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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!

After my last post about whether rowing is elitist, a lovely woman called Rachel got in touch to tell me about the Herculean efforts that she and a bunch of other parents and grandparents have been putting in to give their kids a chance to row at the state school they attend. I was so moved by her story that, with Rachel’s permission, I have decided to share it with you. Over to you, Rachel:

“Just over a year ago I sat in a school classroom alongside a small group of parents and children listening to three times World Champion, Peter Haining, talking about rowing. He’d been introduced by Zena, one of the other mums. She’d started rowing a few years before, loved it and wanted her children to enjoy it too, but she’d noticed that the children she came across at races were almost entirely from public schools. And hers weren’t… in fact her children, mine, and all the others were in a classroom at Cheney Secondary School in East Oxford. Zena not only wanted her own children to discover the joys of rowing, but for all the children at the school, regardless of background, to have the same opportunity. Cheney is an inner-city school, its catchment area the terrace streets and housing estates in the east of the city, within sight but, in many ways, far from the dreaming spires.

“Peter is quite a character, he regaled us with tales of his rowing exploits, photographs of him on a mountain holding a boat aloft in fulfillment of a bet, and told us of his ambition for our children – this was not going to be any rowing club, but an Olympic Rowing club. We were captivated. We weren’t just going to aim to win a few local races against other state schools, we were aiming for the top. For those parents who’ve been through the state primary system, this ambition and outright competitiveness was new.  Cheney’s fantastic PE department had been a breath of fresh air, a Head of PE who talked about a pupil’s competitive nature as something good and positive – a crucial factor for success, and now Peter and his ambitions….. there was a palpable sense of excitement. 

“This was also to be a real collaboration of parents, school and community. A local rowing and canoeing club just downriver from the Oxford college boathouses, Falcon RCC would host us, giving us free use of their facilities, equipment, and safety support; parents, teachers and volunteers from the local community trained as coaches for indoor rowing on erg machines, and for the outdoor sessions – British Rowing have been impressed at how much volunteer commitment we’ve had. One of the most active volunteers is Zena’s 74-year old father, John, a former rower himself who ran yoga sessions for self-conscious teenagers, dressed up as Santa at Christmas, and learned how to design a website so he could help publicise the club and get funding.

“After running a few Learn to Row sessions over the summer the Club started properly in September 2011. Zena had been busy fundraising and succeeded in getting £10k lottery funding and much appreciated grants from the Waterways Trust, Oxford Sports Council and Doris Field Charitable Trust. We got our ‘Club Mark’ and registered with British Rowing. Mark Hunter, Beijing Gold medalist and London Olympic hopeful came along to a training session, inspiring the pupils with the story of his journey from a state comp to international athlete, and showed his gold medal to our own Olympic dreamers as they jostled to meet a real Olympian. We were on a roll.

“More than 50 children trialled for the first 25 places, and as the weather worsened into winter the children just kept coming along. The worse the conditions, the tighter the team got as they huddled round post-training cups of hot chocolate. They capsized and made mistakes, but slowly their technique improved, they gained confidence, had a few informal races against a local public school and then entered their first competition – the Monmouth Christmas Head.

“And that’s when some of the differences money makes started to be apparent – the school minibuses with trailers loaded with multiple boats – oops, we just had one borrowed old wooden one for all four crews to share. This necessitated some quick turnarounds with crew and parents pitching in – novices on and off the water. Last month some children from Falcon got a chance to have a session on Dorney Lake at Eton, and they entered an Aladdin’s cave of shiny new boats, equipment, order… even heating… as the rowers shivered thinking of Falcon’s picturesque but draughty wooden boathouse. “I want that” my son told me, eyes wide with the possibility of sleek boats, the latest equipment, and warm hands and feet after training.

“Fast forward to Saturday 5th April 2012, as the children came off the water their coach, Lorna, instructed them to watch the Boat Race in preparation for a forthcoming race. Not quite the preparation she had anticipated, I imagine: anti-elitism protests, clashing of blades, and the collapse of the Oxford bow. My son veered from intense anger at the protestor, to intense concern for Alex Woods. He’s only just started rowing, but he can imagine the years of training the athletes undertook, their fear at almost injuring a swimmer, and Oxford’s disappointment at the outcome. Without doubt we deplore the actions of Trenton Oldfield. His means of protest was dangerous for everyone and disrupted a remarkable event. But the question of whether rowing is elitist niggled.

 “Rowing is ingrained in the British class and public education system, but for the past 10 years efforts have been made to expand rowing into state schools with some success and support from state-educated advocates such as national treasure Sir Steve Redgrave.There are some state schools that have very successful rowing clubs, such as Monmouth Comprehensive (and I suspect we could learn a lot from them). With more than 3400 state secondary schools in the UK the few that have successfully developed rowing clubs are in the minority, although they are frequently used as examples of how rowing is no longer elitist – maybe less so than in the past, perhaps, but there are still some very real barriers to wider participation, and setting up a school club, as we are finding, can be hugely expensive, even if it is a school-community collaboration with an existing club.

 “Last year one of the children told me, “I used to see all these rowers out there when I crossed the river on my way to school; I never thought a kid like me could do something like this.” The crucial change for him was in his self-perception – the belief that something he had previously considered closed to him, was within reach and that all he needed to take part was interest and ability. For all of Trenton Oldfield’s protests against elitism, bringing more children from diverse backgrounds into sports like rowing may be a far more revolutionary move in terms of social change, because social change only happens when people’s perceptions of their place and potential in this world changes too. That’s not to say that there aren’t external barriers, but taking away the barriers without changing our self-perception isn’t enough. I hope in future we’ll have more Olympians who started their rowing careers in state schools because the sport will be poorer for primarily drawing talent from the minority of children educated in public schools. Think of all those great Olympians we never had.

 “Although state school children can join local rowing clubs which are theoretically open to all, my experience of trying to get my son a place at one is of unanswered emails, long waiting lists, high membership fees and some clubs only take experienced juniors (yes, really!). My two nearest clubs charge £160-180 for an annual junior membership and I pay £10 a week for coaching on top of that – partly because their own costs are so high. This works out about 10 times what I pay in costs for my son’s participation in his football team.

 “The beauty of a state school rowing club is that it starts from the premise of access for all.  The majority of children now rowing at Cheney would not have joined a local club, they got into rowing because it came to them at school. State school children are not a homogenous group, some families take a couple of foreign holidays a year and others live on very low incomes supplemented with parcels from food banks, there are children in care, refugees and asylum seekers. A few of our rowers pay for additional membership at a local club, but the majority only row with the school and there are some talented athletes for whom participation is only possible because it is at zero cost to them. They would never be able to afford to join a rowing club, but they can be active and equal members of the school club. The school knows their situation and automatically their costs are covered, discreetly, no need to make a special case, ask for a discount or show documentary evidence.  

 “However much my son was awed at the Eton boathouse, it would be cheap shot to juxtapose an image of the Falcon ‘hut’ alongside the premier rowing venue in the country. Our school club doesn’t need Eton-style facilities – but we do need the basics: access to decent boats suitable for juniors, equipment such as shoes in the right sizes, funds to repair and maintain the second hand ergometers, adequate safety equipment, and coaching. Our budget contains essentials and ‘nice to have’ items. Safety equipment is essential; a summer coaching course for the most able rowers will probably have to be dropped. And the boat issue won’t go away – with more training, experience and better technique we can do better, but there will be a point where quality of boats will make a difference. We were pleased with our performance at Monmouth, but it was like racing a tugboat against yachts.

 “Getting funding is laborious and time-consuming, especially when we reply on parent volunteers doing it is their spare time after a long day at work and a long evening on domestic chores.  And I am that parent volunteer – struggling to find the time to investigate the various funds, schemes and sources, make the applications, put together the supplementary materials, supporting letters from the Governing Body and so on. Days spent preparing funding applications have spawned nothing but rejections so far– all funds, it would seem, have already been allocated for the foreseeable future. Most requests were for a few hundred to a thousand pounds, but they all require quite a lot of work, and we’d need multiple small grants to cover basic costs. I’ve still four applications to fill in or hear back from, though, so my fingers are still crossed. Just about.

 “Even if all of them are successful, though, we will still be short of what we need. And that’s the rub, rowing is expensive, doing it properly, being ambitious, even more so. In a state school that wants to offer opportunities to all children regardless of income, subs can only be a partial contribution – we can count for about 10% of our budget from subs, and there are no wealthy benefactors, rich parents or illustrious alumni to draw on. Corporate sponsorship of a state school rowing team is a limited option, although if we do get a boat at some point we’d happily have a logo on it if we can find a company desirous of the prestige of sponsoring us.

 “But we’ve had our successes too. Some rowers enjoy it for the health and fitness aspects, they don’t want to compete and love being out on the water, working as a team, the beauty of the river early morning, the wildlife on the banks, the sense of freedom. Others do want to compete,  and they’ve already had some great successes in indoor rowing, winning a competition for Oxfordshire schools just months after setting the club up, and some strong positions in the competitive national schools indoor rowing competition last month. Indoor rowing, of course, is a lot cheaper than on the water because you don’t need the boats. As the regatta season starts we’ll be entering teams, our wonderful coaches have been running free extra sessions, and parents and volunteers will all pitch in to rig and de-rig our borrowed old wooden boat, and we’ll do our best to show that state schools have talent aplenty too.

 “But I do worry, come September with the coffers empty, will that be the end of our Olympic dreams? We let our children fall in love with rowing, but are we being too ambitious – is it simply not possible for a state school to run a rowing club, should we just give up and accept that it’s too expensive a sport for us to compete in?

 “To the boy who said that he never thought children like him could do something like this, all I can say is – I hope you can, but without a miracle, you might just be right.”

www.cheneyfalcon.co.uk

Thanks so much for this, Rachel; it gives us all plenty to think about.

So the newsfest that is the 2012 Boat Race continues, and now it appears that we know who the rogue swimmer is: a 35-year-old man named Trenton Oldfield (with a name like that he should have been a rocker, not a protester) wishing to complain about elitism. In an extended rant he set out his grievances and explained why he’d picked the Boat Race for his protest:

“The boat race itself, with its pseudo competition, assembled around similar principles of fastest, strongest, selected …etc, is an inconsequential backdrop for these elite educational institutions to demonstrate themselves, reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.”

Now, there’s no denying that at school level, rowing is – with a few very notable exceptions – a sport practised mostly at fee-paying schools. But at club level, rowing simply cannot be accused of elitism. Rowing clubs are spectacularly good value for money – far cheaper than most gyms and health clubs, and offering so much more for your money. Membership is by no means confined to those with plums in their mouths; if it were, the clubs simply wouldn’t be able to keep going.

Rowing is the best leveller I know. You might have a good education, a first class degree and a cut glass accent, but let me assure you that none of these make the boat go faster. None of these will make you win. I should know: I’ve got all of the above and have yet to win a race. Thankfully there are plenty of people in my club who have none of these advantages but are blessed with what really matters in rowing: strength, technique and courage. That’s what wins races.

But elitism aside, what really amused me about Trenton Oldfield’s blog was his description of the Boat Race as a “pseudo competition”. I wonder if, when he saw the boats powering towards him at a terrifying speed and saw at close quarters what went into the race, he still thought that. Whatever you can say about rowing, there’s nothing pseudo about it.

Much is still unclear about the 2012 Boat Race. First and foremost, we don’t yet know how Alex Woods is; the latest we’ve heard is that he’s been taken away in an ambulance, and everyone’s thoughts are of course with him. We don’t yet know who the rogue swimmer was, nor what he was doing in the water (a protest, one assumes, or perhaps just a head case). And then the disaster of the blade clash and Oxford’s brave decision to keep rowing despite the certain loss that was facing them (one commentator suggested that they should just stop in order to save face).

What we can say with certainty is that the Boat Race 2012 will go down in history, and not for all the right reasons. Much will be said about the swimmer and about the umpire’s call over the blade clash, and I’ll not go into that as the pundits will have more than enough to say on the subject later on.

There were two things that stuck in my mind, though. The first was Cambridge’s initial elation after what could only be described as a hollow victory. Of course they could be forgiven for being delighted with a win, whatever the circumstances; they’d worked phenomenally hard for a year and dealt with a difficult and stressful race with courage and strength. And yet I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable as they whooped and splashed and stood up in the boat and generally carried on as if it had been a normal win in normal circumstances. Perhaps, with my history of losing races, I identify too strongly with the unfortunate losers (and I’ll confess I’m an Oxford girl myself, so am bound to be a bit partial), but given the interruption and restart when Oxford were ahead and looking like they might well win, coupled with the fact that (whatever the merits of the umpire’s decision), Oxford had been a man down, it still felt a bit wrong. Not quite cricket. Certainly not quite Henley.

But the second thing that struck me was the speed with which they adjusted their behaviour when Oxford’s bow man, Alex Woods, was lifted out of the boat, clearly in trouble. Their smiles soon became muted and their celebrations dignified. Woods’ crisis reminded everyone what was really important. It’s a shame that we need a man being taken away in an ambulance to remind us what matters most, but at least it did. Sport, after all, should be sporting and the Boat Race should epitomise that. Oh, and to prove that I can practise what I preach… Congratulations, Cambridge; commiserations, Oxford; and get well soon, Alex.

Now that I am officially a runner as well as a rower (see yesterday’s post about my accidental half marathon), I’ve been spending as much time thinking about my feet as I have about my hands (my usual obsession). There’s no doubt that running takes its toll on your poor old plates of meat, so they need all the help they can get. I normally run in a pair of Asics trail running shoes as the tracks round here are pretty rough and uneven. I also have an old pair of bog standard Saucony shoes that I bought for my first, tentative steps three years ago, now used mainly for erging and bootcamp, but which get the odd run if I’m going to be on a road. They’re all getting a bit worn and probably ought to be replaced, but I think I have found a temporary stop gap that might prove to be more than that. Allow me to introduce the Sole Custom Footbed.

These were sent to me when I was researching a feature for a fitness mag, but I like them enough to warrant a Girl on the River post. They are essentially a fancy, orthopaedic insole that you put into your trainers to replace the original ones. Sole tell me that they are helpful in treating all sorts of conditions from plantar fasciitis (ouch) to joint pain caused by unsupported arches. They are also said to help with overpronation and oversupination and with the dreaded shin splints. The orthopaedic shape of these insoles, they explain, provides important support where you need it. The insoles are moulded to your feet either by wearing them over the course of a few days or by putting them in a lukewarm oven for a couple of minutes before inserting them into the shoes and standing in them for two minutes. Either way you get a really good fit.

I have put them into my trail running shoes and tried them out first on a 40 minute, hilly walk, as I didn’t want to run in them until I’d got used to them. They felt slightly unwieldy at first, but then moulded better to my feet. Once I got used to the slightly peculiar sensation I decided I liked the feel of the support they gave (and the fact that they lifted my feet up beyond the bit of the shoe under my ankle that occasionally rubbed a bit). I don’t have any orthopaedic problems other than a bit of overpronation – and if you do, I would urge you to seek professional help from a podiatrist before you try anything new – but I do get a lot of aches and twinges when I run. When I tried them on a proper run (a hilly four-miler that included one near-vertical slope) they were comfortable and supportive. I had been concerned that an old ligament injury that popped up on an eight mile run last week might show its face but it didn’t. I can’t say if I can thank the footbeds for that or not, but they certainly didn’t cause me any problems. They’ve definitely given my trusty old shoes a new lease of life and I’m hoping will make my running more comfortable.

Sole also kindly sent me a pair of their sport flips (flip flops to you and me) to try out. These have the same supportive elements as the footbeds and are fabulous for tired feet. They feel squashy and firm at the same time and are just the thing to wear after a long run. I’ve been wearing them around the house a lot and absolutely love them. Like the footbeds, they have an antimicrobial agent that stops them getting stinky (always a plus) and I would thoroughly recommend them.

So, where can you get them? Both the Sole Custom Footbeds and the Sole Sport Flips are available from Sole’s website. The footbeds vary in price depending on which ones you’re after (there are different types for different usage).  The Signature DK Response ones, which are the ones that were recommended to me for running, cost £42 – not cheap but less than a pair of new trainers and worth every penny if they make your running more comfortable). The Women’s Sport Flips normally cost £50 but at the time of writing are on sale for a lot less (price depends on the colour). As they say in the trade, hurry while stocks last!

 

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