The key is to get sleep the night before the night before your big race. Because you will not sleep the night of the race. True to form, I woke up at 2:30 am on Friday night and stared at the ceiling for a long time. Scenes from the movie Rocky played in my mind.
This was my first Blackburn Challenge and, by far, the longest distance I had ever set out to row in one day. I was rowing in a double with a man who had rowed it annually for the past five years. Every athlete has a goal in a race and mine was to not disappoint him.
A consideration is this race is 20 miles long. Hopped up on adrenaline and anxious, there’s a real chance you will burn yourself out early. This is especially true at the Blackburn. The start is on a beautifully flat river. The rookie mistake is to think you are invincible, pull hard for the first couple of miles and then limp along for the next 17.
Before I started racing, I used to hear the words “racing strategy” and laugh. “What strategy could there possibly be?” I thought, “You go out and run, row, or bike as hard as you can until you feel like you are going to puke.”
What a foolish thought. There are many strategies to contemplate in a race. Doing well involves giving your maximum effort without burning out early yet having nothing left over at the end. It is as difficult as finding perfect balance on the head of a pin.
Another aspect to consider is “strategic hydration.” In a twenty mile race on a hot summer day, you are going to have to stop to drink water. When do you take these breaks?
Early in the race two singles were approaching us, pushing each other hard. One kept looking over his shoulder. I could read his mind, he wanted to pass us desperately. I didn’t want to let him. I love passing and hate being passed.
Sweat was pouring down my face. Even so, I didn’t want to stop for a water break, not with this single bearing down on us. Being ahead is a huge psychological advantage. Another one of my racing strategies is “It’s better to maintain being ahead than scrambling to keep up.” This guy had a camelback, he didn’t have to stop to drink from his water bottle. All he needed to do was turn his head into his shoulder and drink from a tube. No stopping required.
A wave of relief passed over me when my partner steered a perfect line, cutting the corner close, leaving the two scullers in our wake. At last a chance to drink. My first drink since we started 20 minutes ago.
I’m just scratching the surface of what went into this race. I mention nothing of course conditions, heart rate monitoring, or the giant wave that swept over our boat – flooding it – begging the question, “Should we stop to bail it out?”
A lot of this thinking, planning and drama is invisible to spectators. That’s why it’s always so nice to hear cheers. I was blown away by the volume of the cheers at the finish line, it swept over me like a wave. And there’s nothing like hearing “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” and seeing your two year old daughter waving to you from the shore after you gave it your all.
I was talking to a woman on shore after the race was over. She wondered if we even heard them and I told her, “The cheers mean so much. I heard every one.” Thank you everyone who turned out to watch us compete and cheer.