M2 might have had an uninteresting row-over, but ours could hardly have been less eventful for a first bumps race. We were planning to bump Churchill M2 somewhere along the second half of the course, but a series of interesting plot twists meant that we spent about 80 % of the race at less than a canvas from being bumped by Clare Hall M1, whom we had beaten by about 10s in Robinson Head and did not see as much of a challenge.
I for one was distinctly apprehensive and excited about this race, which would be the first bumps race for six ex-novices in the boat. We did not really know what to expect, although we knew that our technique would significantly deteriorate in the wash around Grassy, and that, starting at station 7 under the motorway bridge, we would probably not be able to hear much of what happened in the first few hundred metres of the race. This, together with the adrenaline and trepidation from the start, would likely take up the rate and make everything altogether messier and less effective. Most of these predictions turned out to be correct to some degree, but the only way to really feel how bumps are is to do bumps, plain and simple.
After a crew erg and core session (best abs on the cam boys!) we pushed off and had quite a nice paddle down to the marshalling area, if a little unsat and not entirely in time at the catch (we really need to focus on this for tomorrow in the bows). Our practise start was measured and got us up to a decent rhythm and boat speed. We span and de-kitted with five minutes to go, with the four minute gun taking me completely by surprise as I quickly got out of the boat. Those last few minutes seemed to go by so quickly. In no time at all, it was time for the one minute cannon, and then we were pushing off, and then...
...An explosion of noise (admittedly not as bad as I had perhaps anticipated given what people had to say about our station) as the cannon went off. We wound it up to a ridiculously high rate, as we usually do under race pressure, and gained about half a length on Churchill after our fast start. We took our usual power strokes, but they seemed very ineffective, which I attribute to a combination of the wash and the rate, and we were probably back on station by the time we strode. In no time at all, we were at the end of first post reach, and we started to hear a whistle. Assumed that it might have something to do with us, but I did not really know what that may be at this stage. First post corner... ...2 whistles... ...wait, what? I looked up and saw (although from the bows I'm pretty useless at judging distances) that Clare Hall, which we had so far ignored behind us, were moving up and were closing on us at a noticeable rate. I admit to have been quite surprised and afraid at that point that my first bumps campaign would start (and presumably end) in total failure. Three whistles at Grassy lead to five seconds during which I wondered what would happen if we were bumped. Would we spoon? And then came resolve. Why should we let ourselves be bumped? After (as Shahid pointed out after the race) 360 squat jumps every time we had circuits sessions, compounded with the 630 other elements in our routine? After all of those times when we were on the river in pain instead of lazing around drinking and eating crisps? NO, we were First and Third M3, we would not let this happen. All of this happened more or less around Grassy (can't remember exactly where, but it can't have lasted more than 5 seconds).
It was only then that I realised that Clare Hall were being pushed hard by Magdelene right behind them. Great, our first ever sandwich, and we were on the receiving end of the trouble. Clare Hall took a strange line around Grassy, going really fast into the corner and then turning quite sharply close to the towpath side, which presumably was in an attempt to avoid the bump, and that somehow worked out fine for them. This led to them probably coming to a few centimetres of overlap, but about 3 metres to the left of us. In hindsight, this manoeuvre probably gave us the race, or at least took the chances of a bump down significantly, but I think that that was due both to the slight distance lost and the fact that we (or at least I) strengthened our resolve at this point. Magdelene blew quite spectacularly down plough reach after coming within very little of Clare Hall's stern. The sandwich probably ended at around the Plough, and that left us once again in a two-boat race. We pulled ahead a little, then were bunched up again around Ditton (2 and 4, massive strokes!!). The race so far had been hard psychologically, now it was starting to get really hard physically (not that we hadn't been working hard - I think that the adrenaline had made us not be conscious of it).
As we began racing down the reach, the boat started to move better and our confidence grew. Perhaps the strangest moment was when Rob gave the thumbs up to Catarina, which she understood as an indication of a good racing line, and returned, which at least two of us in the boat thought looked suspiciously as if she was conceding... (we had moved away, Catarina, what were you playing at?). That little glitch aside, our rowing improved dramatically after Ditton. We have consistently had excellent reach pieces in our races, and although this was a little scrappier because of the wash (together with a few missed strokes and air-strokes from essentially everyone in the boat), it was still vastly better than in the initial parts of the race. Clare Hall stuck with us for another 500 metres or so, presumably doing almost continuous bumps pushes because of the fairly constant 1/2 length whistles that were being communicated from the bank (thankfully we did not come to within a metre or two at any point on the reach). And then, the pain starting to really show, our better fitness finally came into play. We somehow (I don't remember how...) pushed away from them just before the motorway bridge, and then we just opened up the gap until the end.We must have finished slightly inside station on them and outside station on Churchill, so not quite the race that we had planned, but by all means an exciting first time in bumps.
I remember trying to yell as we reached the P&E but instead just grunting and collapsing into my seat (a great reason to be at bow by the way... ...unless you have developed a strong physically intimate relationship with one of your crew mates in which case you would probably not want to be there). I was completely spent, I couldn't take another stroke. We then had quite a poor row home, which tells me that everyone pushed hard, which is a good sign... Hopefully tomorrow we will hold them at station rather than at a canvas. This means having a much better first post reach and then taking advantage of our superior fitness across the rest of the race. If we come within half a length of Churchill, then we bump, otherwise we try to emulate M2 and have a slightly less exciting, although hopefully not uninteresting race tomorrow, and wait for the bump on Friday.
For most of the crew, this was their first bumps race. To make matters worse, we're on station 7, literally metres away from the cannon. Understandably, today's racing start was not the best the crew has ever executed. Once the boat got moving, there were some neater strokes, or at least until we hit 6 crews worth of wash- another first for many!
It took most of the first km for the crew to settle into a proper rhythm, by which point they'd already had to fend off Clare Hall M1's first push. Our tight lines contrasted with their wide ones, and we escaped on both Grassy and Ditton. On the Long Reach, Clare Hall sat a canvas off our stern for the entire length. The boys must be commended for their control at this point: no shit-we're-going-to-be-bumped panic crept into the boat, and we held them calmly until the Railway Bridge, at which point Clare Hall started to break.
From there, encouraged by the screams of our W2 under the bridge, the boys dug deep and pulled away, crossing the finish line pretty much back on station.
A very gutsy row today, but a challenging day tomorrow with the same crews in front and behind. Hopefully, with a cleaner first km we can try and hold them off a little further away from our stern...