Sunday, 25 May 2008

Saturday of Eights

I was in Oxford yesterday to watch one of my favourite events of the year.

No, not Eurovision.

Yesterday was Saturday of Eights - the final day of a four-day bumps racing event for eights, which is competed between Oxford colleges. Bumps racing developed as a way in which crews could race each other on a river too narrow to permit side-by-side racing. Instead, boats line up along the length of the river, separated by a fixed number of boat lengths at the start, and all start at the same time. The aim is to catch the boat ahead and achieve a 'bump' on that boat by doing one of the following:

  • any part of your boat, blades or crew making physical contact with any of the boat ahead's boat, blades or crew;
  • the cox of the boat ahead raising their arm to concede that a bump is inevitable (hopefully done in time to prevent damage to boat or crew);
  • rowing past the boat ahead, such that the stern of your boat has fully passed the bows of the boat which started ahead (usually achieved by the boat ahead crashing into the bank in the lower divisions).

Bumps racing is excellent fun, and I have fond memories of rowing in an excellent crew in Summer Eights, which is still now probably the best crew I have rowed in (or at least the best crew over the thirty or forty strokes it would take us to bump the boat ahead). I have an illuminated, trophy blade from my efforts in a crew a good few years ago who achieved a bump on each of the four days of racing, and thus 'won blades'. We also won a 'Bump Supper' - a free four course meal for the rest of the college to celebrate the achievement (and thus became instantly very popular).

Saturday of Eights brings boaties back to college. I knew full well the usual suspects from my university days would be gathering at the boathouse to cheer on the crews yesterday, and catch up over a Pimms or two. Unfortunately, in the event, I was too busy catching up over a few pints of Pimms to watch much of the racing or take any pictures, so here're a few pictures from 2006 to give a flavour of the day:

Saturday of Eights - Lots of People, Lots of Pimms

One of the old guard in the college boathouse - trophy blades on the wall behind

Women's 1st VIIIs paddling down to the start

...And did I mention the Pimms?

After racing - the fast way to cool off

Well... racing is thirsty work...

Did I ever tell you...

... This rumbles on.

In a further update, I am still trying to work out whether I feel appalled by the DR, sorry for her lack of awareness, or just privileged to have been privy to such a ludicrous situation. Or all of the above.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Low tide

The Thames is different at low tide.

Far from the bloated monster that stalks the city, at low tide the river becomes a fragile ribbon, a thin sheet of water draped between the muddy banks.

As I walked back from the boathouse following a session on the ergs, I noticed an eight and accompanying coaching launch slicing into the flat, charcoal water, leaving in their wakes a rippled surface, shimmering with the reflection of the pale sky. I would have liked to have had my camera on me.

The waterfowl make good use of low tide. Cormorants perch along the water's edge drying their wings. Ducks waddle around the foreshore, seeking out tasty tidbits - a far cry from their behaviour at high water when they gather speculatively around anyone lingering by the river, waiting for the regular dispensation of half a loaf of thick-sliced white. Starlings scurry over the mud, hunting down the occasional worm. They're not sociable, the birds. They don't appear to seek out company. Neither are they fighting. It is peaceful enough.

There is a family of bicycles which appears at low tide. Four of them, upright, wedged firmly in the mud. Two of them look to be adult sizes, two are child-sized. A stool is similarly unveiled, but lies on its side, forlorn, half-covered in water. The waterfowl ignore the bikes and stool.

I'd hung over the railings for a few minutes, lingering in the moment, enjoying the cool air on my arms and legs, being refreshing after the recent warm weather.

"What are you drinking?"

What a strange question... I turned round. A small child wanted to know what the liquid in my bottle was, from which I'd been conscientiously swigging.

"This? Orange juice."

It was true. It had some added sugar and a little salt, nothing stronger than that. I omitted this information in my answer. It didn't seem important.


The child didn't seem to believe me. It occurred to me that this was terribly sad.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Happy Cake Day

Today, 12th May, is Cake Day. Cake Day marks the anniversary of the last occasion on which one of my dearest friends cut herself. It's been seven years.

This is the medal I collected at the end of the Lincoln 10k, which I ran with her a few weeks ago.

I am ridiculously proud of this medal. Not for my achievement, but for having been present when this same friend who celebrated cake day today finished the 10k back at the end of March. For much of the last twelve or so years, between the booze and the fags and the self harm (and accidental self-conflagration), she's not exactly been a picture of physical or mental health. So I was thrilled for her when she said she was running the Lincoln 10k. Through choice.

I'd asked if I could run with her, too. I didn't want to impose myself, and knew she'd feel she couldn't say "no", and also knew that she'd probably feel under pressure to complete the run if someone else was going to run with her. I therefore felt a bit of a heel for doing this, which I convinced myself I was doing with the best of intentions, but really I wanted to be there to encourage her when it got tough and, despite the fact that it would be physically uncomfortable, to get through the race to the finish without walking. To have Done It.

Come March, despite preparations not being fantastic, we pitched up in Lincoln for the run. She'd been ill for the last few weeks and hadn't trained for a while, but still made it to the start line. It would be a tough hour or so.

A couple of other friends were running the race, too, but we left them nearer the start line queue in the sub 50:00 block and sub 1:00:00 block, and made our way towards the back of the gathering masses. (Having run a few road races, I'm of the opinion that unless you're one of the elite runners and can get away quickly, starting towards the back makes running far easier than tripping over the heels of tightly bunched runners.)

After a delay at the start for the police to shift a few cars parked on the course, the first couple of kilometers passed uneventfully. We'd barely made it into an unhindered stride as we passed the first marker, and were just beginning to settle into the same pace as those around at the second. 2km down, and 15 minutes had gone. I'd thought before the race that a 1hr 15min time would be a good pace to aim for, and it was with some satisfaction that I checked my watch to find us on pace. It was at this point that my friend decided to tell me she'd never run further than 2.5km.

I reassessed.

"OK, no worries. You're moving nicely - how're you feeling? Does this feel sustainable?" Heck. I was sure she'd mentioned doing 4 miles previously. I guess that must have been a run/walk. Nevertheless, she seemed in reasonable form, she assured me the pace felt fine (how would she know...? We were going to run another three times further than she'd ever done in her life.) Time to put on the smilers:

"Cool, let's get to 3km, feel proud of the achievement, assess how you're feeling, and plan from there.

3 km was a welcome sign. Already in uncharted territory, in many ways, there would be nothing new now until the finish, increasing fatigue, increasing pain, slower speed. But we were still moving nicely. Our pace had slowed once the runners had thinned out and some of the early adrenalin dissipated. Still, I assumed we'd be walking before the end of the race, but not before 5 km if I could help it - at least she'd have a 5 km time to beat in future races, and could take pride in running that distance. She agreed to the plan. 4 km came and went - 4 down, one more to go, and then there would be water, a 5 km time and a re-assessment of the race plan as our rewards.

Halfway. 5 km in 39 minutes and 35 seconds. Twice as far as she'd ever run before. This was time for her to feel proud. I think she was. I know I was. Actually, "amazed" would better sum up my feelings, and my disbelief that I was halfway through a 10k with my friend running alongside. Wow.

Collection of water bottles and an overdue re-lacing later, we were back to a steady jog. The water had evidently done some good as I noticed with some relief that the pace had picked up again to a point where I could lengthen my stride. Spirits had lifted - the talk became more positive, with mention of a half marathon before the end of the year, and an aim to complete this course without any walking.

6 km somehow disappeared without trace. There undoubtedly was a marker, we undoubtedly celebrated having trampled down another km. 7 km was nearly three times further than she'd ever run before, and 8km was time to feel absolutely bloody proud of the achievement, if also a bit knackered and on the verge of breaking.

After about 8km, she said: "Do... hssss...hsss... you think.....hhsss... pouring... hsss... water on... hss... my head... hsss.... like they... hsss..... do... hss.... on telly... hsss.... would... hsss.... help... hssss?" There followed the emptying of a good half bottle of water over her head. "Oh god... hsss... that feels good.... hsss..."

I loved her next comment about now knowing how the marathon runners feel. I had never even considered that I might see the day on which she'd identify with elite marathon runners. Previously, she'd thought they were nutters for pouring water over themselves instead of drinking it. Now she knew the feeling of relief and refreshment first-hand. That was another "Wow" moment. I was notching up quite a few of them that day. I think, and I hope,  she was, too.

Somewhere inbetween 8 and 9 km, her competitive spirit rose to the surface - I'd never known she had one. She'd spotted a couple of victims people ahead of us. A few minutes later, we'd reeled them in, jogging past with an ease that'd disappeared three or four kilometres ago. "C'mon!" For once, it wasn't me saying that. I almost exploded with happiness.

The final kilometre was a very long, long way. I was certain every corner we rounded would yield sight of the finish. But it didn't. Just another corner. She was suffering, and not for the first time I felt like a complete heel for trying to press the pace a little, just enough for me to take longer strides and relieve some of the tightness in my calves, which had done a lot of work in keeping me bouncing along whilst taking very short strides, and also because we were being overtaken by people who were walking. I wasn't having that. I don't mind being overtaken by race walkers on a mision, but I wasn't going to contemplate my friend, who'd run the whole thing (with the except of a few short paces and a re-lacing at 5 km), finishing behind people who'd jacked in the running and were going to walk across the line. "C'mon - they've given up. You haven't. Show them your pride." Crap - for the first time in the race, as we rounded the corner and caught sight of the finish,  I was having to run. Actually running. Moving with speed.

We had a huge, sweaty hug at the finish. She was in tears. I'd felt that recently, as well. I'd cried after finishing a race in January, racing after having had the norovirus. I felt empty, drained, stripped of any chattels of identity, broken and completely naked. But I'd got through something I thought I wouldn't, thought I couldn't. I'd put doubts aside and proved to myself that the strength of my will was greater than the weakness of my body. When, after finishing, the will disappears, redundant, only the weakness remains. That's why I blubbed my way back to the boathouse, and why she was in a heap, propped up on my shoulders. Empty, drained, and overwhelmed with achievement.

Later on, having collected our medals, T-shirts and thoughts, we found our friends somewhere amongst the gathered masses and made our way to a nearby pub for celebratory shandies and cokes. Our other friends who had run were pleased with their times or with getting round in one piece. I had run well within myself, and was torn between my lack of exuberance at not really having done anything, and my unbridled pride for my friend, who'd just got her first medal for anything, ever, made a massive leap of mindset from "I can't" to "I can", and was looking forward to taking her richly deserved medal into work the next day to show the guy who runs marathons for fun.

I just wish I could adequately describe how proud I am to have been a small part in that.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

A win, a tag, a discovery, and a loss - no rowing required

Firstly, the win:

Ta-daaa! I won DJ's caption competition (a couple of weeks ago, admittedly, but it's good to keep wins in the bag to counter any losses). I was actually trying to apologise for not being able to supply a caption, but somehow my apology won. Aspie humour remains a mystery to me...

The tag: Titration tagged me with the "Pick up the nearest book, open to page 123, find the fifth sentence, post the next three sentences, tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you" meme.

So here it is:

There are about 500 statues and tombs scattered here in groups across both sides of the Rio Magdalana Gorge, sporting images of mythical and real creatures, gods and men, serving as guards to the ancient tombs and burial chambers, protecting offerings of gold and pottery to the gods. Some of the statues feature jaguar mouths and fierce expressions, others resemble birds of prey, snakes, or other animals such as monkeys, frogs or eagles. The jaguar figure is thought to be associated with a religious leader or shaman, who could transform himself into a jaguar to keep balance in the world.

Yup, it was a travel book. It has nice pictures, too. Unfortunately, I can't run fast enough to tag anyone, so I'll just have to assume I'm 'it' ad infinitum. It's good to have found my role in life...

The discovery of the week was happening across a local Somali restaurant serving extremely tasty food in relaxed surroundings with friendly service. We'd intended to go to the Polish restaunt down the road, for which I've seen good reviews, but as it was closed for a few days we had to follow our stomachs to find an alternative. We did well. As an added feature, the restaurant is dry, thus preventing me from drinking the customary half a bottle of wine with dinner which leaves me unable to sleep and dehydrated. Not here. I had mango juice with dinner, and very refreshing it was, too.

Finally, the loss. It's the zip on my purse. It's lost the zip tag bit. I am heartily annoyed by this, as this purse serves all the functions I want a purse to serve (unlikely to spew my cash or cards over an unwelcoming pavement, and fits into pockets in bags/jeans/jackets/etc. And it doesn't look twee.) And now it's rather awkward to open and close the coin section. Hrumph. A botch job with duct tape and/or a paper clip beckons.

Oooh, nearly forgot - extra bonus discovery of the week: everything one could ever want to know about zip(per)s.

Saturday, 3 May 2008


I got up before 6 this morning to race in a four. We lost.


Nothing more to say there, then.

Finding myself at a loss at around 10 am on a Saturday being a rarity, I had a cup of tea with an equally angry and disappointed crewmate, then we took single sculls out onto the water.

I haven't been out in a single for nearly two years, and I wasn't expecting miracles. Singles are incredibly unstable, and my aim for the outing was to get away from the raft and back to it without capsizing. Any strokes I managed to take inbetween pushing off and landing counted as a bonus. The only river I've singled on previously is the Wey in Guildford, an 800m stretch with banks within touching distance at all points, no tides to contend with, and no cruisers creating monster-sized wash. I've also sculled on Edgbaston Reservoir, an overgrown muddy puddle in the middle of Birmingham. Conditions there tended to be flat, with the only real hazards being the occasional angler who would practice their aim by attempting to stone passing scullers, and the prevailing wind which would whip the water against the vertical wall at the far end of the reservoir, creating massive waves (massive when viewed from a scull).

Sculling in Guildford - barely room to swing a scull...

I don't know the Thames well. True, I've rowed up and down it quite a bit now, and run along various bits of it, but for most of the time, I'm thinking about my stroke relative to the water, and not having to worry about things like what the stream is doing and whether the boat is correctly positioned in/out of it, or whether the boat is orientated to travel along the river or towards the bank. What with banks being irregularly shaped and rivers having bends, and scullers travelling in the opposite direction to that in which they are facing, getting a scull up and down a river without ending up heading either for the bank or for another boat is not as easy as it might at first seem.

Sculling on The Thames - you could pilot a cargo ship down that...

Thankfully I wasn't going out alone, I would have a crewmate sculling nearby to keep me out of too much trouble and tell me where to cross the river. One thing she couldn't do for me, though, was to sit the boat.

Translation of boatie jargon for non-rowers: “Sitting the boat” means getting/keeping the boat balanced such that both right and left sides of the boat are level above the water. If this is not the case, the boat is described as being “down on bow/stroke side”, depending on which way it is tilting. In the picture below, the rower is looking away from you:

The only time I have capsized a scull was during a short outing at Guildford. My outing lasted approximately half a second - I pushed off with the bank on my stroke side, and immediately flipped the boat over my bowside. I landed in about four foot of water, and hauled myself onto the bank, very wet and rather angry with myself. I didn't fancy doing the same thing on the Thames, so I got a bit (read: lot) of help to get me out onto the water, where I discovered that singling really is like riding a bike – if you haven't done it for a while, it's best to avoid ever doing it again, or failing that to put stabilisers on.

My scull didn't come with the scull version of stabilisers. Just me and my sculls (sculling blades/oars), with my crewmate disappearing across the river. I was trying to remember how to avoid capsizing, whilst moving the scull backwards without capsizing, and making an attempt at steering also without capsizing.

Ten minutes after getting on the water, I'd managed to get about a hundred metres, crossing the stream from the incoming tide to the other side of the river. Without capsizing.

Incoming tide? We didn't have to deal with things like that in Guildford. Nor did we have to deal with the possibility of there being other crews on the water which didn't know that someone had gone out in a single for the first time in a while and therefore probably best to give them a wide berth.

But I hadn't capsized. So far, so good.

Just as I was remembering what sculling felt like, the next reminder that I wasn't in Guildford any more cropped up. This time, it was the wash from a coaching launch, which hurled me up and down for a while whilst pushing me rather closer towards the bank than I would have liked. The bank also looked rather less soft than the corresponding Guildford feature, being made of concrete rather than mud and tree roots and grass and things, which I imagine are rather more forgiving to crash into than concrete. I sat it out whilst pondering the thought that perhaps heading out in a single after a race without having had much sleep recently nor much food that morning may not have been the best plan I'd ever hatched.

Still, I hadn't capsized. I'd more or less managed to deal with one more unfamiliar Thames challenge, and I was remarkably dry. I'd even managed to take a few strokes in succession with the boat reasonably nicely sat, and picking up some speed. Enough to keep me within sight of my crewmate, just in case... I was just getting comfortable when Hammersmith Bridge loomed large. Fortunately, there was plenty width under the Surrey side of the central span for me to aim through.

A few hundred metres of uneventful sculling further on, the next challenge was spinning to head back. Whilst in Guildford I'd been pretty nifty with my spinning (through necessity – there wasn't much spare room to move the boat forwards or backwards without colliding with one bank or another), I now had maybe eighty metres of river in which to get my boat turned round. Granted, about thirty of those metres were a bit close to sewage outlets and therefore preferable not to get involved with, but I had more than ample space to turn round in. The problem was, I didn't really want ample space, I wanted to spin my scull on the spot, as I felt sure I'd capsize just pulling it round using only my bow side blade and end up in the sewage (another thing I didn't have to contend with in Guildford), probably catching yet another gastro unpleasantness.

But I didn't. I'd got halfway, spun, and still not capsized.

Halfway - I was reminded at this point that most fatalities in mountaineering happen after the summit has been reached. I didn't want the way back to prove my undoing, particularly as I felt I was beginning to rediscover some familiarity with the sculling movement and getting to be able to predict the movement of the boat in the water.

Heading back, we kept close to the middle of the river, making the most of the stream. Being in a small boat in the middle of a big river was less unnerving than I had anticipated. The bigger problem was getting away from my attachment to planning my course based on the curves of the bank, and instead looking much further down the river, pointing more or less down the centre.

Back under Hammersmith bridge and having avoided moored boats (without capsizing), the sight of several hundred sailing boats (well, at least ten...) moving apparently at random was not welcome. I figured I'd sit in plenty of space and wait for my crewmate to do something sensible, and attempt to copy it. Five minutes later, I'd rowed past the club raft, spun, paddled back and drawn my scull up to the raft, been pulled in, was back on a solid surface, and all without capsizing. Success...

I went out in a single on the Thames and didn't capsize. It almost, almost, made up for losing.

Photo credits:
Top from Nicholos Masse's flickr photostream.
Bottom from Tony Spencer's flickr photostream.