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
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.