My First Sprint Scull: A Flipbook of Fail.

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The result of this story will be oddly mixed, & probably not make sense unless you’re a rower, but here we go.

So… last weekend. Soutwest Regionals. Good times.

As I’d mentioned previously, Pomatto & I had decided that since she didn’t know what she was doing, & I didn’t know what I was doing, we’d head up to Southwest Regionals & take a shot in the dark together.

Thus it was with no small amount of trepidation that we each picked up our singles around 1pm on Sunday afternoon & headed down to launch from the dock at LMRC.

As I was waiting to put my boat in the water, I saw that the rower in front of me was Cheng, who had rowed with First!Boathouse during the summer of my novice year — she’d been in college then, & has since gone & gotten herself all grow’ed up, complete with degree, husband, & mini-Cheng accessory. Due to the enforced physical distance of having to row ourselves to the warm-up area, our reunion was marked half-shouting updates on our lives & heckling one another over the fact that they’d split up the A & AA categories so we weren’t going head-to-head.
Cheng informed me it was about time that I showed up since the sprint season was almost over, which I immediately countered by showing off the fact that I now had a 1x of my very ownsies and that she needed to go get herself some older so that we’d be in the same age category. At one point Pomatto, Cheng, HelloKittyRower & myself lined up & did some sprint starts in the warm up area, which was more a help for Pomatto & I, since Cheng & HelloKittyRower were far more experienced at what was to come than us.

Finally, Cheng & Pomatto, being the AA young’ins that they are, paddled up to the start area for their race, it was just the four of us in the A category, chillin’ out in the middle of the slightly choppy open water with the ref boat.

For me, this began the worst part of the race. This is where I had to deal with my deep, dark, not-so-secret truth:

I hate sprints.

I think it’s the start. For me, the sprint start was something I just sort of learned in a blur on the fly about 20 minutes before start time because I got called to fill in for someone in the top boat the night before the race.
(This is, incidentally, one of Jess’ favorite stories to tell about my novice year, since it involved G ending a race plan with, “Any questions?” and me raising my hand to ask, “uh, yeah…how do I do a sprint start?”)

Since that charming piece of trauma, I have of course since had the practices where the boat as a whole is walked through the strokes, & things are done at half-speed, half-pressure, etc. Plus, no matter where I go or what I row, my brain will always hear our cox Emina for the first stroke of every sprint as she used the ginormous lungs somehow concealed in that tiny 100lb frame of hers to bellow, “PUHRRRRRRRRYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY…………..”

Despite that basic logic and that training, there’s always been a part of me that would have a moment (if not longer) of mentally freaking the frick out right before the start of a sprint race. In some cases, :cough:crew classic 2010:cough: this has involved me actually dry heaving over the side of the shell as we pulled into the stakeboats so that I wouldn’t be nauseated for the race — to be fair, we figured out later that I was also sporting a 100 degree fever & I spent the next two days in bed, but when you run the team & there’s no alternate, you do what ya gotta do.

The point being — me & sprint races? Not really the best of friends.

Add in that if you screw up the sprint start in a single badly enough, you can & will flip — which, indeed yes, is how I did my very first inadvertent flip test, thanks — and possibly you can understand my trepidation.

In big boats, I’ve actually gotten much better — this year’s Crew Classic was actually the first time I didn’t have a lightning storm of panic, an instinct which was greatly assauged by a conversation I had with Kearney at one point where she admitted that she used to sit on the line at San Diego & mentally ask, “What the hell was I thinking when I said I’d do this?” Granted in her case it was more in anticipation of the inevitable pain of a 2k rather than terror of screwing up, but when I found out the 2-time Olympian has the same thought, I felt like way less of a loser.

Sadly, none of that was the smallest scrap of help as I sat there in the middle of Lake Merritt, waiting to be called up to the stakeboats. Instead, things were going something like… this:

“I can’t do this… why on earth did I think I could do this? I’m gonna flip. I’m going to flip right off the start, it’s going to be totally humiliating and I’ll never live it down. I’m gonna lose. I’m totally going to lose to that girl over there that’s like 6’2″ — and she’s wearing gloves. Christ on a crutch, I’m going to lose to someone wearing gloves. I’m screwed. So screwed. I don’t have to do this — why the hell did I do this to myself. Never again. Never, ever again. This is it. I’ll just like, do practices for the workouts from now on. I don’t need to race, nobody can make me race, and if someone doesn’t like that, well too bad for them. I just need to stay upright, and row for four minutes, and then once I get through this weekend I can spend the rest of my life avoiding sprint season so I can enjoy a long, happy, completely fulfilling existence that will include never doing any of this ever again. oh my god, why did I think this would be a good idea?

… or, you know. Something along those lines. Due to the fact that when I’m upset, my New York tends to surface far more strongly, the actual transcription of my mental dialogue was probably a bit more heavily accented & involved a high occurrence of four letter words.

But there I was, backing my single up to a stakeboat manned by a kid younger than some novices that I’ve coached, trying to calm down the panicking 5 year old whose logic pattern had taken my reasoning capability off the proverbial ledge.

You’d be amazed at how the body will simply function, which is of course why we practice such things over & over again — because even though my brain looked like a flight on Oceanic 815, my limbs continued to function in the appropriate fashion, & I found myself sitting at three-quarter slide, blades squared & buried as the official pleasantly informed us that since things appeared to be running smoothly, we would begin one minute early if no one had any objections… Attention, Row.


My first stroke was off. While I can row both sides, I learned to row as stroke, so port will always be home, a trait I brilliantly displayed as I pulled a charming S-curve to starboard curved back out, scraping the buoys with my starboard oar over my half, three-quarter, three-quarter, full.

I headed out to the high ten, and all I could think of was something Sabrina jokingly told me once: That you don’t really have a start in the single, you just get yourself going as fast as you can, however you can. Sadly, that was the exact method I applied as, in a rare occurrence for me, I vaguely registered that I was hitting a 36 over the first 100-250 meters, so hey — in terms of stroke rate in a single, at least I was hitting a PR.

Problem being that I wasn’t doing any of it… well. Any strategy I’d ever learned or taught anyone as a coach? Gone. The lovely improvements to my technique that I’d been carefully working on instilling in my stroke over the last two weeks? Vanished, or at least not something that I was consciously integrating into how I moved.

The only thing left was panic.

Blind, terror-induced panic driving me down the course. I just wanted it over. I wanted it all to be over, this is a horrible, horrible thing and why do any of us do this to ourselves that shrink Nichols met who said that the majority of rowers have masochistic mental problems was so right because why else would I be doing this and I really needed to get into therapy once everything was over but for right now I just needed to pull, motherf*cker, pull because the harder I pull the faster I’ll go & the sooner this will be over, thank god there’s the orange ball for the 500m mark, it’s halfway over and the girl from Bair Island is close — f*ck this, I am not losing to someone wearing gloves! Oh god this row is so ugly – hands chasing knees, fix that fix that frickin’ Meritt with their crappy wind & choppy water, why do the small boats always have row midday anyway I freakin’ hate that — damn 8+s and their heats god I miss rowing 8+s there’s only one oar everything is so much simpler why the f*ck am I doing this pull harder it’ll be over orange floaty ball – 250 to go f*ck it go up, go up, go up red buoys are your friend faster faster almost done count the strokes that always helps 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 – BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

oh thank you $deity, it’s over. There’s everyone else.


Everyone else.

Wait… did I just win?

Lesson of the day: while not the best approach, sometimes abject terror will get the job done.

As I rowed back, I discover I’d acquired had two things in the previous four minutes:
1. A deep abiding desire that no one who ever coached me ever sees the video of that race.
2. Rower’s hack.

Number one – yes, I won, but I did it badly. There was no technique, there was no race plan — that 1k was run with nothing more than pure horsepower. It was the part of me that taught kickboxing & Spin for four years before I got sucked in by rowing. I had no control, I just let go, panicked, fell back on instinct & engine-roomed that bad boy through. It was about a bajillion squats all applied into 100 frantic strokes, which means that anatomically speaking, I literally won that race by the seat of my pants.

Number two – rower’s hack is a lovely by-product of racing sprints where, as an aftereffect of the shock of going so fast & so hard sprinting, lactic acid builds up in your lungs and you spend the next couple of hours coughing like you’ve been smoking a pack of Marlboro Reds every day for the last 20 years.
(I know, right? All of you non-rowers totally want to try our sport now, it’s so totally sexy.)

Incidentally, when you’re lucky enough to have a 2k test at 6am, rower’s hack means you as a working professional also get the joy of trying to explain to co-workers later on that day that no, I don’t have bronchitis, and yes, this is totally normal, and no no, I’m not hurting myself, everything really is okay.

Due to being kinda broken last winter, I’d rowed pretty conservatively for this past 2k season, so it’s actually been a while since I’ve had rower’s hack. My technique completely sucked big giant monkey balls, but at least now I know I can go full pressure & not hurt my back, so hey – silver lining there, people. Silver lining.

I rowed into the dock & found that my version of the race was totally different from that of the members of the boathouse who’d been on shore. Other rowers were all, “hey, we watched you on the screen, that was great!” and I was like, “No, you don’t understand, that was horrible!”

I put my boat in slings & looked at Pomatto, who appeared similarly shell-shocked. She ended up getting beaten by Cheng, that speedy little bugger, and we set forth to burn the hour until we had to launch for the 2x race.

Around 3, we launched from the dock, both of us a little tense. We’d only rowed together… twice, and here we were, off to race for row #3. (Planners, that’s what we are.)

As the older rower in the boat, I was going with the positive approach – it’ll be fine, there’s no pressure, don’t worry about it, let’s just go out & see what there is to see.

At which Pomatto went, “I just came in last, okay?”
Being Positive Claris: “Dude – bad dress rehearsal, good opening night. Ya gotta figure – there’s no where to go but up!”

…and then our oars clipped that dock. Swear to god that thing wasn’t in the warm up area the last time.

We puttered around the warm up area, did some starts, working from half-speed/half-pressure up to full, and just kinda… chilled. Was there. We pull up into the waiting area, and after a few minutes, Pomatto starts us rowing, and I’m all okay, we’re going to go line up…

… or not. Seems that, in her nervousness about bowing, Pomatto got a little paranoid, heard the call wrong & started us onto the race course in front of someone else’s race. oops. Thankfully they caught us before we got more than a bow ball into the first lane, & the mens’ 4+ at the stakeboats was still trying to get points for the start, so no harm done, but yah. Not our finest moment.

At this point, we were each just so far gone in our ability to screw things up that we were laughing at our own idiocy as we backed down to rejoin the other boats in our race. I actually saw one of the other doubles just look at us, look at each other & shake their heads in a “what a bunch of freakin’ losers” fashion. I chose that moment to grin & nod, because hey – you are what you are, at some point you might as well just go for it and embrace the personal awesome. \m/

Finally, finally we manage to get up to our stakeboat, get in the right lane, with the right bow number (did I mention we both screwed that up in our 1x races? ’cause we did, & it was totally my fault, thanks), and okay. Okay. There we were.

… which was more than we could say about Tempe. Their 2x pulled up with 1 minute to go before start & got a warning. I dunno what happens when you get a warning, but they got one, bad children that they are, and we all settled in for another minute while they got themselves situated.

And then came the inevitable.

Attention. Row.

Our start did not suck. I think that somehow, we’d both individually decided that was the one thing we’d get solid, because we came off that well, and actually held straight out for the first 350, 400 m. I actually remember thinking, “Holy crap, we’re wicked straight!” as we passed the 500m mark.

Then Pomatto pulled a crab.
I don’t stop for crabs. Ever. I’ve been known to crab & recover in a high 15, I once scared the crap out of a coach by cracking the back of my head on the deck behind me to duck & recover from a crab during a piece & keep rowing — as long as feet are still in shoes, I do not stop for crabs.

I grunted, “Go!” and we kept going.

Then I pulled a crab.

Another grunted command to move, move. 4pm in the afternoon on an open lake with wind & chop — ugh, there are better conditions to row in.

We were totally a mess. She knew it, I knew it. we pulled a major curve between 500 – 750, no doubt due to our crabs, and at some point I could hear her mumble, “Yes, that. better” which I’m guessing meant she was coaching herself in her brain the way I was in mine.

It was the same as my 1x – we were both rowing like, “Just go, just freakin’ go, just get it done!” As we passed the orange ball for 250, I vaguely remember saying, “goin’ up!” and up we went — at one point I thought I saw the stroke rate say 37/38 as we cleared the finish line, literally laughing as the buzzer sounded – equal parts at the farce of our crappy, crappy method of going down the course, and also in relief that oh thank god, the whole thing was over.

As I told my dad on the phone after, “Dad, you just don’t understand — if there was a coach there, we’d have been in so much trouble.”
Dad: “Right. So how much did you win by?”
Claris: well there was a little open water, so maybe four or five seconds – but it was bad, you just don’t understand…”

Because yes, our idiocy had indeed won.

We rowed back, putting some pressure in the paddle so someone could hotseat our boat, and neither of us spoke until I finally said, “you’re totally thinking how glad you are that Zenon didn’t see that, aren’t you?”

Pomatto: “Oh god yes! If Zenon was waiting, I wouldn’t even want to go back to the dock. I’d be like a puppy with my tail between my legs.”
Claris: “I know, right? On the one hand, I’m so glad that CoachIan & DaddyMcGill weren’t here to see that. On the other, depending on how many pictures SportsGraphics got, we could probably put them together & make our very own Flipbook of Fail.”

Somehow, much like the tradition of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the badness of our technique just transcended to this new level and became awesome, a fact that we shared in with the Tempe boat as we all rowed back & they reveled in their awesome of having been last to the line. ;)

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I remember talking with Z once & him saying that given the choice between a slow rower with good technique & a fast rower with bad technique, most coaches would pick the fast rower, because that’s the one that still has improvements that can be made & potential to become even faster. Well based on that reasoning, Pomatto & I were hands down the most desirable lineup there, ’cause our technical suckitude was boundless.

Final results?

Womens Masters 1x (A)

1st Beach!Boathouse B (Claris) 04:00.39
2nd Bair Island (A. Chow) 04:05.65
3rd Beach!Boathouse A (HelloKittyRower) 04:07.61
4th River City B (H. Taylor) 04:28.31
Womens Masters 2x (AA-A)

1st Beach!Boathouse B (Claris & Pomatto) 03:54.88
2nd Beach!Boathouse A (Gresham & HelloKittyRower) 04:00.41
3rd River City A (K. Swan) 04:09.21
4th River City B (J. Bogue) 04:28.31
5th Tempe Town Lake (J. Hauser) 04:19.64

On a side note, I’d like to take a moment & congratulate Lake Merritt Rowing Club for one of the most efficiently-run regattas I have ever been to. Didn’t love the water conditions, but the races ran on or ahead of time for the majority of the day. When I remarked as much to the woman who gave us our medals, she pursed her lips & said, “It wasn’t that great. At one point we were behind five minutes, need to fix that.” Trust me, you guys did great.


What’s next?
Well, due to unexpected events at Museum!Co, I won’t have time* to race at Canadian Henley or Masters’ Nationals, so for me.. that was it. Sprint season’s done, & it’s time to start looking at the fall.
*as in, there’s more work for me, not that I got canned or anything. Economically great, athletically a little schedule-restrictive.

To mark that change from sprintsprintsprint to distance & duration, I purposely went low-key this week to give myself both a mental and physical break.

Most of my time on the water was spent going over all the things I did so horribly, horribly wrong last Sunday. This involved a lot of reverse ratio work, working on creeping up to the catch with my knees apart, etc. Reverse ratios also included concentration on listening to whether I heard the plunk of my oars in the water in the split second before I got to the catch or if it was happening after. Very key, that one. and there’s just work. Work to be done, and that’s the next step — to take what I learned, work on it, & attempt to suck a little less every row afterwards.

The non-rowers here are probably like, “Dude, you won, stfu.” Here’s the thing — I won based on horsepower. That’s it. I just got lucky that there happened to be more hustle in my muscle than the other people at the start line. But if I rely on that, the day is going to come when I’m sitting at stakeboats, & there’s another girl who’s got my horsepower and better technique, and on that day, I will so totally lose.

So here we go — it’s July 15th, & tomorrow morning, I start fall season.

Welcome to rowing.

I love you, woosh woosh.

Music: ‘Til I collapse – EminemThe Eminem Show - Eminem

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  • Megdalen

    HOORAY FOR YOU!! This is on eof my big sadnesses, that I can’t go to stuff and hold up GO CLARIS! signs. I might even make a GO FRIEND OF CLARIS! for kicksies.

  • Megdalen

    There, that is the congratulations comment. Now for the other one: Oh well, better luck next time. You have a lot of work to do, but you can do it and then you will be asked to be in THE OLYMPICS!! And TRAVEL THE WOOOOOOOORLD!

  • claris

    Ah, Meg – I love you.

    To be realistic, I actually know some of the girls that most likely will be going to the Olympics, so let’s not get crazy-like.

    However, now I’m tempted to give you their names so that you can make your “friend of Claris” sign & wave it in front of your TV at the appropriate moments during the summer of 2012.

  • Megdalen

    I will so cheer for your friends. I have toddlers who love boats. And if we were watching the Olympics and we KNEW SOMEONE IN A BOAT, well, the excitement would be epic. I may actually let them watch it on the TEE-vee instead of youtubing it later.

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