Monday, April 07, 2008


It will be very gratifying to walk into the boat house for the next year and see this in the trophy case.

My primary concerns coming into the race were:
  1. Potomac, who are a great club and placed very close to us at the Head of the Charles last year, and who, to the man, were huge
  2. Kent Mitchell, who could have anyone from ex-elite collegiate athletes to ex-US national team guys in the boat, and who are never slow
But having done a practice race the week before at the Pac-10 invitational, I had a feel for how well we held up for 2000m. I had visualized many scenarios, and felt confident that, as long as we had contact with the leader at the 1000m mark, we'd be in good shape. My mental preparation was to be ready to get in front from behind in the last 1000m of the race. My hope was to be up on the whole field at the 1000, but I knew that that was rather unlikely: This was the fastest masters event at a well respected race.

My teammates were great. I was originally supposed to row 4, then 2, then, after substituting in for stroke a few times, my boat decided that was where they wanted me. They knew my tendency to assume perhaps more than my fair share of responsibility when in the stroke seat, and all, each in his own way, told me that this race wasn't on my shoulders, but on all of ours, and that my job wasn't to do anything extra, just to do what I usually do.

My cox tuned in to that, and, when I started to think about the race (which my coach forbade me to do) such that I didn't attend to his call to back the boat into the blocks, started to joke with me a bit. I figured it was to lighten me up and to keep me loose, and I figured his judgment was best.

On the start, I focused on being sharp, deliberate, clean, patient, and not going crazy. I don't think we went much over 40 strokes per minute, but I still don't know our rates. Our cox never gave us a number for the whole race. I was delighted to see the stern of Kent Mitchell pull into my periphery. Last year they took a length on the start and went on to beat us by about the same, as we came in second. I had been ready to have to battle back through them. I was glad that wasn't going to be required.

I noticed our cox looking around quite a lot, and not saying anything about the other crews. The intensity of his seeking the positions of the other boats unnerved me a bit, but in hindsight I realize he was waiting to see how the race was shaping up to be very careful about where, externally, he would focus our attention.

"Potomac is 4 seats up."

We took our first settle out of our starting sequence, down to perhaps 38.

"Potomac is 5 seats up."

He made the call for our second settle, down to about 36 1/2 strokes per minute.

Our practiced race plan was to take our first power move at 1:20 into the race, right as we moved through the 500m mark.

Our cox told us we were now down 6 seats to Potomac. The move would be to stop their progress. My team unloaded on the oars for 10, and our cox told us that Potomac was no longer moving on us. Success. And confidence.

I brought my own focus to staying clean and relaxed. I wouldn't use my adrenaline until it was needed, and there was still a lot of race ahead.

Our cox focused us on closing the margin on Potomac. We knew that at the 1000m mark we were going to unload a giant 20 strokes. As we approached the 1000, our cox called that we were moving. We were only 3 seats back. And they were taking their half way move.

Among my favorite calls I've ever heard from a cox is from a friend coxing me back in 1999 at the Head of the Connecticut. I don't recall who were were passing, but he told us that the opponent was taking a move and "We take seats on their move". The psychological effect of answering an opponents attempt to move away from you with actually leaving them worse off in relative position than when they started is huge.

My boat understood this and responded early to the news that the other crew was working its big move, and the power came up, even though we hadn't started ours.

Our cox shifted personalities. No more assertive technical, analytical. Now all animal, aggressive. Drill sergeant screaming in the face of cadets. 20 in 3. 2. 1. My boat loves it.

For the next 20, we just pulled like goddamn. When it was over, we were nearly a length up. Our cox relayed the news that he was looking over at a bow ball. We held the pressure, waiting for a response. We held the pressure, waiting for the advantages of the inside lanes to kick in, but nothing.

At moments like that in a race, if left to think for one's self, one might choose caution. Just keep it sharp, hold the length lead, go merely the same speed as the opponent and you win. But that's why it's not our job to think. Our cox chose the other strategy: More. Win by as much as you can; put up a time that scares people.

He called on our 4 seat to pull. He called on our 6 seat, who truly is the perfect personality cross of the Terminator and a golden retriever, as a 6 should be. The boat pulled for him.

Our cox took us off our sprint plan. The move would be on his call, not at the 450 mark, which had been our pre-arranged go point.

In our course row-over, I had taken care to note the orange buoys marking the last 250 meters, and that there were 5 of them before the finish. I knew orange buoys meant 25 strokes. The call was to take the speed through the water up at 350 to go. Then I noticed orange buoys. Then the call to speed the hands, bringing the rate up again. Then Last Ten. With 2 to go, tack on 2 more. 1. 2. Beep: Finish line.

We put up the fastest time of all the Masters boats, faster than the winning time in the next younger age division, in fact. Our time was faster than the winning times in the event for the prior 3 years, for sure, and probably further (though wind and current conditions at San Diego make this an unscientific comparison).

Our cox wants to know when we can race this line up again. Based on my prior experiences, I have to predict it'll never happen again. But I'd like to be wrong, and I'd like to see us take a shot at the B 8+ as US Masters Nationals. That'll be great.