Race Report: Covered Bridge Regatta

Covered Bridge Regatta is one of the early season sprint events in the Northwest. Attracting close to 400 collegiate, juniors and masters rowers for a mostly one-day competition, CBR as it is called, is held at Dexter Lake, a beautiful venue just east of the college town of Eugene (U of Oregon) and just west of the looming Cascades. Dexter Lake features a 7-lane buoyed 2000-meter course made possible by the generous contributions of the Oregon Association of Rowers (OAR). And there is a real covered bridge.

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome...
Reliable spring rowing weather in Oregon is an oxymoron and CBR is notorious for some of the foulest regatta conditions. One year, on-the-water competitors were asked to take cover under the bridge because of threatening lightning. Another year it rained pretty much incessantly. Yet another year, race organizers decided to cancel the regatta if the howling winds didn't subside by 12:15. They slowed at 12:10 and the regatta proceeded, but not until several eights were severely damaged after they blew over in some sudden gusts.

Normally held the same weekend as the Open Ocean Regatta, CBR has been on my schedule only once before--in 2008.  That year the wind blew over an eight which eventually landed on my single, knocking off the skeg. A quick repair job with silicone and duct tape by my doubles partner, Scott, and I was able to race later in the day.

Knowing how jinxed this event is with weather and that snow fell in Ashland on Thursday, my neighbor and doubles partner, Bob, and I leave on Friday with appropriate expectations and lots of warm clothing. Who knows what the weather will be 180 miles north for the masters singles later in the day or Saturday for the bulk of the regatta. But, think about this: the mascot of the nearby University of Oregon is the duck.

Training for distance, testing for sprint
Entering this regatta is partially an academic exercise: how will my mostly long, slow training work for sprint racing? I am training for a very long race in early June and, while my odometer has turned over many k's,  I only have about 7 days of intervals in me in the last 12 months.  I've also rowed only 3 times in a Hudson single this year--all of those this past week. I have rowed twice in a double, also in the past week. I keep my performance goals high and my expectations low--a potential for cognitive dissonance in a keener mind.

Bob and I drive north on Friday afternoon, battling headwinds, arriving in time to see huge numbers of boat trailers and general pre-regatta mayhem, but seemingly calm water. My single's race is scheduled at 5:20pm and Bob's is 10-minutes later. By the time we launch, the water conditions have changed considerably for the worse--wind--and I worry on behalf of some of my teammates, one of whom does not swim. Bob and I warm up, but it is not with much vigor as there's a reasonable danger of crabbing and swimming. Bob sagely brings a sponge in his boat and gets to use it; I just let the water slosh around (oh, for a boat that would allow me to kick the water out!). I begin to think that the organizers will postpone the event until the next day and this seems confirmed by the absence of any race officials at start time. The first heat of racers including myself are lined up, ready to go, but not a race official is in sight.

Wake ↑ Call
Temps are dropping fast as cloud cover blocks the late afternoon sun. Rain threatens and everyone is getting cold. Some of us are wet, both from occasional light rain and from waves splashing us. A launch has waked several of us: thanks, I needed that. An oblique angle headwind will make this a long, tough race. This is shaping up to be a quintessential Covered Bridge Regatta!

The officials arrive and begin to get us organized. They tell lanes 1 through 6 to adjust, but somehow they either don't see me in lane 7 or think I'm perfectly situated wherever I happen to be. I feel invisible. We had been informed earlier that a quick start would be used and that we should not listen to the officials words, but watch the flag drop instead. The officials are over in lane 0, so I look sideways for the flag to drop. Either the wind has picked up or the speaker is not projecting very well. I hear the official talking: "brah bah, brah, bna baa bar bla bna", but I have no idea what she's saying.

With tunnel vision, I wait for the flag to drop. Some more syllables: "bah, brada bla...bala bah na..." Nothing else. I wait for some clarity. No flag movement.

I notice that everyone else is rowing, albeit not with much conviction. Maybe they've postponed the start.  I wait for an explanation; maybe the officials are giving us a few more minutes? I raise my hand. I wait. Maybe the official are looking for the missing rower in lane 3? I realize the follow boat is starting to cruise behind the rowers. Oh no! WTF!! The race is on?! You've got to be !&?%! kidding me!

How long have I sat on the line? Probably not more than 3 or 4 seconds, but I am hopping mad and I tear out faster than Fabian Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix--with or without a motor. The wind is a factor and oncoming waves are cresting over my bow and smacking me in the butt and hips.

Don Quixote and the Windmill of Oars
I watch in apprehension as the lane 6 rower veers into the lane buoys between us. Uh oh! I pass him quickly. A dozen or so strokes later and he is all the way in my lane.

Things are not looking good. A few more strokes and a dramatic windmilling of oars ensues. He is going for an unintended cold swim. These are tough conditions and I could easily be this person, so no joking. Only 3 rowers will move on to the finals, but there is no Schadenfreude here with one fewer participant. This is a serious situation, and fortunately one of the race officials' launches is immediately there to help.

Math while rowing
I try to balance the need to pass other rowers with the need to stay upright (no swim for me, thank you!). I don't like to perform algebra while racing (e.g., one boat length equals ~3 seconds in a headwind and that guys' age handicap differential is equal to 7 seconds, therefore I must beat him by 2+ boat lengths). The chance that the finals will be canceled is a possibility and our finish in this heat may determine who wins. So, I don't hold back much and cross the line first with enough margin that I am assured to race in the final if there is one.

My time, as I find out much later, is 4:00.00, which I accept with gratitude and a wink because, although that time is nowhere near my best or what I usually row, it seems a bit fast considering the circumstances, and frankly, fabricated with all of the zeroes. It has been an ugly row, but I am reassured that I am in the next heat with a core temperature reasonably close to normal.

Second, cold"heat"
I head back in to put on more clothing and try to find out my lane assignment for the final. The start of the second heat is delayed so the swimmer from lane 6 can get back in his boat. He is determined to do it on his own and eventually succeeds. He has to be hypothermic. Water launching at this regatta is enough to keep me chilled for a long time; a prolonged swim in this water is potentially deadly. This brings me to thoughts of my teammate in the second heat who doesn't swim. I am vicariously nervous and I watch as he rows tentatively down the course, significantly trailing several of the competitors, including my neighbor, Bob. He is rowing to survive, not to win or qualify.

At age 70, this teammate has an immense handicap, but will it be enough? Bob, meanwhile looks strong and finishes second to Bill Byrd, a 61-year old who has won this event before. Bill must be holding back because his time is 5:27.20. That, or the conditions in the second heat are even worse than the first.

The results are in and both my teammates and I have qualified for the finals. The officials don't have lane numbers for us by the time I relaunch. Some folks are still sporting their bow numbers from the first heat.

The Finals: first but second
My daughters have make me feel old and lately I seem to be sprouting gray hairs, but in the world of masters rowing, I am a youngster with a rowing age of 53. Bill Byrd has a 12 second handicap on me before we start, roughly 4 boat lengths more or less. As I start with a port oar in the buoys, I have even more to make up. Still, everyone is in the same boat, so to speak, so no whining already.

I see a flurry of activity and know only that I am not in the lead at 200 meters. I don't look and actually don't care (really) what's going on in the other lanes. I'm racing my own race and, at the moment, that means rowing with enough control not to flip.  I feel like a bit of flotsam cast about by the wind and the waves. The conditions seem roughly the same as in the first heat and I can't seem to commit to full-pressure leg drives. I have a few bad releases and recoveries and feel fortunate not to have lost all momentum.

I'm past the 500-meter mark now and I'm seeing a bunch of boats flailing behind me and one guy, Bill Byrd just about even with me. It will be hard to make up 4 boat lengths in less than 500-meters. I cast a look over at his lane. He actually looks smooth and steady. Damn him.

The buoys have changed from white to red: think, what does that mean? Oh yeah, 250-meters left. Sometimes I find that if I start counting 25 strokes backwards, my splits get faster, and even though 25 is not enough to get me across the finish line, I can always manage a few more. I try that, but lose track of the numbers. Then I have the odd thought that anesthesiologists often have you count backwards before they put you under.

I hear the merciful beep as my bow passes over the line. I quickly sneak a glance over at Bill Byrd. Crap. He's about a boat-length behind. No way the math will work for me. He is clearly the best rower on the day and will get his name on the Offchiss Trophy once again. I am first across the line, but end up second. I need to work on my age...

Ed Offchiss trophy for men's masters single champion

Double Trouble
The next day is gray and cool, but when Bob and I reach the rowing venue, we see the water is gloriously flat. It's funny: when it's windy, you can't really see the white lane dividers among the white caps. But now, the lanes are crisp and clearly delineated. This looks like a real rowing venue.

It's still pretty cold and I move around a lot about the venue. Bob and I won't row the double until close to 2pm. I am mostly a spectator and try to be available to help people launch, carry oars, move boats etc.

I cheer on some of our junior rowers who are here rowing 2000 meters, a far more reasonable distance as far as I'm concerned. Somehow, someone in a position of power decided that we old people, i.e., anyone over 27, would have an easier time rowing 1000 meters instead of 2000. This makes almost as much sense physiologically as having lightweight weight limits higher in the fall for head races than in the spring. Almost everyone I know weighs less in the fall than they do in the spring... I'll step off the soapbox now.

ARC-A, you may proceed to the take off area
The CBR 1000-meter course starts in the middle of the 2000-meter course and collegiate, high school and masters events are interwoven like an expensive oriental rug. Not only that, but all the rowers have to row through the middle of the course to get to the warm-up area! I think OAR hired two air-traffic controllers from O'Hare to handle the logistics of all of this. Kudos to race officials for pulling this off.

Remarkably, by the time of our doubles event, the regatta is only 15-minutes behind schedule. Bob and I launch. The sun is threatening to emerge, but there is still a nip to the air. Our warmup is on the short side. Bob has already had a race today (a four) and he'll have another (a quad) after this 2x race. We practice a few starts and make our way to the line.

Bob and I have rowed some doubles events before with mixed results. In our two trial rows the past week, we have not rowed particularly well and I am a bit concerned about our ability to handle a high rate. Since I am stroking, I am going to keep the stroke-rate low and hope we can extract the maximum power and distance per stroke rather than go for higher turn-over. My strategy will be for an even-paced row throughout--no fast start, slow up and sprint at the end.

There is a mild headwind and cross breeze and as we line up we drift into the port buoys. We will have to adjust right from the start. Another quick start and we're off right over to the other buoy line: ok, this is going to be interesting. We adjust and I catch a glance at our splits. They are barely sub-2 minute. That's not fast enough, not even with this headwind. I raise the stroke rate from 31 to 33, but it doesn't seem to help the speed much. Unlike the singles races, I am able to sink some good, solid leg power into this and I know I can give everything. Bob seems to be giving his all also and we're rowing the best we have so far, maybe ever.

Next to us is Tiff Wood (Willamette) and his partner, with whom we are neck and neck. I have forgotten our age handicap relative this or the other boats and it won't change our approach anyway. I can sense that two boats are considerably ahead, but I have no idea how far until I hear the beep of the finish. I know we have a few strokes left. I have nothing left in the tank and I'm going through spasmodic muscle contractions. There is a flurry of beeps as 3 boats cross all about the same time (as it turns out, within .5 second of one another). We are among these, but three boats were ahead of that sequence.

We did close to our best today, certainly better than I expected in terms of boat set, power application, catches and recoveries. Other than the steering, our race went exceptionally well. That is good enough for me.

Last but first
We change clothes and I seek out some food. I'm ravenous and thirsty. The race organizers have set out lots of water and I'm headed there now. As I fill up, the results announcement is made over the loud speakers for our event: Bob and I have won. Although we crossed the line in last place (only 9 100ths of a second behind Tiff Woods and partner) we have won by three seconds based on our age handicap. Age has its benefits.

Praise the Race Officials
This ends up being possibly the most pleasant Covered Bridge Regatta in many years as the sun eventually comes out to stay and the wind dies to almost nothing. The race officials keep everything running smoothly and safely. There's plenty of good food and water, and if you were cold, it was your own fault.

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