The Granddaddy Of Them All

Also published on October 14, 2014, in my column, “Row ’til You Die” at http://www.row2k.com.

The Head of the Charles Regatta (HOCR) is unquestionably the biggest race of the year for masters rowers, and it may be the biggest/greatest race for all rowers, if you don’t include trials, worlds, etc. Trials, worlds, and the Olympics are much more serious races – World and Olympic competition is as high as you can go in our sport. There is no professional rowing (thank God). It may be the last truly amateur sport left, as David Halberstam famously pointed out in The Amateurs – one of the best rowing books ever written. So yes, if you are an Olympic champion, that is a much bigger deal than being an HOCR champion.

What makes the HOCR (also known as “The Charles”) so great is that it combines so many elements of rowing into one. It features every competitive level, every boat configuration, and every possible age group. You literally can race ‘til you die in this regatta. It is the largest two-day regatta in the world, and, as such, it draws top competitors in every level of the sport from all corners of the earth. You see, even those Olympic champions I just mentioned want to race in this regatta, along side juniors, middle-aged people like me, and “Veterans” category rowers in their 70s, 80s and beyond.

But why? Why indeed. 50 years ago this year, the brain trust at Cambridge Boat Club came up with the idea of bringing an English-style “head” race – a three-mile (ish) time trial – to the Charles River. It immediately attracted attention and has turned into the Fall Festival of rowing. That’s putting it mildly. It is Christmas, New Year’s, and Mardi Gras all in one. It’s the Super Bowl of rowing.

What started small now offers up “over 9,000 male and female rowers, youth, collegiate, master and veteran age groupings, representing more than 500 clubs, colleges and universities worldwide” (source: www.hocr.org). But the thing is, they did something with this race that has never been done before. They turned it into a spectator sport. And friends, that is no small task. For non-rowers, rowing is decidedly not a spectator sport. It is hard core – the only people who are really into it are rowers, and we are still, compared to Nascar and football, a relatively small, obscure group. Okay fine, the historians among us will note that rowing was a huge spectator sport back in the late 1800’s. And that is true, because people were a) bored (there was no TV, Internet, movies…Hell, people went to lectures just to get out of the house); and b) betting money – a LOT of money – on the outcome. But that was a long time ago.

Let’s say you have a son or daughter who rows in high school or college. Your friends’ kids play on teams, in games, where you can sit comfortably for an hour or two and watch them play and compete, and it’s a game, with a score, and stuff happens that keeps your interest. But no, your bright young teen chose rowing. So you, being the good parent, dutifully attend their “regattas.” You drive for hours to some place in the middle of nowhere. There is endless preparation for your budding athlete, but for you, this means waiting – a lot of waiting. Finally the time comes for the race. You stand in the cold rain or drizzle…waiting. Then it happens! They row by! You scream “Go Billy go!!!” “Come on, Susie!! Pull that oar!! Move that boat!!” Or whatever you’re supposed to say. The whole thing is over in 30 seconds to a minute. You wait around for another hour or two, and then finally make the 3-hour drive home. This is the typical rowing spectator experience, and if you, the parent, are not or were not a rower, it’s just that much more…I hate to use the word boring (Tedious? Esoteric?). Okay boring works.

But at the Head of the Charles, they attract hundreds of thousands of people. Yes – you read that right – this year, they are expecting more than 300,000 to line the river over the course of the weekend. From 8:00 AM Saturday morning (when my race starts) through the end of the day Sunday, a boat will cross the starting line every ten seconds. There is constant activity. You don’t even need to worry about Billy and Susie because there’s a massive whirlwind of activity on the river all the time, all weekend long. You’re having wine and cheese, or a lot of beer, or a couple of stiff bloodys! You’re meeting new people! You’re meeting old friends! Who cares about Billy or Susie! And if you really want a good show, stand at the Eliot or Weeks bridges – the two tightest turns in the race, which also feature immovable bridge abutments – and watch boats getting tangled up together. Now this is fun! And on the banks, there’s food, vendors of every kind, music and lots of other crazy activity. People are drawn to this. I suspect that at least half of the 300,000 are non-rowers. They’re just coming to see what all the fuss is about. To enjoy being outside in the crisp fall New England air. Watching these weird boats with all these insane athletes huffing and puffing down the river. People seem to love it, and the HOCR geniuses managed to figure out how to make that happen. So for non-rowers, it’s kind of a big deal. I mean, there’s even media hype (WBZ TV is a sponsor this year).

But for rowers? It’s beyond a big deal. It is THE deal. People train all year for this race, and I count myself among them. And if I’m not actually training all year for it, I’m pretty much thinking about it all year long. The rowing calendar revolves around this race.

30 plus 20 equals 50

They say there’s no such thing as a coincidence, unless you’re a math geek who happens to be an atheist. Without getting into personal beliefs – I’m so not going there in this forum – I’ll just say that I believe that believing in something is good for the human soul. I missed last year due to injury and went away for the weekend, not being able to be here for the action (too depressing). So getting an entry this year is pretty magical for me. It’s my 30th year of rowing, and it will be my 20th appearance in the HOCR. Which, interestingly adds up to 50, and it just happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles. Coincidence? I think NOT.

So I have some history with this race, and I’m very fortunate to be able to say that. People come from all over the world at great expense and inconvenience to race in the Charles. I walk my boat down the ramp at Riverside Boat Club. It’s heaven. Still, like most masters rowers who tend to take the sport very seriously, I get pretty wigged about the regatta. I obsess about the weather, the competitors in my event, my bow number, etc. And mostly I obsess about the training. Have I done enough? Did I start early enough? The answer is always no. You can never do enough – there’s always something more you could or should have done. But on race day, when you’re paddling up to the chute and your

Racing at Green Mountain Head

Racing at Green Mountain Head

HOK 1 2014

Head of the Kevin

textile

Textile Regatta – Lowell, MA

the wolf

The Wolf

stomach is an unholy mess of turmoil, none of that matters. Only the strokes you take from start to finish make the difference.

I don’t get quite as wound up about the Charles as I used to, which is one of the benefits of still being alive at my age (I’m 54, and my brother died at 53), not to mention having more years of HOCR race experience under my belt. I just don’t have the energy to get that wound up. I get as psyched as I am able, given my 54-year-old existence, which is still pretty psyched. I’ve had other experiences that put things into perspective. But man. Did I used to get wigged for this thing. I couldn’t even look at the list of competitors in my event without getting major butterflies. One year in my early 40s, about a week before race day, I was walking around the financial district in my dress-code suit & tie (I work in the financial industry). I was at the corner of Franklin and Federal streets on a gorgeous October day, and I started thinking about my race. I immediately got butterflies so bad that I came very close to throwing up, right there on Federal Street. That’s not keeping things in perspective. That’s just a tad nutty.

I also used to get my infamous “Week-before phantom injury.” A week before my race, something would snap and I’d be a physical and, to a much greater extent, psychological disaster. Holy Hell, my back is killing me. I have a tweaked upper lateroid in my inner scapula. Or some crazy thing. It would hurt all week and I’d get more and more flipped-the-hell-out over it each day. I’d be eating Advils like M&Ms. Then race day would come, I would have a decent race, and the injury would magically disappear. That’s also just a bit wack-job.

So this year, and for the past few years, I’ve somehow mellowed out about the race. Yes, I still train like a lunatic. Yes, I still wonder how much headwind there will be (I’m 6-1, 158 with legs like toothpicks. I hate headwinds). I still get mad at myself in the races leading up to the Charles for doing stupid things – like bad steering, which has plagued me this fall (and I still refuse to get a mirror!). I feel like I don’t have that optimal combination of power and conditioning that will result in…The Perfect Race.

But I feel pretty damn good. Sean Wolf, two-time U.S. National Teamer and my friend and training mentor, has taken up my cause this year. Actually I coaxed him with cash over some burritos at Rudy’s in Somerville in early August. After doing a few pieces together – I think he was bored – I said, hey, if you let me follow you around and do your workouts with you, I’ll give you some money! Sean said “Money? You’re on!” And that was that. So he has very graciously let me piece with him since early August, providing some excellent guidance along the way. And when I’m not close to throwing up after the pieces, it’s actually been fun. But the best part, not including having someone really good to train with, is just not having to think about it. This is what we’re doing today. Okay – got it. No thought. Just do it. Wake up and show up. And in addition, I’ve done a ton of racing this year – also part of Sean’s plan. Textile, Green Mountain, the Kevins…even some obscure 8k up in Hooksett New Hampshire. I have raced almost every weekend, and that has been awesome. It gets you into race mode. Each time you race, you learn something, and you get into the routine of racing. So when you’re on the starting line, you can think, “Yeah, I’ve done this…I can do this…” As opposed “Oh My God I’m going to FREAKIN’ DIE!!” I’ve certainly been there enough times.

So my practice times have been decent and my race results pretty good. I’m certainly not going to brag about it (a seasoned rower knows better than to brag anyway, lest he or she be forever damned by the Unforeseen Karmic Hand Of All That Is Good And Sportsmanlike). I actually feel pretty good going into Saturday.

But there’s still time – six days to be exact. Wait a sec – I think I feel an injury coming on… and the ten-day forecast is calling for a head wind. Crap – I feel a sore throat coming on. Holy @#$!, I have to race against Greg Benning and Peter McGowan!! My buddy David Gray didn’t get in this year. That is a real shame. For him. Tunnicliffe is always brutal. Trevor “The Flying Dutchman” has been crushing it the past few years… Is Crazy Bob Eldridge going to beat me again? He got me at Green Mountain and Textile. What about Bohrer and Cataldo? Wait – they’re doing a double! PHEW! Damn it all, I think I’m gonna lose my breakfast.

Whooooaaaa Nellie, Keith Jackson! It’s The Granddaddy Of Them All.

2014 – A Comeback Year … Again??

Also published on September 25, 2014, in my column, “Row ’til You Die”  at http://www.row2k.com

So this is kind of a comeback year for me, after a shoulder injury sidelined me in 2013. But wait a second – it seems like déjà vu all over again (thank you Yogi Berra). I’m ALWAYS having a comeback year, or I’m always in the midst of recovering from some kind of injury or other. Welcome to masters rowing. The Geezer Group. You’re not as old as you feel – actually, you ARE as old as you feel. The older you get, the faster you were. Never show up to a regatta without being fully armed with an arsenal of excuses. Ratings caps during pieces? To hell with that. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

I once said to my dad upon greeting him, “You look great!” He said, “Son, there are three stages of life. Youth, Middle Age, and “You Look Great!” You actually DO get to the point of feeling like, “It’s just nice being out here.” Even if you are competitive as all get-out, like some people I know (who me?). To quote Keith Richards, quoting George Burns, “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere.”

I don’t understand people who don’t get injured. Sean Wolf, my friend and fellow Riverside club member, never gets injured. I don’t know of anyone – anyone – who has trained with the intensity and consistency that he does, all year ‘round, and does not get injured, and I’ve known him for 14 years. Now there are those at other clubs – Benning, Bohrer, Cone, etc. (you guys know who you are) – who are in the same league in terms of always having it, year in and year out, but I don’t know their history as well. But The Wolf is a mystery. These guys (and gals – Hello CB, Linda Muri, Ellen Kennelly…!) have something going on that I sure as hell don’t have. I know that things happen to Magnificent Masters such as these, but you’d never know it by the way they row. It’s awe-inspiring.

*          *          *          *          *

The season usually starts out innocently enough. After barely doing any winter training, I get on the water some time in late March (or mid-April last year, thanks to The Winter From Hell). It’s cold and I’m rusty. But I’m all excited to be on the water, and I feel my competitive juices coursing through my veins. I do something stupid – like too much pressure in a strong headwind – and KABAM. Something goes. Hamstring, back, intercostal, knee, toothache…something happens that isn’t quite right. And it’s early in the season, so you don’t want to mess with it. You take it easy. Then by the end of June you realize you only have about 100 miles. You’ve taken it a little too easy. So you have to play catch-up, thereby risking yet another injury. It’s pretty much the typical story of a typical season for me.

Then there are the atypical seasons. Last year was one. During one of the massive blizzards in Boston in January of 2013, I was out shoveling snow, and there was a LOT of it. I live in the city, so you have to do your driveway, your car, the sidewalk, and then keep doing all of the cement-like sludge in front of your driveway that the plows keep filling in right after you just finished (and they always seem so happy about it – that’s what gets me). I was acting a bit too macho (i.e., stupid) and was trying to turn it into a “workout.” So I’m shoveling like a madman, getting all sweaty and feeling all manly. And afterwards, my shoulder hurt, in a way that was definitely out of the ordinary. For the next several week and months, it kept hurting and became less and less mobile. Of course, I didn’t go see a doctor, because that would mean admitting something was wrong, and the rowing season would be starting soon. So I get out there on the water, and it hurts. Not good. Sigh…I didn’t even have the chance to do anything stupid during a rowing workout! My stupidity preceded the season! So I try and take it easy, reducing my rowing, and just doing steady state when I did row. It only got worse. I finally had a doctor (a very good one, thanks to a reference from Kane Larin at Community Rowing) – Matt Provencher at Mass General. Not only an orthopedic surgeon, but the Chief of Sports Medicine at MGH and Medical Director of the New England Patriots. Hey, if he can’t fix me, no one can! The diagnosis was “frozen shoulder,” which pretty much is what it sounds like. It only takes a few years or so to heal – no big deal. So that kind of put the kibosh on the rest of the season, and I went my first season in 28 years (it would have been my 29th) without racing. Sigh. But I did PT, stayed off it, and lo & behold, I’m back.

I could bore you with my other injury stories – a nasty two-year bout with plantar fasciitis in my right foot in 2006 (I like to call it plantar fascist, the Third Reich of foot problems); the hamstring injury that kept me out of NSR in 2002 (and the rest of the season); all the things that got in the way of Major Glory!!! But that might put you to sleep. Hey! Wake up!! Oh yeah. That’s the other thing about injuries – you feel compelled to talk about them with anyone who will listen. You approach your friends and start talking about it, and they all move away slowly. “Um, I just remembered I have an enema scheduled…gotta go!”

So I will spare you the rest. This year I am fairly injury free. But wait, I am kind of feeling some of that plantar stuff going on in my left foot…my hamstrings are kind of tight…my back doesn’t feel quite right… Yeah, it sucks getting old. But it’s better than the alternative!

Lucky To Be Alive

No, I didn’t almost just get hit by a car; nor did I have a head-on collision with an eight – although those things have happened to me in the past.

Nope, today was one of those rare days when I could really appreciate the moment in which I found myself – what I was doing, how I was feeling; everything about my physical, mental and emotional being felt just right. No regrets about anything in the near or distant past, and no worries about the imminent future or farther down the road.

It happened about half-way through a blissful 10-mile row around mid-day today, after I had made the turn near the Watertown dam on the Charles River, and was moving nicely downstream amidst flat water, cool crisp fall air and the beginnings of foliage season in the Boston area.

I hadn’t rowed since Friday and therefore missed Saturday’s 2 x Head-of-the-Charles workout. It was a deliberate decision, as the Green Mountain race last weekend, combined with some tough workouts during the week’s coaching sessions had left my back feeling sore on the right side. In any case, as a result of the time off , I felt pretty rusty and tired after pushing off of the dock at Riverside. I only planned to row steady state, however, as tomorrow is coaching day and, with only two weeks left until the Head of the Charles, this will be our last really tough week.

As usual, I continued to focus on technique, especially my finish, which has needed a major overhaul for years (see “way back on the layback” blog). Essentially, I have too much layback. I think it has improved somewhat – at least my ability to keep it in the front of my mind during pieces has improved – and I’m finding that when I get tired, which would be the time in past years when I’d start to slouch and dump into the bow, I’m now able to focus more on the technique of finishing properly. I don’t know if I’m actually doing it, but I am focusing on it, and it seems to help. I keep hearing Coach Milos’s voice saying “sit up at the finish John…sit up…that’s it John…” Not yelling and criticizing, but observing and encouraging me when I’m at my most tired.

I arrived at the final upstream stretch of the river before the u-turn at Watertown, having rounded the final bend and leaving the Newton Yacht Club behind. The boat just felt good. I felt good. I upped the pressure a bit and everything just zinged along. The water was like glass, and, rather than obsessing about the finish, I was finally able to focus on the catch, trying to get my blades in right at the end of the recovery, gently plunking them in before I grabbed the water and moved everything through the drive. It felt like it was working…the boat sang along the glassy water and the extra effort I put in (about 75% pressure) made me feel like I was doing some things right. It was an amazing, almost effortless feeling, and I not only felt lucky to be a rower, I felt lucky to be alive.

 

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. 🙂

Too much way back in the lay back

Some people have described me as being laid back. Others would strongly dispute this claim. But on one point there is little argument – in my rowing technique, I have wayyyy too much layback at the finish. It’s as though the former great Red Sox radio announcer, Jerry Trupiano, was calling a home run: “Way back! Way back!” Sigh.

For the uninitiated (non-rowers), this means that when I take my blades out of the water, I am leaning too far back from sitting vertically upright. This bad habit has several unfortunate effects: it causes the bow of the boat to plunge into the water, slowing it down; it actually makes it harder to get the blades out of the water (and I’ve crabbed a few times – even in races); it reduces or even eliminates the ability to “send” the boat faster off of the finish, which apparently is the idea (I wouldn’t know); it causes you to be less prepared for a proper recovery, since your body position is all wrong; and it just looks stupid.

Look at this photo from 2003, during one of the Head of the Kevin races:

’03 was a decent year for me – I won a silver medal in the light 2x at club nationals, had a lifetime PR in a Head of the Kevin practice race for the Charles with a time of 18:07 and won the my event in the Head of the Charles. With this layback in a wooden boat. What in the happy holy Hell is THAT all about. I’ll tell you one thing – as I got older and weaker through my latter 40s (I was 43 in this picture), I slowed down. I have two theories: first, my crappy layback was catching up with me big time, and I didn’t have the strength/conditioning to make up for the massive inefficiency at the finish; and second, I was rowing in a King, which is one of the best-designed boats on the planet. It turns on a dime and runs like the wind. I have no idea how Graeme does it. Had I been rowing in a less forgiving Van Dusen or Empacher, I suspect things could have been different. (I now row a Van Dusen Advantage, which I love.)

Now look at how it should be done – this is the final of the 2011 Men’s heavyweight singles at the world championships in Bled, Slovenia.

Most of the guys have little to no layback – it’s all legs, and the finish is perfectly coordinated. The timing is impeccable – when they’re done, they’re done – the oars are out of the water. It’s a marvel for me to watch. Focus especially on Ondrej Synek from the Czech Republic (lane 5). He’s a machine (well, they’re all machines). Interestingly, the guy who won, New Zealand’s Mahe Drysdale, has a little bit of layback. They even comment on it, saying that maybe he’s getting a bit more on his stroke than the rest (Mahe, you are my hero!!). So that gives me some comfort, but not much. He’s the exception, not the rule, and his speed is likely due to a whole host of factors, as is usually the case – that elusive combination of strength, conditioning, guts, mental toughness, etc. that winners possess.

In any case, for me, I know I need to sit up more at the finish and figure this out. 20 years of bad habits are very hard to break. I’m not so worried about the other elements…my catch and recovery seem to be ok. But many a coach over the past few years has been aghast at the inefficient finish that is literally dragging me down. Everyone on the river sees it and several have made comments. Ugh. The truth hurts, but you have to hear it.

So with a new attitude and a new coach at Riverside, not to mention a renewed commitment to actually start TRAINING in 2012, after slacking off most of the year, I hereby commit myself to trying to improve this situation.

Hope springs eternal – especially for masters rowers, the most stubborn and slow-to-change of all.