Race Report: Blackburn Challenge, 2018

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It's race day morning, early. Adrenaline and nerves lace the pre-race banter as we slide our dew-damp boats into the water. 

My class (the "touring" class, as defined by Blackburn rules with length and beam restrictions) has really grown and there is a starting line length of C1X’s this year. Still, its not hard to find a spot for clear oars. Since it’s a 20-mile race, people don’t get overly psycho about toeing the line and fighting for position...except for me, because I want to get a jump right at the gun and lead from the first stroke. It's just something I’m working on – mastering an aggressive sprinter mentality as I prepare for the World Championships. Sure, it could blow me up later, but I’m fine with that.

Today is sunny, not overly warm, and still. No breeze.

At the gun, I blast off, find my lead. The race starts in the Annisquam River, so it’s classic river racing to get this going – turns, shoals, channels, bridges, advantageous lines. At least the tide is going out, pushing us along. 

Some of the positions are starting to flush out. Rich Klajnscek hangs with me. He’s an unknown factor. This is his first time in a C1X, but he’s won the racing class (unlimited boats, i.e., no length/beam/weight restrictions) countless times and is used to being in front from start to finish. Ok, I bring up the pace, a little more squeeze into the finish, sending the boat a little quicker. James Dietz is with Rich, looking strong as always. 

I cut the last turn out of the river a bit too close. Not through any maverick corner- cutting tactics - it's just that the shoal extended way further out than expected. Dragging through shallow water, all of my speed vanishes. My lead gets slashed with every stroke, but I angle back into deeper water and step on it. 

Into the ocean, the flat, flat ocean. 

There’s not even much boat traffic, so I can’t utilize my favorite “cheat” and surf powerboat wakes. Looks like there's a bit of negotiating going on for second and third...which makes them both go faster and drives them back up to me. Gotta go, I build more speed. 

I hit the northern stretch going too fast. I should settle. This is a bit too amped for this lengthy course. Find a longer, more efficient stroke for the distance. Hang. I have clear water now, at least a few minutes of a lead. Settle.

I squeeze through the gap at Straightsmouth Island that marks the half-way point feeling good. 10 miles clicked away, on pace for my targeted sub-three hour race.

I’m greedy for more of a lead. Curious to flirt with a lean too far over the edge. Push a little more pressure onto those feet, into those oars. 

Along the southern stretch (this is pretty much a circumnavigation) I finally feel my boat flow into beneficial wave patterns and find myself surfing. This boat likes the rower's weight bow-forward in these little waves, so I shorten up to half-slide and make a big body swing into the bow, at times almost laying right down. My boat surges. I’m flying into sprint speeds with little pressure on the oars, just quick light strokes timed to keep me in sync with the waves. Oh, this will help me pull more of a gap on the field!

I’m starting to move through the boat classes that started ahead of me. That gives me further motivation… pass boats, pass boats. Still surfing these almost non-existent little waves, moving fast. 

Nothing is free. The little waves have moved off to some other place and I’m back moving the boat on my own. And I’m tired. That multi-mile flurry of catching wave after wave didn’t come cheap. I picked up some pain in my legs along with all of that extra speed. But I’ve lost sight of my nearest competitor, so it seems like a fair trade off.

I generally finish this race in a foaming-at-the-mouth fury of heroic effort. Not this year. With three miles to go, I’m spent. Legs gone. Lats twitching. Trying to stay one step ahead of a pace best described as a whimper. Ah well, I was looking for that feeling of "going a bit too far" anyways…

Two miles left. What to do? I earned some distance over the field earlier, so I’m going to draw on that investment now. Don’t panic. Float forward, place my blades, float back. Just letting my body unwind from catch to finish. No active pressure on the oars, just the unfolding of my body, releasing my weight onto the handles. Trust that if I place and remove my blades cleanly, the boat will keep going. Which it does. Not fast, but moving, always moving. 

They seem to shift the finish line every year, so my last few strokes are a drunken weave as I swerve back over to make the right side of the orange buoy, the promised land of finished. 

I hit all my targets: first place; under 3 hours (2:54:22); edgy racing (even skipped any hydration strategy, “just to see”). All good. There’s just that one last challenge: seeing if I can stand up when I step out of my boat…

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