Hunt or Be Hunted: Some Thoughts on Head Racing

GRP scullers Jen Forbes (foreground) and Alex Spaulding (background)

from Troy Howell, Craftsbury’s Director of Sculling:

It has always struck me as a curiosity that our sport evolved in such a way that most people seem to feel that 2k racing on a buoyed course with six straight lanes is the only sort of racing that “counts” and that every other format is somehow a novelty item. Most forms of racing in most other types of locomotion involve cutting turns as tightly as possible, jockeying for position relative to one’s competitors, real time strategizing, and so forth. The closest we get to that sort of competition in our sport is head racing, and now that it’s fall in North America, head races are the order of the day.

The perennial question that most rowers and scullers first grapple with in regards to head racing is “So – am I racing the clock or am I racing all the other boats?” As with most seemingly  simple questions that are constructed with the intention of demanding a binary answer, the answer is “yes – to both” or more maddeningly “sort of – it depends on the circumstance, as well as upon what happens to be motivating you in the moment.” So let’s parse this a bit, while proceeding from the notion that “yes – you are racing the clock, and yes, you are racing all the other boats.”

First and most importantly, as with nearly all other forms of racing, there are only two vital items that will be listed and written down in the published results: name of crew and elapsed time. That’s all that most people will ever see of a race after it’s over. Course records are measured in minutes, seconds, and tenths or hundredths. Number of crews passed, near-misses with bridges, collisions with waterfowl, and so forth, are not part of that historical record. In the final analysis, then, we are all racing the clock and the clock alone, with the goal of making the boat go as fast as we are capable of.

Somehow, though, just racing the clock doesn’t seem as viscerally satisfying as racing another boat, and it is a rare crew that generates its best performance when no one else is around.  Rowing through and passing other boats is thrilling in a way that the clock just can’t match, and even holding off a faster crew for as long as you can often seems nobler than maintaining a stroke rate or even a split. The attraction of head racing, then, seems to lie in its quasi-predatory nature, and answering the question from one moment to the next, “am I hunting or am I being hunted?”

And this gets us back to the other side of our answer – racing the other boats. Given the every-ten-to-fifteen second format of head racing, we only get the feeling of head-to-head competition when someone has gained on someone else, and unless we are very familiar with the relative speeds and racing strategic tendencies of the people starting in front of and behind us, we never really know at what point in the race that may happen, so it can be difficult or perhaps even futile to try to set a race plan the way that one might for 2k or 1k racing on a straight course.

Head racing has a profound tendency to remind us of the truth of the old chestnut “if you want to make god laugh, tell him your plans,” so the best advice is something on the order of: find out in the weeks of training leading up to head race season what stroke rate and pace you are capable of holding and what the perceived exertion feels like at that tempo and level of effort. Start there, find a steady rhythm, and after a minute or two of that, start looking for opportunities to run roughshod over somebody, whether by out-racing them, out-sculling them, out-maneuvering them, or all three.

Above all, DO NOT GET LEFT AT THE STARTING LINE by allowing the crew starting just ahead of you to have too much of a time cushion. The starter is paying attention to the crew in front of you, and if you hesitate, the margin will just get bigger, probably before anyone other than the delighted crew in front realizes it. Remember that your goal is somewhat at odds with the goal of the starting line officials: they are more concerned with an orderly start so they will often err on the side of starting crews a little further apart. Crews themselves are more concerned with staying as close to their opponents as they can get away with so they can begin mixing it up with another boat sooner rather than later.

Passing other crews feeds the monster and often reveals deep wells of energy you might not otherwise have found. The other side of the coin, getting passed, need not be disheartening, and strategically, it leaves us with only two reasonable alternatives: 1) suck it up and try to go with ‘em if that seems viable; 2) shifting focus to the next challenge, which could be passing a crew that you and the other boat have BOTH been gaining on, or putting more distance between you and the nearest crew behind you. Above all, keep it thrilling and fun. If it’s going to be a slog, why did you enter? Race it up!

Note: Check out our Tech Tips Archive for content like this from past years, and subscribe to our Sculling eNewsletter to receive future editions in your inbox!

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2018 VTYCL Race #1 Recap

Finn Sweet arcing it during the Ascutney race.

We checked in with the new VTYCL team members after their first race at Ascutney at the end of September (read all about the race results).

Leo Circosta climbing hard.

“This race was the farthest we’ve ever travelled to any race,” Leo and Amelia Circosta shared via mom. “Lots to do! Making lists and packing our gear the night before. Getting up at 4:45am so we could get there, preride the course, and so much more. We could not fall asleep on the two-hour car ride because we were so excited. We enjoyed preriding the course and planning our lines. The course was wet and slippery and had much more singletrack than we were anticipating. We both liked splashing through the stream crossing with the hidden hole, which we both hit on each lap. Riding straight through mudholes was great (it’s a race and it was the fastest line). Plus, we’ve had a really dry summer with almost no mud.”

Amelia Circosta standing on top of the podium.

Leo also noted the atmosphere among all the competitors. “Everyone was super friendly, all day (before, during and after the race). What a great feeling we got from everyone all day long. And what an inspiration watching the other races, seeing Finn, Jack and Makail crank out 4 laps, especially with the power they had up the big climb.”

The Varsity boys take the line.

“It was really great,” added Amelia. “I got to ride with a friendly boy who was much bigger than me. We took turns leading each other, had a lot of fun, and pushed each other the entire race.”

Amelia also found inspiration in Ollie’s cheering: “‘C’mon dude!’ ‘Yeah kid!’ ‘You got this!’ ‘You’re doing great!’ – I’m hoping to take Ollie along to all of my races.”

“I wondered: is he really going to follow me up ALL of the switchbacks of this climb?!” asked Leo. “It’s so much better when Ollie is yelling FOR you instead of AT you! Racing and practice are different.”

Thanks to everyone for sharing their experiences post-race, and to Ollie Burruss and Ben Tipton for spearheading this bike program! Stay tuned for this weekend’s recap!

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Snow Storage: Final 2018 Data

We’re excited to be working with UVM geology on a snow storage test. UVM master’s student Hannah Weiss brings us up to speed on the state of the snowpack.

Hannah Weiss (M.S student) laying on the remains of the upper pile, 9 Sep 18,

You might remember back in April, as the last snow was melting, Keith Woodward was piling up snow under the solar panels and down in Wilbur’s old pond site and covering it with wood chips? Or perhaps you remember when some of snow made a cameo appearance in July for sledding and trick skiing at the Craftsbury block party? Maybe you have seen us out surveying the piles over the summer? Well, it’s September and time for an update on our snow storage project: it worked! We still have a little snow left after one of the hottest summers on record.

The remains of the lower pile, 25 August 2018.

September 9th, a sunny, cool fall afternoon, was our final pile surveying day the summer 2018 season. We arrived to find two piles of mostly wood chips. The piles had become lumpy, and we weren’t sure whether there even was snow beneath any of the chips. On the upper pile (CHIP pile), there were cracks within the wood chips on some of the larger lumps, which caused us to wonder why they formed. Was it because the steepness of the slope caused slumping and cracking? Surprisingly, as we dug deeper into the wood chips, they became cooler and wet, though it had not rained it weeks.

Hannah Weiss (M.S student) checking the insulation experiments to find snow! photo – Paul Bierman, 9 Aug 18

Both the upper (CHIP) and lower (POND) piles were small and, after processing the LiDAR scans, we found only maybe 10 cubic meters of snow left in them. They each started with about 200 cubic meters. Over the summer, we also tried several different combinations of insulation – hard foam, open-cell foam, a reflective blanket, and a thicker (30+cm) layer of woodchips. We let these smaller experiments run for a week or two and tracked temperatures within the insulation layers and at the interface of snow and the insulation material.

Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of the upper pile on 21 Apr 18, with a color-gradient representing relative height

After digesting all the data, we found that the upper pile, after snow was removed for the July 4th celebration, melted more slowly than the lower pile. The thickness of wood chips is key and likely with less snow but the same amount of wood chips, the upper pile was better insulated.

The final graph representing volume change over time in meters cubed. Blue triangles are the CHIP pile’s volume, and red circles are the Pond pile’s volume.

Now, as we look ahead to next summer, we know better which combination of insulation will keep the most snow. Our data show that a reflective surface covering a thick layer of wet wood chips, and underlain by an insulating concrete blanket are the most effective triad. Next summer, the piles will be much larger, and we hope to have enough snow not only to support summer sledding and perhaps a ski race or two but have plenty of snow left to spread on a couple kilometers of trail in November to kick off ski season, no matter the weather.

Read all the posts of the series here. To learn about the research, see photographs over time, and more, visit UVM online.

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Dock Talk: Comfort in the Boat-Letting Go To Find Power

Craftsbury Associate Director Kevin Macdermott demonstrating during comfort in the boat session at COC. Photo – Val Stepanchuk

From Sara Gronewold, Craftsbury Coach, US National Team Rower 1996-2000

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso

One of the highlights for many scullers at Craftsbury is the “comfort in the boat” session. Having an opportunity to manage a single, while pushing the boundaries of stability, can release years’ worth of tension in how we carry ourselves throughout the rowing stroke.

While the session often feels like fun and games, it ultimately leads to a generous increase in boat speed. Fear-related tension inhibits blade entry timing, extraction, stability and even squaring the blades correctly. If any of these aspects of the rowing stroke are lacking, there is an inevitable interruption in the power you generate with effort and body weight.

Scullers receive an incredible amount of information during their time at Craftsbury, and I often see people getting stiffer and stiffer as the camp progresses. This is natural, considering the amount of input. The thing all scullers are looking for is to find the longest, most extended strokes which contain enough power to keep the boat gliding well. Once campers have given themselves permission to play, and stop worrying about rowing fast, they can experiment with instability and start relaxing, smiling and sculling effortlessly for the rest of the week.

I am a firm believer in revisiting those exercises when you get back home, to remind yourself how easy it can be to scull well. Here are two drills to try at home:

Push / Pull Drill: Sit at the release position, with the blades squared and buried. Maintaining the squared position, push the handles away from you until you’ve reached the arms/body over position. Pause there, and allow the handles to pull your fingers away from your body. Notice where your “sit bones” are, and whether or not they are wiggling, or relaxed and still. Then, using only your index and middle fingers, draw the handles back towards you until you reach the release, extract, and slow the boat back to a stop.

Once you have done this at bodies-over, push the handles out to half-slide, and take time at the transition point to notice these things. Then, proceed to full slide.

Wetting the Oarlocks: While sitting in the “safety position,” with the handles in between your knees and your chest, press your right hand/handle all the way down to your thigh and hold it there. Then bring the handles together, and press the left hand/handle down to your thigh. See if you can get the bottom of your oarlock wet! Now, keeping your hands passive, use your hips to lower your right oar handle to the thighs, you can even take your right hand off the oar, if you’d like. Then try that on the left side.

Notice whether or not the body feels more natural using the hips to affect the set, or the hands.

Once you have settled your nervous system back down, you’ll find that sculling feels more natural and comfortable, and you can set out for a great row.

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” – Sir Richard Branson

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Tech Tip: Sculling as Jumping

Note: Check out our Tech Tips Archive for content like this from past years, and subscribe to our Sculling eNewsletter to receive future editions in your inbox!

From Ric Ricci, Craftsbury Associate Director, Head Coach Connecticut College Men’s Rowing

Many coaches fail to teach scullers what to experience in their ankles, feet and toes. Why? Simply because the sculler’s feet are not visible to the coach from the coaching launch. The shell hides the importance of dynamic motion at the ankles, feet and toes and how that motion connects to the overall movement of the rest of the body and especially to the wrists, hands and fingers. Not seeing or understanding the potential for action at the feet also misleads coaches and scullers alike into conceptualizing sculling as a form of pushing and pulling. Of course, pushing against the footstretcher and pulling on the handles of the sculls works, and scullers can go very fast operating under those assumptions. But is that approach the most efficient way to move over the surface of the water? Below is a general outline of an alternative approach that might be worth considering.

Just after the blades leave the water, start flexing your ankles (called dorsi flexion). Your toes will be up and your heels will be down. Keep flexing at the ankles even after your heels start coming up and continue this effort until the blades are fully immersed in the water. This effort is not easy and most people will experience intense discomfort in their shins. This effort becomes increasingly more difficult as you reach full compression (shins at right angles to the water and chest on the thighs) and the desire to stop this effort will quickly become apparent. Press on regardless! At the point of full blade immersion this effort to dorsi flex will culminate- your toes will still be up (pointing toward your shins) and the balls of your feet will be in contact with the footstretcher (heels will most likely be off the footstretcher).

Ankle flexion is actually part of an overall greater effort on the part of the sculler to flex their whole body into the “catch” position – which creates a compressive effect in the muscles and tendons that has the potential for a powerful, spring-like uncoiling. The ankle flexion that began just after the blades released the water is SIMULTANEOUSLY coordinated with flexion at the wrists, hands and fingers (similar to the motion of making a fist). This effort is what contributes to the blades falling into the square position.

Now the blades are in the water. In a brief but powerful uncoiling, all the strenuous compressive work that the sculler did “on the recovery” is released into the drive. Just after the entry the ankles start extending in a fashion similar to what you would feel when you jump off the floor. Extension at your ankles (a toe point called plantar flexion) needs to be coordinated with a simultaneous extension at your wrists, hands and fingers so that maximal extension is achieved at the feet and hands just as the blades are releasing the water.

If the sculler coordinates the movement of the ankles, feet and toes with the movement of the wrists, hands and fingers, the rest of the stroke will take care of itself – WITHOUT CONSCIOUS EFFORT. Focus on finding this timing and coordination at the transitions (catch and release) and the rest of the body movements “will follow” between the catch and the release. Finding the timing/coordination will be easier if the sculler keeps the stroke rate low with moderate intensity. Feeling for constant pressure between the hands and the feet is essential. (The concept of constant pressure could be the topic of another Tech Tip but suffice to say, the sculler seeks to shift weight from the sit bones to the handles and foot stretcher- continuously).

Flexion until full blade immersion also eliminates “rushing the slide,” and when done properly, the shell moves under the seat instead of the sculler’s hips moving toward the stern. Full extension at the point of release results in a crescendo of accelerated effort and immediately sets up the beginning of another period of flexion. When you scull from this perspective your effort can literally be thought of as an attempt on your part to jump or vault upward off the surface of the water into the air from the blades. This “sculling jump” culminates as the blades release the water. The sculls act in a fashion similar to vaulting poles. The sculler’s effort to jump up off the water with the aid of the shell and sculls at the release is, in my opinion, the most efficient way to move in a bow-ward direction. The higher you attempt to make your “sculling jump” and the more times per minute you “jump” the faster you will move in the bow-ward direction.

The best way to experience the above is to first practice the technique in a wide enough shell that you can comfortably let go of the handles and not roll into the water. It is essential that your fingers, hands and arms rest on the handles. It is also important to make your feet very loose in the shoes or foot clogs. If the sculling handles are being tightly gripped the sculler will go back to pushing on the foot stretcher and pulling on the sculls.

In my opinion, the efficient sculler is always seeking to scull “from the inside out, instead of from outside in”. Loose and light feet and hands is the best way to accomplish this!

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2018 Summer Tuesday Night Race Series

Last week, we held our 13th and final Julbo Tuesday Night race of the 2018 summer. This weekly event has become a tradition here at the Outdoor Center, with as many as 60 racers toeing the line on any given Tuesday evening this summer. Each week, we offered three race options: 5k run, 5k bike, or 10k bike. While many racers elected to run, we’ve seen the biker turnout grow over the years! Races were held primarily at the Center, but also traveled throughout the area. We had three races at Hosmer Point, one in town on the Sterling College trails, and one on the Hazen Union Trails in Hardwick.

At the end of the season, we crowned overall male and female winners in each category. Each winner won a pair of Julbo sunglasses. Our winners were:

Women’s 5k bike: Jennifer Schoen

Jen

Men’s 5k bike: Orion Cenkl

(off playing soccer during the awards. Still got his glasses though just no picture of him!)

Women’s 10k bike: Megan Jolly

Megan

Men’s 10k bike: Matt Moody

Matt

Women’s 5k run: Audrey Mangan (Rose Modry won the sunglasses as staff are ineligible for overall prizes).

Rose

Men’s 5k run: Ethan Dreissigacker (Leo Circosta won the sunglasses as staff are ineligible for overall prizes).

Leo

We also recognized age group winners and they were given a choice of homemade cookies, zucchini blueberry bread, or granola.

5k bike:

Women 20-29: Cara Murphy, Women 30-39: Clare Wilson, Women 40-49: Jennifer Schoen

Men U16: Orion Cenkl, Men 16-19: David Moody

10k bike:

Women 20-29: Annie Rowell, Women 30-39: Megan Jolly

Men U16: Trey Jones, Men 30-39: Chris Jolly, Men 50-59: Matthew Moody

Run:

Women U16: Amelia Circosta, Women 20-29: Emma Podolinm Women 30-39: Audrey Mangan (and Rose Modry as non-staff), Women 40-49: Alyssa Krebs, Women 60-69: Lindy Sargent.

Men U16: Leo Circosta, Men 16-19: Logan McElry, Men 20-29: Ethan Dreissigacker (and Ethan Self non-staff), Men 30-39: Josh Gould, Men 40-49: Eric Remick, Men 50-59: Adrian Owens and Jim FLint, Men 70-79: John Broadhead, Men 80+ George Hall.

The races take place rain or shine and alternate between two different courses, giving racers a range of racing opportunities throughout the summer. The races attract a wide variety of athletes, from six year olds putting a bib on to the first time, to seasoned TNR veterans, to GRP athletes using the race as a hard workout. Here are a selection of photos from the racing season. Thanks to Sheldon Miller, Heidi Caldwell, and Caitlin Patterson for capturing the races in action!

Amelia Circosta whizzing by

Ollie Burruss and Adam Martin

Matt Moody

Race start at Hazen Union. Big thanks to Eric Remick and Cormac Leahy for setting this course!

Anika Leahy

Cara Murphy

Logan McElroy leads Rose Modry up a climb

Cole Alexander

Happy junior coaches Audrey Mangan and Anna Schulz! And a smily Eric Remick too!

Nick Augsberger and Josh Gould fighting to the line.

Race start

Race start at the COC

Beach biking at Hosmer Point

Buddies Charlie Krebs and Thomas Kehler

Mom and daughter duo: Effie and Cara Dunn

Ruth Krebs in her first TNR bike race!

Maeda Urie is all smiles as she nears the finish line

Stig Linck leads dad Robert to the finish

Ethan Dreissigacker approaches the line

Mike Gibson takes the win in his sole race of the season

George Hall about to cross the finish line of the Sterling race, with a big cheering section!

 

An urban experience for the Sterling Race

We traditionally end each TNR season with a pizza party. Big thanks to Anna Schulz for being the pizza making queen. And to Amy Schulz, Pam Jaspersohn, and Sam Messer for making beautiful and delicious salads with produce from the Hosmer Point gardens!

Fresh tomato, nasturtium, and parsley salad

Akeo Maefield-Carucci wielding the unwieldy pizza slicer

Pizza pizza pizza

Anna the pizza queen!

Audrey and the Dunn family enjoying pizza and veggies

And last but certainly not least, a huge thank you to Kait Miller for being the TNR race director and organizer extraordinaire!

Kait in the blue shirt!

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Thoughts on a summer of running camps

As running camps wind down for the summer season, there is a lull in running activity here at the Center. There is no longer a group of runners to meet every morning for a run and a jump in Great Hosmer pond. My days are no longer filled with clipboards detailing running workouts, spontaneous rounds of ‘mafia’, or workshops in yoga, nutrition, or mental training. It’s odd how quickly the bustle of camp life can fade; the herds of runners around campus and in the Center’s dining hall are quieted.

This summer, we hosted three high school camps and two adult camps. Each group of visiting runners had it’s own character and dynamic. Camp days are busy for the coaching staff – shuttling and shuffling from one fun activity to the next. In the midst of it all, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate how rare and special running camp life is. Someone asked me recently why I love our running camps. The answer is easy: The people and the place.

Through a week of training and adventuring, running camp reminds us that the places we run and the people we run with are the foundation of our experience as athletes. On the Ridge Run, we experience the simple pleasure of rising pre-dawn and cruising through a long run as the world slowly wakes up around us. At post-workout meals in the dining hall, we fall into lengthy philosophical debates on the merits of gps vs non-gps training or tales of your most dire running “emergencies”. You may find yourself eating with a 2:19 marathoner, the coach of numerous New England high school champions, a member of the Seven Continents Club, or a running “newbie” training for their first 10k. In every camp experience – hill workouts, endurathon days, creemee excursions, raucous gift exchanges, movie nights, and sunrise yoga sessions – there is a shared sense of camaraderie and purpose. We are reminded that the beauty of running with friends new and old lies in both the animated discussions and silent energy shared during workouts conquered and meals shared.

On the most basic level, running camp reminds you why you began running in the first place. In a visit to our final high school camp of the summer, my high school cross country coach, Jim Eakin, began his talk by asking the group to write down on a notecard, “Why do you run?” Remembering our reasons for running – community, team, pushing yourself, feeling strong, building confidence – is a simple yet grounding exercise, reaffirming our love for the sport.

Coach Eakin also spoke to the fabled notion of the “loneliness of the long distance runner”. In the current running boom, with dozens of clubs in every city and region, the loneliness of the long distance runner may be assumed to be the plight of runners-past. Today, runners can seem to be everywhere, taking the world by storm at races of every distance and discipline conceivable each weekend. And yet many runners who come to camp – adults and teenagers alike – are still seeking the sense of connection and understanding that comes from a running community. Those people who subscribe to the same lifestyle of early morning runs or late night track workouts; those people who simply love getting outside and running because they can, no matter the weather or terrain. In a world apparently filled with runners, this community can remain inaccessible to many. At Craftsbury, running camp – if only for a week – fills this void, as campers are transplanted into a tight-knit family of fellow runners.

I know that out in the world our summer campers are now cleaning off their spikes for the fall cross country season or focusing in on their next road race. Others are heading to the mountains for day-long excursions on rugged trails. As they do, I hope they carry with them renewed motivation and fresh perspective from their time in Craftsbury. As the post-camp withdrawal sets in for me, I look forward to following their results and swapping updates. And soon, I get to share more early morning runs, dining hall meals, and campfire s’mores with our fall campers.

Thank you, campers, for the memories, fun, and inspiration!

High School Camp #1 welcomed a younger group of runners, and was highlighted by ruthless card playing, a collectively speedy climb over Mt. Pisgah, and a stand-out talent show – complete with acrobatics, violin playing, singing, and a rap battle!

High School #1 campers enjoying Lake Willoughby on Endurathon day!

High School Camp #2 brought a smaller group of campers, allowing for more individualized coaching instruction, extra creemee expeditions, and a special ‘Endurathon’ day over Mt. Mansfield on July 4th.

High School #2 coaches enjoying ice cream together in Stowe.

At Masters Camp, we welcomed back runners who have been coming to camp for 20+ years and others visiting Craftsbury for the first time. The group had no shortage of stories from races run, adventures gone awry, and old camp shenanigans.

Masters campers weaving tales during a cider, wine, and cheese social.

All Comers Camp returned a crew of past campers plus one new camper added to the mix. This group had a remarkable ease; logging impressive workouts, swapping shameless stories, and chasing down a particularly stunning sunrise on ridge run day.

All Comers athletes preparing for the interval track workout in Morrisville.

To cap off our summer camps, a slew of high school runners arrived for nine days of High School Camp #3 in preparation for cross country season. On both intensity and recovery days, this group was always excited to try new things – learning to aqua-jog in Great Hosmer, completing a ridiculous community scavenger hunt, and venturing to a new creemee stand in Hardwick.

High School #3 campers ready to run on Endurathon day!

 

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Dock Talk – In Praise of Slowness: To Get Faster, Slow Down!

From Noel Wanner, Craftsbury Associate Director, Head Coach Tufts Men’s Rowing.

“Instant Gratification takes too long!”- Carrie Fisher

“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.” – Carl Honore, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed

“It’s like a finger, pointing a way to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory. – Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon

Noel on the water in Craftsbury

Many people come to Craftsbury to become faster scullers. But on that journey, many are stymied by a seeming paradox: what if the fastest way to get faster….. is to slow down? The longer I coach, the more I become convinced that slowing down is the best, fastest way to improve sculling skill. And yet many people resist the idea that there is anything to be gained from slow movement.

Motivated athletes see their sculling as a way to increase their fitness, and they see increasing their fitness as the best avenue to improve their speed. In other words: pull hard to get stronger, and once you are strong, you can pull harder! When I ask people to slow down, they often react with mistrust: how can anything that’s not hard, painful, or exhausting lead anywhere? Sculling slowly feels too, well, too easy – and easiness seems somehow immoral in a sport (and a culture) that fetishizes effort.

I’m not saying fitness and effort have no role in speed. A bigger, fitter athlete certainly has more power, and can sustain that power longer. But power has to be used skillfully to produce speed. But take a careful look at that last sentence: the two small words “used skillfully” gloss over an ocean of time spent to acquire skill. And by approaching the problem of how to move the boat using power and effort, you may miss the chance to actually learn the skill needed to use your power effectively. In the words of Drew Ginn: “Many have trained hard and gone slow.”

How can slowness help? Slow easy movement enables you to be aware of what you are doing. Learning new movement patterns takes thoughtful attention— and it’s pretty hard to be thoughtful or attentive with your heart beating 160 beats per minute and your muscles burning. If you are trying to break old technical habits, the challenge of creating new patterns is even greater than for a novice—and under the stress of hard effort you are more likely to return to old neuromuscular patterns.

Consider this story: one of the best young scullers I’ve known was consistently able to move his single faster than his erg score or his physical stature should have allowed. I asked him how he had learned to do this, and he replied: “I learned to scull when I was 12 and I was very tall for my age, but very weak. And I was lazy – I hated getting tired, so I think I learned to move the boat with as little effort as possible.”

So the next time out, try this: instead of exploring the limits of your effort on the water, explore moving the boat as effortlessly as possible – imagine sculling as if you had no muscle strength at all. Deprived of power as your main avenue, explore others: rhythm, leverage, lightness of touch, and timing.

Here are a few excellent drills that are so slow you won’t need more than a few meters of water to do them – and yet they are some of the best for developing the boat awareness and skill which will make you a better, faster sculler.

Sculling camp coach Jeanne Friedman sitting comfortably at the catch (Photo: Maura Conron).

1) “Sit still” Sit at the release with the blades resting flat on the water. Sit still for a full minute-notice your balance in the boat, notice your breathing. Now, keeping the blades flat, go up to the catch position and sit still again for a minute. Notice anything different? Are you able to be as relaxed and balanced at the catch as you were at the release? Now turn your blades square in the water and again, sit still, breathing easily and focusing your attention on the feeling of weight pressing your sit bones down into the seat. If you find this position stressful or tense, relax back the release and shake out the tension-then sit at the catch again. Repeat this each day, and you will notice that you become more comfortable, less tense, more at home in your movement in the boat.

2)“Pushback” Start at the release with your blades square and floating just buried in the water. Push your hands away gently, backing the boat toward the catch, keeping the blade buried. As you approach the catch position, keep the blade buried as you gently stop the boat and transition to a very gentle drive. Again, keep the blade buried and move slowly toward the release. At the release, keep the blade in the water as you catch the boat on the blade and begin to gently push away again. Repeat this until you are gently see-sawing the boat back and forth, going nowhere at all. Notice the changing pressure of the water from the front of the blade to the back.

3) “Loose is Fast” Get the boat moving, and see how light a touch you can have on the water. Imagine you are barely touching the water with the blade and just skimming past it. Now try to raise the tempo/rate, keeping the same light touch. If you notice things getting heavy or labored, stop and begin again. See how high you can get the rate while keeping your perceived muscular exertion low. Focus on your rhythm and the looseness of the movement.

Everyone has had the experience of seeing someone scull so well that they make it look effortless; why not become that person? The humble pursuit of simple, easy movements can unlock a world of “easy speed;” which then, after many miles of easy sculling, becomes the conduit through which all your power and strength can flow.

“At the highest level of this discipline, the warrior becomes one with the flow of reality around him. In that state of oneness, he is able to act without the necessity of volition. To the bystanders, he doesn’t seem to do much, and yet he delivers the exact minimum of impact at the exact right time to accomplish what needs to be done and not one iota more.” – Derek Lin, Tao Articles

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5 Quick Questions with Coach Aisyah Mohamed Rafa’ee

A conversation between Singapore’s first and only Olympic rower and Craftsbury coach Aisyah Mohamed Rafa’ee and Fleet Manager Erika Sloan.

Erika: How did you start rowing?
Aisyah: I was sitting on the rowing machine back in high school when a former rower came over and told me to try out rowing because I had the physique for it. I went to give it a try, but didn’t like it at first because rowing seemed boring. I got hooked onto it when I won my first medal a month after I started rowing and never looked back since then.

E: What do you like about rowing/coaching?
A: I like the fact that rowing is a hard sport, if not the hardest sport there is out there next to cross-country skiing. It makes me physically strong and fit and I like knowing that I can walk into any gym and squat or deadlift pretty heavy stuff- haha! I enjoy coaching because I love sharing my love for the sport to others.

E: How did it feel being the first rower to represent Singapore in the Olympics?
A: Amazing, especially knowing that there were some people who didn’t believe in me and even told me that I wasn’t good enough for the Olympics.

E: How did you end up coming to Craftsbury?
A: I was looking for successful rowing clubs where I can volunteer at in the US because I want to learn what makes a rowing club successful and how rowing summer camps are conducted. I hope to gain experience as I can to open my own rowing club in Singapore one day. While it sounds cliche, I came across Craftsbury on Google and contacted Troy, telling him that I would love to help out in the summer camps! That’s how I found this paradise!

E: What’s your favorite thing about Craftsbury?
A: I love the fact that everyone who came for the rowing summer camp shared the love for rowing- whether they were complete beginners or multiple medal winners. I not only was able to learn from the different coaches but there was so much to take away from the different campers! And it’s all sculling in Craftsbury – can’t be any more perfect than that. Craftsbury being exceptionally beautiful is a bonus, along with the amazing staff who I met during my time there. But if there was one thing that I still think about all the time is the food served. That would be my favorite thing at Craftsbury!

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Tech Tip: Working Towards a Relaxed Connection with Your Hands

From Carol Bower, Craftsbury Associate Director, Head Rowing Coach at Bryn Mawr College, 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist.

One of the most challenging technical changes to make in sculling is to let go of the tight awkward grip of the oar handle on the recovery and hence also on the drive. We all develop this grip when we are learning to row because of the instability of the shell; any kind of imbalance causes us to tighten up and grab the handles tighter. This tight grip leads the newer sculler to drop the wrist to feather the blades which leads to a very awkward and tense hand position on the handles during the recovery.

Once you are sculling somewhat proficiently you can spend some time working on letting go of the tight grip on each handle. The goal here is to use less wrist action to feather and square the blades and move to letting the handles roll out into the fingers for the feather and then roll the handle back into the upper palm to square the blades.

2017 GRP U23 athlete Emily Lane demonstrating very relaxed hand position.

Again, this is a challenging change to make. You are undoing a lot of muscle memory in your wrists and hands on the handles. Here are some things to keep in mind while working to make this change.

Make it a priority. The first step towards making this change is to make it a priority. Too often I see athletes trying to fix the handle connection while also working on a more direct placement of the blade at the catch and/or better acceleration through the drive. The ironic thing is that if you can fix the handle connection, that will make the blade placement and suspension a lot easier.

Go slow to go fast. Give yourself time in each practice to work on this change until you start to feel a difference in how your hands feel when feathering and squaring the blade. This means spending more time going slow in rate and with less pressure while rowing and doing drills.

Slowing down and doing drills also allows you to be loose and relaxed while you are trying to release the tension in your hands. As you become more proficient with the drill you can add pressure and speed. Just be sure to back off on pressure and stroke rate if you feel tension returning.

Ultimately your ability to go fast and maintain your speed over a 2k race or a longer head race will be enhanced by staying loose in your hands.

Pick a drill and do it well. It is better to use one or two drills and perfect them than it is to use a lot of drills and never progress towards something better.

A good first drill is to row on the port side with your arm and body swing while keeping the blade on the starboard side flat on the water and that handle next to your body for stability. After a few strokes switch to rowing with the starboard side. This way you can focus on making the change in one hand at a time. You can also observe what your hand and blade are doing while working on this.

Another good drill is the pause at the release with quarter feather. As you come out of the pause pay attention to keeping the wrist flat while the handles roll out into the fingers. Also notice how flat the wrist are as the hands cross over each other on they recovery.

Incorporate the drills into your warm up and workout. Ok, now you can feel the difference in your hands and you know when it feels right. Keep working on this change you have made in your hand-handle connection by incorporating the drills into your warm up and workouts.

Chances are very good that even before you take your first strokes of the practice session you will need to row on one side to get your boat pointed. Take the time to slow down and pay attention to your hand while you feather and square on that side. Chances are equally good that you will need to stop and turn to return to the boathouse. Rather than quickly and awkwardly (and mindlessly!) getting your boat turned around, take a little more time to pay attention to your hand as you deliberately and efficiently turn your boat around.

The pause drill can be added to your warm up and to your steady state workout. You won’t lose endurance training time by adding 10 strokes of pause every 5 minutes during a long workout. You can also add the pause into any part of the recovery; pausing hands and body out is another good place to take a moment to check and see that your hands are relaxed on the handles and your wrists are flat.

Take on challenging situations. Its easy to be relaxed and have good form in flat water and rowing relatively easy. Feeling relaxed in your hands while rowing in rough water and/or at racing speed is more challenging.

One whack of the blade against a wave in choppy water rattles the brain and tightens the muscles. Our bodies naturally react to instability by wanting to grab on to something with our hands. In this situation keep rowing the same pressure and speed but give yourself a few strokes to take the response tension out of your hands and return to the relaxed connection to the handles. On rough days you will be repeating this process many times. In the Row2k interview called “Float Like a Stone: Gevvie Stone Survives to Win Her Heat,” Gevvie Stone talks about her strategy for dealing with the really rough conditions in the heats of the Olympic Games in Rio. A lesson she learned from her mom, Lisa Stone, was to draw the alphabet with her fingers to stay loose.

The racing start is another tension generating situation. The power and high stroke rate causes us to clench the handles as we work to get the boat up to racing speed from sitting still on the starting line. As you practice your racing start it is important to pay attention the loose grip on the handles. Loose hands lead to loose forearms, which lead to loose shoulders. Loose muscles are much quicker and stronger than tense muscles.

Work hard, stay loose. These steps work for any changes you want to make in your rowing stroke but I think it is especially true for the connection between your hand and the handle. The small quick action of the feather and square are harder to correct than the proper leg drive or body swing. Once the hands are relaxed and you use less wrist to feather and square the blades you will find it is much easier to make other corrections in your rowing stroke.

Rowers of all levels remind themselves to stay loose in the hands when working out and racing. Power, speed, and feel of the water are greatly enhanced when the hands and other muscles in the body are relaxed. So take the time to work on the little motion of the feather and square and the feel of the oar handles under the weight of your hands on the recovery.

Check out our Tech Tips Archive for content like this from past years, and subscribe
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