Monday, October 28, 2013

My First Rowing Race Re-Cap (As A Rowing Newbie)

Casitas Rowing's Girls Novice 8 as they passed third place
to finish 2nd at the Head of American 5K this Saturday
on Lake Natoma near Sacramento. Photo: Scott Brewer
I rowed my first race for Casitas Rowing's Masters team last weekend. Unlike most of the rowers on the Masters team, I never rowed before June of this year–a little over four months ago. The rowing club's home is at Lake Casitas--the rowing venue for the 1984 Olympics where Americans Brad Lewis and Paul Enquist won the gold for Men's Double Sculls. Lake Casitas is a beautiful dam-created lake surrounded by rolling un-developed hills of scrub oaks and chaparral in a protected federal wilderness area in the mountains just west of Ojai in California. Here's my first ever rowing regatta re-cap as a (very) newbie rower:

I raced my first regatta last Saturday at the Head of the American races on Lake Natoma near Sacramento and it was an uhm... "humbling" experience for this rowing newbie. The Head race was a 5,000 meters (5K) point-to-point race. But since but we had to row 5,000 meters to the starting line, and just got there a few minutes before our race start, our 5K race felt like rowing a 10K for time. Which for being a former marathon runner, didn't seem that far at first. It was.  My longest distance of continuous rowing before Saturday was 1,000 meters (1K) on the ERG (a torture device invented by a sadist with a rowing background). But I figured, stupid (STUPID) me, that as an experienced endurance athlete I could wing it. That was gross over-estimation in this case as rowing fast requires a refined technique that comes from years (not months) of practice. I was sculling in seat #2 in a quad with three other masters rowers, two of them former college rowers who I just met that morning while getting into the boat. While rowing to the race start for what seemed like a half a day, I carefully calculated the number of times I have sculled before... once in June, maybe twice in September, three times before in October... six times. 

Being a positive person by nature, I thought, "No problem."

Outcome: I truly believe that rowing is 90% technique and I don't have it. At least not yet. I mean it's got to be easier than what I did to myself on Saturday. I felt like I was trying to run a 5K race while running in step with three other women whom I barely knew (a la synchronized swimming with strangers), while, at the same time, knitting a sweater.... You heard me right, "while kitting a sweater". Unlike running where ones hands and arms act as unconscious counter weights to the pushing feet and legs, helping propel the human bipedal form forwards naturally, sculling for a newbie like me is like a cross between running and synchronized swimming -- while knitting a sweater.

For each oar stroke of sculling (rowing with two oars), there must occur a series of complicated ellipses, hand turns and oar pulls while, at the same time, you have to push off the foot braces (with your bare feet encased in someone's soaking wet size 13 mens leather rowing shoes) from a squat sitting position to an extended-leg sitting position while focusing on your belly button and breathing. You have to remember to breath in time with the oar strokes. Like the synchronous ballet of oar moves and sit squats, I also had to regulate my breaths in tempo like a yogi master. And, all this was happening while I'm careening along the surface of a lake in a beautifully engineered narrow, aerodynamic space age carbon fiber racing boat with paper thin hulls while I am trying to scull (or in my case, "knit a sweater") with javelin-length oars, in what felt like a car wash. Yes, a "car wash".

"I'm going to die." My thoughts a few minutes before the start
of theMixed Masters 8 5K race at Head of American last
Saturday. I rowed seat #4 port. Photo: AR Kirwin
Unlike doing "power tens" and technique drills at a leisurely 22 or 24 strokes per minute in rowing practice, racing a quad (a four seat double-oar sculling boat), for me that weekend anyway, is an "in the water" water sport speeding through the water while rowing 26 to 32 or 34 strokes per minute (going about 7 mph or 8 knots). For an inexperienced rower like me, it's like getting caught on a treadmill running 7 minutes per mile with my shoe laces untied and the emergency Off button DOES NOT work. Plus, for each synchronous oar catch, pull, sweep, sit squat, and exhale, my face got splashed with water from the rower's oars sitting in front of me.  I tried not to take it personally. Fortunately, I was wearing sport sunglasses. Unfortunately, the oar splashes regularly soaked my hands-- which nearly slipped off of the oar handles, despite my death grip on them, with every stroke. I won't even go into the blisters on my hands as blisters, the amount of them, seem to be a matter of pride with competitive rowers. (Racing regattas is not for wimps. Even though there is very little archaeological evidence to support it, I just know that the Spartans must have been excellent competitive rowers.) For each "catch" (oars in the water), "pull" (oars pulling the water), "sweep" (legs pushing to an extended sitting position while oars sweep through the water), and exhale, a big splash of water hit me in the face. While I spit out the lake water I "return" and inhale (as my butt moves up the slide and back to squat sitting position on a seat the size of a quarter--while "feathering" the oars). Repeat. Repeat Again. Repeat again as fast as I can. And Again, and again. It was the longest 5K I have ever raced in my entire life. 

And, it was totally awesome.

Now you probably think that either I'm totally insane or a masochist (or both) to enter a big regional regatta as an un-skilled and under-trained newbie rower.

Neither is true. Now, I don't want to get all gooey and saccharine here but rowing, so far as I have experienced it in these past few months on the Masters team, is my all time favorite sport culture.*  From the first day of practice, nice rowers who I have never met before, smiled and said things to me like, "You're doing great! I used to do that all the time." (after my left sculling oar got stuck under the slipstream of the boat and it's handle nearly ejected me out of the boat in what I later learned was a "crab"). Or, very patiently reminding me to stay in tempo with the other rowers:  "Number two! Timing! You're doing great! Just a little slower up the slide" after I rushed the rowers in front of me for the 33rd time that morning. And, "Wow Angela! You're so strong!" after I had to steer and row the boat towards the dock on my own. And, after practice, after I would apologize (again) for "rushing up the slide" (that means I was rushing after I took a oar stroke back to the starting or "catch" position and upset the rhythm and balance of the other rowers in the boat...repeatedly) one of the other rowers would typically say something like: "You're doing great. It takes three years to learn technique." These rowers were so nice. They must be all from Canada or something.**

So, when I was asked if I was going to race at the Head of the American with these super nice rowers, I said, "Yes!"

After my first race  race was over (sculling in the quad with the two former college rowers),  I apologized to the other rowers in my boat. Even though my contribution to the race was essentially as ballast, we did not place last in our heat of 18 boats. That was in of itself a testimony to the great skill and endurance of the boat's more experienced rowers...

Two hours later I had to do it all over again rowing seat #4 port for the Mixed Master 8 5K head race. At least in a sweep boat (rowing with only one oar this time instead of two in a sculling boat)  I had only one oar to fight with. I would like to think that for this race, with eight other mostly newbie rowers rowing, my role as ballast was an essential factor in our boat not flipping over when we rowed "all eight" during the race and had to make that right angle turn midway on the course. I'm embarrassed to say that I did not contribute to any forward motion by the end of the that race as my hands were fatigued rigid claws at that point fighting to just hold on the oar and my leg muscles were left somewhere near the starting line. However, our 8-boat did much better and finished in the middle of pack in the masters race. 

After the race, I remember someone helping me out of the boat as I could no longer grip anything to steady myself. My port-side left "feathering" hand was permanently stuck in the letter "C"  oar grip position. On shore there was a bunch of Casitas Rowing's juniors from the our high school team cheering at us.  Even though I know sucked, constant "you can do it!" encouragement and even having the teenagers cheering us on, was pretty cool.  The kids were encouraging and said things like "You did great!" Their empathy for us older newbie masters rowers, their constant support and encouragement of their boat mates during their own races, and their positive team spirit gave me more hope for the future. "These kids are just about the most positive, hardworking and altruistic teenagers I have ever seen" I thought. Even if they weren't such good rowers (but they were as several boats placed at the Head of the American regatta), their "can do" team spirit and integrity for each other, makes this sport so more than just about learning rowing technique and winning races.

But I like a challenge. And, I have to admit, I like winning. Winning  (or at least placing) in a race is way more fun than not. "I fought the oars and the oars won" is a new song that I have been humming to myself lately. It's to remind myself to slow down and focus on that 90% technique stuff. No more fighting oars...

I can't wait until the next regatta. Next time things will be different.***

* My favorite sport was probably Ironman triathlon training and racing. There's no other rush, no other completely engaging zen experience that racing an Ironman triathlon with several hundred other people just as crazy and committed as you are. My favorite sport culture though is rowing. It is just as tough and disciplined as training and racing in triathlons but rowing also has a culture of commitment to helping each other in the boat do their very best. The cheerful, hard-working and stoic but team-first attitude of our rowing team, makes even the tough days empowering,  inspiring and even humbling. For example, instead of thinking, for example, after a triathlon, "I can't believe I did that. I'm so stoked!" after the Head of American regattas I thought, "Oh my God, my boat was so cool. Their encouragement got me to row harder than I thought was possible. I totally owe these guys. I'm going to practice my butt off and next time I will row better."

** There is only one Canadian on the Masters team, which leads me to think that being super supportive of one's team mates is just a part of the sport culture of rowers (or, at least, it is at Casitas Rowing). 

*** I added more positive memories of the Head of the American race in this post on Dec. 2nd and Dec. 3rd (2013) since I first drafted it. I did this in order to explain more about how the culture of this rowing club inspired me to enter a 5K head race regatta (the longest distance race of the year) as an under-trained and un-skilled rowing newbie. 

Knowing what I know now, would I of still signed up to race at the Head of American? Yes. I got to hang out with so many positive and inspiring athletes that weekend: masters rowers, former college rowers and amazing teenage rowers. Plus, I got in a great workout that day rowing a total of 20K, half of it at race pace. Looking back, I feel that it was an opportunity that I could not of passed up. 

So, yes. Definitely.