Enduro Rowing, or, How To Save Winter Rowing

So, all six of you who my stats have suggested might have read every post on this blog, might have noticed Anno Dryseagacker is a rower defined by his hatreds, be it pepperami men, Dan Topolski, rubbish bass players, or steroid users. To this list I will add head racing. Winter, and even Spring heads are for the most part a grim meteorological lottery, subject to cancellation and rain, with victory being determined by local knowledge of the river, and tolerance of hypothermia. Any coach or sports scientist will instruct athletes on the wisdom of warming up before training or competition, but in the wonderful world of head racing, warming up and racing may well be separated by over an hour of sitting on an uncomfortable seat, surrounded by freezing water, in the face of driving wind and rain, accompanied by an ever fuller bladder, which it is now a disqualification offense to empty in any vaguely hygienic fashion. And people ask me why I enjoy indoor rowing championships.

Now this is not to say that I have never enjoyed a good head race, but can only remember five genuinely enjoyable runs down the river. I have spent over twelve years behind the oar, and in this time I have have raced in five heads that I have profoundly enjoyed and remember with happiness. There have been others that should have been great, but for various reasons, mechanical, environmental, or physical (probably due to an hour and a half of sitting around in the rain and cold) they have been ruined. Then there are just a lot of bleak slogs down a random provincial river that ended up with been given a mid table finish, having a hurried half pint, before driving home in the rain. I am struggling to remember these.

At this point both my regular readers will be scratching their heads and asking “When did Anno become such a whiny little bitch?”

Fair Question. However I do accept, as all outdoor sportsmen in the UK must, the grind of the cold and the wet, the necessity to accept the risk of injury both in training and racing, and the inconvenience of mass start events. What I do not accept is the lack of payback in terms of the great racing experience. Its not the hardship that troubles me so much, its the payoff.

The Fun Factor, or not.

So to cure this first we need to understand why head races are lacking in fun. Well first of all you have no idea if you are doing quite well or quite badly. Sure, a great head race performance is noticeable by the dispirited and broken crews that worm their way into your peripheral vision then slowly disappear behind you as you surge for the horizon. Equally, a terrible row will be rewarded by boat after boat marching past you in a procession that leaves you feeling like a spectator at your own river borne viking funeral. Eight beaten warriors, burning, with shame, in a boat.  Despite the wisdom of Daniel Spring, a bad day at the office actually may be somewhat better than being passed 11 times at the HORR.

If you are doing OK, the experience is just dull, you may pull away slightly from crews in the distance behind you, they may gain on you a little bit, you may watch, in the far distance, better crews sneak up on the more evenly matched crews to you.

The excitement is medium.

The new PRI system for British Rowing (which apparently does not work, in any way, shape or form) and the suggested alternative of win/loss equilibrium ranking system like ELO may make this issue worse by shoving large numbers of equally matched crews into each division, thus short of ringers, injectable enhancements or accidents, no crew will pass any other crew, there will be no side by side racing for pride and no pile ups going through Hammersmith Bridge. Making the rowing points system fairer will make head racing even more boring for most competitors.

“Are we there yet?”

Head races also tend to go on a bit don’t they. The PCRC Head of the Nene is most memorable to me, not for the coxing call of “…push for ten off the cow!” but for the rather apt response from bow “…are we there yet?”

I accept that we as rowers must spend out time in winter doing long slow pieces of work to improve the oxygen distribution and utilization capacity of our muscles, but I do not accept that this should always be reflected in our racing. Because every now and again we do intervals. And often we try to make them competitive. So why don’t we race like that?

And So… Enduro Rowing is born.

Enduro is a mountain bike discipline where the participants have to run* a timed downhill track, then have a fixed time limit (usually pretty generous) to cycle up to the start of the next, new, downhill track and then run that. The cumulative time for the all the downhill runs is added up and a winner is decided.

I think we can do this with rowing, Only better because we can do side by side races.

The format is as follows –

  1. Take a body of water (lake) river etc.
  2. Set up a SHORT and preferably wide side by side race courses. This could be between 250m and 400m long. There is nothing to say that it actually has to be a straight line course.
  3. Introduce at this point roughly eleven boats onto the water.
  4. At a given, preset, and displayed time, a predesignated pair of boats must race down the course side by side.
  5. A finish time will be taken for each boat, and points will be awarded for a victory.
  6. The pair of boats then has a given preset and displayed amount of time (probably not that much, it is an endurance sport after all) to move  back to the start of the same course, and rotate into opposition with the next boat from the other division.
  7. Eleven boats would race eleven times including one time trial. A cumulative time would be taken for the six races and points would be awarded for wins. There would be a points winner, an overall time winner (I know that it is quite likely that they may both be the same boat,) and a winner of the fastest time trial
  8. The eleven races would take place in less than 90 minutes. Repeat until you run out of boats.

If you follow the link you will find an PDF mock up of Enduro rowing format. As you can see the first race of every heat is a time trial (It could just be a rest if you wanted) which is essential to ensure that the round robin works. A ten boat division with a floating time-trial “opposition” can also be run. Key to the format is the same overall amount of rest between races for all boats and the chance to race in both lanes thus ensuring a degree of fairness (although not total) due to environmental factors. You might notice that in the eleven boat format, Boat 7 races in “Lane B” 7 times. It might be that on particularly blowy days, with significant differences between lanes, a “King of The Bad Lane” pot might  have to be awarded as well.

Advantages of this system are fast, fun, furious racing. You would be racing or paddling for ~90 minutes, one side by side sprint after the next so hanging around for 3 hours just to race for twelve minutes would not be an issue. Tactics would come into play, crews could decide to just put in the eleven fastest times they were capable of, or row for outright victories. Crews would be seeded so that the crew with the lowest PRI would get to race the time trial first (thus improving the likelihood of picking up at least one gong).  Unlike a regatta when the time you spend on site is dictated by your success in racing in the heats, with the Enduro format you turn up with long enough to get rigged and get boated, race, de-rig and go home. It would mean that relatively short, lake based sites (Hollingworth, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Ardingly, Docks, Nottingham and Dorney) would have a way of offering racing that lasted for more that 1900m but did not have to move outside of the lake. The lottery of spring heads and the blowing gales that they are subject to could be reduced by setting up the course only in sheltered or relatively flat spots of the lake.

*Or “send” if you are the sought of person who uses ‘gnarly’ in a completely un-ironic fashion.

The big win! – No* volunteers required.

Why would anyone go to the trouble of setting up a race course with fixed starts and a finish tower and lane buoys which could not cope with as many racers paying as much money?

Two reasons – fewer volunteers** to herd and more racing for the rowers.

I would expect this format to be used not at clubs that already run heads down their local stretch but at, as I have said before, lake based clubs. As a small fixture, running and Enduro rowing event with one course over 6 hours on a Saturday could net a club – 11 boats x 4 seats (on average) x 4 heats x £15/seat = £2640. With only two start line and two finish line marshals and two safety boats. and maybe some wired in race organizers on the bank. Now multiply this over 6 courses. How could such a thing be achieved you ask. The answer is by not having fixed start pontoons. This would be the only way to get one race a minute done. You would simply arrange a start line, (a bubble line, two buoys, a disco laser that traces a line of green or red light over the water, your choice,***) and just tell the crews to be behind that line when the air horn goes to start their race. The time that would be awarded to each crew is the elapsed time from the air horn going off to the finish line being broken. If they touch the line beforehand they get a 5 second penalty. If they cross the line completely they get a 3 minute penalty. This may seem strict but it also means that crews are also allowed to take a rolling start, can edge up to the line, and can get the drop on another crew that is faffing around.

If a crew does not make it to the start line on time they can quite easily shoot the start and chase their fleeing oppo just to make sure that they do not incur a 3 minute penalty for not starting.

In some circumstances it might be possible to leave enough time for substitutions to be made on the landing stages. If you needed the extra comedy.

Results for a division can be broadcast and updated via twitter, allowing crews to make racing decision on the fly.

The key idea is that of a short, fat course. Wide enough that two boats can race for  400m without that many buoys and in a cross wind and that umpiring decisions are easy to call and can be made from the bank.

*This is an exaggeration
**Okay this may seem like I am inching toward the greatest third rail in British rowing culture. Indeed a certain 3 time Olympic champion will be forever remembered as the “guy-who-gave-the-volunteers-grief-on-Twitter-after-HORR’14.” And whilst I do have some genuinely constructive and important comparisons to make about the volunteer culture in rowing compared to the professionalism of triathlon, what I am trying to suggest here is that the lack of volunteers is often a limiting factor on race organisation and boat numbers. Being less reliant on volunteers, should mean being able to arrange more/bigger races, raise more money, and have more fun.
***Yes, it is your choice but if you don’t choose “disco laser” as your preferred option there is something intrinsically wrong with you.

But…

The disadvantages are also an issue. This format will not cope with mass numbers of boats found in the bigger heads. You could not really expect the Tideway course to be turned into a 14 x 400m Enduro rowing course and end up with anything other than a very long traffic jam. Which is what this idea is meant to avoid. And in truth I do not expect, or want, a mass replacement of the club and Tideway heads, but I do want a more fun, more fair & less grim form of racing.

Another issue is that Enduro racing will require crews to race, stay on the water and find their way to their next race and next oppo on time with minimal prompting. j15 doubles might need a little practice at the start of the season. Again I like to think that some kind of Twitter live feed could be used to guide boats to their next race. This might mean organizers having a stash of 22 or so, (cheap and nasty) smartphones loaded up with Twitter only that followed 1 account, namely the head race organizer’s account. Not only would this allow a constant stream of relevant info to be fed to all crews but it would enable organizers to watch a GPS feed of the boats and quickly inquire if a crew was in some kind of trouble. Said smartphones could be very useful to any club that ends up with a lot of water borne rowers at once (particularly juniors) and wants to keep track of them.

Finally, to make this idea really fly we would need one more innovation And it is a solution that needs to be implemented in all head and arguably all regatta racing. This is the automated recognition of bow numbers by image analysis. In this way, we could have a fixed camera at the start line and a fixed camera at the finish (by camera I mean someone’s iPad in a life proof case) that can “see” the Bow plate numbers crossing both the start and finish line. If this could also be live streamed with automated timing to the bank, than race results split timings and cumulative overall results could be broadcast in real time. If this was done in head races your cox could tell you how fast you needed to go to beat the next fastest crew, and whether the next slowest boat was creeping up at the last checkpoint.

Dear me, head racing might actually become interesting and fun.

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