Misery Challenge, or "How I Came to Enjoy a Head Race"

Misery Island was last weekend's destination, in the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea on the Massachusetts north shore, for a four mile around-the-island race. 

I didn’t realize until the day before the race that this is a Head race, so individual starts. “Racing for time.” Philosophically, I have always disliked and avoided Head Races. I have no desire to race against the clock. Hey, I train alone, in a single. I’m always racing the clock. I don’t want to race for my "personal best time.” I can do that at home. I want to race other people. I love the glance across the starting line, the jockeying for position. The bump of oars together. The chaos of everyone blasting away, looking for advantage. I want to go to a race to mentally engage with an opponent to see what games will be played, what wills will be cracked. I want to be close to other boats, and absorb the energy of the mob.

Adding to my disappointment, conditions on race were dead calm. No wind, and plenty of protection should a wind arise. Where are the waves, the stretches to surf? Hey, wait a minute…the Misery Challenge has already got into my head! Ok, lets be open-minded here. People love the Head of the Charles. It’s one of the biggest races in the country, so there must be something to it. And the flat water will make this a speed challenge. Especially since there are no boat classes in this race, and there are shells entered that are inherently much faster than my coastal boat in these calm conditions.

Race organization seemed pretty casual, with no official starting order or seeding method. So I lined up behind the rower who won the event last year, and who was starting first today. He was sitting in a Peinert Dolphin – at 24’ long and 13” wide, that pairing will definitely be tough to catch on this course.

Off went the Peinert, and after a handful of seconds waiting, I was given the go ahead. I blasted away like a maniac. My plan was to bully him into giving up his lead, psychologically taking away any boat speed advantage he may have. No luck there. He was clearly not afraid of a good race. Ok, lets go.

I started to see the allure of the Head race. Boats behind, chasing me. A boat ahead to chase. All the old doors in my brain opened onto dim visions of running away from fear-shadows in dark forests, or chasing the power rush of running down dinner. Catch him. Catch him. Fire the legs, accelerate the handle.

Out of the harbor, we approached Misery Island itself. Yes, I’d lost some ground by now, but the two of us, in our escalating but private duel, had lost everyone else over the horizon. While rounding the island point, the leader got caught on a buoy. I closed the gap. Then in a narrow channel between Misery and its island neighbor, I took the wrong line around a moored boat, and found a long and winding route through rocks and shallows. The gap opened right back up.

Around the back side of Misery, a few rolling wakes from harbor powerboats livened up the water surface. The Peinert stalled up. My coastal boat smelled blood. The gap rapidly closed. I got him now!

Heading back towards the harbor, the water smoothed back to glass. In quick glimpses over my shoulder, I saw the gap open up again. He’s got me now! Good. I need this training. Take it up again. Higher stroke rate. More speed, more power. Chase.

The final stretch was tough. The race buoys got lost among the channel markers, the boats, and the other harbor clutter.  Now I could hear voices that did not emanate from my own head. Must be the finish line! ...Unless those voices are in my own head--I've heard them before, deep into races.

Suddenly a few choppy strokes. Smooth it out. Softer catch, then explode. Still can’t tell where the finish line is. Ah well, just go nuts now. I’ll hit something eventually: the finish line, a boat, the shore, whatever. I’m just rowing head-down until one of those things happens. Gotta beat that clock! What a dreadful piece of medieval torture is this purgatory of unknown race placement. Have I caught him? What if I took one stroke too soft, and we are just a second apart in time? You just never really know in Head Racing, so you have to reach inside for an ultimate dose of self-motivation, and blindly rush into the fog of time...Is there a certain masochistic appeal to this all after all?

In the end, I didn’t pull off any ground-breaking closing sprints for victory, and finished in second place, 7 seconds behind. I’ll take it, it was totally fun, and I can now add Head Races to my list of enjoyable things to do!

Quick race review:

So how does the Misery Challenge stack up as a coastal race?

I think it's a good transition race: great for flat water rowers to try, as an introduction to conceiving rowing beyond the river. Or for beginning coastal rowers who may want more practice in course-finding and racing in general, without worrying about insane sea conditions. The course travels quite protected waters, so I think it would have to be really blowing for the waves to kick up (caveat: I've been there only once!).

For experienced coastal rowers, the Misery Challenge could be a great horse race. A course to simply get after your speed.

With no boat classes beyond "Single Row," the race doesn't offer a "level playing field," which some might consider inherently unfair. After all, how on earth is a coastal boat going to keep up with an Empacher? Or how is a traditional/recreational boat going to keep up with a coastal boat? Yet on the other hand, a classless race brings a new and different element to rowing competition, an interesting sort of a “choose your weapon” appeal. Hey, though protected, it's still coastal water, so I appreciate the gamble assumed by a rower running a thinner boat. If it were a rougher day, all advantage would tilted to me in my coastal boat. In a classless race, sea conditions introduce the element of chance, so boat choice becomes critical. Does that make for unfair competition, or does it add another layer of tactics to racing? Can you appreciate the merits of both class racing and classless racing equally?