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How To Handle the (IRA) Heats: Show Your Hand, or Shut Down?
Friday, June 3, 2016
Ed Hewitt,
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Cal had the fastest time of the morning

When an IRA opens up with the 10th seed and the 16th seed toppling expectations and advancing from the heats directly to the A/B semis, it is hard not to take them as portents for some surprises as the weekend advances.

The first surprise you need to know about is the complete overhaul of the racing schedule that is in place; in addition to moving the afternoon reps up an hour today, both the Saturday and Sunday schedules are very different, , with the Saturday racing being compressed to eight-minute centers, and the Sunday schedule now starting at 7am, switching also to eight-minute centers, and also being raced in reverse order to put most of the Grand Finals at the start of the session. Find the updated schedules here:

  • Saturday
  • Sunday

    There was a brief period where both the semis and finals might have been attempted tomorrow (Saturday), but as the weather reports became more clear, this was avoided to the relief of many coaches (particularly lightweight coaches, who would have been in for a spirited debate on whether their crews had to weigh in on Friday afternoon).

    On to the racing.

    Heavy Men's Eights
    Trailing top seed Yale by about a length all the way down the course, the 16th-seed Navy V8 woke up anyone who was still feeling sleepy by besting Northeastern and BU for the second advancing spot. Ten minutes later, as Cal stayed clear of the fray in the lead, Columbia did the same with Cornell as the two crews swapped places almost all the way down the course, with Columbia prevailing by 0.11 to take the second advancing spot.

    From there things went a bit more to form in the heats, but the reps showed that tomorrow's semis could bring even more surprise; the range of heat-winning times went from Cal's 5:43.8 to Princeton's 5:47.66, but one of the reps went 5:45, and the slowest rep went 5:49.5. Accounting for differences in how hard folks had to go to advance, that puts a lot of crews in striking distance of one another for sure.

    The Second Varsity 8 raced precisely to form, with the top four seeds winning each of the four heats, and the fifth through eighth seeds placing second in each of the four heats.

    Steve Gladstone on Racing the Heats
    After the heats, we talked to Yale coach Steve Gladstone about the task of coming in as the top seed, and so arguably having the "easiest" heat on paper. In this situation, as most rowers will experience at some point, "shutting down" can cause all types of problems; the decision of whether or not to back off becomes a point of contention even in the midst of a race, or crew members have different ideas of how hard to go, the rating and ratio can become unstable, the field might come back on you, and more. We asked Gladstone how crews might approach the complex challenge of making sure they get the job done without either exhausting themselves in the heat, or having a tentative row that could make them vulnerable to the race to advance going on (presumably) behind them.

    "The objective is to progress," he said. "That's the bottom line. This is not the finals, this is not the semi-finals. Everybody is aware of that. So maybe you go out for 750 or 800 meters, measure where you are, keep it at full pressure, and take the cadence down. If you're in a dominant position, drop it as low as you can go. But you don't want to take pressure off, because if we take pressure off, the boat won't feel good. But you can row a real sweet 33 or 34.

    "It does take experience," he continued. "It can be very uncomfortable, because it's so antithetical to the basic mindset when you race, which is pedal to the metal."

    And what if the field starts coming back on you?

    "Well, it's fine if the field comes back," he said. "You just have to keep the field at bay. You're not trying to create a fast time or a maximum margin. Once you get a cadence range where you can maintain decent speed, sure, inevitably people are going to charge back. You just don't want them to go through."

    The Yale men are undefeated this year

    And if the crew has trouble executing given the complexity of the task?

    "That's the way that we approach it, and sometimes it works," he said. "Other times, it's not so good. It can very often lead to coming in and not feeling great about the row. From there, if you have that circumstance, you say, look, this is complicated. It's not clear. This is something that I've experienced as a coach, and you're experiencing now. This is not the finals. You'll be set. There'll be no ambiguity on Sunday."

    Paul Cooke on the Three Weeks Before the IRA
    For crews who tend to race every weekend during the spring, another unique challenge of the IRA is the three-week break between their last race and the IRA that happens many years, as it did this year. We talked to Brown head coach Paul Cooke about how a team might approach this long break between races.

    Brown tends to be heading into exams on the Sprints weekend, so typically has to hang back a little bit for several days afterwards, but then gets down to work in earnest. Here is how Cooke and the crews go about it.

    "After exams, we looked at things we thought we could improve something, and worked on those," Cooke said. "We try to evaluate whatever it was that happened in the last races and then at the championships, and then if there's something that seems as though it's an issue that needs to be addressed, that's what we do."

    It doesn't necessarily go according to script, which Cooke emphasizes is an important part of a longer training phase.

    The Brown heavy men

    "You do go out there some days and feel like, boy, we're really on the right track, and some days you go out there and think, ah, we really messed that up; that really didn't help," he said. "But the most important thing, I think, is dealing with the energy of the team right, having the guys coming into the championships in a way where they feel as though they are getting stronger and faster.

    "And that doesn't mean always that every practice between the Sprints and the IRAs has to be better and better. Over the three weeks there are peaks and valleys, and when you talk to the guys, you try to get that across so that they know they can make mistakes, but at the same time, the goal is to get better."

    Light Men
    In the light men's eight, only Navy felt the sting of upset in the heats; having bested Harvard in the heats at Sprints to put the Crimson in the petite final, Harvard exacted revenge by doing the very same thing to Navy here. Navy will row in the petite final against Mercyhurst.

    The heats were won by Yale and Columbia, with Princeton and Penn placing second in their respective heats, and Cornell and Harvard third; that will be the field for the Sunday morning grand final.

    One note on the light men's events: this is the first year they have gone to a two-day format, with heats on Friday and finals on Sunday (where previously the heats and finals had been raced on the same day, as at Sprints), which also means there are two weigh-ins for the first time, one on Thursday afternoon, and one on Saturday afternoon.

    Nich Lee Parker on Showing Your Hand in the Heats, Heat Times, More
    After the racing, we talked to Columbia coach Nich Lee Parker about whether coaches should have any concerns about showing their hand too much in the heats, especially in a field as tight as the light men's eight can be. Here are Nich's comments.

    Nich Lee Parker: We don't really worry about showing our hand, but instead in the first thousand in the heat, you're executing exactly what you want to do in the final, because otherwise there's just too many variables to control, and we're trying to keep it simple for the guys so they can focus on simple execution plan, and we don't distract them from too much. The fancier you get, the more likely you are to make a mistake. Or you find that you're half a length behind, even if you should've been winning comfortably, and then the other grew gets confident because they can see you, and then you find yourself in a race.

    So we really talk about the first thousand creating a foundation that they want for the final, and then they can reevaluate after that. But we're completely okay showing our hand in the first thousand, doing whatever we do, because that's what best for the guys. And if we do it right and we do it well, we're going to be out in front and be able to control the race."

    Columbia light men's Varsity 8

    From there we talked a little bit about how conditions can dictate how to race the heats, as changing weather might create favorable lanes, which might be worth racing for ahead of time – but in some situations it might not hurt to hang back and lay in wait a little bit.

    "Everybody's looking at the wind pattern, and I know that if I was seeded second in my heat, I'm going to blitz the heat to try to get the advantage on Sunday," he said. "Then if the wind patterns hold, it's worth whatever extra energy we put out to get a better lane in those conditions."

    Parker recalled a race in 2013 where the Columbia varsity finished third in their heat, only to come back to take bronze in the afternoon.

    "In 2013, they got third in their heat, and they were completely okay with it because the wind was totally flat; it didn't matter," he recalled. "Those guys knew that they needed to have a great race in the afternoon, and I think one of the things that happened that year is some of the other crews felt comfortable about being able to get up on us. And then in the final they were a little shocked that they were down, and that helped our guys grab a bronze medal.

    Parker cautions not to tailor tactics solely to the weather, but more to the crew.

    "For some crews, it really doesn't matter what the conditions are going to be, as some guys really need to win," he said. "Or if you have a winning streak against another crew, and you're in a heat together and you're bow ball for bow ball, maybe you don't want to let the other crew feel that they can ever actually come through. A part of it is the psychology of keeping yourself out in front, so that another crew feels they can't get ahead of you no matter what they do. Sometimes that can be just as important."

    Finally, I asked about how much credence he might put in the times from the heats.

    "I try to ignore it as much as I can," he said. "The conditions can be so shifting. Today, I think they're fairly similar, but the headwind is picking up slowly over the course of the day. And you don't know exactly how a crew felt. It could look like a tight race, somebody could be up by half a length and it could look really tight, but that crew could be very comfortable and just cruising along. So you might get confident that, hey, they slowed down, and really, they just felt very comfortable being half a length up and they didn't need to do any more. So when I look at the times, mostly it's just to get an idea of what the time is. I just want to know. It's curiosity. And then we move on, because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how fast or slow you are on the clock. It's just whose bow ball is out in front."

    Small Boats
    The fours are an often exciting free-for-all at the IRA, as in many cases crews that are not often seen at the front of the pack come down the course with commanding leads. This is due in part to the fact that the athletes often come out of events for which their team did not qualify; for example, Georgetown won the light men's four with a solid row, but did not qualify to race in the Varsity 8, so this crew is four of their top athletes. The same is true of the heavy four from MIT, who were chased hard by Holy Cross in their heat; Holy Cross then came back a few hours later to win their rep to advance to the A/B semi.

    Notes from the Course:

    Yale had the fastest LM8 time


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