Corvallis to Portland Row: Race, Tour, Something Else?
CPR defies easy classification; for some it is a tour, for some it is a race, for some it is just a personal test. The closest analog in my sports experience is the original Markleeville Death Ride, which used to be a 150-mile, 15,000 ft cycling event. As in the original Death Ride, CPR participants "compete", but there is no special distinction for first place, no age groups, no gender classifications. In CPR, you can even substitute rowers in your boat, though that will earn you an asterisk. Bill Byrd, sitting in for Tiff Wood as race/event director this year, reminds us that this is supposed to be fun. Sit a leg out if you want, he says.
Let's get this party started
Bill mercifully decides to start rowers at 5:30am rather than 5 because the current should push us downstream and make up the time difference. The extra half hour allows us considerably more light, the better to see obstacles and hydraulics.
My wife can hardly contain herself. She just wants to launch NOW. Joe McGuire, the other single rower, and I will push off first, followed by various doubles and fours. We're instructed to row upstream initially because otherwise the current will pin us against the dock. And, we're off. Just a 115 miles or so to go...
|Early dawn hues|
The wind is blowing upstream already and the temperature is quite warm. I start in a long sleeve jersey, but that's just because I've been standing around for awhile. I will shed that very soon.
My Garmin GPS is on, my hat-mounted rearview mirror is set. I've got a 20-ounce water bottle and a 20-ounce electrolyte drink. I've got a flask full of Espresso Love Gu and a flask of EFS. I've got a first-aid kit, sunscreen, space blanket, duct tape, sunglasses, and a whistle (all required). I've got a spare skeg and some Sportslick lube for my hands. I'm wearing gloves. I've got miles and miles of training. I'm prepared. What could possibly go wrong?
Yaw and Roll
I know within the first few strokes that 1) I am flying and 2) there are hydraulics. My boat does not track straight. In fact, at first I think I may have lost my skeg. I know I have to relax in this water, not grip the oar handles and not tense up with other parts of my body. I know this and yet the bracing and gripping is instinctual and automatic. Imagine standing in a moving bus; your body makes constant micro-adjustments: in your legs, arms etc. You don't think about it. In my rowing shell, I am making these micro-adjustments (and many macro adjustments) in my inner thighs, abs and forearms (oar handle gripping muscles). These movements, small as they are, will eventually exact their toll. The Maas 24 is probably a good boat for these conditions, but I feel like I am wallowing my way down river, yawing and rolling.
I catch Joe McGuire within the first 5 miles or so and offer a few words of encouragement. He seems like he's navigating a course really close to the shore, but maybe he's seeking faster flow. As a rafter, I know you can really benefit by using the current to your advantage. The outside of turns can be a lot faster than the insides. In fact, the inside of turns may have upstream eddies and eddy fences, the turbulent boundary between upstream and downstream currents. On the other hand, when you're moving this fast anyway (about 10 miles per hour or 1:52/500m split, relative to land), the gains of seeking faster water may be outweighed by the effort to get there. By the time you do get there, the fast water may be somewhere else. I stay mostly in the middle per Bill Byrd's pre-race instructions.
The lead launch is following me at about 150 meters back. The sun is now on us and it is warming up fast. I stop to take off my long-sleeve shirt and drink some water. I need to pay attention to pacing and energy conservation; my stroke rate is about 27, which feels about right, but my stroke feels too long. I cut off the ends of my stroke and it feels better if slightly slower.
We pass through Albany and under several bridges, one that has a huge stack of logs piled up against the middle abutment. We have been warned about this and so I steer to the port side. The hydraulics behind the abutments are formidable--downward funnels, upward boils, eddies and other nasty shit. I leave my blades flat on the water for a 50 meters or so. The time lost by not rowing here is tiny in comparison to the time lost in a swim.
|The swollen Willamette in Albany|
What can go wrong...
I notice that my GPS is not showing me anything but the start area. What?! The wind has picked up, probably about 10 knots with occasional stronger gusts: my hat lifts off periodically. It's feeling quite warm and I've drunk a fair amount of my water and electrolyte solution. I want to pour water over my head and top, but I don't want to waste it either. I motion to the lead launch to bring me water as we've told they can, and they start to accelerate toward me. But when I resume rowing, they back off to 150 meters. They apparently think that if I continue rowing, it means I don't need anything. I yell to them to bring water, but they gesture to their ears that they cannot hear me. Then get freakin' closer... I don't have the breath to continue yelling over their engine and give up. When I reach forward to get a water bottle, I can feel my inner thighs cramping. I have rowed fewer than 20 miles and my legs are cramping. Uh oh.
Where the heck are we?
I've been down this first section before, but it looks different with the high water. The river markers are few and far between. I try to get the attention of the launch, but we're clearly having a hard time communicating. Eventually, the launch driver gets me a water bottle. Thank you! I toss some down my throat and some over my head. I've apparently drunk enough so that I'm starting to need to pee. There's an aid station at 35 miles, but I have no idea how soon that is. By my reckoning it's just a few more miles. I can hold it or go. Going in the boat is awkward, but not going may be more so. You gotta do what you gotta do. I do. But it's time consuming. My doc says my prostate is healthy. Nuff said. Maybe too much.
The aid station is literally within a mile. Doh!
|Oar handles may be holding me up. Arriving at Independence aid station.|
Aid stations and the race assistants are wonderful.
I catch the upstream eddy and guide my boat into the waiting hands of all the helpers. I hop out of my boat and they take care of everything else. Wow, valet parking!
The food folks have literally just arrived and are now setting things up. They have put out all manner of good forage and a large bottle of Ibuprofen. I have brought my own cooler with wrist wraps and hightail it to our truck to put these on. I get more hand lube ready and some special snacks that I know I can get down and digest while rowing. I've only been rowing for 3 hours and a quarter or so, but I am beginning to feel stupid. I put my water bottles down by a curb and forget where they are. I leave my gloves in the sun to dry out and my hat somewhere else. I behave like a squirrel planting stuff in a hundred meter radius. And, like the squirrel digging holes for nuts, I will find some of it. The rest of it will grow into something. The only thing I can say in my favor is that at least I am aware of my mental decline: the unbearable lightness of the sun-addled brain. And, it's not even 9 am yet.
Beth and Alex arrive next; they have apparently passed some boats. I don't think about their time or mine because I can't do the math in my head (even if I knew when they started, which I don't) and don't really want to know. All I know is they look a lot happier and fresher than I feel. I don't actually feel that good and I really want to. I'm worried about my legs cramping, my incipient wrist pain and my non-working GPS. I try to act happy. I remember actually having fun the last time I did this.
|Alex (stern) and Beth (bow) looking way too happy at Independence. Simon stands ready to assist.|
After an hour break, I am freshly dressed, watered and fed. I have futzed with the GPS, iced my wrists and stretched my leg muscles. I'm feeling a bit better. I can smile genuinely now. It's time to embark on the next leg--only 23.5 miles--but I know it features some islands and "rapids". As it turns out, some of the smaller islands are mostly underwater, but you have to stay clear of the shallows and rough water near that.
The rest breaks are nominally an hour long (they used to be 45 minutes, but people had problems with the math). You don't have to take all of the hour, and any time over an hour gets tacked on to your elapsed time. Because of this arrangement, you don't really have a sense of the time separation between boats. It may be a race, but you don't feel the competition. You're all in this adventure together and you help each other out with tips and hints about how to deal with some of the adversity. My wife doles out petroleum jelly to the Princess Pea four. We all offer encouragement, knowing that there are moments for virtually everyone when all feels hopeless.
I plod along, keeping my stroke rate steady. My leg cramps have started to subside and actually my leg strength feels great, but my wrists are feeling worse. This wrist phenomenon is not new to me; it happened in my previous CPR effort, but it didn't happen this early.
This leg seems to fly by and, as we approach Wheatland Ferry, the lead launch tells me I may have to wait for the ferry to cross. I slow down, but the ferry seems to be staying where it is. Our aid station is just beyond the ferry landing area on the east side of the river. The ferry is on the west side. I keep looking around and slowing to make sure they aren't going to suddenly start across. Apparently they are going to wait for us. Thank you!
Race volunteers leap out and grab my boat and oars and I crawl out looking for a restroom. Locked. Bummer. The aid station is still being set up, so I make for the bushes and try to avoid the poison oak. I lose a sock. I'm losing my mind. It's hot, must be in the mid-80s already. The headwind is annoying. My wrists are complaining and I ask if I can plunge my forearm in the container full of ice and sodas and Gatorade bottles. One of the main volunteers, Caleb Burns, makes me an ice-water bag and duct tapes it to my wrist. Oh, that feels good!
The rest hour seems like 20-minutes. I make myself eat but I don't feel that hungry. However, I suck down a couple of Gatorades and a water bottle, some salty snacks and a bagel with peanut butter and jam. Maybe some of this will help today, but I'm eating for tomorrow.
After climbing back into my boat here, I try to put on my socks (a fresh pair). There is something about this motion that causes my upper abdominals to seize up into a painful ball. A baby alien is trying to escape from my chest. This is not good, unless you're Ridley Scott and have a film crew on hand.
Leg to Champoeg
Many CPR participants will tell you that the third leg, to Champoeg Park, is unadulterated hell. I would like to qualify that: it's different circles of hell with a few lapses into purgatory. OK, just to not sound like a whiner, I can spin the re-telling so that parts sound For instance, I despise the heat, but am amused by the topless sunbathers. I dislike the wakes from passing motorboats, but I enjoy watching wakeboarders execute flawless flips. The headwind slows me down, but cools me off a bit. The deadheads--the tree trunks and branches that appear all over the river in this section, not the local Jerry Garcia fans--are just a pain. I can't make them sound desirable in any way. They are a nuisance.
I chose to find some mental place beyond the wind, the wake, the din and the pain and, remarkably this seems to work. That or I'm imagining the cold amber ale in the cooler. I get into a nice rhythm in this section and I feel fast. I also know that virtually everyone dislikes this section, and if you want to make time, this is the leg to do it. By the time I arrive at the Champoeg stop, I will have put 5 minutes on the next boat which is my wife and Alex. Is this a race? Hell yes!
|Alex and Beth arrive at Champoeg, motorboats and all|
The timer, Christian, is hiding in the shade. He's got a good sunburn going: we pale Oregonians have not seen this much sun since September 2010, give or take. He tells me the rough order of the boats so far, and by his off-the-cuff reckoning, it's me followed closely by Beth and Alex, and then 20 minutes or so back to a couple of fours and then a few doubles.
I like the social nature of CPR and would love to hang out at Champoeg, but it's hot, and frankly I feel like crap and want to ice my wrists properly and am eager to take off to the hotel for a shower, a good dinner, fix my GPS and get a really good night's sleep. We won't launch until 6am, so we can sleep in. Ha!
Beth falls asleep at 7:30. I have that buzzed fatigue you get from lots of exercise, maybe too much caffeine Gu and the excitement of a race. I keep icing my wrists and trying to figure out why my GPS is not working properly. I'm down by 10.
4th leg to Willamette Park, Bernert Landing
What a great night's sleep! That was rejuvenating. We leave the hotel at 4:45 and Beth and I eat breakfast en route. I'm not very hungry this early, so it's a bit of force feeding. The launching will be in reverse order of finish, so Beth and Alex will launch next to last and I'll set off last with a follow launch.
Normally, this leg would take us to the Willamette Falls locks, but they're closed for maintenance. So, we'll exit a bit sooner. The water should be relatively calm on this leg, except for a few short bits, so I am thinking I will switch boats and try the Hudson.
|Skinny boat time!|
The Hudson has a StrokeCoach, so I have something new to look at. But, what to make of the splits? Bill Byrd describes the remaining water as a big bathtub, but there is still a current. I keep my stroke rate up at 27-28. The Hudson feels really fast compared to the Maas. I'm seeing splits of 2:19-2:25, but what does that really mean? My GPS, still not displaying a map of any relevance, does tell me that since Corvallis, the average pace is over 10 miles per hour. Yowza!
In my rearview mirror, I can see the telltale signs of boils. These look like bubbling circles in the water and they signal some rough going ahead. My bow gets tugged to port, starboard, port. It's that missing skeg feeling again. I crab several times, but with no great consequence other than killing boat speed. The positive side of the boils is it probably means there is still current. This is confirmed when I notice I am in an upstream eddy. Oops.
My legs feel really strong this morning, but it takes awhile for my wrists to limber up to feather properly. I try letting the water do some of the feathering. A lot of technique goes out the window to accommodate some of the circumstances. So be it.
I catch glimpses of Mt Hood and maybe Mt Jefferson. I keep seeing deadheads, but the obstacles are generally fewer. It's cooler than yesterday and mercifully, there is virtually no wind! I am a happy camper.
Somewhere ahead of me Beth and Alex are trying to make up time on me. Both are very driven people and I have no doubt that they are powering through this section. I make a few navigation errors complicated by confusion in the follow launch, which points me in one direction around an island, then the opposite way. I stop completely while they sort this out. This is my own fault; I know I should go to port, but when the launch emphatically signals the other way, I pay heed. They eventually change their minds.
The subsequent 300-meter section is fairly turbulent and I basically coast down with blades flat, adjusting my course every so often. I just really don't want to swim here, time be damned.
It's a quick sprint from the end of this to the take-out. Phew! A portage around the locks and just a little over 8 miles to go after that.
If there weren't just 8 miles left to go, I would stop. My wrists are absolutely killing me. I can't perform really basic tasks involving my right index finger or my wrists. I can't open screw-top water bottles. I can't unzip things. Last night, Beth and I struggled with a bar of soap wrapped in plastic. Anything wrapped remains wrapped: soap is overrated.
Oddly, though, my legs feel really strong. I feel like I can keep rowing for many more miles. Other than my wrists and the blisters on my fingers (the largest is on my thumb, of all places), I feel great. Getting in the boat, for the last time, I once again try to put on my socks only to have another alien make an attempt out of my abs. It takes a minute, leaning back, to massage down the beast. It needs a little more gestation time and I don't want a C-section right now.
|Last leg launch|
As I get ready to launch, I'm get waked by fishermen heading out from the Clackamas river. I give up on the second sock. What's a few more blisters at this point?
There are a lot of fishermen in this section and it will be a slalom course for the first few miles. Another wake smacks me and adds about a few cups of water to the cockpit area. I realize I have left my bailing device, a sponge, in the truck for this last leg. Crap! Another double gets waked by motorboat so badly, they have to land and dump the water out.
I have no idea what the race standings are and don't really care at this point. I'm rowing well and fast and feel pretty good. Then we arrive at Elk Island.
The race organizers provide a single sheet description of some of the major navigation hazards and Elk Island is one of them. "Stay to the port side of the island unless the river is high and you are using someone else's boat." Nice humor. I see a double ahead of me going on the starboard side of the island and another double going around the port side. Sometimes it's better if you're not following so you make your own decisions. I choose door #1 (the port side) and it is fine, thankfully. Just got to watch those big red buoys and mostly stay on the correct side of them.
The last few kilometers are really fast and before I know it, I am eyeing the Willamette Rowing Club dock, around which are clustered a bunch of fishing boats. The CPR instructions suggest a "power-20" to finish off the 115-mile effort, but that might result in an impaled fishing boat.
|A four finishing|
Everyone who entered finishes. That's impressive! What's amazing is how little time separates many of the boats. After 113 miles or so (not the whole 115 due to the portage around the locks) of rowing, Several other boats are neck and neck in time, but have hardly seen each other. Beth and Alex finish just 3 minutes (!) behind me. We've averaged about 10 miles per hour during that time. My wife, ever the competitor, looks back at ways they could have saved time. I can think of ways I might have moved faster too, but I don't dwell on this. I am really glad to be done. Beer please!
|Will Kalenius stroking a solid double. These guys look good sculling.|
We are all grateful to the many helpful folks who have supported us in this event. Logistically, this row is a tremendous challenge. We know there was much debate about whether to hold the event at all, based on the flow. I think we've shown that some folks can safely row in this volume of water.
If you're reading this with the idea of participating in a future CPR, realize that what you bring is a lot of what you get out. Being well-prepared is certainly a part of that. A flexibility of approach will also help immensely. In this regard, my hat is off to a bunch of rowers, but particularly Alex (below with pizza and Row Quixote shirt). Alex jumped in an unfamiliar boat with an unfamiliar partner (my wife) and rowed full force and took on whatever came his way, knowing all along that he would be sitting in a plane the following day to the East coast. No whining and lots of good-natured, articulate comments--from a 22-year old! I predict good things from this lad.
|Alex, Beth and myself with CPR medals|