Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ready to retire

I won at Henley.

To those outside the rowing world, this won't mean much. And those inside it may also justifiably distinguish between Henley Royal Regatta, which is what most folks mean by "Henley" and Henley Veterans Regatta, which is what I won. But racing and winning at Henley Vets is no small achievement. Steve Regrave raced there this year.

My 8+ race went about how I expected. The flag went down, and my boat promptly forgot anything it had learned about rowing well and devolved into rowing in a style analogous to 13 year old girls at the Harry Potter premier glimpsing Daniel Radcliffe: A shrill, screeching "Oh My GOD! AAAAAAAAH". No composure, no dignity, no calm. All freak out. Not without some horse power, but not fast enough to advance. The other crew had a length on us in the first 30 strokes. A bit embarrassing. Not unexpected.

None the less, it served a useful purpose of getting me down the course once and more familiar with the surroundings. It's always helpful as an athlete to know what to expect.

I spent the rest of the day staying relaxed and fed. I watched some races, and spent time visualizing my race. Scenarios in which we were up, down. Thought about the rhythm and ratio. About the fear of the pain, and about choosing the pain.

The Henley format is a series of bracketed, single elimination dual races: Winner advances, loser does not. In many events, folks had to row through 4 or more rounds of elimination to reach the finals and be crowned the fastest of 16. For some odd reason, my 4+ event had only three entries. And we luckily drew a bye to the final.

On one hand, it's nice to be in a final. Just need to have one great race. On the other hand, it's like traveling to climb Everest and finding out that the mountain is a little smaller the year you've gone.

That said, the crew we raced in the final was quite good: They had just won the 4-, coming up best of 8 crews. They were good. And they were big. Though they had also raced a few more times that day than I had. And we hoped that some of the fatigue would be a factor.

The course at Henley consists of a long series of white pilings with booms just at and above the water line. It's just wide enough for two boats. There are two stake boats just south of the Temple Island. The umpire follows the race in an enormously long boat. One of my British teammates knew that, if one waited at the starting line, one could ride down the race course in the umpire's launch, and watch the whole thing start to finish. Of course, there's no cheering from the umpire's launch. This is England, after all.

So the great news was that K got to ride in the launch. It would be the first time she'd see a race from start to finish like that.

I had decided that, while it might be a distraction, it would ultimately be a good thing for me.

In practice and warm up, we'd never found a start over 40 and a race pace faster than 34.5 strokes per minute. Which is pretty good for a 4+. But we thought we'd need more.

Stroking the 4+, I had the chance to gently impose my start on the crew: A lot longer to bow, though a bit slower on the first few strokes. But by the fifth, we always hit our numbers.

At the starting line I had my eyes closed, trying to calm and focus myself. The aligner gave instructions to the boys in the stake boats. I waited for the aligner to announce that the boats were aligned. That never happened.

Instead, the umpire raised his flag. "Attention! Go!"

But our coach had prepared us for that. We do enough starts not to be caught off guard.

The start went well. Long and patient, then high. 42 strokes per minute. We seemed to move up a few seats.

Then the settle. 36. Clipping along, full reach forward, hard press. The other boat seemed to move up.

Our cox called for us to swing longer to the bow. Lengthen the stroke at the back end. We did, and we started to move, or so she told us. I could vaguely sense the other boat, which may have meant they were slightly behind, but I couldn't think that well.

Every stroke was as hard as possible. At 400 down I took a 10 in my head, just to keep my focus on the short term. Thinking about holding on for another 2 minutes seemed too daunting.

Our cox again said we were moving. At 500 down "You've got this". I was glad she was certain, but I didn't feel anything was sewn up.

Several times I had the impulse to lighten up. To back off the pressure just a bit to give my body a break. But I told myself I'm 500 meters away from winning Henley, and I'm not backing down. All those sessions on the erg, sprinting my final 500 m while tired paid off. I knew I could do anything for 500m. I also knew it would hurt like hell, but that would fade.

I sensed the other boat dropping a bit more. I had hoped just to hold our pace and cross the line. No risks, just win it. Then our cox called for our sprint.

Our practice sprints had been good. As a team, we seem to be very good finishing sprinters. I think much of it has to do with our coach regularly putting us through a sprinting drill for our last piece of practice. Up 2 every piling, and once past the last one, open rate. We all know how to go up two beats and go fast.

And we did. It was supposed to be a 30 stroke sprint. 20 down, she called last 10. The guys put everything they had on the end of the oar. Two strokes later we hear "paddle". We all look to our right to see: Had we crossed the line? There was no horn. Where was the other crew?

A length behind. And we had finished.

Pre-race I had visualized pulling into the awards dock, being handed my medal. I held onto that for the last 500. I got my medal from the Mayor of Henley.

With a medal from the Head of the Charles, I'll be ready to retire.