Story by Jen Whiting
Photos by Ch'nel Duke
Coxing an erg race is an opportunity to focus on just one rower. Having the chance to train with your rower during winter training, learning what works for them during an erg race, and then executing a clean race can bring your rower a performance they may not be able to muster alone. Not every rower likes being coxed on the erg, but for those who do, being a smart, specific and steady coxswain while they're encountering the pain of an erg race can be invaluable to them. And, coxing erg races will develop your skills during the winter months, just as erging develops a rower's skills.
As you approach race day, collaborate with the athlete and coach to develop the warm-up and race plans. Also, touch base with your rower about what drag factor they’ll use during the race (the numeric drag factor number, not the damper setting). Write all of these down on something that you can easily carry to the race event, and practice them as a walk-through before the race. As is true on the water, every rower needs different things from a coxswain. Coxing the single rower on the erg is, frankly, a wonderful opportunity to be able to deliver exactly what they need, unfettered by others in the boat.
When you get to the erg race location, make sure you have the warm-up plan, the race plan, your athlete's nutrition and hydration products, your rower (who should have all of their warm-up, racing and post-race clothes). Also be sure that you are both at the race location in time to register, weigh-in (if necessary) and go through the race warm-up in a relaxed manner. Managing the nerves of your athlete before the race is just as important as managing their performance during the race.
Help your rower stay relaxed by managing the logistics of the pre-race activities. Walk with your rower to the registration desk, check them in, and hold onto the race card that erg races use to record race results. Some race venues issue the coxswain a ticket. Keep this with you; it's your entry ticket to the race floor. Even if your rower says they can manage the details, do your best to insist that they focus on warming up, pre-race nutrition and hydration and preparing mentally for the race. Handle all of the details yourself; erg races are heady situations and your rower needs the freedom not to worry about the details.
If your rower is a lightweight, get them to the weigh-in location during their weigh-in window. Most erg races require lightweight rowers to weigh-in at least one hour–but not more than two hours–before race time. Don't miss this window; it's your rower's only chance to get the credentials (typically a stamp on their hand) to row as a lightweight. After they've weighed-in, encourage them to begin their pre-race hydration and nutrition routine.
Get your rower to the warm-up ergs at the right time. By practicing the pre-race warm-up beforehand, you should know how long it takes to complete. Calculate the start of the warm-up by subtracting the length of the warm-up plus an additional eight minutes from the race start time. The eight minutes between the race warm-up and the start of the race is the right amount of time to get your rower from the warm-up ergs to the starting corral so they can be warmed up and ready to go, with no extraneous time before finding their race erg. This requires, of course, that when your rower starts their warm-up, they have taken care of their pre-race ablutions.
While your rower is doing their warm-up, scope out the race floor. Look for the race corral entrance, and see how organized the entry is. Look for the erg your rower is assigned to race on so you know exactly where to escort them to. As your rower is nearing the end of their warm-up, check-in with them, gather their gear (don't forget their seat pads), make sure you have the race card and coxswain ticket you received at registration and then escort them to the race floor entrance. When the organizers allow, enter the race floor with your rower and guide them to their erg.
Have your rower settle onto their erg, take a last few sips of their hydration product, and then help them set the damper and check the drag factor. The good news is that the erg monitors will be setup in race mode which displays the drag factor on the main screen. Listen for the announcements for your heat and keep your eye on the erg monitor. The monitors will progress through the starting sequence of Sit Ready, Attention, ROW. You should be sitting in the coxswain's chair that is at the back of your rower's erg as the race is preparing to start.
During the race, there are a few rules that most erg race venues observe: Do not touch your rower. Do not touch the erg. Do not touch any other competitors. Neither you nor your rower can adjust the drag factor during the race. Do not use unsportsmanlike conduct or language. And, cox like you've never coxed before.
Almost without a doubt your rower will start the race at a stroke rate that is above the race plan. Your job is to calm them down and get them to their planned stroke rate. The first 500-800 meters feels easy and many rowers stay at a stroke rate that is too intense for their fitness level. Race adrenaline is a powerful thing, but it will likely run out at the 1250-to-go mark. Make sure you don't let your rower go out too fast; if they stay at a stroke rating that is too high for them, the lactic acid will build up in their muscles and make it nearly impossible for them to achieve their top performance. Bring them down to their planned stroke rate. Don't deviate from your race plan. Call shifts, calm your voice, cox them through a very relaxed and precise plan.
I’ve had the opportunity to cox Barbara Hogan for four years at the World Rowing Indoor Championships (C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints) that are held in Boston every winter. A successful rower on the water, Barbara knows her strengths, and her weaknesses. After several years of competing on the erg, she adopted a race plan that uses the landmarks of the Head of the Charles Regatta course on which she has been successful as a sculler (Barbara is a world champion sculler and most recently won the 2016 Head of the Charles Women’s Veteran Doubles category with Sara Sargent).
Barbara knows she needs to be distracted from the pain of an erg race. The race plan we take to Boston with us each year is a verbal walk-through of the Charles River head race course. As she starts, I call the chute and the double bridges that open up to Magazine Beach. We’ve truncated the distances, since the erg race is only about 40% as long as the actual Charles course.
We make our way down the course, using each bridge as a power piece, visualizing passing her competitors on the sections that are best for making a move. We collect just before Anderson bridge, knowing that the last big turn is where we’ll make the best move of all. It is here, just as she ergs past the Cambridge Boat Club that I mimic the announcers who call out each rower’s name. I actually make the announcement that is on the recording from the past year’s race. Barbara loves this–and needs it–as I call for her to make her move through the Eliot Bridge, passing the dock on the starboard shore and powering into the last turn before the final sprint.
Approaching this last 500 is where Barbara needs the most calls, both technical and motivational. The portion of the 2000-meter erg race that is the toughest for most rowers is the third-500. During this stretch, I focus on helping her get free speed with calls like "body prep, sit up, stay long." All simple calls, but these give her just enough to keep her form intact as she battles the piece.
I keep the motivational calls to a bare minimum, mostly so when I do say, "You've got this!" she can hear it and take it in, fully. She's a strong rower; my job is to keep her head where it needs to be so she can deliver her best performance.
There have been erg races where, as I made the call for Barbara to make the big turn before the Eliot Bridge, “Here comes the bridge, but we've got to make the big turn first—hard on starboard, NOW!” other erg racers have actually looked our way to see what bridge and what turn we're seeing that they aren't. It’s a crazy race plan, but it works for Barbara. Last year, after four years of competing as a coxswain-rower pair at the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints, we won the coveted hammer, the award for being the world champion.
Sometimes a nutty race plan is just what an erg race needs. There’s pain, and then there’s erg-pain. Don’t be afraid to help your rower overcome the pain of the race, no matter how out-of-the-box your thinking may be. “Hard on starboard” on the erg isn’t as crazy as it sounds.