'Game of Inches: Masters Nationals, 2012' by Joe Abrams of the Dolphin Club, San Francisco

'Racing the heat' (Illustration: B. Kitch)
The following is Part One of Joe Abrams's account of his trip to the 2012 Masters Nationals at Lake Quinsigamond:

Driving West on I-90 in an oversized rental car, three thousand miles away from home, we were enjoying the freedom of a 4-day road trip. Marcus was his usual jovial, chatty self—the perfect antidote to my anxiety. We were still tired, feeling the effects of our red-eye flight two nights earlier, and it didn’t help that Marcus had stayed up till 4am the previous night, finishing up a project for work. But, after several cups of coffee, this morning’s trip from Cambridge to Worcester was going by quickly—we were absorbed in discussing our racing strategy. In truth, we knew exactly what we needed to do. Hundreds of hours and countless loops on Lake Merced in San Francisco had prepared us for this trip to take on the fastest boats in the country.

Finding a parking spot along the road leading to Lake Quinsigamond was proved challenging. There were almost two thousand boats entered this year at Nationals, from all across the country—the largest turnout ever. And by 8am, both sides of the access road were already bumper-to-bumper, packed with boat trailers and cars with boat racks. We finally shoehorned the Crown Vic into a spot far away and began the long walk back to where our boat awaited us on our trailer. Along the way, a familiar voice called out, “Hey Boys! Nice parking job! But what’s up with that undercover cop car you’re driving?” It was our old buddy from the Greenwich Crew who lived in Connecticut, but who had spent one summer rowing with us in San Francisco while on an extended work assignment far from home. Over the years he had stayed in touch, tracking our races from afar and popping up on email unexpectedly to congratulate us. Of course, his “congratulations” usually contained some sarcastic reference to our being “soft Californians.” As Marcus and I took in the hectic scene full of strangers all around us, he was a welcome and familiar voice.

The forecast called for high winds and thunderstorms in the afternoon, 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity—so different from the cool, foggy Lake Merced we trained on back home. But in the morning calm before the impending storm, the water on Lake Quinsigamond was still smooth and flat, with just a slight cross-headwind pushing its way down the course.

A few hours later, we were paddling out to the starting line for our first qualifying heat, carefully dodging other shells warming up in the area and motorboats with race officials directing traffic. It felt good to be back in our brand new Filippi. It had survived the long trip from San Francisco without a scratch. Having our own boat with us—especially a fast one—was a huge advantage where tenths of a second can make the difference between a gold medal, and no medal at all; we felt fortunate to have it with us for the big race.

Pre-race adrenaline was now displacing the butterflies, Power bars and Gatorade from just a few hours earlier. We contemplated the trial that lay ahead: 1000 meters in roughly 120 all-out strokes. For the first 250 meters, our oars would feel light and our legs elastic; by 500 meters we would begin to doubt our stamina—legs would stop compressing all the way and lungs would need twice as many breaths per stroke. At 750 meters, with just 30 strokes to go in the race, the exact moment when we would have to take the stroke rate up for the final sprint, there would be only one thought on either of our minds: “Can I make it?” Each stroke would feel like a race in and of itself.

We waited in the staging area, taking a few last sips of Gatorade and then dumping the rest. I recited our race strategy one last time quietly to Marcus: “…30 strokes high and hard off the start, settle down for 30, squeeze 10 hard at 500m, 20 more for boat run, then up 2 beats every 10 strokes for the last 250m.” If we did this right, like we’d been doing in practice for months, we knew we could win.

“Five minutes till the Men’s Masters ‘A’ double, Heat #1…Gentlemen, you may enter the starting area.” Along with the five other crews in our heat, we gently backed our boats into the waiting hands of the volunteers on the floating docks. It was Marcus’ job in bow to keep an eye on the competition and call out the race plan during the race. My job was simple: hold a consistent stroke rate throughout. By nature, I am eager to bark out commands and prone to panicking when the competition gets ahead. Marcus is the opposite, and prone to daydreaming: the role reversal in our boat worked very well for us, forcing Marcus to stay alert and me to stay calm.

Just before polling the crews, the race official high atop the starting tower called out to us on his megaphone: “Gentlemen, we may not get a final in this afternoon, if the storms come. So row this heat like it’s a Final. The fastest heat time may determine the actual winner.”

We were in Lane 1. Our bow was perfectly pointed down the center of the lane. “All boats, we have alignment.” Marcus stopped tapping. The starter began polling the crews starting with lane 1: “…DOLPH/PAC, Lincoln Park, CBC/Union, Community A, Community B…Attention…Go!” We were off.

The first 6 strokes were quick, effortless, clean, the kind of acceleration that made each stroke feel light, and after 30 strokes we were in the lead, opening up a comfortable margin on all crews. The starter had warned us that the Final could be rained out later, so we needed to race this as if it were the final. We were steering right down the center of the lane—no wasted time or energy correcting our course. At 750m I called our final 30 sprint, imagining we were neck and neck with some other crew and hoping Marcus would respond to this imaginary challenge to squeeze out our best possible time. When the horn sounded, we had crossed the line with the fastest time of either heat, by a nine second margin. Despite the headwind, our winning time of 3:33 was only five seconds slower than what had been our previous ‘personal best time’ as a crew. Needless to say, we were very pleased with our effort.

A few hours later, jet lag was finally catching up with us. Fortunately, we’d found a group of fellow rowers from the West who invited us to relax and recharge on some lawn chairs under their large canopied shelter between races. As our final race time drew near, so did the predicted squalls from the North now moving into the area. Within minutes the skies opened up and we were caught in a downpour, scrambling to put on warmer clothes/raingear and push lawn chairs to the center of the overhead tarp to stay dry. Occasional gusts would send sheets of water tumbling off a neighboring shelter’s canopy—blowing it sideways and sometimes splashing us below. At the first clap of thunder, we exhaled. We knew our day was over. The afternoon races were canceled due to lightning and we were declared the winner of the Men’s ‘A’ final. It was a welcome relief. Now we could conserve our energy, eat and sleep and be ready for the more important race the next day—the race we’d flown 3000 miles for: the Men’s ‘C’ double, featuring the fastest Masters doubles in the country.

Part Two of Joe Abrams's account will be posted next week, on Friday, 4 January 2013. Thanks very much to Joe for submitting the piece, and looking forward to the (very dramatic) conclusion!

[Updated: Read Part Two here]


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