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The first symptoms appreared as I lay in bed last night, wide awake and twitching. My mind was racing, my heart was thumping and every few minutes my stomach lurched. Thump-lurch, thump-lurch, thump-lurch. I could feel the adrenalin coursing around my body. Exactly a week before my first regatta of the season, I had my first bout of regatta nerves, and it’s not going to get any better until the siren sounds and the first race is over (at approximately 3.21 p.m. next Sunday).

I’m a little shame-faced about the depth and intensity of my fear. I am, for goodness’ sake, a grown woman who’s had her fair share of life experiences and prides herself on being fearless and feisty. Heck, I’ve even given birth twice so it’s not like I can’t handle pain.

But there it is. Thump-lurch, thump-lurch. Thump-lurch.

The fears crowd in.

What if I mess up the start? Thump-lurch.

What if I come off my seat? Thump-lurch.

What if I … oh, dear God… catch a crab? THUMP-LURCH!!

If it were just me on my own, I could probably cope with the potential for disaster and humiliation, but the thought of messing it up for eight other people… thump-lurch-thump-lurch-thump-lurch.

So be gentle with me this week. And someone please tell me I’m not alone in my suffering. Think you’re immune to the fear? Here’s a handy little test to see how you’re doing…

ATTENTION!!!

It all started, as these things do, with some idle Twitter chat with Matthew Pinsent about masters rowing categories.

“Went rowing with duffers this morning”, announced Pinsent.

“Define duffers,” demanded Girl on the River (extra coxing duties this week having brought out my bossy side).

“Ah”, said the Great Man. “C is seasoned, D duffer, E endangered”.

“I daren’t ask what you’d think of F”, spluttered David Biddulph.

The answer, as I might have expected, came from the Monmouth RC ladies’ rowing squad – from one of our Fabulous, Fierce and Feisty Masters F women.

“Matthew Pinsent hasn’t met the Monmouth Women’s Squad – yet!” she said.

“C is for ‘Cool, Collected & Competitive; D is for ‘Determined & Deadly; E is for ‘Energetic, Elegant & Explosive’ & F is just ‘F…ing Fantastic’. ”

So if you ever find yourself tempted to dismiss masters rowers as, well, duffers, know this. The, ahem, senior rowers may have the odd wrinkle, but we’re not ready to hang up our rigger jiggers yet. After all, we’re not called Masters for nothing.

It’s been a while since I’ve recommended any rowing blogs, but there’s a new kid on the block that I simply can’t ignore. Rowing Journal, the brain child of photographer Iain Weir, aka Shutteritch, is a truly democratic rowing blog, set up “to give you a platform to voice your opinions, experiences, observations or simply to pose a question to the rest of the rowing community.” Anyone, it seems, can join and post on it, and my goodness, they have done.

Now this was a pretty risky strategy. It could, let’s face it, have been dreadful. Let the world at large say what they want, unfettered by the rules of the river or even the rules of grammar, and the results could be grim. But here’s the thing. Rowing Journal has turned out to be a really classy read. Funny, controversial, at times infuriating – everything, in short, that a blog should be. I don’t know how it’s moderated – perhaps it’s self-selecting, the rowing community being made up of mostly excellent people. Either way, it works.

Posts range from totally recognisable rowing stereotypes to thinly disguised rants, with even the occasional motivational love-in. My personal favourite to date: “I just need to move my footplate, hang on” – a lament that had me laughing, as they say, out loud.

All of which is pretty annoying for a fellow rowing blogger. I would have loved to tell you that as rowing blogs go, it wasn’t nearly as good as Girl on the River, but sadly I can’t. It really is worth a read. Just promise me one thing. Now that I’ve introduced you to the younger model, you won’t go and leave me for her, will you?

It’s M.E. Awareness Week and I don’t want to let it go by without at least a nod in its direction. As Girl on the River fans will know, I fell prey to this tricky and pernicious condition around the turn of the millennium and it wiped out a good deal of my thirties; it also brought a fairly promising legal career to a feeble end.

My road back to health was travelled in baby steps – a bit of gentle walking was all I could do for a long time – and if you’d told me, when I was at my lowest ebb, that I would end up rowing competitively I simply would not have believed you.

Rowing, if you think about it, is a preposterous sport for a diminutive, featherweight 40-something with a tendency to feebleness. I’m fairly certain my doctor – had I asked him – wouldn’t have recommended it. And there are times after a hard outing or a killer of a race when I question the wisdom of a sport that demands so much.

But what can I do? The river has me in its thrall. And there is something about the extreme nature of rowing that keeps me coming back for more. If I can row I know that I’m better.

And here’s the thing. If I hadn’t had M.E. I would never have made the changes in my life that enabled me to start rowing. I’d have been Girl on the Underground rather than Girl on the River. That has to be a trade worth making.

Son on the Run is having driving lessons, and what a learning experience it’s been for both of us. Although he is mercifully careful, I can’t deny we’ve had our moments… like on our first outing, when the automatic gate in an industrial estate unexpectedly began to close in on my little car as SotR struggled to put it into reverse (we escaped just in the nick of time before being crushed in its metallic embrace).

The whole experience improved beyond measure, though, when I had a lightbulb moment whilst coxing a few weeks ago. As I called out the commands in confident, encouraging tones (some say I have no need of a cox box), it occurred to me that my skills as a cox (dodgy steering aside) were just what was needed during Son’s early forays into driving.

And so began driving instruction, cox-stylee.

There’s that special, calm-yet-authoritative voice that you adopt when you’re intent on avoiding a collision (“harder on bow side… that’s right, MUCH harder on bow side right NOW…”) that is perfect for those moments when you’re longing to scream “BRAKE!!!” but don’t want to freak everyone out.

There’s that uniquely encouraging tone of voice employed when coxing novices (“Much better, yes, much, MUCH better… just try to keep in time there, two, OK, yes, just get BACK in time, then”) that comes in handy for those just-avoided-a-scrape moments.

And there’s a whole host of possibilities in the technical exercises. This week we’re going to try the driving equivalent of pause rowing to get to grips with stop-start driving in slow traffic. Next week we’ll have a go at half-slide driving, changing up from first to second to third and down again.

Seriously, it’s brilliant. If you have a learner driver in the family you really should try it. Probably best to avoid eyes shut driving, though…

So Dwain Chambers and David Millar could be competing for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics, despite being banned for doping offences. The Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) has decided that a lifetime ban by the British Olympic Association does not comply with the World Anti-Doping Agency code and is therefore unenforceable. This has caused a big kerfuffle in the sporting world, with clean sportsmen and women understandably feeling outraged that the good name of their sport could be tainted. Yet I can’t help thinking that it’s the right decision.

Of course, nobody wants to give the nod to doping offences, either directly or indirectly, and I can quite see why sports people who have always scrupulously competed without chemical assistance should be upset. But I can’t get away from the notion that everyone – including sports people – should be allowed to serve their time and then get on with their lives and careers. They made a mistake, they’ve paid the price, so now let’s see what they can do without the drugs. Test them and retest them and then let them compete properly, like they should have done in the first place.

This isn’t a popular point of view, so let’s hear what you’ve got to say about it. Should Dwain Chambers and David Millar be allowed back in the fold? Are the Olympics tainted if they compete? Should doping always lead to a lifetime ban or is everyone entitled to a second chance even if they’ve fallen prey to the temptation of taking drugs? Girl on the River has had her say: now it’s over to you.

Rainy day blues

It’s raining. Really, properly raining – none of this half-hearted sunshine-and-showers business. No, in keeping with the economic mood of the country, it’s just steady, wet stuff teeming relentlessly down – enough to have me checking periodically that the house isn’t leaking. Of course we need it – water levels are a bit alarming – but frankly I’m more interested in what it’ll be doing to the river.

Will our lovely, glassy Wye have turned into a muddy torrent by my next outing tomorrow? And, more importantly, what will be floating down in it? Usually a downpour just brings a few branches and the odd tree, but we have been known to see the occasional dead cow or sheep float past (sob). Last time I was in Bristol I even saw a guitar floating down the river: so rock’n’roll.

One last thing:  a plea to the people who make splash tops. Is there any chance that you could make them, like, actually waterproof? It would make British rowing so much nicer.

London 2012 Olympic Games: The Official Book, published by Carlton, £12.99, available from all good book shops and online

You may recall that a few weeks ago I told you that to celebrate the launch of the Official Book of the London 2012 Olympic Games, rowing legend and all round nice guy Sir Matthew Pinsent had (perhaps rashly) agreed to submit himself for questioning, and that members of the public (and that included you) were invited to send in their questions for him.

Now, with fewer than 100 days to go, the results are in. The best questions were put to Sir Matthew and I’m excited to say that one of mine was included; it’s the third question in, so listen out for it.

If you want to know whether the great man wears his medals around the house or fancies himself in another Olympic sport, you need to get watching. Here it is:

The book – as I reported before – is a good read, too, so don’t forget to order your copy online or look out for it in the shops.

Until recently I’d always taken the view that sports supplements were really for Other People. Bodybuilders who needed to build muscle fast; teenage boys working on their biceps; oh, and proper sportsmen and women whose achievements justified spending money on extra products. I’d also assumed that they tasted as good as a 1970s meal replacement drink – a bit like sawdust mixed with saccharine. Over the last year, though, I’ve undergone a bit of a conversion. When Son on the Run started using energy drinks and protein recovery drinks, I dipped into his stash from time to time and couldn’t help but be impressed both by the effect and by the taste. So when Optimum Nutrition offered to send me some of their products to try out, I was all ears.

Optimum Nutrition (ON) are big on matching the diet to the sport and have a section specifically devoted to rowing on their website. They’re also happy to give individual advice, so when I told them I was training for regatta season, but with a 15k head race just a few weeks beforehand to complicate matters, they came up with a set of products to meet my needs. This is what they said:

“I would suggest that you try something that will give you a burst of energy and help you train longer / harder, and also something that will speed up muscle recovery / lessen aches and pains for you post row.

Essential Amino Energy is the first product of its kind in the UK market and supports recovery before, during and after exercise. It would be a great product for you as it combines:

  • Natural energisers in the form of green tea and green coffee extracts
  • Essential amino acids for muscle repair and rebuilding
  • Arginine and citrulline for nitric oxide (N.O.) synthesis
  • Beta-alanine to support longer, harder training

I’d also suggest you take a Gold Standard Whey protein shake a few hours before and immediately after rowing to help speed up muscle recovery and help the rebuilding process.

You should also be upping your protein levels with extra protein if you’re training in the gym regularly. Maybe a small shake in the a.m. and post workout. If you don’t like the shakes you could always try the rice crispy-esque bars [Whey Crisp Bars] which do the same thing.”

I made a beeline right away for the Whey Crisp Bars. They had sent me the double rich chocolate one, which is right up my street as a bit of a chocolate-lover (the alternative is marshmallow flavour, which sounds a bit too sweet for my liking). It’s a bit like a chocolate rice krispy biscuit – chewy, dark, chocolatey and disappearing so fast that I’ve had to hide the box from my kids who keep pinching them. I can’t say for sure whether they’ve improved my recovery (though the one I took during a light-headed wobble after the Head of the Dart certainly helped to revive me). Frankly, since they taste this good I’m prepared to be convinced. I have one sitting on my desk right now and it’s all I can do to resist it (I’ve already had a protein snack this morning). A box of 12 bars currently costs £22.99, which is mid-range compared with protein bars from other companies.

Next up was the Gold Standard Whey. This comes in a host of flavours (ice cream lovers will be tempted by the Rocky Road and Cookies’n’Cream options; I was sent the plainer French Vanilla Creme and Delicious Strawberry – again they seemed to understand that I don’t tend to go for the temple-achingly sweet). The powder mixes in very easily with water (unlike some other brands I’ve tried) – a gentle shake was enough. As far as taste was concerned, they got a definite thumbs up; neither grainy nor sickly, they definitely won in the taste stakes. I drank one of these shakes immediately after the longest run I’ve done to date and suffered no muscle pain at all, so I’m prepared to believe that it helped, too.

The powder costs £32.99 for 908g – not the cheapest by any means, though at the time of writing it’s on special offer, reduced to £19.79. The price does, I think, reflect the quality of the product, though, and I’d be inclined to say it was worth the extra money.

Of all the products that I tried, though, the stand out one was the Essential Amino Energy. I was sent the orange flavour powder which you mix with water; it tastes like orange squash but with a bit of a kick. I liked the fact that it’s low calorie – sometimes I prefer to make up the calories I use up with actual food! A two scoop serving carries only 10 calories.

It’s not for those sensitive to caffeine, but I really, really liked it. It is great for pre-workout and I’ve been taking some in the boat with me as well for normal outings; it definitely gives me a boost of energy. ON suggested that if I want to give it some extra oomph, I should mix it with an energy powder and that’s what I did for last weekend’s 15k race. I felt really strong for the entire race (56mins, 58 secs, for anyone who cares!).

Man on the Run and Son on the Run have also discovered this product and are converts, too. Man on the Run achieved a PB at a recent race fuelled by this, and his running mates are now trying to find out what his secret was (oops – the cat’s out of the bag now). My only problem is my dwindling supplies now that they keep dipping into the pot.

Again, it’s not cheap – a 30-serving pot costs £29.99 (currently reduced to £17.99) but I personally think it’s worth every penny. It turns an energy drink into something more and helps with recovery too. That, to me, is a winning formula.

I would tell you more, but everything you could wish to know is on the ON website and frankly I can no longer resist the lure of the whey crisp bar. I’m off for a snack break.

Monmouth RC taking race preparation seriously

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so once a year Monmouth RC goes off on a jolly. Last year we headed to Brugge to row in the rain, eat chocolate, climb lamp posts and generally make whoopee. This year it was Dartmouth’s turn to host the boisterous crowd that is the Monmouth Massive.

The Head of the Dart sounded like it could be a lot of fun – and so it proved to be. 15k (ahem – more on that later) from Dartmouth (on the south Devon coast) up the river Dart to Totnes, along a stunning route with just the odd bend to deal with (no one really looked too closely at the map at first…) And the prospect of a weekend away with the gang. What’s not to love?

The most important thing to understand is that for Monmouth rowers, race preparation is key. The night before, having checked into our holiday chalets, we ate a sensibly balanced dinner of tofu, vegetables and brown rice, washed down with green tea and performed some gentle stretches before retiring for an early night, as the photo shows. Oh, wait…

The next morning, those steering the boats, having realised exactly what was involved (ferries, concrete buoys, paddle-boards, hairpin bends) were looking a bit paler than everyone else, but the Monmouth ladies were all beautifully accessorised with bags by House of Campion. After 53 trips to the loo and industrial quantities of jelly babies, Monmouth took to the water with a mixed 8, a ladies’ quad in fabulous matching stripy socks, an intrepid ladies’ double and a men’s coxless 4 that was then going to turn back and do it all again in the opposite direction.

Looking good - and check out those socks!

I think we can say we did ourselves proud. The mixed 8 missed out only to a crew with a higher ratio of men to women (and, it has to be said, young enough to be our children). The women’s quad – looking fab in this picture – put in an impressive time, too, despite parking briefly on a buoy (luckily not the giant concrete one). The double claimed to find it “quite easy” and successfully dodged the ferry to make it back in one piece. And the men proudly won the whole thing. Beaten only by three eights who were all disqualified for taking an illegal shortcut, they were proclaimed Head of the Dart. Go Monmouth!

The victorious men's 4- complete with trophy and radioactive splashtops

Our only disappointment was that the race turned out to be 13k rather than the 15 we were expecting, so just as we were gearing up for the final push, the bell rang and we’d finished with a little still left in the tank. Ah well, we’ll just have to come back next year to try again.

As for the après-row, it was noisy, it was fun, it was sunny and it was over far too soon. Only the imminent onset of scurvy was enough to tear us away from the lovely beach and blue skies of Dartmouth.

Thanks to all those who coxed, steered, towed, organised, drove, cooked breakfast and entertained. And Dartmouth, be warned. We’ll be back!

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