Saturday, 27 September 2014

Tour du Leman 2014: How we went Dutch... and won!

The start: I just love a good melée.
© Maxcomm Communication
One of the questions I find I'm most often asked after completing a major expedition row is "Would you do it again?" Which, on closer analysis, is faintly irritating. I mean: if the answer's "No", does that mean my achievement this time is somehow reduced? However, in the case of this 160km race round Lake Geneva, the answer keeps being "Yes", and so it was that in early July I turned my attention for the sixth time to the challenge of finding suitable crewmates.

My friend Hannah and I keep doing this race. This year would be her seventh attempt, and my sixth (our fifth together). And every year we agree that the hardest part is finding three other nutters to join us. Some friends sign up with enthusiasm, but once they've done it, feel that justice has been done, and there's no need to come back again. (I thought that after the first time, but changed my mind a few months later.) A few have come for a second time, so that they could do it "better", having learned from the experience first time around. One ventured that she would rather chew her own foot off than have to do it again.

So by this year, not only we were back to square one, but we were rapidly running out of options, having already used up the most likely candidates from our rowing friend network. However, a flash of inspiration sparked by a posting on Facebook secured one friend whom I had not previously pestered (in hindsight, I can't imagine why not), who was apparently on holiday at the time I asked, and didn't tell her husband about my message until the next day when she'd decided the answer had to be "Yes" anyway!

But beyond that,  we were stuck.

Every year we are met by the lovely
Gerald at the airport, bearing a paddle,
just in case we can't identify him.
However, one of the many things that makes this race so unique (in addition to the length, the accommodation in a nuclear bunker, the completely fantastic team who put the event on, and the three-course lunch afterwards) is that the various crews get to know each other (not just because of close-packed bunker living), especially as many of the same individuals return year after year. And so it was that two Dutch ladies eagerly agreed to join us and – hooray, we had a crew! Both regularly row long distances, in fact they'd done a 210km race just a few months earlier in a coxed double. All in all, four of us had already done the Tour du Léman 12 times between us. But would that actually help?

Serious competition

From the beginning, the pressure was on more than ever before, with a record five entries from  women's crews. The most we'd ever seen before was three, and last year we were the only ones.

So, how could we get a competitive advantage? One definite benefit of knowing the race well is that we have a well-established list of stuff to take, and boy there is a lot of it! However, our detailed notes on exactly how much we ate in recent years (for several years we'd taken FAR too much), the rig of the boat, and our knowledge of most of the waypoints, were invaluable.

The requirements of long-distance rowing are not easily
compatible with budget airline luggage allowances.
The Dutch brought some new ideas to the mix, including some excellent pulleys for keeping the steering lines in place (particularly handy in the dark), although we amused to find ideological differences with them about our usual practice of refilling our waterbottles from the lake and adding purifying tablets, which reduces the amount of water we have to cart around (their wholesome natures were horrified). Still, even us doing it saved a good 5kg of freight weight, and it's also important that everyone is happy.

Going off hard

Our – well, let's be honest – Hannah's usual approach to beating the female competition is to sprint out of the start. There are various aspects to this, and she added a new variation this year. The race goes off with all the crews (23 this year) in a mass start. The first leg is a mere 500m across the lake, followed by a 90 degree turn round a buoy, before we head out along the long Swiss shore. I always cox the first shift, as I actually enjoy the challenge of positioning as tight to the start buoy as possible, and then the ensuing melée when the gun (it's an actual shotgun) goes off and, as the smallest member of the crew, this puts our biggest engines into that initial dash, so that we can stay ahead of the main pack, and get a clean turn round the buoy.

We did that again.

Hannah then continues to hammer along for the first hour or two, leaving any female competition behind, and hopefully dispirited. It generally works. Actually, we don't know if they are dispirited, but they are usually left well behind, which is all we care about.

This year, in the face of the added and unknown opposition, she volunteered to miss the first swap which meant that she would have to row continuously for the first 2.5 hours of the race, rather than than the maximum 2 hours that everyone else would. This saved us at least 2 minutes, which doesn't sound much over 160km, but wait and see how much it mattered.

Not the most together rowing, but I love
the reflections of the blades in the water.

Row, row, row, row, cox 

That's the routine for long-distance rowing. Every 30 minutes, you change the person coxing. As fast as you can. And then set off again as soon as possible. Those who aren't involved in the change can stuff in a jelly baby of two, and slurp some liquid, but I was careful not to over-indulge, and call out "Bow ready" just as soon as I could. Everything else you might need to do (let's not go into details, you all know what I'm talking about) gets done while you're coxing, as well as eating, filling up waterbottles for the other Brits (top tip: we take a jug so you don't have to get your gloves wet by dipping a bottle in the lake), and taping up any fingers that are becoming tender. I kept my tape tucked  down my sock so it was always convenient. It's little things, but in the best traditions of horseshoe nails, it IS little things that can make a huge difference: I finished the race with only one small blister (Hannah says this is because I don't pull hard enough, though, and I'm not arguing with someone who pulls as hard as she does).

Ahead of schedule

Yet another advantage of being here for the umpteenth time was that we had a laminated list of our times to each way point taped near the cox's seat so we could keep track of how we were doing against previous years. And right from the beginning, the news was good. Very good.

The conditions WERE excellent, but so had they been the previous year, and at each marker, we celebrated being further and further ahead.

As we got to the top of the lake, an Italian men's crew and a four-men-and-a-powerful-lady Dutch crew who had been on our heels all day (in the case of the Italians, sometimes getting ahead of us, though they seemed to faff a lot on their changeovers, which mostly let us overtake again), started to fall back and stay there. The Dutch never really threatened to get close to us again, and we mused on the damage that must be being done to the Italians' machismo by being beaten by a bunch of girls.

Substantial blisters and a very alarming wrist "bruise"
caused by prolonged feathering rather than any
external blow. This is not my hand, by the way. 
As well as the psychological benefits of being this fast, we had the massive practical benefit of getting  to the tricky-to-navigate corner at Sciez in semi-daylight. We'd never even been close to that before!

From there, it's a three hour run in, and that WAS a tough three hours. Pain in the knee? Stop over-compressing, Helena. Back in agony as usual by this stage? Sit up and engage your abdominals.

With two hours to go, the Italians finally caught us, and slipped ahead. And for most of the final hour, as Hannah drove the rating up to nearer 26 from the 24-25 we'd been maintaining up till then (it doesn't sound much more, but trust me, you DO notice), I resorted to the proven tactic of counting strokes up to 100. Again, and again. And again. The new Brit later told me that it was about 700 strokes per half hour session – she'd been counting on and off for most for the day!

So many boxes ticked

We finally crossed the line after 14 hours 29 minutes at 35 seconds. Woo hoo! It's a short paddle from the finish line back to the landing stage at the club where a well-managed bunch of junior members cheer you in and then (total joy) lift your boat out for you! But it was only at this point that, in response to our urgent enquiries in our best French (frankly a minor miracle given the state we were in), we were totally sure that we were the fastest women's crew.

The ladies' crew that were second definitely
won the "Pimp my Boat" competition.
Though actually, not by much. A German ladies' crew finished only 11 minutes behind us, a highly impressive result given this was their first attempt at the race, and I felt faintly sorry for them that they did such a good time and still didn't win. Though not that sorry. And they had all rowed together before and were using their own boat (which they said was nice and light despite being wooden) and everything!

However, we'd won, we'd beaten our previous best time by 45 minutes, and we'd beaten the two Dutch four-men-and-a-powerful-lady crews who are friends of our Dutch girls, and who were most gracious. The bragging rights were definitely ours, even if we didn't over-use them. Oh and the Italians came and kissed us on the cheeks (several times, of course), which I think was in admiration rather than just general Italian opportunism.

So, again?

I'm allowed to ask that, OK? It's just others that I think should come up with more imaginative questions. It turned out afterwards that, whilst the race was in progress and it was clear we were doing well, Hannah and I were independently thinking that this was surely as good as it was ever going to get, and that perhaps it would be nice NOT to have to do all that training and organising every summer holidays.

From "Wow, we finished" (2006) through
"We were faster than the 2006 mixed crew" (2009), and
"We can do sub 16 hours" (2013) to this year's
"Experience helps".  NB We sank after 1 hr 20 mins
in 2008, and did a shortened course in 2012.
But as one German chap said, when he was interviewed by the organisers at the cocktail party before the race this year (yet another way in which this is an event like none other), "Ask me if I enjoyed it two weeks afterwards".

And here's the rub: we were just under 29 minutes outside the record. Which was set in 2004 be a German women's crew which included a woman who had won a medal at the Olympics that year. 29 minutes. Could we?

On the other hand, for the first time this year, I bought the souvenir polo. So maybe I've "been there, done that, got the t-shirt." and I should fill up my long-distance rowing calendar for 2015 with other events.

Winners of the "Categorie Elite Féminine", Tour du Léman a l'Aviron 2014.

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  1. Another good job well done, and a solid story out of it too. KUTGW ;- ))

  2. Thanks, Tony - it really is a fantastic event.

  3. I was thinking about you this Sun morning as I was washing my kit, having been watching some ergo training videos a friend sent me. How do your expedition training schedule far during autumn/winter months. Do you sweat it out on an ergo, pump iron, or just go back to ordinary living, and an occasional run?? I think there may be an article in there!!
    All BWs

  4. Hi Tony - to be hones, it is a bit of a relief to let myself get less fit in the Winter. Preparing for the Tour du Leman did involve a lot of long ergos, and there's only so much time I am prepared to bat up and down on my WaterRower in the conservatory listening to Radio 4 after work (listening to the 6.30pm comedy is fine, so long as it's not SO funny that you laugh out loud, which ruins your split times, but then when the ergs are long, you have to listen to the Archers too, which is questionable, and if it's an even longer erg, there's usually some pretentious arts programme after that which makes me lose the will to live)!

    But back to the point - we still do quite a lot of rowing in the winter, and go out skiffing in he dark once or twice a week with lights on the boat, here in Walton-on-Thames.

    Of course, the BIG task of the winter is planning next year's expeditions...