Rowing is classified as a “strength endurance” sport, so the ordinary distances are not small. Events like the Great Ouse involve come seriously heroic mileage. But few things in the conventional rowing world (ie. putting aside things like transatlantic crossings in specialised row boats) come close to rowing the 165 miles of the Thames River from Lechlade to Gravesend.
The challenge in so big that the few people who attempt it tend to be relay teams who take it in pieces or they make an expedition out of it with plentiful food and rest breaks. But, Naomi Riches MBE didn’t just seek to row the Thames, she didn’t just seek to row it entirely on her own, she also decided to break the Guinness World Record for rowing it. That record stood at 43 hours and 41 minutes. The Guinness officiators do tend to break athletic achievements into men’s and women’s categories. The thing is that no woman had ever completed a certified solo row of the Thames to set the mark. So, Guinness set a benchmark based on a percentage of the men’s time that she would have to achieve in order for it to be considered a record for a woman. And that is all women. Naomi demonstrated that even with disabilities like her visual impairment, para-athletes can accomplish athletic feats of world-class calibre for any human.
What the record attempt means is that it is not just 165 miles of rowing (a monumental amount in any reasonable span of time), but it also means practically no sleep and very limited opportunity to simply stop rowing and stretch one’s legs. It is pretty much non-stop rowing for 2 days!
Naomi’s Great Thames Row is the crowning achievement to her stellar achievements in rowing. Many people in Marlow think that the gold mailbox on the High Street is in honour of Sir Steve Redgrave, but actually it commemorates Naomi’s gold medal win in the London 2012 Paralympics (LTA 4-). Growing up in Marlow and rowing for Marlow RC, she is a bit of a patron saint for the adaptive squad. She remains active in supporting the club and the para-rowing there.
For an intro to The Great Thames Row itself, check out the video below…
She’s been especially busy of late, but she still found time to do an exclusive interview with Adaptive Rowing UK on the anniversary of her World Record achieved 1 year ago today and certified by Guinness just this week (the adjudicators had to authenticate and validate reams of data, testimonials, and records to confirm that Naomi actually did complete the entire row in conformance with the tight guidelines issued by them for such a challenge)…
- What did you learn about yourself in the big training preparation?
Rather than learning something new, it just reinforced a few things for me. I like to work as part of a team and I like a process. I started out training for this row on my own thinking my knowledge from my years in the GB Team would be enough. Doing this though I soon became demotivated. After a very open and honest chat with Jacqui Jones in Scullers Café I started to grow my team. Not people to train with necessarily, but rather people to steer me if I was out on the water, to take control of different parts of the project or to just share ideas with. Jacqui Jones and John Gill wrote the programme I needed, gave me goals and targets and monitored how I was doing. I was part of a team and I had my process I needed.
- What did you learn about your rowing in your training?
More than anything else I had to get to the point where I was not thinking about sculling and that my body was responding to steering calls without me having to process the information first. This was surprisingly easy to do as rowing by its nature is rhythmical; as long as I just got lost in that rhythm then the rest would take care of itself.
- What was the hardest part of your training?
The hardest part of the training for me was definitely the long ergs. I set the screen to Watts and not 500m split times and had to learn to not think. When training in the squad you are always striving for that better split time whether you are doing a UT2 session or a 2k test. With this training it was my body learning to just keep going and going and going.
- What was your biggest surprise in your training?
The biggest surprise for me was how quickly my body got used to training again. It was a totally different level and a totally different intensity of training but my body did seem to adjust fairly quickly to it.
- Did any part of the training cause you to ask ‘is this really possible?’
I did my first long water session in June 2016, it was just 4 hours long and by the end of it I felt completely exhausted. My back hurt and I could not get my head round the fact that in just 3 months I was going to attempt a 50 hour row! I thought at that point that I may have bitten off more than I could chew!
- What was the physical low point of the row?
The last 15 hours or so, every stroke I took created a sharp pain in the middle of my back which just never seemed to ease. Even though I had been taking pain killers consistently from 2 days before setting off from Lechlade.
- What was the psychological low point of the row?
There were several low points in the row. From about 8pm on the second night the fatigue had really set in and the euphoria I had felt from the crowds at Marlow Rowing Club had totally worn off. That last 20 hours were really tough; from mishearing my steersman heading into Kingston, thinking I was an hour behind schedule and going into a flat panic; to hallucinations in the dark whilst sculling down a totally mirror flat Chiswick stretch; to feeling that I was never going to reach that QEII bridge forgetting that (a) I was punching into the incoming tide and (b) it’s bloody enormous and can be seen from miles away.
- What was the psychological high point of the row (besides the finish)?
There were two for me. Firstly coming into Marlow knowing I was half way, knowing a 30min nap and a portion of Da Luca’s meat balls were waiting was amazing. Then it just got better, I came round that corner and heard the cheers, it was totally overwhelming! Secondly, shooting through the pool of London on a spring tide, getting tooted at by commuter boats and people shouting from bridges was just so surreal and hugely uplifting.
- What part of your body hurt the most during the row?
Definitely my back. It started to twinge at Iffley in Oxford and had to be carefully managed for the rest of the paddle.
- Did you ever consider giving up? What stopped you from doing so?
I don’t remember thinking about giving up but I’ve been told the words ‘I can’t do this’ were said towards the end. Jacqui Jones was there to question and challenge me on that each time and helped me turn that round in my head to ‘I can’. I had come so far… I would be letting so many people down, I would be letting myself down. Stopping was not an option.
- Did you take your scheduled 30 minute nap(s)? How did that feel?
I only had the one nap scheduled at Marlow and then I snatched 10mins at Putney and I think another 10 minutes after the Thames Barrier but I’m not quite sure. Tom, my partner, woke me up at Marlow and I looked at him and said ‘I don’t want to do this any more.’ He said, ‘Are you sure?’ Then I replied, ‘I DO want to do this.’
- What was the biggest change to your game plan?
There were no real big changes, we had it all scheduled and planned and people in the right places at the right times so to a certain extent we had to stick to the plan. There were just small things around taking or not taking certain planned stops but other than that the plan was water tight and we had to believe in it. It took over a year to put together after all. I need to at this point give a HUGE thank you to David Jackson and Andy Knill. Without their help and expertise in certain areas this plan would not have been so solid!
- What was the favourite thing you ate/drank during the row?
I loved the Bento box attached to my rigger. Every time it got replaced with a new one I didn’t know what would be in it so it didn’t get boring. My favourite bit of food was a cup of very milky porridge on the Monday morning after I had passed Tower Bridge. It was so good and very much needed. Oh, also, the Sausage Sandwich that lasted 4 hours. It was given to me at Goring Lock early on Sunday morning but at that point I was too busy stretching my back out and behaving like a grumpy teenager who had been forced out of bed. Ruth Naylor made me eat a couple of mouthfuls at each lock we got to as she was my key support at that point; it was still yummy at 4 hours cold I must say.
- What part of your body hurt the most after the row?
My hands throbbed for a couple of days and were so sensitive to hot, cold and texture. I went into work the next day and they brought me some stunning flowers however they were in a bag with cord handles and I just couldn’t bear to hold it. With the weight of the flowers the cords felt like they were cutting into my palms.
- What did you eat as a celebratory meal
I truly cannot remember what I had to eat but I did weigh myself when I got home and had put on 2 pounds which was just ridiculous. Over the next 4 days I dropped a stone no matter what I had to eat! Good way to lose weight I guess, though a little extreme. By the way, weighing myself when I got it was more of a habitual thing from training full time, keeping an eye on my hydrations and just being aware of my body.
- How many hours did you sleep when you went home?
I tried to keep the jet lag theory in mind and I only had 10 hours, I had to get up to get on BBC Radio Oxford the next day which helped. I cannot remember much of the next few days though, I was a little spaced out.
- What have you learned about yourself as a result of the row?
Mostly it has confirmed that I am a tad bonkers but also that I have more mental strength than I gave myself credit for. I couldn’t and would never do something like this just for me. I had IN-vision, a huge team of remarkable people supporting me and the world of disability to do it for.
- What is your advice to others who may be contemplating a challenging physical venture?
Plan, leave no stone unturned and no question unanswered. Find experts to help and advise and then try things out to find out what works best for you. And have a reason that is going to get you through the dark times, what is your reason for NOT giving up?
- Why are people’s donations still so critical even after the row
IN-vision needs funds to achieve its ambitious goals. Nystagmus is a condition that effects 1 in 1000 people and still not much is known about it. We will always need to raise funds to research the condition further and potentially find a cure. Another focus of IN-vision is to educate people so that it can be spotted and correctly diagnosed. We are still raising money and the donation page will not close until the 31st of December – https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/naomirichesmbe1.
- Any final thoughts?
I want to say a massive THANK YOU to Marlow Rowing Club for the support and belief you showed in me right from the start of this whole crazy venture. Without the support of so many in the club this would not have happened and would definitely not have been so successful. No matter how large or small people felt their part in this was it was all key to the success of TGTR2016. In no particular order…David Jackson, Paul Thomas, Ruth Naylor, Dave Falkner, John Stevenson, Matt Smith, Graham Parcell, Graeme Hyman, Andy Knill, Lisa Knill, John Gill, Jacqui Jones, Laura Tilbury, Graham Armstrong, Colin Pikton, Sir Steve Redgrave, Mark Reunet, Mike Landers, Bruce Lynn, John Tetley, Brett King, Lory Tilbury, Maggie Tilbury, Charlotte O’Connell, Anna Brazinova, Lorna Loretto, Catherine Bennett, Cath Bishop, John Yeatman, Peter Hunt, Jonathan Walne. I am sure there are more and I am sorry if you are not on this list please forgive me.