I woke up with light in my face and worried my alarm had not functioned. I cracked an eye. The clock glowed green, “1:36 a.m.” I reached out, pushed the clock away, and closed my eyes.
At the proper time, 4:27 a.m., the alarm rang and I tried to turn it off as quickly as possible. Flashlight on, I stumbled out into the kitchen. The oatmeal formed a volcano in the microwave. I chewed it down while loading the oars, tying back to my hair into its double ponytail, and gulping water. Then it was off into the night towards Deland.
In the dark, it truly felt like I was driving down the road to nowhere, especially when I passed a prison in the middle of a state forest. Each turn took me down a rougher, narrower street with fewer lights. It’s easy to know when you are heading in the right direction, though. Why else would there be a stream of traffic at 6 a.m. down these rural roads? Just follow the lost person in front of you, and you’ll get to the site just fine.
I’d arrived early enough to get my bearings, check in, find the boat I’d rented and make adjustments before the coaches meeting. The registration tent wasn’t ready for me yet, and within two seconds of standing there, the mosquitos found me. I must scream, “free breakfast!” because I had to smack the swarm off my forehead, my feet, my elbows. Luckily someone nearby had bug spray and I dabbed it on all my exposed skin.
The boat was a lightweight solid green Fluidesign with size 8 shoes. The shoes were in the right spot and the poppers were in the same position as my Thursday row, like it was meant for me. I walked the oars to the launch area and waited for the coaches and cox’n meeting.
The regatta director ran the flag up the palm tree and requested all present sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” Within two lines, clumps of rowers were all on different lyrics and we had an off-key round robin with an occasional, “dada-da-da-daaaa, I don’t know the words….” At the end an airplane buzzed the lake and soared off into the sky.
After thoroughly rubbing anti-chaffing solution under my arms, a coach from Crew helped me carry Stetson’s boat down to the dock. As soon as I sat in the boat, I knew the poppers were wrong. I’d forgotten about the effects on buoyancy of salt water versus fresh water. I popped back out of the boat and raised the oarlock up another popper before pushing off the dock and onto the lake.
The weather forecast called for 13 mph winds, but apparently those winds decided to take a break. The lake was rather flat. Navigation sounded easy, but I quickly discovered that was not so. The lake buoys were white with red flags and practically invisible even when I turned to look. Once I entered the river, the red buoys were easier to navigate with, but I became disoriented with the mirror and took out one buoy and completely missed another on a narrow turn. I said hello to a lovely patch of lily pads. The whole area reminded me of my first rowing club. It’s rustic old Florida with cypresses draped in moss, logs off to the side and patches of reeds and lily pads.
One of the best parts of rowing small boats is you launch strangers and return friends. There was one other woman racing the 5k with me. We sat on the water and chatted about ROCCS, her experience at Hooch, other races, boats, head racing, etc. The men were saying hello, too. Everyone says good luck and have a good race, and then it’s on for 5k. I ended up chatting the other woman for an hour after the race while waiting for the results to be posted.
The men’s masters departed first. I was the first woman on the course. As the men departed, my nerves got the best of me. The bubble of nausea formed in my stomach and my mouth dried out. I took deep breaths. I rowed up the start and the woman shouted, “number 21, you are on the course.” I caught my start time on my phone as :44 seconds. I hit 13kph. The bow card flapped and fluttered in the head wind; then I saw it drift away under my oar, lost in the murky water.
My rowing was sloppy at the start. All the work I’d put in the warm up was gone; my muscles were cold and hurting as I pushed on the foot plate. At first I felt certain the other rower would catch me. She was closing ground, especially at the start.
“You can’t let her pass you. No one in Sarasota will let you live it down if you get passed!”
Yes, I thought that.
The first turn I navigated smoothly. I managed to regain the distance I’d lost at the start. The second turn I became disoriented. I rowed hard to starboard and rowed straight into the launch lane. Luckily no boats were charging my way. I did miss a buoy before getting back on course. Panicked, I’d rowed fast and rough trying to compensate for my poor steering. Once I reestablished my point, I forced myself to take the rate back down.
I kept waiting for her to catch and pass, but our distance stayed about the same. We reached 2k in. My legs finally started warming up and my breathing become controlled. IN, push out, IN, push out. The lake came into view. 2k down. I decided if she hadn’t caught me by now, she wasn’t going to. I reminded myself that what she did didn’t matter; I had to row my race and that I would survive this experience. I leaned back into the wind. I decided to go down on the slide and up on the legs a little. I began counting to 100 every stroke. I started gaining a little distance. But the buoys remained invisible. I had no solid point, so I had to practically stop to look for the first buoy so I didn’t head off into the lake and add time I’d already lost.
Buoy found, I was back on. The rower behind me had to stop and look, too. I passed a boat and the course marshall was kind enough to yell at me about my point. It was good at first, but then he yelled to go on port, and I did, and he yelled back I was good. Very helpful as the buoys were blind. I used everything else I could to navigate–8’s coming up the course, the position of the other rower. Once the buoys were within 100 yards they were visible and I remembered I’d seen they made a wide arc on the lake. I tried to guess my course off that and to use the previous buoy as a point.
I saw the yacht club dock, meaning I had 1k to go. Nerves arose again. I was in the 30’s of a count of 50. I reached 50 and hadn’t approached the other buoy yet. I counted another 50. Another boat appeared close in my mirror, possibly a catch. I tried looking for the finish buoy to know when to start my sprint. I reached the end of the second 50 and still couldn’t see the buoy. I started to hear the people on shore and decided I must be close. Then I heard a soft air horn. I had to take it up if I was that close to the line. 20 strokes and I drifted past the last buoy. The horn blew. I turned to the finish boat and shouted my number, flashing “2-1” with my hand.
The other woman rower and I pulled into the dock at the same time. Her partner said, “Well, you look dry, so if must’ve gone well.” The weekend before she’d flipped at the Hooch and rowed in wet. We both laughed. See? Leave strangers, return friends.
My phone revealed I’d kept a very steady pace the entire 5k. I was a bit up in the beginning, and my average speed in the second 2k was 12.6kph. The first k was 11.7 The last three were all 11.9–even with stopping to look for buoys. My up at the end was too short, just a little bump, meaning I could have accelerated earlier. I just couldn’t see the finish!
I estimated my time around 24 minutes, a real bummer, but nothing like the disappointment of 25:05 posted on the wall. An atrocious time. Then I saw the other woman’s–23–odd. I was relieved to see it was a mistake. As she didn’t pass me, it was impossible my time could be that much slower than hers. I don’t know my real time, which is a disappointment. I’d like to know the true time of my first head race. I estimate it as 23:05 based on the times turned into the registration tent. They were called in and written down, with my finish as 1:08 and my competitor’s as 1:07, so I’m estimating that my finish was truly 23:05.
So there it is. I survived my first 1x Head race with only one open blister and a callus in need of shaving. Despite all the water I’ve downed since this morning, I am fighting a headache. I’m not dehydrated, but it still worries me ahead of tomorrow’s 15k adventure. I’ll be chasing the other woman tomorrow and I’m banking on my ability to be steady over time to get me through the race and possibly catch her.
I’d also like to mention how nice everyone was at Stetson. People were checking in to see how I liked the boat, how my race went, and what I thought about the course. They never became snappy or impatient when asking about the results sheets, which they could have with all the trouble the computer was giving them!