'Game of Inches: Masters Nationals, 2012' by Joe Abrams, Part Two

'Up two!' (Illustration: B. Kitch)
What follows is Part Two of Joe Abrams's narrative, documenting his experience racing at the 2012 Masters National Rowing Championships in Worcester, Massachusetts: 

The Big Day
The next day, Saturday, we were well rested and on the road early—our first heat was one of the first events that day. To reach our goal of a podium finish at nationals in the “C” event, we’d need to survive not one, but two rounds of heats and a final—three races in a seven hour span, all in high heat and humidity. There were 23 crews entered for the “C” event, twice as many as the “A” event; and the “C” crews would also be much faster than the previous day’s “A”s; and, on average, 10 seconds faster based on the previous year’s “C” times at nationals.

The top three boats from each heat would make it through to a semi-final, and then the top three from each semi would qualify for a 6 boat Final. Complicating our racing strategy was the unpredictable weather forecast, with a 45% chance of lightning—each race might be our last. This meant we couldn’t slack off and cruise into 3rd place just to qualify for a next round: we would have to race each as if it were a final (just like the day before). We also knew that, although our time of 3:33 in the “A” event the day before was not a bad time, we’d need to go sub 3:30 in possibly all three rounds on this day in order to be competitive. There was only one problem with this plan—Marcus and I had never gone below 3:30 without a strong tailwind, and there was no tailwind today.

For the first heat, racing conditions were perfect. An overcast sky had kept temperatures in the low 80s and there was no wind on the course. No need for Marcus to correct our point in bow, just stay focused. As the starter polled the crews, I knew that the two crews beside us could be fast: Lincoln Park (Chicago) and Texas Rowing Club looked big and fit, and both had done well the previous year. I told Marcus to keep an eye on them and counter any moves they might make with our own.

“Attention...Go!” Off the start, we found ourselves trailing within the first 10 strokes to both Lincoln Park and Texas. This wasn’t totally unexpected. We tended to favor smooth starts that emphasized timing versus power in order to conserve energy and then ramp up gradually to race pace.

Approaching 250m after the first 30 strokes, I glanced down at our Speedcoach display and saw 35 strokes per minute (spm) - 1 beat higher than our planned 34. What to do? Though I was initially worried about how it might affect our endurance later on, I decided to let it go. We were moving nicely and closing in on the other boats.

At 500m, we had opened up a half boat length lead on all other boats and by 750m were up by 2 lengths and in control. Do we sprint? “No sprint..!” We crossed the line roughly four seconds ahead of second place, rowing at a controlled and relaxed 32spm. We had gambled that the weather would hold up for at least one more round and had conserved our energy for what would no doubt be an even tougher semi in a few hours’

1 Down, 2 to Go…
As we paddled back in to the docks, we felt very good about our chances in the semis. We hadn’t expected our road to the finals to be this easy. Just two more races to go. We recharged under the Berkeley tent, receiving congratulations from our neighbors when the announcer read the times from our heats over the PA system. To our amazement, although we hadn’t sprinted we had clocked in at a personal best 3:24 time—the second fastest time of all 23 boats. The fastest boat, two seconds faster than us, had just been pushed in a more highly contested heat, in which four boats were in contention for the top three spots. Translated: we just might achieve our goal of medaling at Masters Nationals if we could keep up the speed throughout the day. However, we also knew not to take lightly any of the other qualifying crews, some of whom probably hadn’t revealed their best speed.

In our semi-final race we were assigned Lane 3, and could no longer play the role of the unknown quantity. The wind had picked up, and, by the time we were locked into our stake boat, there was a distinct cross-headwind from port pushing our bow towards Lane 2 to our left. As Marcus began tapping his starboard blade to correct, I looked over at the Potomac/Undine crew to our right in Lane 4—at least one of whom had been a former US National team rowers back in the 80s. They were potential medal contenders today. Next to them was a powerful duo from Atlanta Rowing Club with a 6’7” sculler who had just finished top 10 in the 40+ at the previous Head of the Charles. I turned to Marcus: “I’m gonna take it up a bit higher off the start this time. We can’t let anyone get an early lead on us like last race.” Marcus nodded.

The starter’s flag was up, Marcus stopped tapping. Just then a port-side gust pushed our bow to starboard. “Attention…Go!”

Our first few strokes were quick and strong. The boat jumped forward at the start along with all the other quick boats off the line, and we knew we were right in the mix. But, within 5 strokes we were already drifting—our starboard oars were catching on the wrong side of the lane markers in Lane 2. I shouted to signal to Marcus that we both needed to start tugging harder on starboard side to correct our point. Too late...Our bow had now crossed the lane markers and we were in Lane 2. The referee in the near chase boat sped up behind and flagged us to move back over. Had the crew in Lane 2 been faster off the start when we steered into their lane, we could have been disqualified for interference. Fortunately, we'd had a quicker start that time, and we were allowed to continue.

After a few more hard pulls on starboard, we were back in Lane 3–lucky not to have caught a blade on a lane marker. Having avoided our first major catastrophe, we were again swinging well. I surveyed the field and saw that, despite our early steering gaffe, we were right in the mix...perhaps third place.

At 500m Marcus called out our “squeeze 10," and we pried slowly away from the Atlanta crew. But the guys from Potomac were still hanging in there; so at 750m we started our last 30 stroke sprint sequence up two beats/up two beats/up two beats and surged farther ahead with each 10 stroke burst. Potomac’s stroke looked over as if to say, “we’ll see you in the next round,” and never answered with his own sprint. We crossed the line two seconds ahead in a time of 3:29, which turned out to be the fastest time of either semifinal heat. Considering the headwind and our poor steering, we were very pleased with this effort and one step closer to realizing our goal.

The Final
Back to our LaFuma lawn chairs, Gatorade and protein bars. The weather was holding up after all, so we knew there would be a third race, the final, in less than two hours. Try to rest…

Forty minutes until the start of the race…Time to walk our boat down to the docks and paddle out for our warm-up. As we walked up the hill to fetch the Filippi one last time, the sun had broken out: 82 degrees and 90% humidity according to my iPhone. As we stood in the long boat queue waiting our turn to launch, the fastest guys from the morning heat approached. “Hey! Where are you guys from? San Fran? You’re really flying out there today. Well, good luck to you guys! One thing’s for sure—this will be the most painful race any of us have had in a long time.”`

He didn’t say “fun." He said “painful." Marcus and I didn’t need to be reminded. Pain is the common denominator in our sport. Something we all dread and yet subject ourselves to over and over again for the prospect of glory and the thrill of competition. It was good to know that our competition was human after all, and had noticed that we were performing well.

Locked in once again to the stake boat in Lane 3, I surveyed the elite field one last time. Marcus and I were the only guys here without any national team pedigree. In Lane 1 was the Atlanta crew with the 6’7” sculler who had placed third in our semi. In Lane 2 was Cambridge, one of the pre-race favorites to win it all. In Lane 4 were the silver medalists from the previous year, our new friends from Narragansett with the fastest time earlier that day. In Lane 5 were the guys from Potomac who hadn’t shown us their sprint in the semifinal, and in Lane 6 were the always dangerous duo from Union with a two-time Olympic silver medalist in bow.

The afternoon wind had shifted from cross to head-on, ensuring that this would be the slowest race of the day and the most grueling. No need for Marcus to tap in bow. Just stay loose. Exhale. This is why we came!


In our excitement off the start, our rate was higher than normal. We settled to 36spm – 2 beats higher than our semi, and yet, despite the higher rate, after 250m we were still only holding even with the other crews. In the next 250m we began to notice some separation, as the other crews settled to a lower stroke rate and I stubbornly kept plugging along at a higher clip. To my surprise, at the 500m half-way buoy we were clearly in the lead – up by about a boat length on the nearest crew. But the strong headwind had taken a toll, already adding a precious few seconds to the race. How much was left in the tank?

Despite the fatigue, we were rowing well, swinging through the headwind, and our “squeeze 10” had helped us pry away from the boats in Lane 1 and 2 while staving off any challenges from the other 3 boats to our right, who were closely pursuing us through 600m. Our stroke rate had drifted down to a 33, but with about 350m left to go, we could taste victory. The finish line crowds began to roar when they saw a four-boat race winding up for the final sprint. Then, I heard something unexpected, guttural, from way across in Lane 6: “Go-o-o-o!" It was Union’s bowman, exhorting his stroke to take it up.

What to do? We knew we always had 30 more strokes left in the tank whenever we got to 250m, but not necessarily 40 from 350m. Lane 5 (Potomac) had also gone on “Go” with Lane 6, and they had raised their stroke rate, crawling back into a tie with us. They must have been at 36spm or higher into a hard headwind. I knew we couldn’t wait for our first “up two” at 250m, so I shouted “UP!” with 300m to go, and we began our sprint, straining into the headwind. We’d probably spent more energy in the first half of the race than the other two challengers by holding our rate higher—I wondered how we could keep it together and go any faster. I looked down at our Speedcoach and saw that we’d managed to take the rate up to 35.5spm, but Lanes 5 and 6 were now neck and neck with us.

In the second half of the race, we’d been gradually shortening our leg compression to lessen the strain of each stroke without slowing the rat—but there was no hiding from the pain or shortness of breath. By 750m, legs were screaming from lactate, lungs were burning and arms felt like lead weights. The thought of even one more stroke seemed impossible let alone 30 more—and yet each of the next 30 would need to be slightly more powerful than the one preceding it. Fear that we might fail to complete
what we had begun was motivating us through this abyss and on to the finish line.

By 850m, Lane 4 was now in the mix. They had a ferocious sprint and were pulling up to us. A quick peek to my right revealed that we had now slipped into 2nd or 3rd place by a few feet and that Lane 4 was now challenging us for the final medal. One final push…“UP 2!”…"Last 10!"…maybe we could steal that medal after all. Dig! Dig deeper! The horn sounded: “Beep-Beep-Beep-Beep." Normally there’s a slight pause between beeps at the finish line, but not this time. We’d all crossed virtually together.

Exhausted, panting, still drifting downstream from the final stroke’s momentum, we gasped for air and called out “great race” to each other, and the other boats. No one knew who’d won. But, a minute later, as we approached the dock, the final results were announced over the PA speaker: “First place: Potomac/Undine; second place: Union; third place: DOLPH/PAC." The top four crews had finished within 1.4 seconds of each other—perhaps the closest race of the day. While we were frustrated not to have won, not to have gambled a bit more with our fitness and begun our sprint 5 strokes earlier, we knew we had just raced the best race of our lives, and with a bit more sprint practice might even have been able to hold on for gold next time.

As we soaked in the euphoria of medaling at Nationals and slowly de-rigged the Filippi for the long trip back home, the first- and fourth-place crews walked up to us to introduce themselves, shake our hands and revel in what had been the best race any of us could remember being in in recent history. We were congratulated for having beaten out some very fast and favored crews and for pushing the other medalists to their limit. It was a nice moment of recognition by our eastern peers.

All good things
Months later, Marcus and I are still talking about the races over beers, reliving the “A” gold and the “C” bronze, the 120 strokes, the “what ifs” and the realization of our goal. The medals hang in a display case in my club back home along with a banner–a gift from Marcus’ club, the Pacific Rowing Club, to honor the success and the collaboration.

Not long after we’d returned to our normal lives and training routine back in San Francisco – hoping to keep a good thing going for the 5k racing season in the Fall in our double, Marcus broke the news that he and his family would be moving to Washington, DC at the end of the year. In the back of my mind, I’d always wondered what life would be like without our weekly training routine, without our regular Thursday evening post-training beers and pizza at the local pub, without weekend paddle battles followed by leisurely coffee. With the end now in sight, we were grateful to have seized the moment when we did and achieved what we had achieved this past summer. But after all the reflection and all the rumination, I realize now that it wasn’t just about winning or even competing that drove us to go to nationals. It was about sharing the moment with a best friend—something that we will always cherish.

-Joe Abrams

Thanks very much to Joe for submitting this piece—both an inside look at training and racing at the masters level, as well as one that extolls the finest and most noble aspects of our sport—friendship, sportsmanship, and good old fashioned competition.


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