The Rowingfest That Is Masters Nationals

Last weekend, USRowing, the governing body for the sport in the United States, from Olympians on down, hosted the Masters National Championships, a four-day extravaganza. It was, yet again, the largest regatta USRowing had ever organized. To borrow from their website, the regatta featured “rowers ranging in age from 21-89 competing for national titles in 199 events…Amongst those in attendance [were] 145 clubs from 36 states, eight Canadian clubs and an unaffiliated competitor from Mexico. The international crews [were] included in the 2,013 competitors but [were] not eligible for national titles.” They pick a different city every year, and this year it was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. I live in Cambridge, so essentially it was held in my back yard.

A friend asked me yesterday if I had fun over the long racing weekend. I paused. I could not answer in the affirmative. To just say I had fun would be so understated as to be meaningless. And besides, fun is not the first thing that springs to mind. Four days of hard racing is a tremendous expense of mental and physical energy combined with endless emotional ups and downs. No matter how much I might say, “Yeah, I’m just doing it for fun – it’s a training stepping stone for me for the fall head season… I just started training in July, so I’m just going to row some events and have a good time…” No matter how many times I said that (and I did) in the days leading up to the regatta, when I got there, my mindset changed. I wanted to do as well as possible, and my mindset switched gears into “racing mode,” which isn’t a whole lot of fun to be around – for me or anyone else.

Whatever my training, I feel somehow entitled to be rewarded for killing myself many times over a four-day period. And yet, I am aware of the realities – this thing brings people out of the woodwork, and I know who a lot of them are. I know they are faster than I am. I know that getting a medal isn’t easy – at all. It’s a weird dichotomy that messes with me every time. There’s something in every competitor that gets fired up about a race. Michael Phelps famously said that it’s not so much that he wants to win, it’s that he absolutely hates to lose. My friend Paige Fader Divoli put it differently a few years ago, after I lamented, shortly after a disappointing race, that it seems so unfair to give everything you have, mentally and physically, and to come up short. “It just seems fundamentally wrong,” I said. “Yeah,” she agreed. “That’s why losing SUCKS.”

So last Wednesday, I donned my smile and my cavalier attitude and headed for the lovely city of Worcester (pronounced “Wuhster” by locals, and “Wuhstah” by REAL locals). My boat securely cartopped, I headed west on the Pike a day early. I was my typical pre-regatta mood of total elation, excitement and anticipation. I was so fired up, in fact, that I had agreed to help out a friend who was renting her boat to someone from Colorado. My friend couldn’t row due to injury, so she asked if I would cartop her single scull along with mine. Sure, I thought – I’m going there anyway…what’s another boat on my car? It seemed the nice karmic thing to do.

Fear and loathing in Worcester, MA

I arrived in Wuhstah and immediately tensed up as I approached the throngs of cars, trailers, people and, above all, police who swarmed the area. There was nowhere to park. There was some vague direction of going to the such & such many miles up the road, but I don’t work that way. I get as close as possible, unload my stuff, try to get a prime spot for my boat and then take care of my car. I had an “in” at the hospital across the street and could park in the employee lot, so I figured I’d be all set. Nevertheless, I decided to be a good doobee and follow directions. I drove a few miles down the road, found nothing except a residential neighborhood, and said, screw it, I’m going back. I found a spot kind of close to the parking lot and unloaded my boat. I walked it a good ways to the rowing area and put it in a decent spot. Then I went back and walked more tons of stuff – oars, rigger, etc. – to the spot. All the while I was on the phone with the Colorado woman to try and meet to take care of her boat. It seemed much harder than it should have been. I was getting impatient, as my time to row the course was now dwindling, and that had been a primary goal of getting to Worcester on Wednesday afternoon. I then noticed that many cars seemed to be in the parking lot and were unloading single sculls. I thought, hell, if they can do it, why can’t I? This was the first in a line of irrational mistakes that would soon follow. I noticed an opening to the lot, which actually was the exit point. A cop was manning the station, but he was turned the other way and seemed occupied. I gunned it to try to sneak by him. I heard him say “Hey!” but kept going. I drove by a DCR guy in a pickup truck, who also said “Hey,” but I pretended not to hear him either. I got to the spot to unload the Colorado single, but as we were untying it, I saw the cop walking toward me. Ugh, I thought. Here we go. As he arrived, the boat was completely untied and the slings were ready. The couple from Colorado – Hans and Mary Jane (MJ) – was there. The cop said, ok, you have just done several illegal things, and now you’re in a lot that’s only for trailers. I tried to say, “but I saw other cars unloading singles here…” He would have none of it. He said, tie this boat down and take it to the single/double dropoff. I looked around and there were singles and doubles everywhere – why couldn’t we just put it in the slings and call it a day? No way, he said. I sheepishly agreed, and he walked away. This seemed totally unfair. The boat was here. The slings were here. Yes I had done some things wrong, but why couldn’t we just take it off the car and put it in the slings – a 10-second operation? It was crazy.

Then another irrational, race-mode decision crossed my now thoroughly jumbled brain waves. “Screw it,” I said to Hans. “Let’s just take this thing off and I’ll get my car out of here.” So we did, and I frantically got in my car to get it the hell out of there. Just then, Bob “Crazy Bob” Eldridge approached me, screaming, “John!! Don’t you know you’re NOT SUPPOSED TO PARK YOUR SINGLE IN THIS LOT!!??” I screamed back, “Bob!! Stop @#$!-ing screaming at me! I’m running from a %*!-ing cop who’s chasing me down!!” Ugh. I parked the car on the street, where I thought the cop might not see it. While I was doing that, he returned and saw MJ’s single, unloaded and in the slings – a direct violation of his order. He was now really pissed and he let Hans know it. I then played a cat-and-mouse game with him, as he went from directing traffic to walking around, trying to hunt me down. I felt like a fugitive and a complete idiot, but I still hoped to avoid trouble. I jumped into my single and rowed the course, during which time I hoped the cop would go home and forget all about it. Yeah right.

After I returned, I was tying my single onto its slings and getting ready to leave. The cop walked up to me. I knew I was in for it and would own up to everything. It was time to be a stand-up guy. I respect cops a great deal – I always ask myself, “Would I want to do that job?” He asked for my license and registration, and I said they were in the car. He then asked me for all my personal information – name, address, SS#, phone number, etc. I humbly gave him everything. He said he was going to write me a ticket for driving to endanger and disobeying a police officer. Gulp. I took it, sorrowfully, now feeling really stupid. This is what happens to me when I’m in race mode, I thought. I just don’t think clearly. He said I would have to appear in court in Worcester to determine what would happen. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. I walked back to my car with a dark, stormy cloud over my head, like Charlie Brown returning from the kite-eating tree. AAAAhhhhhhh.

I ran into my friend Trevor, who needed a ride back across the bridge, asked for a tie-on strap, and had several other requests. I could barely acknowledge him, let alone help him out. I mumbled something about being in trouble with a cop and not being able to help him at the moment. I walked away, down the road, thinking… Good Lord. This is not good. I was really worried about what would happen, so I decided to go back to the cop and ask him, as humbly as possible, what the consequences would be. I found him and we started talking. I said I wasn’t making any excuses – I just wanted to know what would happen. He said, well, that will be up to the court. I sighed. I then began to try to explain my position, which was weak at best. He then gave me his position. I drove into the exit-only part of the lot, which was forbidden to cars anyway, and was driving too fast. I ignored both him and the park ranger. But, he was willing to forgive all of that if I would just take the boat out of the lot and bring it to the dropoff designated for singles and doubles. But I didn’t. I deliberately disobeyed his order, and then, in words that hit me harder than anything to that point, he said, “You hid from me like a coward.” Wow. That hurt, but I couldn’t disagree. My only defense was, look, I agree with you on everything up to getting the boat to this spot, where it was untied and ready for the slings. At that point, why couldn’t we just put it in the slings? I told him how I had walked back and forth with the other boat, rigger, and everything else; that I was meeting people from Colorado; that I had driven up the road a few miles trying to find the single/double dropoff lot and was unable to do so. That I had tried to do the right thing, only to get impatient and frustrated and end up doing many wrong things. He said, yes, everyone, all day long, has a story like this. They all want to be the exception. They’re all coming from all over the place with lots of equipment. I agreed and said, yet again, how sorry I was and how I understood how frustrating and annoying it must be for him to have to deal with this stuff all day long (I was, it seemed, the straw that broke the camel’s back that day). I just nodded and said, “You’re right. I feel like an idiot.”

He then said something interesting. I think he respected me at least a little bit for owning up to everything and for understanding his situation. He said, “Ok, why don’t you come talk to me tomorrow about this. I might be in a different frame of mind. No promises.” I said, ok. Thank you very much. I will. I drove home thinking, Good God Almighty. Why did I come to this damn regatta in the first place if I can’t even handle dropping my boat off?

The next morning I had my first heat for the quad at 11:15 AM. On the way to the course, I stopped at Dunkin Donuts and got the officer an iced coffee with cream, no sugar, and a glazed donut. I grabbed a few sugars just in case. As I drove down Lake Avenue, there he was, at his post in front of the trailer lot in the morning heat and humidity. I pulled up and said, with a smile, “Hi. I’m looking for a police officer. He’s a really nice guy.” He laughed and held out his hand to shake mine. “You’re all set, John,” he said. “I checked you out. You’re all set.” I said thank you so much many times and then held out the coffee and donut. I said, “I promise this is not a bribe, but I thought you might want an iced coffee and a donut.” He said, no, I can’t drink that stuff, but thanks a lot. I apologized again and thanked him. He said, “No problem, John. You’re a gentleman. You’re all set.” I smiled and said, “Well, I was a total asshole yesterday, but thank you for saying that.” He laughed. It was all good.

For the remainder of the regatta, I saw him several times. His name was John. He had a Polish last name, a friendly face, and sincere blue eyes. He was a really good guy and a good cop. Every time I saw him, I’d stop to say hello and see how things were going. I’d make a joke, like, “If any of these clowns give you a hard time, let me know – I’ll kick their ass!” He always laughed. It was a good lesson learned on not screwing up and always owning up.

Racing recap

There’s no need for a stroke-by-stroke account of my races, but some highlights are helpful, at least for me, to recount. I rowed in four events – a C (age 43-49) quad on Thursday, a D (age 50-54) light single on Friday, a D heavy double on Saturday and a D club quad on Sunday. I carefully spaced my events out to only have one event per day. I’ve done these masters nationals regattas before, and it’s easy to get sucked into racing the maximum six events in four days. But if you do that, and you have heats and finals for every event, you’re talking 12 races in four days. For me personally, that’s just insanity. I’d rather trade the ego trip of getting a medal for that of being asked to be in a boat because “we really need you because you’re so awesome!” or whatever compliment might come my way. I’ve learned the hard way that racing as a complete burnout doesn’t make much sense.

On Thursday, we had a solid heat in tough competition. We rowed a composite quad, with Trevor DeKoekkek from Atlanta, David Gray and Jeff Brock from Narragansett, and me representing my beloved Riverside. In the final, we came in third, good for a bronze medal. There were definitely some heavyweight all stars in the other quads, and they were younger as well, so as a lightweight 52-year-old, I felt good to get a bronze out of that event.

Friday was the big day, because it was Single Day. For any sculler, the single is it. It’s the one that matters most for obvious reasons: it’s just you, and only you. There are no excuses. You are putting yourself on the line and you either reap the reward by yourself or suffer the indignity by yourself. It’s a great test, and one that I relish. However, in the grand litany of excuses that make their way through the conversations at masters nationals every year, one of the good ones this year was something along the lines of, “There’s no question, the C and D categories are the toughest of ALL categories here. The B [36-42] is nothing…” I have no idea how true that was based on results and times (which can’t really be compared due to variable wind conditions from race to race), but it sounded nice, as I was a D lightweight.

In this single event I had no such excuses. It was a lightweight race in my age group. I knew some of the guys and knew I would have a tough time medaling. The best I had ever done in the single was a bronze in the light C group way back in 2005, when masters nationals were last held in Worcester. Crazy Bob edged me out by about a second, maybe two.

I was as ready as I could be at the start, knowing I had a fast rower named Pietra, from Potomac, in my heat. I didn’t know anyone else, but I knew that Joe Paduda, also from Potomac, was in the other heat, and he was also fast. There was a skinny old guy from Duluth, Minnesota next to me, but he didn’t look all that intimidating (another great racing lesson is that you can never, ever, judge from looks). I took off with a nice start and was in the front of the pack during the first 500, but Duluth was hanging right with me about a half a length back. Pietra, way over in the far lane to my right, was about a length ahead. It was top 3 to qualify. The three of us moved away from the pack in the second 500, but Duluth began to pass me, much to my disappointment. My legs felt tired, which was kind of demoralizing. I just didn’t feel very strong. The boat felt heavy. I struggled to keep up, but he moved a few lengths ahead by the finish. I came in third and was very tired at the end – much more so than I wanted to be in a heat. I had qualified, but it was pretty exhausting, and that did not make me happy at all. I got to the dock in a pretty crappy mood, and as I went to pull my boat out of the water, the stern wouldn’t come out – like there was a massive weight in it. I pulled the plug and unscrewed the round hatch on the deck and it was chock full of water – maybe a few gallons or more poured out. I still could barely lift the boat even as it was emptying the water out. This turn of events really pissed me off, as it meant I had a serious leak which could jeopardize my final. I studied the hull and determined that the leak had to be coming from the skeg. I so did not want to deal with it. In my foggy mindset of post-race exhaustion, I didn’t think clearly of trying to do a temporary fix so I could race in the final. There were certainly plenty of people at the race course who could have helped me, but I didn’t want to hurt the boat. I also felt that I wouldn’t medal based on the heat times, but I didn’t factor in the fact that my time may well have been faster if I weren’t dragging the anchor of water down the course with me. So I scratched the final and felt absolutely awful about it. The ultimate personal humiliation. No matter what others thought, I knew that I wasn’t happy with the decision; but it seemed the lesser of many evils at the time. Looking back, I kind of wish I had tried some electrical tape or something that wouldn’t hurt the boat, but such is life. It’s just a race, and I was more concerned about making sure my boat was properly fixed. Decision made, time to move on.

In the double the next day, my partner David Gray and I were matched against some serious heavyweights, including Greg Benning and Greg Walker from Cambridge, Jon Grant and Tom Darling from Cambridge, and Tom Bohrer and Mike Cataldo from Union. The latter double was in our heat. I know these guys and felt they would absolutely destroy us, but to my surprise we finished a close second to them in the heat, only half a second back. I was blown away by this result. Then, looking at the times, I noticed that the top four boats from both heats were within about one second of each other. The final was sure to be a classic “barn burner.” But in the final, Dave and I just didn’t have it and fell back to a disappointing 5th place. It was sad, but such is life in racing. You do the best you can and sometimes things don’t work out. Above all, you get what you deserve based on what you brought to the party in that given race. Learning NOT to make excuses is one of the best, and hardest lessons of racing.

Sunday was the day of redemption, but I was skeptical. Again, our quad in this final-only (thank God no heats – just one race on my last day) was matched against some tough cookies from Cambridge and Narragansett. This was an all-Riverside quad, with some massive strongmen: Andy O’Brien in 3 seat, John Yasaitis in 2, Neal Harrigan (who had won his age group at Crash-B’s) in bow, and skinny ol’ me in stroke seat. You can see just looking at the boat how much bigger these guys are, compared with me. And we needed that heft, as we were dealing with a substantial headwind.

This race was a solid effort – and effort was what did it for us. We had never practiced as a group, and it showed on our blade work. We caught crabs, did a slalom course the whole way down, and generally felt pretty sloppy. But man did we have strength. And our technique must have been good enough, because we finished a very satisfying second to the guys from Cambridge. A lovely little silver medal to end my four-day odyssey in Worcester. I was more than happy with that, and it proved yet again what I’ve learned from many years of these multi-day regattas. If you have a bad day, you can live to race another day and strive for redemption.

Epilogue

So another masters nationals down, with hopefully many more to come. These regattas, and racing in general, are not fun. They are a lot of work. But there’s tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment in doing them, and a lot of that comes from the people you get to know over the years. In my case, I’ve been racing against some of the same people for a dozen years. There’s such pleasure in catching up, talking about old races, strategizing about the regatta at hand and mapping out the rest of the season. Mainly I’m just happy to be in the game. I’m healthy enough to be out there on the course. That’s my mindset when I step back a bit, well after the race is over. In the moment, I’m in the same narrow vacuum in which many of my competitors are living, thinking…how can I do my best; what are the chances of winning; and what do I have to do personally, each moment of each day, to be in the best possible condition to give it my all. It is four days during which you’re focused only on preparing to race, racing, recovering from a race, eating, sleeping, and repeating the cycle. There’s something fundamentally healthy about such an experience. No, it’s not fun. It transcends enjoyment, pushing you to your mental, psychological, emotional and physical limits.

And this is only for the middle-aged hackers among us, of which I’m squarely in the middle. For national teamers and Olympians, it’s a whole ‘nother deal. And of those experiences, I am not qualified to comment. Unfortunately. 🙂

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