Tuesday, 18 January 2011

How to be(come) a lightweight

Sorry for the lack of post-age in a while - hopefully things will get a bit more regular once term gets going and there's something resembling an ordered timetable for me to follow. I thought I'd write a bit about how being a lightweight rower actually works. An image of scrawny men may come to mind, but not so - in fact, most lightweights actually weigh more than the 72.5kg (11.5st) limit for most of the year. If you're like me, significantly more. So here's a bit of an excerpt of what I do.

The squad, which is now down to 12 oarsmen and 2 coxes, recently got back from a 9-day training camp in France. In fact, make that Southern France, really near the seaside and beach. Sounds lovely and quite relaxing, doesn't it?

To me, I'm afraid it no longer does. For us, it meant training 3 times a day, every day. This wasn't too bad in itself as these sessions were generally finished by 4pm, but the amount of energy expended did mean that we generally lacked the motivation to do anything much more demanding than sit around munching on malt loaves and procrastinating in front of the laptops many of us had dutifully brought to uphold the theoretical possibility of getting some work done. In fact, some would go as far as to describe our time in France, somewhat simplistically but scarily accurately, as a repeat sequence of wake-eat-row-eat-row-eat-row-stretch-shower-eat-chill-sleep.

On a tenuously related note, malt loaves are awesome! These unassuming brown, squishy blocks which, let's be perfectly honest, don't look like the most appetizing thing in the world, are actually tasty and, given their stickiness, sort of fun to eat. I had my first taste of them in France and am impressed.

For many rowers they are the staple of choice and, to be honest, I don't know why they bother printing the nutritional info for 1/10 of a loaf on the packaging. I have some difficulty imagining anyone eating these things as intended (sliced and buttered...); it seems so much more convenient to wolf the whole thing down in one sitting. Maybe unsurprisingly, people have also had the idea of speed-eating these bad boys, and doing so seems all the more impressive after knowing how much they indeed tire out the jaw.

But I digress. To be a lightweight then, it first takes what it takes to be good at any other sport. A fuckload of training. Out of Cambridge sports teams, the rowing clubs are probably among the ones that train the most, although this isn't necessarily reflected in their status in terms of full Blue sports. A Blue sport is one of those Cambridge things that we pretend are important but nobody else actually knows what they are - full Blue sports are basically the oldest and/or most traditional sports in which a varsity match/race takes place annually against Oxford. As more and more sports became increasingly popular, Half Blues were introduced so these athletes could earn these so-called "University colours" as well. These days, the debate about which sports should or shouldn't get a sporting Blue keeps cropping up, and lightweight rowing is a prime example often used: we train as much as the heavyweights and put in the same effort etc etc, so surely we, like them, should get full blues.

From a fairness point of view, this is absolutely true, but, hard as it seems to accept, this is not the principle upon which the Blue status is based. And while a Full Blue would be nice, I have to say that ultimately, it really doesn't matter all that much to me. Much rather, it's nice to know that the people I row with at CULRC do it not because they want the status represented (within the Cambridge bubble, at least) by a Blue but because they want to do the sport and do it bloody well.

And enjoying the sport and the training, and being willing to accept all the changes in lifestyle that getting up at 5am several mornings a week and training twice a day entails, is a pretty key part of what we do.

The other part of being a lightweight, of course, is getting to our target weight. Since there is not only an individual maximum weight (72.5kg) but also a maximum average of 70kg which the crew must attain on race day (the official weigh-in occurs a few hours before the race), all crew members have to have as low body fat (generally ~5%) as is healthily possible. After all, fat will only make the boat go slower because it constitutes extra weight, and if losing it doesn't impede performance then it's a win-win situation.

The way of going about this, who would've guessed, is to diet. Luckily, though, given the amount of calories we burn every day, a diet for us is what for other people would constitute eating normally, or even a lot; it should just be healthy, which is a shame because it's a well-known law of nature that the less healthy something is, the better it tastes (Epic Meal Time provide ample evidence of this). But generally, dieting doesn't involve starving ourselves. I learned this the hard way early on in the season when I, being among the heaviest guys in the squad, tried to maintain too high a calorie deficit (i.e. input fewer calories than you burn). I ended up unable to complete a training session and needed a bit of a talking to. Usually, I end up eating about 3000 calories/day, with some people eating more than that. So, from an conventional point of view, we're not starving. :)

ps. Training camp was actually great fun - the squad came together a lot, and CUWBC were there as well. I think a good time was had by all, so this post isn't pity-mongering. :)

Monday, 3 January 2011

"But why on Earth would you do that?!"

Rowing at Cambridge is one of those things that almost everyone I mention it to has vaguely heard about, but interest in the subject tends to dwindle quickly as soon as it transpires that No, I won't be on TV racing Oxford in the Xchanging Boat Race in London. Nevertheless, I get asked a lot about why I bother rowing for the University, so I thought I'd try to give a bit of an insight into the motivations behind wanting to row for Cambridge. After all, it is more than legitimate to wonder why someone would give up a large proportion of their life to train 10 to 12 times a week, including at hours of the morning which few would consider humane, and to lose 20% of their body weight in the process, when there is little tangible, immediate benefit to be derived from doing so.

The Boat Race, after all, tends to evoke prejudices of huge hunks with no brains getting into top Universities for being good at sports and getting a free degree without having to do any work (MSc Water Management, anyone?). While this isn't the case, it's also besides the point – the point is that there are two other clubs which are practically unknown outside the (student) rowing community – the women's (CUWBC) and lightweight men's (CULRC) rowing clubs. These clubs also race their Oxford counterparts in late March/early April every year, but there is no such thing as media coverage, or general public interest. This is, to some extent, understandable, given that what attracts huge crowds to the Boat Race is not the rowing but the immense tradition of the event itself. It is a shame, though, because the Henley Boat Races – where the women and lightweights race – is characterised by the same all-or-nothing, winner-takes-all attitude. This poster, made a few years ago, sums it up well:

The heavyweight men's Boat Race crews regularly feature a number of international oarsmen and rowers from top schoolboy crews around the world and can compete at the highest level, e.g. in the top open events at Henley Royal Regatta. The „other“ University rowing crews cannot usually boast such a track record – this may make them less attractive from a sensationalist, glamorous media perspective, but it makes rowing for these clubs an entirely different experience.

Last year, I briefly trialled (i.e. tried out for selection) for the heavy men's Boat Race with CUBC, and while the brevity of this episode may mean that I don't have as much insight into this club as I would like to, this experience has significantly influenced my decision to trial for CULRC this year. While there was no such thing as being looked down upon for having only learned to row at Uni or being far less experienced, I felt a little...out of place. Maybe, given my experience of just two years, I was, but this, at the same time, is what makes CUBC somewhat different from rowing at Cambridge University as a whole. While people who learned to row at Cambridge sometimes make Goldie or even the Blue Boat, CUBC is generally dominated by extremely high-standard oarsmen who are often doing an MPhil or a PhD – and there is nothing wrong with this, it's not like they're not legitimate students or shouldn't be around or anything. It's just that for the majority of people who didn't row before coming to University, representing one of the other University Boat Clubs is the pinnacle of their sporting career during their time in Cambridge.

At CUBC, I felt like a bit of a tag-along – nobody made me feel unwelcome or useless, but it was impossible to shake off the feeling that the coaches had made up their minds about some of us fairly quickly and for the few sessions that we did get to go to, we were taken because a suitable time had not yet been found to cut us.

The most enjoyable aspect of rowing with CULRC for the last three months has been the contrast to this experience – feeling like an equal member of a squad of people with a reasonably similar background to mine. Being accessible to far more people on the basis that less experience is required and because it does not have a reputation that may daunt many potential triallists allows for a more diverse crowd. It's fantastic to compete for a place in the squad with people I can relate to, and who I know are ultimately gunning for the same goal I am: a place in the Blue Boat and a win against Oxford.

I realise this post may seem like a bit of a shout for attention from an „inferior“ athlete who didn't make it into the „top league“, but I hope it also goes some way to conveying why I have decided that it is a good idea to give up most of my free time - and food - for a chance to compete in a race that few know exists. It may not be everyone's thing, but it's certainly mine.

Sunday, 2 January 2011



In this blog I'll try to document my thoughts about all kinds of stuff, whatever happens to be going on in my life. For the moment, I suspect this will involve rather more rowing than the average reader might be able to stomach, but I'll do my best to write about more random thoughts about goings-on in and out of the bubble that is Cambridge as well. If I go out to take some photos, those will hopefully also make it up here. 

Here's hoping that instead of randomly thinking about stuff and then forgetting about it, this will provide a way of actually forming something sensible out of flitting thoughts.