So the 12th of April rolls around, which just happens to be my son’s 17th birthday. How does a good father celebrate? Well of course the obvious answer is to desert the family and drive 2.5 hours away to camp at Dexter Lake and compete in the Covered Bridge Regatta.
I had simple goals for this regatta, and anybody who’s read my descriptions of prior regattas will hopefully understand. The goals were:
- Finish the race with no drama.
- See goal #1.
This time there were no excuses. There was no biblical weather (in fact it was darn near perfect). There were no clothing malfunctions. We’d managed to practice together as a complete crew (in the 4+) once before the race. We were actually set to perform well. The only limitations in this race were going to be self imposed.
Rowing races come in a couple basic varieties. There are long distance races called “head races” where, despite the name, you do not row head-to-head against your competitors. Rather, the starts are staggered and each boat is timed. The eventual winner is determined by overall time and (in the case of masters competitions) an age handicap. My prior two races had been head races.
Then there are sprints. Several lanes of boats lined up together racing in close proximity down the course. It’s a different beast. Short distance (1 to 2 kilometers) which means it’s over in something between 3 and 4 minutes (for a 1k course). Now how hard could that possibly be? 4 minutes? You can’t make a decent cup of coffee in 4 minutes. “Hey barista…you start grinding the beans now, we’ll see you at the other end of the course and try not to make us wait too long for our lattes OK?”
Really…4 minutes. You can’t even call it a walk in the park because you couldn’t get TO the park in that time. It’s less than half of a normal snooze-button cycle on an alarm clock. If I keep writing and don’t bore you to sleep, it’s hardly longer than it will take you to read this thing.
In other words, 4 minutes is for-freaking-ever. It’s the longest time you can possibly imagine.
You see, rowing is non causal. The laws of physics, space, time, and pretty much any other law you can think of simply don’t apply. This is doubly true when you’ve never done a sprint before and have absolutely no concept whatsoever of how to properly pace yourself through the race. Rowers have catchy little phrases for this like “fly and die” or “one and done” or some other such pithy offerings.
We epitomized all of the catch phrases. We came off the line in a flurry of uncontrolled enthusiasm and managed to prove that our cox was actually sugar coating it when she had predicted that our start would be “ugly”. Ugly doesn’t describe our start. I suspect that we may have done something that will cause both Roget and Webster to go huddling back to their word laboratories in search of a new adjective.
Be that as it may, we did manage to actually make the boat start moving. Now here’s the thing: the way you’re supposed to start is that you take some short quick strokes called fractionals to get the boat going. Then you do some very high rate strokes to continue the acceleration. Finally you do this massive settle thing where you drop the rate down significantly to something you can sustain.
So there we were, 15 strokes into our high rate with our cox saying in a very demanding tone “SETTLE” and what do we do? We keep rowing of course…stupid cox, telling us to slow down when we’re just starting the race? Hey, sorry to break it to you cox but we’ve got boats right next to us and we need to beat those guys for some reason, and why should we listen to you?
It turns out, there’s a reason to listen to the cox. The cox has done this a few times before. And despite some of the things that come out of the cox’s mouth, she’s NOT going to personally ensure that we can never bear children, she’s actually trying to get us to perform at our peak. Like I said…stupid cox!
So the boat is flying down the course and the cox is saying something about other boats and making seats, or losing seats, or some other drivel about upholstery. Really? Interior decorating when we’re busy trying to row? What do they teach these people? Meanwhile the little buoys are going by and the glycogen is pouring out of every cell in our bodies at an alarming rate…and we’re not even half way there yet.
Here’s where that whole time thing comes into play. We’re 2 minutes into the race and I’m done. I mean really done. Nothing left, I’ve essentially dumped every bit of stored energy onto the oar handle and we’re a bit over half way down the course. And now the cox calls for a power 10: 10 strokes where we’re going to actually pick up the power. And we do it. Never mind that we don’t have the energy, we do it anyway…and time slows down.
The focus narrows. All that’s left in life is a growing incredible pain and this annoying voice that says “Get your f-ing eyes back in the boat RIGHT NOW” which makes me think “who’s stupid enough to look out of the boat during a race,..thank god I never do that!”
And after an eternity, the buoys turn red signaling 250 meters to go. That’s right, we’re only 75% through the race and now it’s just about time for our final sprint. And time slows down again. People marry and die, children grow and leave the nest, nations rise and fall, and all the time there’s this heartbeat in the background that is the “clunk” of the oars as we complete a stroke and feather the blades.
Meanwhile the cox is telling us to pick it up. And somehow we do…or at least we think we do but at this point merely completing each stroke is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Finally we cross the finish line. Not quite in last place. And the cox looks at us and says “Glen if you ever look out of my boat again I will personally <insert comment involving removal of some rather personal pieces of anatomy>!” What?? I was the one who had looked out of the boat?? I’m going to plead complete lack of brain function due to inadequate supply of oxygen and glucose, but one thing’s for sure…that will NEVER happen again (because I’m rather fond of those parts of my body and trust me, she’ll do it!)
Somehow we manage to turn the boat around, row it back to shore, and then just for fun pick it up and carry it across two state lines to where our trailer is parked. At that point my body says “hey brain…if you don’t mind we’re going to wander over here, cough up a gut, and dry heave for a bit…OK?”
A few Gatorades later everything starts to return to normal. I can phrase complete sentences in my head and come close to getting them out of my mouth (which for me is actually not all that unusual). And then the coach says “OK, it’s time to start getting ready for the next race”.
And it’s just too much fun to put into words. The effort, the pain, the cox’s threats. They’re all part of something that for some unknown reason just works and makes you want to go back, do it again, but do it better.