riders) have the opportunity to get used to the setting and to run through with full costume. The horses soon adapted to the strange echoey space they were now in, and didn't even bat an eyelid when all of the parents and carers who had come along were instructed to go round flipping all the flappy seats to make a lot of noise!
Me with Victor and our support team!


Once the horses felt happy we started our run-through, which went pretty well - and even better when the music was the right volume! We did one run-through with leaders, then tried it by ourselves, which actually turned out to be easier. The horses were all well-behaved and we left it feeling pretty confident that all would be well in the morning.
Finishing circles, getting back to the middle line, before coming from the four corners to converge as a 'box' in the middle.
On the Monday we arrived at Houghton in plenty of time to get togged up and mounted. At this point the nerves crept in a tiny bit but we all stayed pretty calm and focussed. There were a lot of people watching, but it felt like a really friendly audience so we just wanted to do well and to reflect the effort put in by all the volunteers at the group. There was another musical ride before us with much younger children taking part - they were really good as well so we had quite a big act to follow!

We began by just walking quietly around the edge so that the horses could get used to all the pairs of eyes on them. It definitely helped that they'd grown familiar with the environment the previous night, and to be honest they seemed pretty unfazed by the crowd. Once we had been introduced, and the horses were suitably relaxed, it was time to start and put all the hard work into fruition!

We began with a salute...
...then walked to the long sides before cutting across the school and meeting up again at either end...
...after some more manoeuvres at walk, we kicked on into trot and trotted round on a 20m circle in the middle of the school...
...we slowed back to walk and did some wiggly moves across the school in an S shape (which quite possibly has a proper name, but I don't know it!) before going back into trot to do a serpentine from one end of the school to the other, following each other...
...finally, we came back to the middle of the school and saluted again - then it was all over! We all felt it had gone really well, and it was quite exciting to be the subject of so many photos afterwards - for example, my mum got the one below, and we were also featured in the Cambridge News - fame at last!
Us in all our glory!
The rest of the event was an opportunity to see what else the RDA has to offer - including carriage driving, western horses, showjumping and, perhaps most exciting, a display from three-time gold medal winner at the Paralympics in dressage, Sophie Christiansen (OBE!). I was particularly excited to see her ride - I watched her on TV in the London Paralympics and was impressed by her control and her joy at doing so well. When I went to Royal Holloway to study a postgraduate course, I found that Sophie's golden letterbox was on campus, and that she had been a Masters student at RH too. Watching her ride was just fantastic. I'm afraid I don't have any pictures of her riding because I was too busy just watching and drinking it all in, but since she's such a high-flyer there are plenty of other places you can go to find videos or photos of her riding. I would recommend it!

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to go and meet Sophie and her beautiful horse, Janeiro 6. Sophie was very friendly and we chatted about our mutual interests of Royal Holloway and horses - she even posed for a picture with me (*star-struck*).
Janeiro getting involved too... sweet horse!
It sounds clich├ęd, but it was genuinely extremely inspirational to meet such a talented rider who is also such a lovely human being. Hopefully Sophie will have lots of success in Rio too, even if the Janeiro part of her partnership may be retired by then.
Beautiful but slightly suspicious horse...
I went away from the day feeling really positive and feeling full of admiration for the horses and volunteers who make the opportunities at the RDA possible. At the moment it's a small part of my life in terms of how much time I spend at the stables, but I'd love it to grow and I really hope that what I've done so far is just the beginning of a much larger experience. After our ride, we were each given a rosette and a medal. It felt as if our efforts were appreciated and recognised as well. I was also pleased to see that our reserve rider, Claire, was given a special mention and was introduced to the crowd for her own round of applause.

The RDA is fantastic at getting people involved and at making them feel that they are achieving things - something which, in my opinion, is lacking in adaptive rowing. The RDA's motto is 'it's what you CAN do that counts', and I think this says a lot. Adaptive rowing can be seen as something to help people recover from serious illness or injury, or as a means of dealing with a lifelong condition, but ultimately you receive no reward of your achievements from anyone unless you win a race. Under the current level of classification, the most disabled inevitably lose out under such a system. I don't think it's a problem with the para-rowing community, but just that all but the very biggest regattas (the national or international ones) you win nothing for coming second. This means that if you do win something you can feel rightly proud, but to be honest I feel no more proud of the prizes I've won for rowing than I do of the medal and rosette I was awarded by the RDA for taking part in a non-competitive event. To me, both types of award represent a triumph over disability rather than over other disabled people. I will treasure my RDA medal and rosette and can't wait to earn more: and I specifically mean earn more and not win more; winning is all well and good, but you don't have to beat everybody else to be deserving of recognition.
Earned - by all four of us (and four quadrupeds...but they don't have anywhere suitable to keep such things).

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A day out at the British Rowing Championships

So, at the weekend the British Rowing Championships were held at Holme Pierrepont, a watersports centre with a rowing lake in Nottingham. I was really excited (and really nervous!) because it was my first opportunity to race on the national scene, and I was determined to win a medal. After a rather shaky start to my career as a para-rower (what with immense flooding along the Thames taking me off the river for half the year, then a lot of illness and injury challenges), I'd been hoping that this might be a good way to round off year 1 and look towards year 2. I knew I wasn't feeling particularly healthy but I felt reasonably confident that I could give it a good go.

The para races weren't taking place until the Sunday, so I arrived in good time on the Saturday and prepared to stay overnight. I saw some pretty amazing rowing, including the fastest men's coxless four, featuring one of my heroes of rowing, Moe Sbihi. Once racing had finished for the day, I had the opportunity to head out on the lake for myself.
Heading out and feeling small...
Well, it was pretty windy! Holme Pierrepont is notoriously windy (probably something to do with the fact that races run from the north-east to the south-west, which is basically straight into almost every prevailing wind England ever has) and I got an opportunity to experience that for myself. To be honest, I didn't row very well to start with - I was pretty tense and although I wanted to relax and get into the swing of it a bit more I was a bit worried that I would just flip it (there were some exciting waves catching my blades). I was also really struggling to go in a straight line, because there was just the slightest amount of cross-wind pushing me over. Anyway, after spinning my lovely coach decided I should do some practice starts - argh! The first few didn't go too well; I rushed them out of panic and they were quite messy - but this is why we have practice. The last one I did was much better, and I finally started to relax and paddle reasonably well. The last little bit of paddling was pretty good, and I left the water a lot more confident than I'd felt when I first got on it.

But.......

It wasn't to be. The next day, the wind had picked up a bit. I arrived at the lake a bit later than intended, but saw a fellow para-rower also getting ready to boat. We exchanged words of excitement and lots of 'good luck!' before wheeling off in different directions - her to get changed and me to find my coach and get in the boat. I spotted my coach from a little distance away, standing near some Cambridge lightweight rowers she has also been working with, who were just boating with their 8+s. She walked towards me and then just said, 'I have some really bad news...your race is cancelled.' They weren't even running a time trial for para-rowers - the wind was too strong, and it wasn't safe to go out.

I have to be honest here, before I am fair, because my initial reaction was not a positive one - but there's no point me writing about it at all if I'm not honest.

Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, once I realised that my coach was serious my first reaction was to start crying. Now, I don't really like crying at the best of times, and I can't remember the last time I cried in public. This is mainly because crying is not a good look for me - in terms of both aesthetics and my own (perhaps silly) sense of pride, but mainly the aesthetics. As I sat in my wheelchair, surrounded by other people who were getting their boats out onto the water and going off to race, I was just so enormously disappointed that a huge amount of effort had gone to waste - not just my efforts on the water and in the gym, but also effort from my coach, from my mum (who had driven me up to Nottingham, booked - and paid for - a hotel, stayed with me, helped me get about, and so on) and from all the other para-rowers who had put in the same effort to come and race. There is also a lot of mental effort that goes into race preparation, which was really draining for me. I was already fighting a huge part of me that said I shouldn't really be rowing; that my body wasn't up to it. I had prepared myself to shove that part of me away until I had at least completed the time trial, and it had been a huge mental hurdle to make that decision and to take away the option to back out. Now, though, the decision had been made for me and it was the opposite of what I wanted to do. There are so few opportunities to race against other para-rowers that I had really cherished the thought of competing at the national championships, with world and Olympic champions at the same event. I'm not sure I'll be able to compete next year - my illness may have progressed too much. That was why I was so bitterly disappointed - this weekend might have been my only chance, and after a huge amount of effort and stress it had all ended in an enormous anticlimax. Luckily, Rosie (my border terrier) had accompanied us, so I picked her up, put her on my lap and sat and gave her the biggest hug in the world until I could control myself again to stop crying (I'd just like to repeat - HOW embarrassing).
Having a cuddle on a different occasion, when I wasn't upset!
Obviously, there was nothing to be done. Once I'd got over the initial shock and disappointment all I wanted to do was go and watch the Cambridge lightweight boys in their race - we share a coach, a trailer and a university, after all! Going round to the other side of the lake to watch the time trial crews was a bit bittersweet - it was amazing to watch some world-famous rowers racing for their clubs, and to be able to cheer on the Cambridge boys, but I was gutted that I couldn't be out there too. However, even just a bit further down the lake than from where I would have boated I could feel that the wind was very strong, and looking down the lake you could see that it would have been extremely challenging to take a single out. There was a strong headwind which was made even stronger by immense gusts. My boat is very narrow (narrower than my bum when I'm sitting perched on the seat!), I'm not hugely experienced (especially compared to some of the other rowers) and I do have trouble with grip and balance. I was precisely the kind of person that was being protected by the decision not to race, as I would have been one of the most vulnerable. My disappointment was still strong, but at least now I knew that I only had to be disappointed that the weather was bad rather than that the decision had been made - it was, without doubt, the right decision.

After watching the time trials, I met up with a couple of other para-rowers, who were equally disappointed but also pragmatic enough to agree that the decision had not been taken lightly by the race organisers, and that it was definitely the only decision that they could have come to. Going out on the lake in those conditions would not have given us good racing - I, for one, would primarily have been attempting to survive, and only secondarily attempting to race! As more and more crews were blown inside by the blustery weather outside, we could see that the entire event was under threat of cancellation - and in fact, in the end, there were no more races after the bigger boats had finished their time trials.
Spotting an Olympic/World Championship medallist - photobombed by (hopefully) a future Paralympic medallist!
Since we couldn't race, I was still keen to make the most of the day. I was already spotting some famous rowers (see Alan Campbell above!), and a bit of retail therapy at the rowing trade stands also made me feel a bit better, as did a good natter with other para-rowers. My lovely coach had kept my numbers and my competitor badge so that I could still have some memento of the day that proved I had entered and intended to race - I will keep them, as a reminder of what I aim to achieve.
My race number - complete with cute little pictures of safety pins!
So....yes, it was a disappointment that we didn't get to race, and it was quite tough to see other crews being awarded medals on the basis of time trials when we didn't get to do one. However, we all agreed that the conditions just weren't safe for us to go out. Any frustration that I felt (and perhaps still feel) is in no way directed at the race organisers - they had to make a horrible decision, which must have been tough for them, but it was the right choice and I am grateful that our safety was always more important than running a race. In a sense, it was not a decision made by people but rather one made by the weather gods - the people in charge had no other option. It's unfortunate, but there was nothing else to be done, and (if I'm honest and rational) it was just a race. There are far worse things in life than a rowing race being cancelled - ranging from flipping your single because you're out in conditions that you couldn't really cope with (which would have been a distinct possibility for me) to losing your home or even your life in Hurricane Gonzalo, as has happened in the Caribbean. What I'm trying to say is that wind is a bugger, but if the worst that happens is that your race is cancelled then you can't really complain.

I still had a good day. I'm not sure if I'll be able to race next year, but for the time being I'm going to focus on events that are coming up shortly; events that I can do - including indoor ones which hopefully will be weather-proof! I also need to write about what I got up to after leaving the rowing lake - riding in a quadrille for the first time at the Riding for the Disabled Association Eastern Regional Conference. But now I should probably do some work for my PhD...

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Nerves

It's been a few days since I last posted. I've been trying to make myself feel a bit better, so I can have some better outings and so I don't have to sound too negative in my posts. Thankfully, the cold I had last week seems to be clearing. My heart rate is still way higher than it should be, but the fatigue is gradually lifting. I've had a couple of trips to the lock and back in my single and today's trip felt like the best in a while.

I've been thinking a bit about the mental game of rowing. In the past, I only ever coxed crews with 4 or 8 rowers in. I didn't have to worry about how I would cope physically - I had to make sure that I knew exactly what I was meant to be doing, and where, and when, so that the rowers didn't have to worry about logistics or race plan, they just had to execute what I called. I had to know that I could look after my rowers - both keep them safe, and make sure that they ended the race feeling that I'd put them in the best position possible for a good result. This isn't always possible (one particularly galling occasion saw my boat being thrust to the outside of a bend by an incompetent 8+ we were attempting to overtake, who refused to move over, then moved over into us...) but ultimately your role is to protect your crew above all others.

My guys are the best and I will defend them to the ends of the earth!
This can be a huge mental challenge, especially if you're racing on unfamiliar water. However, it's something you can definitely prepare for. There's lots of research you can do online about a race - looking at the information provided by the organisers is a good start, but I also like to look up the course on google maps, check out the satellite view, find photos from previous years' events to see what the weather conditions seem to be like, and to try and work out what the best lines are - and of course you can ask your coach for advice. When I cox a race, I spend time thinking about the outings I've had with the crew running up to the race, and about what could potentially go wrong. That might sound quite negative, but it's a really good way of working out ways round problems when you don't actually have the pressure of having to deal with the problem right away. For example, you might think about what calls you could make if crews start to overtake you (or you want to overtake someone else) in a head race, and how you will steer - which way you should steer to get out of the way if you're the slower crew, so as not to impede people, or how aggressive to be if you're in the faster crew. In other words, there is work you can do with the internet and the experience of those who have been there before, and there's work you can do lying in bed not ready to go to sleep.

For rowing, it's a bit different. Being a good cox obviously comes from practice over time, but a lot of the race preparation described above can realistically come in the week before the race. As a rower, you can't just train for one week for a race. This means that in the run-up to an event you may be feeling very nervous that you haven't trained enough - that you shouldn't have had as many days off, or that if only you'd pushed harder in every single erg you've ever done in your life you might be unbelievably fast by now. This is the way I feel at the moment about Brit Champs, which is now less than a week away. I know I've trained quite a bit, but I would like to train more. Unfortunately, I know that I do train as much as I possibly can - I would love to do the training other people do, but my body can't handle that. Instead, I get to worry that I haven't done enough at the same time as worrying that I haven't rested enough. All of this worrying is compounded by the fact that, come Sunday, I will be alone in my little single, taking on the best that GB has to offer. I don't have other rowers to back me up and I don't have a cox to look after me. Once I'm on the water, that's it. One of the ways my coach has encouraged me to feel about Brit Champs is to see it as part of a process towards future events, instead of as the culmination of a year's work. I like that idea, and I think it's really appropriate for me since I've only just started to receive coaching.

The inevitable worrying is quite tiring though, and I don't know what to do about it. I wouldn't say I'm especially worried about any one thing in particular. I'm just anxious because I will be on a lake that I've never even seen before (except on google maps!) let alone rowed on, I don't know who my opposition will be, it's quite a lot of racing, and it's very high-profile - there will be no hiding. The fact that every time I read anything about the whole event (e.g. safety instructions, circulation plan, transport arrangements...) I just start to feel a bit sick demonstrates my nerves. I think it's nervous excitement, and I hope that once I actually get in the boat and push off and start rowing down to the start I'll feel a lot more in control. But at the moment, I just feel dreadful!

Kind of like a dog that knows it's being pathetic, but also knows it's depressed and everyone in the world is mean to it.
I know that I don't have to do it. Except, I do. I do now because I've entered, I've made it my goal and I've told other people. Most important out of those things is that it is my goal. It is something I have dared myself to do, so it is something I have to do. I have a problem with daring myself to do things. If I dare myself to jump off a 9-metre cliff into water, I have to do it, no matter how un-Tom Daley-like I am (and I'm really, really nothing like him - I don't know how he does it, he must have nerves of steel). In fact, my general approach to rowing is characterised by extreme aversion to actually being in the water. However, if you set yourself a challenge then there is nothing but ignominy in backing away from it for anything other than an extremely good reason. So far, no extremely good reason has come up to save me, so I just have to get on with it.

Yep, it's him [Him] again.
The certainty in my mind that I will do it and that I will, ultimately, be fine, is matched only by my utter terror at the idea of such a foolhardy endeavour. 'What was I thinking?!', my inner voice wails. The thing is, I had no choice. There are not enough adaptive events to be choosy about what you enter. And if I hadn't entered, I would have regretted it.

I also feel a certain sense of a clock ticking. Over the last two years, my body has deteriorated quite rapidly. I can't put off entering Brit Champs until next year because I might not be able to take part next year. I want to say that I've been, so I may as well do it now. And if I'm worried about my health impacting my performance even more than you would expect of an adaptive rower anyway (which I am), then I just need to remind myself that unless the doctors find a way to change my DNA then this might well be the healthiest I will ever be for the rest of my life. It's not an especially cheery thought, but it's rather good at giving me a kick up the backside to stop moaning and just get on with it. Also, there will be stalls selling rowing-related things, and there's nothing I like more than a bit of kit shopping.

'The correct number of lycras to own is n+1, where n is the number you currently own.' see The Rules of Rowing
So, given that there's no obvious way out, what can I do about the nerves? The second biggest thing, I think, is to train. Training is a good way of getting rid of nerves, not only because it addresses the fear of not being fast enough but also because it allows a release of tension and frustration. What else? Well, there's Downton Abbey that I need to catch up on. Also, I'm looking forward to seeing Rosie at the weekend, who will provide the canine element of my support team - and of course my mum, who will be the Chief Hugging Element! I've got something fun to look forward to for immediately after the event (riding!), which helps. I've got work to do which is a bit distracting (not enough!) and lots of music to play and sing, which is more so.

Beyond that, I think I should embrace the nerves. Nerves are inevitable. The single biggest thing that I think will help me is to think. I like thinking. I like working things out. I like having plans, and knowing what I'm meant to be doing. I do this with most aspects of my life, so thinking about the logistics of this Sunday will be no different. I hope that by thinking about the day in a positive way I will be able to work some of the fears out of my system. Lots of fears and worries come from those things that we don't fully mull over. They eat away at us because we don't sit down with them, make them a cup of tea, and take them to task over their irritating habits. Therefore, I am going to make a list of the things that worry me about a weekend. I will then address each point in turn until I am satisfied that I am no longer feeling sick about it, and instead am excited.

That's the plan, anyway. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Teeny weeny steps

In the old days, when I did a lot more coxing than rowing, I used to find that asking a chap to take a 'small tap' (i.e. a very tiny stroke, just to straighten the boat up a bit) seemed to strike them deep inside at some inner manliness centre, and they would invariably feel driven to take a larger tap than they would otherwise - just to demonstrate that their 'small' tap was actually quite powerful, so boy! think what their whole stroke could do.
Testosterone so strong you could put it in your pipe and smoke it.
If you are a rower reading this and you do that, don't. Just stop it. It's annoying. It means that the whole crew then has to sit and wait whilst the relevant pair decides which of them is most manly with their tapping, and time is wasted.

One of the ways of getting round this was to ask for a 'teeny weeny tap'. This always seems to be so excruciatingly embarrassing for most of the people concerned that they don't want to hear it again, so just perform a nice, gentle tap, exactly as I want them to. Thus, 'teeny weeny' has become a favourite of mine in many of the things I do - ask for a small change in the boat and you won't get it (or you'll get a massive one); ask for a 'teeny weeny' change and you'll get what you want.

'Teeny weeny' is useful in general life too. Sometimes I have to remind myself that 'teeny weeny' change or effort is not just the biggest I can do but the best too. Yesterday was a good example of this. I really wasn't feeling great - very tired, as if I didn't know how to move my limbs any more, and with a very high resting heart rate, which I get a lot when my POTS is bad, and which is tiring in itself. By the end of the evening, I was really breathless and had really bad pains in my arms and legs. None of this helped me to feel keen to train, but taking a 'teeny weeny' approach helped.

Before my teeny weeny training session I watched two of the boys from my old club complete a 2k erg test. This is something of a standard in rowing. It's very straightforward: you set up the erg to count you down from 2000m, then see how long it takes you to get down to 0. As a very rough guide, international men will manage it in under 6 minutes, club male rowers and international female rowers under 7 (sometimes significantly so), and so on. Lightweights take a bit longer, as do older (Masters or veteran) rowers. The two boys doing their tests yesterday achieved 6:21.8 and 7:02.0. I have done one 2k test, by myself for 'fun', and it was awful, so I won't tell you the result. Luckily, adaptive rowers tend to race over 1k (especially on the erg) which is much more manageable!
A sight to inspire a quickening of the pulse in any rower...
My role at the test was to 'cox' or coach it - to encourage and inspire, but also to spot potential technical weaknesses before they became severe and to get the rower focused on technique again. Coxing a 2k is quite a difficult thing to do: for you, it's not really very tiring, but for the poor rower it is just about the most exhausting thing you can think of. It was quite nice for me to be around people that erg well again, and to practise spotting technical points (not that there were many; these boys were pretty good!). It also made me feel a bit better about joining them on their cool down erg - I was feeling rough, but they were also knackered so we'd all be weak together!

So, this is how I ended up doing a 20 minute erg with a heart rate at c.140bpm before even starting... Needless to say, I felt pretty weak throughout, but I had one target and that was to finish above 4km: that is, to average just over 1km every 5 minutes. This isn't really a difficult target, but it felt the best I could do. In the end, I managed 4367m. It wasn't great, but it was a teeny weeny step. Just like my session on the water, it was a session designed to prove not only physically that I could still achieve things whilst feeling terrible, but also to prove that mentally. I felt afterwards that I'd done the right session - light, but still achieving something. Teeny weeny steps indeed.
We don't need to tell him how teeny weeny he is - he's happy not knowing.

Monday, 6 October 2014

POTS problems - bad day.

Today has not been a great day. I have a slight cold, which shouldn't really be too problematic in itself, but it has affected my POTS quite badly. POTS, or Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, is defined medically as 'the failure of the peripheral vascular system to appropriately vasoconstrict under orthostatic stress' (you can read more from the person who wrote that definition here). POTS is a form of dysautonomia: a malfunction of the autonomic system, which we rely on to control the 'automatic' functions of the body. Patients with POTS experience enormous problems in keeping their heart rate (and sometimes blood pressure) at a steady level whilst going about every day life.

I find that the extent to which POTS affects me does fluctuate from day to day, and from week to week. Recently, I hadn't been too badly affected: I always have to make sure that I don't stand up too quickly, and I'm completely unable to do anything that involves lots of changing head heights or posture, such as burpees or squat jumps (what a shame!), but I have generally been feeling OK from the POTS point of view. However, the beginnings of a cold - which really is very minor! - have been enough to make my POTS much worse.
Not these kinds of pots.
This is a list of things which have made me black out or feel very dizzy today:
1) Sitting in my wheelchair, and tilting my head back to look up.
2) Standing up slowly - but not slowly enough - to walk to the kitchen.
3) Rowing for more than a couple of minutes at a time (and, as I got further through my session, for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time)
4) Having a warm but not hot shower (hot really would have made me collapse in a heap!).
5) Going more than an hour without eating something salty (helped a bit by having some hula hoops, yummy).
6) Blowing my nose!

The most frustrating thing was how badly my POTS affected me in the boat today. I only intended to have a reasonably light session anyway, but there was a point when I almost felt quite panicky, because I genuinely didn't think I would be able to make it back to the boat house at the rate of progress I was making (especially as there was A LOT of wind and not much of it was a tail wind!). I found that I could barely row for a couple of minutes without having to stop, and after a while this had gone down to about 20-30 seconds, which was really frustrating. I really wanted to push myself through it, but I knew that that was actually just really dangerous (and wouldn't help). The annoying thing was that I deliberately chose to go out in the boat instead of to train on the erg - which would have been safer - because I wanted to get fresh air to try and wake myself up a bit.
I felt a bit a lot like this.
Tomorrow I do have the boat booked but if I'm feeling anything like today then I might have to see whether erging, weights or a rest would be better. I'm now very aware that it's less than two weeks until Nat Champs, and I want to be training hard. If I just had a cold, I feel that I would be able to push through it a bit more, but when my heart rate is really high when I'm just sitting still, and when I start blacking out just by moving my head, then doing any meaningful training is just impossible. I know I need to accept that days like today happen, and that I should just concentrate on doing whatever will make me healthy in time for Nat Champs. Sometimes, though, it's a really hard thing to accept. My condition is so unpredictable, but one thing I do know is that I will be feeling like this for a while now, and I just want it to calm down in time for the 19th October. At least on days when I really cannot get out of bed I know I don't have the option of training at all - but on a day when I can get up and move about, albeit with difficulty, I feel that I should be pushing myself a bit harder. It's a really hard balance to get right.

I'm aware that this doesn't sound tremendously positive. I wouldn't say that I feel as bad as this post might make it sound. I am frustrated, certainly, and annoyed at myself (although I can't really explain why). However, I am pleased that despite feeling pretty dreadful I still went out in a boat and worked on some technical points. I'm also quite pleased that I used the opportunity of needing to sit down a lot to do quite a lot of university work. I know that today isn't as bad as it gets, but I also know that I often have much better days. I'm still confident that I can go on to achieve more, and that I will feel better than this some days. If I'm honest, I am afraid that I am gradually getting worse and worse. However, the stubbornness within me is as strong as ever.
It's a hill - get over it.
I struggled today, physically and mentally. It did kind of help that there was no-one around to help me (the weather was bad, so the river was empty except from one other sculler, who I passed on his way home quite early on) and I had to battle against the elements to get home - I had no choice, so I just had to keep on pushing and get myself there, however badly I rowed and however long it took. I think it's important that I have moments of mental weakness as well as physical weakness. No-one is genuinely strong all the time - we might say we are, but we all have doubts about our capabilities; about whether we're 'doing the right thing' or not; about whether we shouldn't just stay inside and read a book. Today, on the reach, battling against head winds, I seriously doubted whether or not I should just give up rowing. Physically, I'm struggling a lot more now than I was a year ago, and today in particular compounded my 'give up now' sense. But what's the point in trying the rest of the time if I give in after one rough patch? Why give up now, when I haven't achieved what I want to yet? More importantly, why give up now, before I've even attempted to achieve what I'm aiming for? I can't do that to myself, however tempting it is. I would rather be the slowest rower at Nat Champs and at least say that I tried than be the one who pulls out because she thought she couldn't do it.

EDS is a really tough illness. It affects so much of your body, and you can't predict what's going to happen next. It stops you from eating properly (and fuelling yourself is pretty important for rowers!). It stops you from pumping blood properly (important in quite a lot of sports, actually...). It stops you from moving properly (you get the idea). But it also makes you tired; so bone-achingly tired that your mind is numbed by fatigue because it is so tired of registering the pain. When your mind starts to suffer, you just lose the will to fight a bit, and depression starts to take over. The voice inside you that said 'just keep going!' begins to be drowned out by the voices telling you not to bother; that there's no point trying; that you'd be better if you didn't draw attention to yourself; that you're a failure. Sooner or later, you wonder whether you're fighting a mental illness or a physical one, but of course it's both.
This - courtesy of stickmancommunications.co.uk
If you have a serious physical illness, then sooner or later you have to face the fact that it takes its toll emotionally. Sometimes that takes over your entire waking (and sometimes sleeping) existence. Other times it creeps up on you when you don't expect it. Today, before feeling my really depressed moment, I had sat calmly in my boat, alone on the river, and looked up at the first bit of slightly bright sky I'd seen all day. There was not another person in sight - not on the river, or the towpath, or in the meadows to one side where people walk their dogs. I was completely alone, but I felt so free - free, because I was in a boat, which is where I can move smoothly and with relative ease; free, because I was out here by myself and in my element. This was not five minutes before suddenly feeling hopeless, scared, useless and unworthy. The negative feeling came from nowhere, and I wasn't able to return to that state of wonder, liberty and fulfillment which I had experienced just a few minutes before.

I'm hoping that I will now be able to quash the negative feeling in just the same way that it got rid of my positive feeling. The thing is that however positive I want to be, and however many inspirational comments I read, I am all too aware that sometimes there is such a thing as 'can't', and that the impressive but ultimately misguided folk who say that there isn't haven't yet tried to row at race pace for more than 30 seconds when 30 seconds at normal rate is enough to black out. I am only in control of so much: I can control the work I do in a boat (as far as I can control my own limbs); I can control, to an extent, my attitude towards the work, but I cannot control my health. I can do as much as possible - which is partly why I row - but I cannot make myself healthy when even medical professionals draw a blank.

So, how to conclude? Today was tough. Tomorrow will be tough. But, so far, it isn't tough enough to stop me completely. I don't want to end on something which is unrealistically positive, because to be honest right now I'm not feeling positive, and I think it would be dishonest of me to try and be all inspirational by saying that I feel great and I'm going to keep fighting. That is because the honest truth is that I feel terrible, but I will keep fighting. I hope that's good enough for now.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Race!

Today I did a race on the River Cam. It was 2.6km in my single, which is quite a long way for me! Still, when I go to the National Championships in two weeks' time I will have to race 3km in one day, although it is separated into one 1k slog and one 2k one. This was therefore an opportunity to get some practice at putting bits of technical work into my higher rate/pressure paddling. My aim was not to win my category (entered as W.Nov.1x) but just to beat someone - anyone. Preferably not just juniors though...

I was heading off in division 1, which was tipped to have the best weather: there was to be a tail wind on the reach (the 'long straight bit' of the Cam) and no rain was expected. Well, I got lucky on the rain, but as I turned onto the reach there was definitely a head wind, so that was a bit of a shame! Later in the day the wind dropped down, but it did start to pour with rain. I'd probably just about rather have wind than rain - wind slows you down a lot, but you just have to be strong and keep on trying to push into it. Rain shouldn't slow you down as much, but it makes your kit heavy, it affects your visibility, it makes you cold while you're marshalling, and it can make it really hard to keep a good grip on the oar handles. Since my grip is one of my biggest problems (thanks to EDS), I'm never keen to add slippery handles into the mix.

I started the day with a good breakfast and plenty to drink, before heading down to the boathouses to pick up my number and get my boat ready. There was a really good atmosphere at the club - some hardy rowers had just got back from an early morning session in coxed boats, and there was another lady heading out to race in my division, so the place was jolly and lively without being stressful - just what you need before a race.

Starting the row down, however, it became apparent that my body wasn't quite where I wanted it to be. I had quite a lot of spasm in my shoulders and arms, meaning that I was really struggling to move them freely and stay nice and loose. This put me off balance, which made me even more tense. I also let myself get fazed a bit by the other competitors heading down to the start with me - some were a lot faster, and although I got some good practice in pushing them off, I was nearly mown over a few times! On the final bit before spinning I tried a short burst of higher rate rowing, which wasn't great. I didn't want to leave it on a negative note, so I slotted in another very short burst, which was slightly better. I began to feel that my shoulders might be loosening a bit, which was good - it now wasn't long until the start!

When I reached my marshalling point, I spun the boat round and pulled in. My coach and I sat on the bank and chatted about this, that and the other. At this point it was actually quite sunny and warm - certainly warm enough for me only to wear a unisuit in the race, which is pretty unusual in October. Sitting and having a chat in the sun definitely helped me to loosen my stiff muscles a little bit more, so that I felt a bit more confident hopping in the boat. I wasn't quite happy that my grip would be OK, or that my arms wouldn't tense up, but I was confident that I could reach the other end in one piece!

Chatting with my coach during marshalling, just before pushing off for the race.

I set off in front of two doubles, each with junior girls rowing in them. My main aim was to hold them off as long as possible. The very first few strokes were perhaps a bit tidier than I had expected - right at the start, there is an outlet of water which can knock a single around quite a bit, but I stayed as far away from it as possible and was only vaguely aware of it knocking the shell. I didn't quite have the looseness in my shoulders that I wanted, but I had settled into a much better rhythm than when I did the practice run on Wednesday - a lower rate, but a more powerful one, and definitely a more sustainable one.

Rowing up to the start
The first corner was a bit dodgy - I was optimistic with my steering (underestimating the wind), which meant I very briefly brushed the bank - fortunately I managed to push off again quite quickly so it didn't have too terrible an effect on my overall time. After the first corner, the course is a bit more sheltered for the next few hundred metres, although it is rather bendy. These bits went quite nicely; probably nicer than in training. It was really nice not to have to look to check that the river was clear all the time, in the safe knowledge that there would be nothing coming in the opposite direction!

Coming round the last big bend, the wind hit. It often hits at this point, and you then fight it all the way up the reach, so I was used to squeezing into it from training. What was not quite so usual was how tired I felt at the same time! However, I now had the first of the two junior doubles coming up quite hard, and I wanted to push them away for as long as possible. Trying to make sure I wasn't obstructing them, I managed to make it to one of the next mental marker points (basically a hedge!) before beginning to fold more quickly. Having them there gave me a really good visible marker, and something else to think about for a bit - and the best thing that happened was that as soon as they had gone another turned up, so I had it all over again until after the railway bridge (yay!).

Last big bend - finally getting the balance between 'tight line' and 'no longer on the wet bit'.
After this, I'm not sure I remember too much...I was mostly quite tired. I was just trying to cling on, and trying to force my legs to keep on firing. My quads were basically shot (they are also in spasm most of the time, so it's quite hard to make them work!), but I wanted to keep feeling a nice, powerful push from them. The two photos below demonstrate how I felt at the finish...
Brush sweat away from eyes..............                                                     ....... and collapse!

So, did I achieve my aim?

Well, my target was to beat some other people, preferably in my category, but I wasn't too fussy - I just didn't want to be the slowest. Out of the eight women entered as novice scullers (including me) - 4 British Rowing, 4 Cambridgeshire Rowing Association, I came 6th - which I was pleased with! Overall, there were 138 crews racing - this includes singles, doubles and pairs; juniors, Masters; men and women. Out of them, I came 124th - so nowhere near the top, but then my aim was to beat someone. It didn't matter how many people I beat: as long as there was one crew slower than me, I'd be happy. Since 14 crews were slower (including a men's novice 1x!), I'm a happy bunny.
Rather like this fine chap.
However, I want to be able to step up another gear before Nat Champs. Two weeks left - still time for some hard work. What is really gutting is that I have no control over how my body will feel on the day. It might be better than today; it might be worse. I really hope that my spasms will calm down in my arms (realistically, they won't in my legs or back, but it'd be nice if one bit of me works without getting tired after 90 seconds!), and that my nerves down my left side behave themselves. However - 'control the controllables' is the motto, so that is my aim. I will make myself as fit as I possibly can be, and not stress about what I can't control.

And now, it is definitely time for bed!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Bendy Rider

Thursday afternoons are definitely something to look forward to: they're riding days. I stop pretending to know how to row, and pretend that I know how to ride instead. When I was a lot younger I did an awful lot of riding - even owning my own horse, Rocky - but after fracturing my spine when I was 13 I was unable to look after Rocky and I certainly couldn't ride him.
Early days!
I took a long break to allow my vertebrae to knit together and my discs to reinflate! However, by the time I got back into riding I was having lots of problems with my legs, and the muscles that had been damaged around my spine were still extremely painful. I still loved being with the horses, but riding for any length of time was now agonising. I also felt that I wasn't riding very well - I couldn't keep my legs in the right position because they started to spasm, and I found it tough to sit up tall because my back was still so weak. I therefore ended up riding very infrequently. Every time I did it again, I loved it - but it hurt! I had some amazing rides, of which probably the best was riding a Camargue horse across the salt plains of southern France and down to the sea. It was such an amazing experience, and although it hurt my legs it was definitely worth it. I knew I really, really wanted to do more.
With my Camargue steed, Zelda.
The breakthrough came when I met someone at the National Para-Rowing Development Camp who had got involved with the Riding for the Disabled Association. I had been aware of the RDA for a long time, but wasn't really sure how to go about getting involved. Talking to this other rider/rower, I was really inspired to find out more. As I was soon to be moving house, I looked up all the centres that were local to my new home, and found that there were loads - getting involved in disabled riding is definitely easier than getting involved in disabled rowing! One quick phonecall to the lady in charge and I was all set up to have my first session with them just two days later. Here's how I got on...

Week One - breaking myself back in

For my first session, I was on a pretty and slightly cheeky-looking little horse called Jacko. I discovered that riding a horse is one of those things where you don't really forget how to do it altogether, but you do quickly fall into bad habits. My session started gently, being led on the lead rein until I was used to Jacko and he was used to me. I eventually progressed to walking and trotting without someone on the lead rein - which was great for feeling independent, but less great when Jacko also wanted to be independent and felt he knew better than me about a twenty-metre circle!

The session really was fantastic. All the staff and volunteers were friendly and helpful, and were very concerned that I should a) have fun and b) not overdo it. I definitely had fun, and I didn't overdo it - it was just right for getting back into the swing of things. I also found it really liberating (I think that's the right word) to be in an environment where I did not feel frustrated at my lack of ability to perform simple tasks, embarrassed by having to ask people to help, or ashamed for having to admit my limitations. I try not to feel embarrassed or ashamed too much of the time, but I'm not very good at curbing frustration (as my rowing coach will testify!). However, at the stables I just felt that any problems I might have were not seen as insurmountable obstacles. This is usually true of rowing as well, but the RDA had a particularly supportive atmosphere, since they are so used to dealing with disabled riders. Often in rowing clubs there are some people who aren't very supportive or understanding of para-rowing (even if that is not their intention), which makes me feel bad for being so useless. There was none of this at all at the RDA - they just seemed to second-guess every problem I might have, and were there to lend support before I even asked for it.

Week Two - thrown in at the deep end!

After my first session, I was asked to take part in a 'quadrille' at the RDA regional conference, which will be later in October. I thought this sounded fun and exciting and definitely the kind of thing I'd like to be involved in, so I said yes straight away, not really being aware of what I was agreeing to! Soon enough, I received an exciting piece of post, which was actually the first post I'd received at my new address - so doubly exciting! The envelope contained an A3 sheet of paper with a series of complicated coloured squiggles drawn on it. I was to ride Victor (dark blue line), and soon set about limping around the living room, learning my moves...
So, I go forwards, stop, salute, go forwards again, turn left, then left again, then left again, then I'm at the end of the second one...you get the idea.
Well, I tried really hard and I learned the moves. I felt quite confident going to the stables on the Thursday, and was really looking forward to putting it all into practice with a horse, three other horse/rider pairs and, of course, music!

What no-one told me is that the instant you get on a horse, it all switches round in your head. I was almost completely useless, and certainly completely dependent upon the shouted instructions we were receiving. Somehow it all looked upside down and back to front. I messed up cutting across the school to form a little box of horses in the middle; I did my 'wiggly bits' wrong, and I failed to walk at the same speed as my partner the other side of the ring.
How it looked the next week - slightly less clueless...
We tried it again. This time it was a bit better - I had a slightly better idea of where we were going; I didn't mess up at cutting across the school and my wiggly bits were just that bit neater. I even nearly managed to be at the right speed all the time! I certainly felt much better after the second run-through - as if the whole thing were possible after all. However, I was aware that I'd need to do a lot more work on memorising the moves - doing it at home was all well and good, but now that I'd done it properly with the group it was time to go through those moves again in my head and really figure out what was going to happen, where and when. It was a challenge alright, but I was definitely looking forward to it!

Week Three - putting it in to practice

Week Three basically started where Week Two left off - I spent the days in between sessions pacing out the quadrille moves and trying to make sure that instead of just marking out a little practice ring at home ('turn left at the mug'; 'start a circle when you reach the stapler') I was also thinking about where I was moving in relation to the other riders and the ring itself. This sounds like an obvious thing I should have done from the outset, but it's really hard to imagine what's going on until you've actually done it in person. Maybe that will get easier as I get more experienced, but as it's my first ever quadrille I reserve the right to take it slowly!
A very miniature arena!
I had company going to my third session - a friend who had an exam earlier in the day, and was having a celebratory trip out. He also proved to be a useful photographer, so all the photos from here on are his! This session went quite well from my perspective - I remembered what I was meant to do without being prompted, and certainly executed the moves better than last week. Unfortunately, one of the other riders was feeling really ill, so she wasn't able to ride. One of the brilliant volunteers ended up running around the ring in place of her and her horse - we were all tired so she definitely got a good workout! It felt really good to go through the whole thing a couple of times without worrying about what was coming next, and it also gave us a chance to practise getting certain bits really well synchronised with each other.
Ready to go - I'm in the one in the foreground with the daft hat.


There were a few bits I didn't do quite right - I didn't stop nicely in line with everyone else at the beginning of the second run, and at times my trot was either too fast or too slow. I was also struggling a bit with the trotting moments - we do rising trot (where you stand up and sit down in time with the horse's leg movements), but my feet were completely numb, which made it quite hard to do the standing up bits. I also struggled with keeping the reins held in my left hand properly - I couldn't keep my hand in the correct position because I had a muscle spasm in my arm which just prevented me from holding it properly unless I moved my entire shoulder as well - which would have looked even worse! However, my body didn't give up completely, and it wasn't too painful, so I felt quite pleased at the end. Certainly my horse, Victor, deserved a big pat and a cuddle - which I was happy to supply.
Good horses.
All in all, it felt like a good, useful session. I'm really looking forward to having the routine polished and to performing it at the regional conference. I just hope that we can rise to the occasion and really show off all the work that the volunteers have put in (they've easily put more work into it than I have, I'm quite sure - and I've worked quite hard!). Let's see how the practice goes next week...

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Begin like you mean it

So, I've been rowing for a while, and para-rowing for about a year. In that time I've done a fair bit of training, although, thanks to the flooding that swept the Thames and much of the rest of England in winter 2013-14, a lot of that was off the water. Over the summer I did a bit of racing, all of it in wide boats. It was hard to train, however - I wasn't actually living anywhere near a river that was big enough for rowing (the brook in my village is only about a foot deep and not wide enough for two sculling blades), so water sessions were very sporadic. I did a lot of training at the gym, then overdid it, and got really tired, which took me out of training for quite a while.

But - dramatic drumroll - now, I'm back. I'm not fit, exactly, but I'm now in the right place, literally and metaphorically, to work on technique on the water and strength and fitness in the gym. For the first time ever, I live close to a rowing club and I have a coach who will be overseeing my training, pointing out all my weaknesses, telling me how to correct them, and helping me to set realistic but ambitious goals. Over just the last three days I've started living the dream of being able to get several water sessions a week, and having the time and space to concentrate on technique. This entry is dedicated to the work I've done so far!

Setting goals

I have some big goals and some smaller ones. The smaller ones are sometimes quite general ('finally sort out square blades paddling' or 'come to feel really comfortable in a fine shell') and sometimes more specific, e.g. 'enter a small head race and beat SOMEONE'. The first attempt at this latter aim will be this Saturday, in Cambridge Small Boats Head, which is run by Rob Roy Boat Club. As an adaptive rower, it has to be said that the entry process has been aided enormously by the good folk at Rob Roy (and one Stefan in particular). I felt it was only fair to point out to them that, although I wanted to enter the Novice category, I was adaptive - that way marshals and umpires are aware that I might need a bit of extra space and time. Plus, the people who draw up the start order know not to put me in front of anything potentially fast! Stefan has really risen to the occasion, and has gone out of his way to help me take part. It'd be great if other race organisers could take the same interest in making races accessible to and safe for adaptive people. Hopefully it'll all go OK on the day as well!

Bigger goals are things like 'race at the National Championships' and 'medal at BUCS indoor rowing event and the British Indoor Rowing Championships'. They are daunting goals but I want my bravery, determination and sheer stubbornness to be as big as (or preferably bigger than) the anxiety, nerves or plain fear that I will feel on the start line. The thing is that there are so few events at the moment for adaptive rowers that there isn't a level in between competing at local regattas and competing in the big events. So, I just have to man up and get on with it! In any case, it gives my training a focus and gives me a purpose every day when I'm tired and struggling physically. I want to compete and be competitive at a national level. To do that, I have to ignore or work around every part of my body that is wondering why on earth it got partnered with such a ridiculous brain.

This means that a big goal for me (like 'race at Nat Champs') is not just a case of ticking off my attendance on the day. For me and for all other adaptive rowers (and para-sports enthusiasts in general), it's a case of fighting against what might be your better judgement on a daily - or hourly - basis. A really good example of this is not only the Paralympic Games but also the Invictus Games, which ran for the first time recently. One of the things that is particularly inspiring about the Invictus athletes is that most of them started off life fit and healthy, remaining so in order to pursue their career. After injury, however, they gritted their teeth and just found a way round their new disability, with the determination that nothing would stop them from continuing to achieve near-superhuman feats.
"...'tis but a scratch."
The Invictus athletes provide all para-rowers with a lot to live up to. It's about overcoming physical difficulty through mental fortitude, so that as you row down to the start line you know that, whatever the result, you have achieved something enormous. Where plenty of healthy people sit around and do nothing, you have overcome illness and injury to fight against the disadvantage your body has declared; to put yourself through something that makes you stronger physically and mentally. This isn't something that happens overnight. It's not a decision that you make; that one day you'll suddenly start becoming this person. It's not a constant either - you can move towards achieving the goal, then suffer a setback, and arguably you can never completely achieve a goal like mastery of an unwilling body. This is why it's such a big and daunting prospect - it's ultimately an unachievable task. The more you achieve, the harder it gets to reach the next milestone.

This all sounds very miserable and not at all fun. At times, that's how it feels too. Over time, however, it's amazing to feel your body strengthen; to feel the mind grow in resilience; to achieve things you never thought possible before. Achieving these goals is pretty much something that happens by accident - you don't really realise how far you've come until something reminds you of where you used to be. It is that realisation that makes it worth doing. That's why we all keep on fighting. That's why disabled people should do sport, even if it makes some symptoms worse, or adds yet more pain to an already broken body. In the immediate sense, it's hard work: really, really hard work. Over time, however, it pays dividends. It's one of the only goals that, once achieved, affects every aspect of your life.

Small steps

On Monday I had my first official coached session and it was ace. My coach had me doing some tapping drills at various positions up the slide, some square blades paddling arms only and arms and bodies only, then got me to do some balance exercises, such as taking one blade out of a gate and waving it around above my head, or standing up in the boat. If this doesn't sound like much fun to you, then please rest assured that initially I had my doubts about my ability to perform every single aspect of the plan!

We started off with tapping. Actually, that's not true, we started off with getting the boat out. My balance is appalling and my arms (like the rest of me) are short, so I've always worried about putting the oar in the gate which is hanging over the water and not hanging over the bank. My coach helped me to learn how to do it by myself without tipping myself in (but I still don't like it!) and, with that, I was soon in the boat and pushing off. That was when the tapping started...

Tapping drills are where you simply start with the blades in the water, then lower the hands together so that the blades come out of the water, then allow the hands to rise again so the blades pop back in. That's all you do - over and over. It's quite a therapeutic motion really, or at least it is at back stops, where the balance is easier. In my sessions over the last couple of days I have made it up to about half slide reliably, but beyond that (when my hands move away from each other properly) it gets a lot harder. I'm sure this is true for most people but it is especially true for me as I have such a terrible sense of where my hands are unless I'm staring directly at them - but with only one pair of eyes it's quite hard to watch both hands! For any non-rowers out there, in a tapping drill (and in rowing in general) the key is to keep your hands at the same height as each other. However, if you have a neural feedback system that refuses to tell you what height your hands are then it all becomes more complicated. This is not an excuse! I will overcome it and be jut as good as everyone else, eventually - it'll just be harder and take longer, and I will probably have a few extra worrying wobbles along the way.

After the tapping was deemed satisfactory, I moved to square blades paddling, with the warning, 'don't get frustrated'. Well, boy, I tried hard but I did get a bit frustrated. I know I can row square blades in a wide boat, but I wanted to be able to do it in a fine shell too. I also know that when things are first attempted and then seem completely impossible it is because you've only spent 20 seconds trying. However, after about 20 minutes of trying, when I was still failing to do anything convincingly balanced for more than two consecutive strokes, I was getting a bit annoyed. Soon I was moved on to rowing 'arms and bodies' square blades. I was then left me to paddle around by myself for a bit and try and figure out how to row properly!

Success! For one stroke only...
Funnily enough, it soon became apparent that if I did what I had been told to do (keep the wrists flat, don't draw in too far, keep the hands on a level plane, etc.) it became much, much easier. I also realised that the arms and bodies paddling was easier if (as I had been told...) I remembered to do the sequencing correctly (body swings, then arms come in) instead of just panicking and doing it all in a jumble. It's amazing the effect a coach can have! These were all points that I knew perfectly well from coxing, yet trying to recreate them for myself in a fine single was a completely different matter. As soon as I actually tried, instead of just thinking, 'well this is silly and impossible', I began to achieve things.

ONE SMALL STEP!

By what was nearly the end of the session I was reasonably comfortably paddling around with square blades, without using my legs at all yet. It was by no means consistent, but as long as I remembered EVERY minute detail then it was jolly well near perfect! For two strokes, anyway...

The last thing we did in the session was some 'playing' with balance exercises. There is a picture of one of these exercises on my first blog entry here (scroll to the bottom). Unfortunately there are none of me standing in the boat, which means I might have to attempt it again in order for photos to be taken (hopefully before the big sploosh). I found the standing up quite hard, because my legs aren't really very good at supporting my weight in that way! Although I was terrified of taking my blade out of the gate, I actually preferred that exercise, since at least I got to sit down... Anyway, it did feel like a big achievement to do something that I'd never attempted before, and more importantly I felt much more confident the next day when I went for a little paddle.

Another small step!

Reinforcing small steps

On Tuesday, I hadn't really intended to go for a paddle. Tuesday was the day that I officially started my PhD (oh yeah, that thing) by having my first meetings with my two supervisors. These meetings were in London, and I wouldn't have had time to go rowing before and wasn't sure I'd have time after either. I also thought there might be a possibility that I would have been set quantities of work that could only be described as biblical, but fortunately that did not happen! So, I got back in plenty of time to go for a decent paddle.

I didn't want to do anything too tiring, since Wednesday was going to be a reasonably heavy day in the boat. I mainly had fun trying out the square blades paddling that I'd done on Monday, getting myself a bit more confident and trying to make those technical points come a bit more naturally. I do think this is the secret to good rowing - get the technique engrained to the extent that you don't really need to think any more! I was gratified to find that I hadn't deteriorated overnight quite as much as I had feared, and that although my paddling was by no means perfect at the end of the session it was certainly still a lot better than my early attempts on Monday had been.

A mental small step - technique did not move backwards!

Putting it into practice...Part One of Many.

Today was my first attempt at the entire head race course on the River Cam in a single. I've done it in larger boats (where I didn't have to worry about steering, and when I had 7 other rowers helping me out), I've done it many times in training but only at lower rates, and I've done it ad nauseam as a cox, so I know the tricky bits, the timing points, and the fact that in my little single it would take approximately forever.

My paddle down started with (yes, you've guessed it!) square blades paddling, which was almost looking passable. Once warmed up and feeling comfortable, I moved up to full slide and focussed on getting a good flow going, with plenty of leg length and a nice squeeze on through the middle of the drive - it felt good to use the legs again! Paddling down towards the start of the head race course I met a few college crews out rowing - it's the beginning of the college training weeks, but at 3pm there were very few crews out, and I didn't see any other boats at all for the last 2k or so.
Emptiness = sheer bliss (and easier steering...)
Having reached the lock where I would spin, I decided to give myself time to do some more tapping and square blade drills, since most head races start with a fair bit of faff and it's good to do something to keep moving. That's one reason; another is that I wanted to delay the inevitable - the sooner I paddled my way up to near the start line (which isn't far from the lock), the sooner I'd have to start taking the rate up and rowing with full pressure. However, I accidentally got in the way of a chap who was doing some fishing, so having apologised and removed myself from the scene I felt that the only course of action open to me was to get on with it.
If you like Monty Python you'll like this blog entry.
Now, I'm not going to tell you how long it took me to row 2.6km up the River Cam. There was a head wind on the reach, I had to stop at Ditton corner (where I nearly rowed into the bank), and had a bit of a handbrake turn around some crews at the bottom of the reach...but otherwise, it was OK. I mean, it was unbelievably exhausting and LONG but I survived it and actually did it in a time that was marginally better than I had anticipated.
Once I'd got over the urge to vomit into the river at the finish, I did a quick assessment of my main physical niggles. Firstly, my hands had survived remarkably well - my left arm has been very weak of late, with several hair-raising oar-dropping moments, but the grip had held reasonably well throughout and, most importantly, I hadn't capsized *sigh of relief*. However, a hitherto unexperienced pain had appeared in my left leg, which was now shaking with an interesting and dramatic muscle tremor. As my upper body was still preoccupied with gasping in lungfuls of air, the shaking of the left leg was very unhelpful and causing the boat to jiggle about quite a bit more than I felt comfortable with when core muscles for support were not an option.

After some strange looking stretching and massaging, the leg calmed down, and by this point my breathing had slowed a bit too. I decided it might be time to try and move on from where I had parked (basically right outside someone's house; I could see them in the living room a few feet from me, being very British and politely averting their eyes). However, by this point my hands had decided to get in on the game and refused to curl around the oar handles. I took the opportunity to do a 'loose hands' exercise (rowing with palms/fingers resting on the blade, but really the thumbs being the only thing with any pressure going anywhere) which, perhaps unsurprisingly, was spectacularly messy but did at least remove me from my position outside someone's house and a bit closer to a position outside someone's pub - so it wasn't all bad.

Anyway, eventually I managed to start the rowing equivalent of limping home. Fortunately, after about 1k of being unable to feel my hands or feet, some feeling started to return. Unfortunately, it was painful feeling, but then you can't have it all. I decided to do some more square blades practice, and was so employed when my coach cycled past with another of her victims athletes. This other rower gives me a lot to aspire to - a junior, she is fearless, fast and always looks fantastically flawless on the river, whilst the rest of us are reduced to sweaty heaps.

Pulling in at the boathouse after some more playing around with square blades paddling, I felt that I'd achieved a good outing. I hadn't been fast, but I had tried hard, and, when I'd wanted to give up (which happened several times) I'd dug my heels in and kept going. I'd also set a time to beat for the race on Saturday, and proved to myself that I could and would finish the course.

Tomorrow I'm going to have a day off from rowing and go riding instead. We're working on a quadrille - but more of that tomorrow!