So you've made it through the first month or so of rowing, and you feel like this sport is for you (which it is, I promise you). Now is when the REAL fun begins. In the fall, we race what are known as "head" races. The length of the course varies from approximately 5,000-6,000 meters, and takes anywhere from 15-20 minutes, depending on what type of boat you are in (4 vs. 8, etc). These races are held as time trials - each boat in the same event goes in order down the course, and a final time is taken at the end. The order is most often determined by last years results, and being able to go first leads to much better water. Since its difficult to know your time, the goal of the race is to pass the boat in front of you while walking away from the boat behind you. The most famous head race is the Head of the Charles held in Boston, MA. Every year the varsity team takes the top 12 rowers and top 2 coxswains to race against the best teams across the nation.
The fall racing season is fairly short, and often only last about a month and a half, beginning in late September and ending mid-November. During this time, the practices will get a little longer and the workouts will get a little more intense in order to prepare us to race. Attendance at practice will also become more critical as it is important to develop cohesiveness and chemistry within a boat.
Once fall season ends, the team moves inside for the winter. While you will gather some experience with the rowing machine, known as the "erg", early on, winter training will focus predominately on erging. Erging allows rowers to train strength and conditioning by providing a stable platform to row on. Success on the erg will directly translate to success in the boat, so it is important for all rowers to develop good erging habits and continues training throughout the winter.
In January and February, while the temperatures are still below freezing, you will be competing amongst your teammates on the erg. Now is your time to show your coach the physical and mental toughness that it takes to be a rower. Those that do well on the erg will often be rewarded with a seat in the top boat in the early spring, while those you do not succeed will have to put in extra work to show that they deserve a spot.
Spring Racing - Championship Season
When the ice thaws, the sun comes out, and spring break rolls around, we ditch the ergs and charge full-force into the spring season. Spring racing is immensely different from fall racing, and is the pinnacle of rowing. A spring race is a head-to-head, all out 2,000 meter sprint. Unlike Fall racing, now you line up directly alongside of your competition, so you will known exactly how you are doing in each race.
Ask any varsity rower, and they will tell you Spring season is the greatest 10 weeks of the year. All of the hard work from the beginning of August until the last weekend in May will be realized during Championship Season.
One of the greatest differences in spring racing is that now it is a sprint. The stroke rate increases, the race becomes more intense, and mistakes are much less forgivable. Every boat has to execute their own race plan to come out on top. Over time, rivalries will develop between clubs and you will begin to recognize the rowers you're up against.
Another major change from the fall is that in the spring you often race at least twice, and potentially as much as four times over the course of two days. The racing often breaks down like this:
The first race is known as "heats." While some regattas use random assignment, most of the championship and well-respected regattas will use a seeding system to assign teams. Therefore, the best three boats will not face off in the first race, and because of previous success will have the best path to advance. Most boats will typically advance from heats, however placement determines the seeding in the next round.
Some regattas have a second wave of races known as "reps," which is short for repechage. Reps is a second opportunity for teams who failed to qualify for the semi-finals in heats by a small margin. The top one or two placing teams in reps will move onto the semi-finals, while the rest of the field is eliminated from competition. When possible it is best to avoid reps in order to maximize rest time in preparation for the final rounds.
The second (or third) races are the semi-finals. All the top qualifiers from heats and reps are seeded into semi-final rounds, with the obvious goal to advance to the final. Here, the competition is much greater than in heats, as each team has already proven themselves once in the regatta. It is easy to see how you stack up against your competition based on how fast each boat was in heats, however it is also wise to take caution with this: conditions change rapidly on a course, so times in one race may not reflect the times of another. Different crews also execute different strategies when it comes to heats - some go as conservative as possible in order to save energy, while other crews go all-out in order to advance. Typically the top two or three crews will advance into the Grand Final and have a shot at a gold medal.
The Grand Final is the ultimate race of spring season. The top six crews will line up against one another in an all-out race to the finish. Every crew will execute their strongest race plan, and you can expect to see a significant increase in speed across the board. One of the most underrated aspects of a being successful in a Grand Final is experience. Teams that have been to finals before and have had success are often much better at controlling nerves, and will be able to execute their plan at full force. Coming out tight and nervous can often be the downfall of less experienced crews, and can often lead to them dropping from medal contention. In the end, only one crew can be a champion.
Once the season comes to a close, summer time begins and everyone can take a break. Year-round training can be ruthless on your body, so everyone takes a few weeks break after ACRAs to get some R&R. Once the aches and knots fade, it's time to get back on the grind. Summer training is one of the most difficult aspects of the sport - not from a physical standpoint but a motivational standpoint. Summer training will often be done on your own, so it'll be up to you to decide your workouts and what you personally need to do to prepare yourself. Coming off of a long season it is very easy to let yourself slip at the beginning of the summer and quickly get out of shape. The best rowers will train everyday with increasing intensity, and eventually enter the fall season in peak physical condition. There is often a direct correlation between the amount of work someone puts in during the summer and which boat they are placed in for the early fall races.
Many rowers will remain in Chapel Hill over the summer for work, school, and sometimes just wanting to be close to everyone else. That being said there will never be a shortage of guys in the area willing to work out with you. In 2015, ten rowers and one coxswain traveled to St. Catharine's, ON, Canada to race in the Canadian Henley Regatta after spending all summer rowing together.
When you come back to school mid-way through August, you will officially become a member of the varsity team. The work you put in as a novice and over the summer will quickly become realized as the practices get longer, the pieces get harder, and the competition becomes more fierce. Many sophomores who are willing to work hard and be dedicated will find themselves sitting in the top eight in the fall, beating out some of the more seasoned rowers. It will now be on you to welcome in the next class of novice rowers and shape the future of UNC Men's Crew.