Head of the American 2011: ‘scuse me while I tank this race.

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In July, I’d figured this weekend would be about Trojans.

Three months later, I know it was about me.

Back in the day (aka mid-July) while Pomatto & I were sitting up at Lake Mercer about to inadvertently fluster our way to winning Southwest Regionals, she mentioned to me she’d heard the varsity 8+ of the lady Trojan Navy would be racing Head of the American in singles this year.

Oh, crap.

The USC women have a high yield of European recruits. This means that, unlike a lot of American collegiate rowers, USC girls know how to scull. And in the case of one Trojan, I know she knows how to scull, because I was learning to coach & lent her my speedcoach while she learned to row a 1x.
(I’m sorry American schools, but let’s be honest — emphasis isn’t put on smaller boats to get recruited to college. Flyweight, who has been sculling (and winning) in a 1x & 2x for the past two years, actually had college coaches reject her for recruitment when they found out she wasn’t primarily sweep rowing. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, that’s just the way the two systems are, and the result is that the majority of American collegiate rowers are not scullers.)

As a single sculler under the age of 35, rowing in the Masters’ category is kind of pointless — no matter what my raw time is, the age handicap adjustment would kill me.
Right now my age is only useful for a Masters’ A boat’s ability to bring in new collegiate grads to the boat & still make the 27 minimum age average — a fact which my original coach G was happy to realize for Crew Classic this year considering that when I started five years ago I was one of the young’ins he had to compensate for.

So if I row the Masters’ category, I could win in raw time & lose to a 67year old by age handicap, but if I row Open, there’s a very good chance I’ll have to compete against the freakin’ Trojan navy, two of whom placed in the top 10 at this year’s U23 World Championships.

And people wonder why I laugh when they say rowing looks so relaxing.

My decision?

Frack it. I’d rather take the chance of getting beaten in raw time than lose because of math.
Damn you, math*! ::shakey fist::
*not to be confused with Math, who is an actual person I quite enjoy talking with & simply has an ironic misspelling on his birth certificate, poor bastard.

Upcoming challenge in mind, I emailed what would should have been my primary source of training info & said, “Okay, I’m not going to Canadian Henley, but it looks like I’m gonna have to race the Trojan Navy at the end of October, so how do I alter my workouts to use the end of the summer to prep for that?”

In return I got…nothin’. Crickets started to chirp, & then stopped to apologize for being loud.

As someone that used to coach & run a team, I recognize that for the group at large there were other priorities at that point, and I’m realistic enough to understand that a lone Masters’ rower whose schedule didn’t match the competition plan for the rest of the team… not high on the list.

However, since this wasn’t the first time I’d asked a training question and gotten the cricket response, and I’ve never been one to sit around & wait, I went to Z & said, “Hi. I need help. …please. I totally meant to say please.”
Z, being a bit more used to me than most people, said, “What’s up?”
“Based on scuttlebutt, it would appear I’m going to be rowing singles against the Trojan Navy.”

Note: that Trojan who used to borrow my speedcoach? Guess who was her coach as a junior rower. If you guessed the guy that I was talking to, good call.

So we sat & talked a little.

While Z & I have known each other since I started rowing & his then-girlfriend Mo was using her experience as a former U23 rower to systematically kick my novice ass every seat race, he’s never actually had any direct interaction with my training other than the general stuff you talk about when you’re in the same rowing community for five years.

When I was looking for a coach after First!Boathouse, I’d actually asked Z first, but he was taking pre-reqs to get into grad school & didn’t have time, so I ended up working with Webster instead. Three years later, Z‘s decided against grad school for the moment, I wasn’t working with Webster anymore, & here we were again. Circle of life, man.
: obligatory Lion King joke here :

In talking, we went over my heart rate settings, which caused Z to have a coronary of his own and declare me freakish & odd, something that I have long accepted isn’t a descriptive solely isolated solely to my pulse rate, but more a continual state of being for my overall existence.

“In short,” I explained, “I have the heart rate of a hamster. A hamster that’s got a 5-hour Energy addiction. And does crack. A lot.”

So we did a step test, which for non-rowers means that I did a step test, & Z stood behind the erg & wrote numbers down, then went away & did a bunch of math. (Considering the options, I’m glad I was on the erg.)

The result was a two-faceted change to my training.

Physically, I had a new set of intervals for my morning workouts on two-a-days, and then I’d continue doing a recovery workout of stacking a spin class followed by yoga that night.

In terms of mental perspective, Z changed the metrics by which I measured my workouts. Where in the past I’d been ruled by meters on the water & splits on the erg, Z took into account the fact that four years of trying to change my heart rate workouts to what everyone kept telling me they should be and failing had only resulted in the the annoyance of this making my HR go faster because my competitor brain would look at the slower split & think about the split time instead of the heart rate, which is the actual focus of the workout.

To combat the fact that I’m overly competitive and more than a little OCD about tracking numbers to the nth degree, my new parameters were that I would do my pieces on the water for time instead of distance and that any work on the erg would be done using watts instead of watching split time. This way, the goal became to stay within my heart rate ranges for that time, and whatever distance/split I got, I got. We’d take a look every so often at split/meters total to see if those improved as I went, but otherwise that wasn’t something to be taken seriously — kinda like the rowing version of Joey Fatone on Dancing with the Stars.

Thus I was sent off to go try this out for two weeks so that we could make any changes needed before Z went on vacation – aka The Time of the Year When He Runs Like Hell for a Week or Two & Pretends the Boathouse Doesn’t Exist & There Aren’t Over 120 Teenagers to Plan for in September & Really Who Can Blame Him for Doing So.

What I discovered was… I felt better.

Gaiam.com, Inc


Longer, looser… way less stress.

Don’t get me wrong. I love rowing, and I’ve learned something from every coach I’ve ever worked with. But so often in doing workouts, I would walk away feeling defeated instead of accomplished. Not by the actual rowing, mind you – otherwise why on earth would I still be doing this, ya know? But for me, as someone that walked into rowing a minimum four years behind most of my teammates, & then in running a team and working as a single sculler — I have always had this feeling that I didn’t know enough, and that the reason I felt like I couldn’t keep up was because everyone else was just better at rowing or knew something that I didn’t, or I wasn’t working hard enough, or I just wasn’t… enough.

As such, I had spent four years since G was my coach thinking I was lacking. There’s something wrong with me, I needed to figure out how to do better so I fit into what everyone else was doing.

Even with my heart rate – I’d had my last two coaches both tell me at different points that the reason I was out of their range was because I was out of shape.

On the other hand, Z’s reaction had been, “Has anyone ever tested you?” and I went, “There’s a test?”
somewhere in northern California, Jessica just read that & mumbled, “How do I do a sprint start?” Yes, Jessica it was just like that. Shut it.

But in changing the approach to the pieces (and also their structure), I found that I would finish & feel… accomplished instead of defeated.

Here’s the thing – a lot of coaches (but not all) will be very pound-pound-pound-pound and work to get you to push your body to the limit all the time. And for many people, that totally works – for a fine example of this, see the Canadian Mens’ 8+. They’re not just hot enough to populate Kalmoe’s List, they also supposedly have a Spartan-worthy coaching philosophy to beat the band. And for them, it totally works, because hey, hello with the winning.

For me, as a(n almost) 32 year old competitive Masters’ rower who has a full time job & limitations on when my nearest boathouse and its equipment is available… the pound-pound-pound approach… turns out that just isn’t me.

It’s not only an age thing — a goodly number of National team rowers are actually in my age range, and I know that Kline, a 42 year old lightweight down at Beach!Boathouse, can kick my ass on the water.

For me, the improvement was mental.

Z‘s methodology is a lot more… chill. When I was talking to him about it, I described it as that things felt longer, looser, like there was a lot more flow to the workouts rather than bang-bang-bang all the time.

Part of that comes from who Z is as a person, which of course is a huge influence on how he runs things. I learned to coach by riding launch with Z for a summer. In the course of that time, Z described his college rowing experience as, “For the first year, I was the guy that everybody was hoping would quit.”
We also learned during our time in the launch that we’d existed in the LA rowing community for the previous 3 years ignorant that the other was also a humongous pop culture nerd. Delightful for us, dangerous for everyone else.

Z‘s approach is fairly low-pressure — the girls are pushed, but for a rowing team, it’s a very relaxed environment. However, if you take a look at who’s been jockeying first & second place for the womens’ 4+ at Nationals and Head of the Charles for the last three or four years, clearly it’s an approach that doesn’t entirely suck.

When that philosophy was applied to my training program, I was able to appreciate as an athlete what I’d learned in the launch as a coach — that for some athletes, when constant push and pressure is taken away, things just work better.

For me, the result was that I began to feel better not only in terms of the workouts, but also on a physical level. I found that I had more energy – in addition, I altered the heart rate ranges I was working with in spin, and once I wasn’t constantly beating myself into the ground, I could do things like… stay awake at my desk around 2pm during a work day at Museum!Co, which is probably helpful for being able to continue to fund rowing my life.

Z also worked within the construct of what my stroke actually is, as opposed to trying to make it what it theoretically should be. Down at Beach!Boathouse, I was working out with lightweight rowers — mind you, these are damn fast pre-elite caliber lightweights, but still — lightweight rowing is a different technique & approach. It’s quick(er), short(er), fast, high rate.

It is, in essence, everything I suck at.

When I was a novice, as part of G‘s campaign to simply shove technique into my erg score, I spent most of the summer rowing behind PK. PK was about 6’3″, 6’4″, and a collegiate coach who’d been rowing competitively for about, oh, 20 years by the time I started rowing. I was literally told, “Go learn to match PK’s slide control.”

Incidentally, while he would never actually admit it to any of us, one of PK‘s ideas of a good time was to understroke everyone, something Mo found out one day when she bowed a 2x with him & said to me afterwards, “Okay, seriously? He rowed a 12.”

“Yes, yes he does,” I told her. “Welcome to my friggin’ world.”

Take that beginning & add in the fact that my next coach was Webster, a 6’7″ former National team rower for the pair, and the result is that, as I joked with Z, “Basically, I row kinda like a guy. An openweight guy. That’s done a lot of yoga. And prefers to understroke. That’s me.”

To which he laughed (because he knows both PK & Webster) and said, “So the assumption that this October you’d be head racing at a 28-30 rate…”

“Yah…not what exactly what I’d call ‘realistic’.”

As such, we built things around the fact that, at this point, I’m not going to be rowing at as high a stroke rate as most people, & thus need to work on incrementally getting used to being able to hold higher rates for longer periods of time.

Which, for me, has been a total bitch.

Oh, and did I mention I’ve been injured? Because yah. That happened.

For those of you just tuning in, before rowing there was kickboxing. While I was developed as an ambidextrous boxer and can maintain a fair southpaw, I am instinctively right handed. Also the three years of violin lessons, which used my right arm for bowing, and the years of painting/art school, and the fact that I work as a freelance web nerd & sit at a desk for hours on end using my right hand for the mouse…

Right. It’s really not surprising that there was a slow creeping of twinge-ey pain growing in my right elbow. Honestly, in terms of repetitive use strain, it’s kind of a miracle that it’s taken 30 years to show up.

But still…. ugh.

So I went through my life, and nailed down that the root cause was the desk arrangement with my new (to me) cube at Museum!Co. Heights were adjusted, things fixed, and while the cause of the problem was remedied, I now had to get through the part where things (aka my right arm) heal up & go back to normal.

Which is why, at one point in the process, Z got an email whose first line was, “J’ai besoin d’un nouveau coude.” Which is French for “I need a new elbow”, a phrase I mastered in speaking with Cecile, a lovely Parisian lady who rows out of our boathouse & likes the fact that my time in New England included six years of French classes.
After all, an injury’s not an injury until you can bitch about it in the European language which turned out to be completely useless because you moved to LA, right? Right. Totally.

All this in mind, I confab’d with Z and was like, “look, let’s just be realistic — I’ve been training more off the water than on, and we don’t actually know if my elbow will hold up for a full 5k, so me ‘racing’ this… maybe not the best idea.”

The verdict was that since we don’t actually know what my steady state speed would be if I completely disregard heart rate & just row at a comfortable pace, we might as well use Head of the American to find out. Natoma is a simple course, flat water, no obstacles in the way — Bear!Boathouse Marina has ocean chop & a 180 turnaround halfway through their 6k, Beach!Boathouse course has three bridges & an expanse of open water whose crosswinds have caused some of the junior rowers refer to that stretch as The Devil’s Triangle — so if I couldn’t race it full up, Natoma was a good route to use as a control experiment.

Double the questions, double the fun, none of the winning.

Based on everything over the last three months, the goal became twofold:
1. Hope that my elbow would hold for 5k.
2. See what, rowing comfortably, I could hold for an avg split around a 24/26 rating.

In short, I was going to deliberately tank the race, and after that we’d figure out where to go next.

Good times.

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Race day – early intestinal upsets, late starts.

On Saturday morning, I made a rather disconcerting discovery — even when I mentally know the race aspect doesn’t matter, my body still treats any race day like a race day, which is why I had the awesome experience of driving the porcelain bus not once but three times before I walked down to get breakfast that morning. Thank you neurosis, thank you so very much.
on a bright note, after brushing that many times I probably had the cleanest teeth at the starting line, so I like to think I at least got the periodontal win.

The other crappy thing about that race is that our event wasn’t until 2:45 in the afternoon.


While theoretically I understand the semantic reasoning behind this, which is to get the big boats for juniors/collegiate events out of the way and make it easier for those teams to start to de-rig & load trailer… I still hate racing later in the day. As my intestinal upset might indicate, I would much rather race early in the day get things over with so I can spend the rest of the day watching everyone else race and Wandering Crew Crap*.
*shopping the vendors who come to regattas with products that say “crew”. Actually, that’s a limited description — some of the stuff also says “rowing”.

In some ways, this event was a little reunion — I was rowing with Cheng and Austin. Cheng I’d seen at SW Regionals, but Austin I hadn’t seen in about 4 years, back when she was rowing in college & her coach was… PK, the guy that liked to row a 12.

I launched with the Lil’ McGs, who were in the lightweight events at the same time, and upon getting up to the start line, found Cheng in her 1x in tears — it seems the borrowed boat she was rowing had a wing rigger & she couldn’t move the feet, a problem she didn’t realize until she was out on the water. Because of the way the Van Dusen was set up, she couldn’t adjust her shoes without taking the entire rigger off — yet another reason I really don’t like wing riggers in a single.

Thankfully, the start line launch was willing to help Cheng out, so we all chillax’d while they were taking care of that, & I got to say hey to Austin, who was back from Pocock with a shiny new fiancé and an open dubiousness to my assertion that, “No, seriously, I’m not actually racing this today, you’re totally going to pass me by.”

Once they got Cheng at least a little more adjusted in her settings, the starting line informed us that Cheng would be going last, so with the staggering of starts used for head races, the first person to launch would be… me.

Dude. Really? So both of my competitors will get to pass me on the course?


I took off and did what I was supposed to — I settled into what was a comfortable stroke with a concentration on swing and form, probably about eh, 65, 70% pressure, stroke rate around 24.

Around 1000m, Austin caught up with me & I called, “In or out, dude – lemme know.” She glanced over her shoulder, saw that I was seriously there, and I don’t think it was until that moment that she realized I hadn’t been bullsh*tting about the fact that I wasn’t racing the course. I pulled port so she could have the buoy line, and about 1000m later did the same for Cheng, who also looked at me like, “You were serious?” as she went by.

Honestly, it was actually kind of a nice row. Weather was decent, the course is pretty flat, I was rowing with the sun at my back, and I was allowed to completely disregard any and all numbers on my speedcoach. When I have to row my steady state in heart rate range, I’m usually around 2.45, 2.50 avg split, so it turns out when I just chillax & actually have a comfy go at it, I’m about 30, 35 seconds faster. I just rolled into my stroke and really worked on finding swing and getting length out of each stroke, and around 3500 meters, my abs actually started to get tired, which hasn’t happened in a bit.

I hit the last 1000m of the course, which is when the spectators & other teams can see you, & you’ll hear, “Go faster! You can do it!” … and I was thinking, “thanks, but I’m not supposed to go faster…”

Behind me, I heard the horns for when Austin & Cheng hit the end of their runs, and was like, “Cool, next one is me, just listen for the horn…”

…except it wasn’t, because it seems that HoA uses a double-horn at their finish, so the horn I thought was mine was actually the double for Cheng, and I stopped 250m short of the finish. #GoTeamMe! #HowToActLikeANovice #WayToRowDumbass

I laughed at myself & hurried across the finish line, hitting the timer on my speedcoach.

Afterwards, when things were de-rigged & put away, I went over to say hey to Austin off the water and when we were talking about the race, Austin made a joke about the fact that she used to rag on PK for understroking his races, and I confessed, “I’m not gonna lie, I totally rowed that bad boy PK-style.”
…and then we moved on to the fact that she doesn’t take the riggers off her shell for travel, which omfg would make me so nervous, and a little worried that by now, saltwater has fused that metal to the fiberglass on her boat.
Just the thought of it made me wash my boat really well when I brought it back to Beach!Boathouse Monday morning. :shudder:


Overall, I did aww’ite.

In terms of the theoretical benchmarks that Z & I had talked about, official time puts my average split within striking distance of what we’d been hoping to see. Sadly, since my rating was a 24 instead of a 26, actual goal achievement is a bit 50/50.

In terms of the race itself, I came in dead last.

One of the things that the guys taught me in fight training was knifework — close quarter maneuvering with handheld knives. (rubber blades were used for practice) The guys I was up against were all minimum six feet, most with brown belts or higher in more than one discipline. So to win, I learned early on to make sacrifices – turn my shoulder into it, allow the graze over my hip, use my forearm to block the blow — all things designed to draw my opponent in and make them feel comfortable enough for me to get close & make a single strike count enough to finish the fight.

After one of those bouts, the guy that I was up against asked, “What are you doing? You’re all cut up by the end.”

To which I replied, “Yeah, but I’m only bleeding. You’re dead.”
For some reason, guys seem to find it disconcerting when a girl says things like that. :shrug:

Earlier this fall, Math & I were discussing some stuff for his own training after he’d missed an erg benchmark. Since it was at the same time as the Worlds in Bled, I sent him the quote that Kitch got from Kalmoe after the 4x won silver“I hate to say it, because you always want to win, but sometimes you need to lose to figure out how to win.”

In the last few days, a couple people have looked startled when I’ve laughed about finishing last behind two (nearly) lightweights. The thing is that for me, I know this isn’t the endgame. I’ve got an idea of what that is, and this was just a step in the process. I’ve got a baseline. I can plan the what comes after this because now I know where I’m comfortable.

Now it’s time to get uncomfortable. It’s time to get re-accustomed to pain.

It’s time to start what comes next.

Womens Open 1x

 1st Austin 21:13.19
 2nd Cheng 21:31.96
 3rd Claris 22:20.15

Music: What the Water Gave me – Florence + the Machine (Ceremonials) Ceremonials (Deluxe Version) - Florence + The Machine

Don't be afraid of change. You might lose out on something good, but you might gain something even better.


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