The Head of the Charles and the role of the Rival

On October 19th I raced the Men’s Grand Master Singles (50+ division) in the 2019 Head of the Charles regatta in Boston. This is said to be the largest rowing event in the world, with more than 350,000 spectators and about 11,000 rowers taking part in 71 events over the weekend.

It was the first time I had raced a single on this famously difficult course, so expectations couldn’t be set too high. I had two objectives which I thought were realistic:

  1. Qualify for the 2020 event.
    The fastest 25% in each category get to pre-qualify for the following year. As there were 60 entries, this would mean finishing in the top 15.
  2. Match the performance of Pat McDonough
    Pat being a friend and onetime US Masters Singles winner who had qualified in my division last year. He had come in 14th, and was keen to qualify again – so he was the ideal benchmark.

These were my competitive targets. Other motives for being there included getting more familiar with the course (which should help me do better next time); meeting other participants, and hearing the gossip.

Going around the second to last of the major bends, with some stern dip on display. Hard to steer an unfamiliar course and keep the technique right, particularly in an unfamiliar boat

How useful are targets?

Targets are great motivators for scullers; but only if they’re achievable. If you don’t really believe you can reach a target, then you won’t commit to it fully. And the higher you set the bar, the greater the need for a planned structure within which the target can be reached.

I call it a structure, but really this is just a way of looking at a training plan. If you think of the targets as building blocks, you can then mentally assemble them over time into the solid platform on which the overall objective – getting it all right on the day – can be achieved.

The targets can be grouped under the usual kind of check-list headings, with the standard general-advice principles attached:

  • Training
    Commit to a program to build up power and stamina, with a sequence of achievable performance targets. Decide on a race strategy, and practice using it. Identify flaws in technique and take steps to iron them out.
  • Recovery
    Do the appropriate stretching and Yoga exercise. Get enough sleep. Watch your hydration levels. Eat the right food at regular times. Don’t over-exert – but find your maximum safe exertion levels. Remember that injury avoidance is better than injury management.
  • Equipment
    Pay special attention to the setup and rigging. With the right calibration and adjustments, a modest boat can often outperform a super-high-spec boat which has been less meticulously set up. Average speed over the course distance counts for more than maximum sprint speed, especially in a head race.
  • Orientation
    Get to know the course, its angles, currents, physical obstacles and typical weather characteristics. Try to find an experienced local to pilot you along it and tell you what they know. Look at maps and videos to memorise the key landmarks.

How it turned out

As the day of reckoning approaches, the day-to-day targets fade into the background, and the immediate realities of health, sleep patterns and weather forecasts start to loom larger than usual.

Two days before the race I was feeling unwell, with a nasty headache and flu-like symptoms. I suspected that hydration during recovery might have something to do with it. Or I might have caught a bug from the flight. Or maybe it was just exhaustion from lack of sleep over the previous weeks, much of which had been on the road driving between London and Bergerac. Or a combination of these things.

Hydration is straightforward: drink up to a couple of liters of water a day; when exercising a lot, drink even more (sweat must be replaced). And I had definitely not been drinking enough water while travelling.

Sleep is harder to manage, but is an essential part of recovery. When training a lot, sleep more, and sequence training to recover. Do not do all power and speed work: technical work can also be recovery work. A mantra much used by Sue Appelboom when she was coaching me: “eat well, sleep well”…and this includes hydrating well. Perhaps I stopped drinking enough water after hearing about the marathon runners who died from drinking too much water during their race. It’s important to get the balance right.

The weather turned out OK: the forecast gales and blizzards did not arrive, and the sun came out instead.

Perhaps I did get the balance right, though, because when the day came, I was feeling a lot better. And the freezing winds recently forecast had not arrived: what we got was a cool, sunny day with a gentle south-westerly breeze. Choppy on some sections, but otherwise nice water. Things were looking up – but had I done enough Orientation work?

Orientation hurdles

The contrast between the World Masters course and the River Charles could hardly be greater. With five major bends, varying stream width and currents, seven bridges, and the risk of other competitors getting in the way, not to mention being more than four times the distance and against the stream, navigating this course is not something which can be approached casually. And it explains why most of the winners historically have been locals. But not all.

As the most senior previous winner in the regatta, Tom Bishop leads off the event at No. One. Now with his third win in the 70+ division, he’s in line to lead off again in 2020.
Tom Bishop allows himself to show some quiet satisfaction following his third win in a row

One of the regular non-local winners is Tom Bishop, whose London club (Quintin) is just over the river from mine (Putney Town), so I see him sometimes on the Thames. He was in the UK men’s quad crew at the 1976 Summer Olympics, and is still moving fast. So fast, in fact, that in 2018 he won the 70+ singles at the HOCR by over a minute!

Tom obviously knows the course well, and when we met at the Budapest World Masters I took the opportunity to pick his brains. He gave me some excellent advice, mainly to do with the need to identify and memorise certain key landmarks and obstacles.

He also recommended two videos covering the course with forward and backward views. The forward one was done by Larry Tait, a sculler from my division, going over the course with a camera on his stern, looking towards the bows.

The backward one is the view from a head camera on No 5 in a Potomac Alumni eight, so it shows the actual line taken by an experienced cox in an eight, which is not necessarily exactly right for a single, but is near enough. Being unfamiliar with the course I found these really useful.

Moving target: the role of the Rival

Tom Bishop won again – but by only one second rather than one minute. The man who so nearly caught up with him was a new arrival in the 70+ division – Jim Dietz, a known adversary who had recently beaten Tom in a double at Henley Masters.

Having a real-life person to measure your performance against, and to keep up with, is one of racing’s best motivators. Tom Bishop now has a serious, self-appointed rival in Dietz, who is hard on his heels. How will these two do in 2020? The eyes of the Masters rowing world will be on them!

My own rival in the 50+ division was Pat McDonough. Pat is from Fort Worth, Texas. He and I had raced successfully together in a double at regattas in England, but I had never raced against him in a head race. After sculling alongside him many times in London, long ago when he came to train on the Thames, I knew that I could keep up with him most of the time, so I guessed we would be similar speeds now, if we were both in good, properly set up boats. Actually, I had no idea who would be quicker, after all these years: but last year he had qualified by coming 14th – so he was the perfect rival for the occasion.

I was more modestly equipped with a Peinert X25 lightweight single – a well-made but comparatively inexpensive boat (less than half the cost of a top Fluid Design) built in Mattapoisett, Mass. I had come to the conclusion that for this event, minor differences in hull specification were unlikely to be decisive: other factors such as weather conditions, local knowledge, race strategy, setup, and of course Luck, were going to be more important.

I also wanted to show my confidence in Peinert Boatworks, whose small but highly experienced boat-building team can provide a bespoke service for a very reasonable price. Their boats are widely used in the US for training and teaching work, but are less often seen at higher-levels regattas, largely I suspect because of the widely-held belief that the more you spend on your boat, the faster you will go.

It ain’t necessarily so, in my opinion.

Trade secrets

The day before the race, I went out with Pat, and as we paddled along the course, he showed me the best lines to take at the various bends and bridges. I wasn’t able to follow all his advice, but I was very grateful for his help, which I think may have made a crucial difference to the result.

Be that as it may: the targets were met!
• I qualified for 2020 by coming in 14th, after a nerve-racking but exhilarating run
• I kept up with Pat, who finished 15th, less than a second behind me

Now I will need to decide on some targets for HOCR 2020. Here’s a first draft:
• Qualify for 2021
• Finish in the Top ten
• Get within a minute of the top three
• Keep up with Pat again

In theory, these targets will be harder to achieve, because I’ll be a year older, there may be new, stronger competitors in the division, and I’m unlikely to increase my speed by much. Nevertheless, to me they look feasible even at my current speed, because there are so many potential improvements in the execution.

If I can steer the course more efficiently through each bend and bridge, the effective course length will be reduced. With the right combination of good preparation and good luck, I reckon up to 10 seconds could be gained by this means.

And if Pat chooses to tell me no more of his trade secrets, I’ll quite understand!

Masters Training in Bergerac

I’ll be in Bergerac for much of the summer 2020 for our Sculling with Yoga courses. We expect many of our visitors to be Masters competitors, and they will be of many different ages and levels. If you’d be interested in joining or bringing a group, please use the contact form to let us know what you’re interested in, and we’ll get back to you with some options.

One thought on “The Head of the Charles and the role of the Rival

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s