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A Comparison of Endurance


Rowing is a well established tradition at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a sport that demands strength, endurance and co-ordination and, in addition, to be part of a crew of eight rowers and a cox. As devotees of long distance running, we can appreciate the qualities that help us achieve personal bests. Do rowing and distance running have qualities in common?

Jess Barker provides an example of a recently graduated student who has done both. She’ll soon turn 22 and from the beginning of March 2006 will spend three months in Uganda, continuing her zoological studies with a view to undertaking further studies in the USA. As an undergraduate, she rowed in the women’s boats for her alma mater, Jesus College, Cambridge, as well as running the 2005 Flora London Marathon in 3:42:19.

Rowing plays a big part in life at Jesus College, although this academic institution has developed disparate talents and not just in sport : Steve Fairbairn, one of the best British rowers of the 19th century, was at Jesus as was Laurence Sterne, the writer and author of “Tristram Shandy”, in the late 18th. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was greatly interested in German literature and especially the philosopher Immanuel Kant, was also a student in the early 19th century.  

“At school I didn’t really consider myself that much of a sports type, “ reflected Jess Barker. “I ran now and then, did an occasional cross-country race on Hampstead Heath in north London and occasionally ran the 1500 or 3,000 metres in local school championships.” She also took part in the Flora London Mini-Marathon but without achieving anything special. When she went up to Cambridge, she decided to try rowing. Perhaps the reason behind this lies in her genes, since her father, who is well over 6 ft. or 1.84 metres, also rowed while her mother has the sinewy physique of a natural long distance runner.  

At Jesus College Jess discovered the world of rowing : an average of four sessions a week on the water, plus two with weights in the gym and two “Erg” sessions, where individual and crew performance are measured indoors over a particular distance. These latter tests took place indoors and consisted of either half-an-hour at a consistent tempo or “The dreaded 2km Test”, where every crew member had to row as hard as they could.  

Togetherness was also important. After training, the crew would often eat together, especially the evening before a race. Cambridge has a tradition of races called “Bumps” : a college may enter several boats, they race against crews from rival colleges and when a boat is overtaken, it is called a “Bump” and they have lost that particular race. The victorious crew earns the title of “Head of the River”, i.e, best boat on the river Cam.  

Jess wasn’t so strong on technique but she had stamina, and the feeling of being with other, technically better rowers in the same boat was a “Wow”, a great experience when everything went right. But in her final year at university she, more or less, changed sport and concentrated on running. Time was tight in the face of the forthcoming exams.  

She certainly gave herself a big challenge when she decided in the autumn of 2004 to run the next year’s Flora London Marathon. Instead of the river Cam, her training venue became the flat landscape around Cambridge. But it went well, running between 1:40 and 1:45 for two half-marathons and 45 minutes for 10km. Being on the feet for a long time was in contrast to rowing, when you could reckon on giving 100% effort for up to 15 minutes and had to pay keen attention to the instructions from the cox. “In running races I could enter my own world of concentration. But when I did two 20 mile runs in training, they were hard.”  

On race day things went mostly to plan : “I’d planned to run inside 8.30 minutes per mile but then slowed over the last 4 to 5 miles.” She reached the finish line in 3:42:19 but “Afterwards I could barely walk and felt completely out of it.” A massage later that day helped the recovery process.  

Two sporting achievements : running one of the world’s greatest city marathons and fast, competitive racing in a rowing boat. How did she compare her fitness on these occasions?   “When I produced my best results in the “Erg” sessions in my second year as a student, I certainly couldn’t have run 45 minutes for 10km on the road. Conversely, in the weeks after the London Marathon, I found it really hard to keep up with the others in an “Erg” test. The experience of preparing for and running a marathon was simply something very different.”


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