Head of the Hooch 2019: Mission Accomplished or Unfinished Business?

The last of the great fall regattas has come and gone. And what a regatta it was. I came into it getting over a head cold gifted by my son, plus a rollercoaster of nerves.

Hooch 2019 Panorama

Practice day

One word: bananas.

The intended plan was just to row the 8+ at 3pm. If I had time, to unload the 1x and find a place for it, but if not, do it later. On the way down we followed the river, and I immediately noticed a problem: zero boats on the river. It’s two pm and the Tennessee should be packed with boat traffic.

We made it into Chattanooga at 2:30; Alan dropped me off without unloading the single because I didn’t want to be late. I still had to find everyone.  Turns out, zero rush because the crazy current meant the ROC delayed practice launching until 3pm.  Plus the 8+ sent a text that I didn’t get that our boat still wasn’t at the venue.

That was a mad scramble. Waiting for our boat, then deciding to find an alternative boat, rigging that boat, having our boat arrive, finding oars, coming up with a lineup, finding a sub for a rower who went out for a row in her 4x. Not stressful chaos, but chaos.

I ended up in 3 seat. The current…well, think of rowing on a treadmill. We were in an 8+ rowing and going nowhere. Our practice row was tough. Down to starboard, and just wonky all around. We couldn’t seem to find a flow. Low sun glinting off the water in the eyes. All we did was go around the island because it was so late.

After, there were many opinions. I figured out pretty quick my mission was to row hard, hold on, and keep quiet. Be a follower in a boat overloaded with coaches. By the time it was all said and done, it was nearly 6pm and I’d been moved to 7-seat. No pressure.

I offloaded just the single and slings, saving the oars and rigger for the next day. I skipped dinner to get back early. Sorted out all my gear. Picking what to wear was the hardest. At 34F, 8am, how many layers do you need to wear rowing? How many layers for 11am, 45F?

I hoped a good night’s sleep would help kick the rest of the congestion out of the head cold.

Saturday- Race Day 1

I woke up feeling much better. Breathing was easier and the congestion had eased.

I knew as we departed the campground, the Hooch was in for a fog delay. Our campground was on the water and it was pea soup on the way out. I could see the cloud bank ghosting above the river on the drive.

Sure enough, shortly after I arrived and the sun peaked over the horizon, the bank dropped. Major fog delay. It was pretty though. I’ve got an awesome time lapse, but I couldn’t load it here.

Fog delay 1

Fog just starting to lift; all the support launches waiting to go.

For my first race, event 2, Women’s Open 4x, our bow was sick and literally bowed out. But she found a sub so we didn’t need to scratch. We shifted the line up, but I stayed in 3-seat. Fiddled with the boat. Then it was just walking to stay warm. Walking, walking, walking, and teasing Marley for not wearing pants.

We were also cutting up about the Hooch announcer and her calm “Mom voice.”  We came up with a backstory and everything. We laughed when she was talking about how gorgeous the fog was. We imagined her ensconced high atop one of the condo buildings, sipping Starbucks and enjoying the nice heated space while the rest of us rowers-in-waiting shivered and paced.  But! As three of our 4x discovered during our pacing, she was not holed up in a comfortably warmed venue but making her calls as she strolled along the river bank.  Our hero.

Hooch Announcer

Figueroa is super impressed. Just saying.

Women’s Open 4x

Like all things, eventually the fog delay came to end. As soon as the call was made official, the venue burst into activity. We’re event 2, so we sprung into action–last port-o-potty runs, stripping jackets and layers, grabbing water bottles. Lauren and I realized we were hungry at the same time. Bow pair are hands on, ready to go, as the venue’s called event 3 already, and here’s stern pair shoving dry biscuits down their pie holes.  Hey, it was two hours after our original launch time! We needed fuel!

As last year’s winners, we’re the first in our event, but we must’ve looked like a bunch of novices. I bet we spent 20-30 minutes down and around the bridge because we had to make so many on the water changes. The on-water officials checked in with us twice because at one point Lauren had let go of her oars and was twisted around backwards to help me sort out the footplate. It was simply too low for me to get full press down on the drive. I was going to deal with it, but she insisted we fix it.

Even with all our adjustments, we weren’t late to the start.

I wasn’t really nervous, even though I knew this boat had won at least two years running. I just trusted everyone in it and expected to row hard. We knew a boat deep in the pack was stacked with some awesome rowers and to be on the lookout.

We took off. I started counting 50 strokes, intending to call something every 50. The whole row, I zeroed in on following Lauren.

The focus rested on pressing back the boat in front of us.  We did, but it took some time to gain that ground. It was clear our concerns were justified on the other boat. We had a clear vantage point on their progress through the pack. I stopped eyeballing our distance on 18, now fairly significant, and focused on the boat moving up on us.  Just trying to press away. They were passing 18 by Lookout Rowing Club. I knew they couldn’t catch us by the finish line, but they definitely were moving in.

I clearly heard Alan call my name as we came under a bridge.

No clear horn for the finish. We came down to a paddle. When finished, I knew we would be first or second. I suspected second based on how the other boat was moving and gaining.  And we were.

Otherwise, this race (and the next) happened so fast, it’s practically a blur. I know I came off the water feeling fulfilled and solid.

Women’s Masters 8+, under 50

The compression resulted in a quick turnaround. The ladies were waiting for us to launch. Someone had my shoes in the right spot in my new seat; I never thanked the boat.

But dunno why we were rushed; we spent so much time waiting on water. I wondered why I was hungry until I saw it was 1:10. All I’d had was breakfast, raisins, crackers, and sandwich.

A bigger concern while waiting: hydration. There was no time to use a restroom between the races, but I didn’t need to pee. With all that wait time, I should’ve been bursting at the seams. Instead I felt like a raisin. I did have time to refill my water pouch, a 24-oz, but I still had to meter my water.

I can’t empathize enough how long we sat there. We’d row up a bit, current would push us back, and we’d row right back up. I swear we rowed past the same patch of grass ten times.

At one point I counted 12 8+ boats straight across in the queue.

I had enough time to really appreciate how pretty Chattanooga is. The river has a stunning view of Lookout Mountain. Under the brilliant sun, the Tennessee River looked like a flood of diamonds. All the flashing oar blades created a glittering horizon.

The race

Ladies of the Women’s Master 8+ Under 50

Again, this boat has won several years prior but it’s my first year taking a ride in the unicorn 8+. With the move to 7, my sole mission is to focus on stroke and set up starboard side for success.

Except I was taking into account everyone’s feedback from yesterday and the row to the start. Roll up earlier. Quick catch, float feet. Long and easy recovery. Most important: follow stroke.

We got off fast in the chute, but then headwind right away. It was not there in the 4x. Annoyed.  It eases off.

At some point early on our spilt is 1:38.

Cox’n kept the course too far off the buoy line. Stroke tells her to move over. Five tells her to move over. By the power lines, everyone’s yelling at her to move us to the buoy line. At the bridge, five yells to point straight through. Essentially different seats are yelling course corrections at our cox’n.

Headwind at the island. Messy water. What’s happening? Now I’m internally counting 50s again, staring at stroke, breathing, pushing with legs.

More wind in the finish area. The water is disgusting. A bad stroke. Sure everyone behind me is mad at all the splashing I’ve done this race.

And we’re over.

Initially, tired. Thirsty. Hungry. A little defeated because I could’ve done better.

This was not a pretty row. I felt technically unclean, messy, like I couldn’t get out of my head, just lock in with stroke, and jam on the legs. Honestly, I think I rowed better at HOCR than in this 8+.  I was sure the ladies were going to be upset at me when we got off the water, but no one said anything.

But we still won.

After the races

Hooch Medals

Wearing Mommy’s medals at dinner.

It’s way later than I intended. I’d hoped to go back to the camper, shower, change, come back. Too late for that. I walked around, socialized, and took some pictures. We had dinner at Mellow Mushroom. Caelan did really awesome and was in a great mood. He passed out soon after we got back.

Sunday- Race Day 2

So here’s the “main event.” Haha–the women’s masters 1x. The race I’ve dwelling on.

I woke up feeling worse, like the cold migrated to my chest. Sore throat. Way more congested and lots of drainage.

I also woke up with the full force of nerves. I kept checking the Twitter for a fog delay announcement, but no message. So we left on time.

The fog delay happened shortly after I arrived. A sense of relief, even if it was clearly just a short one. It wasn’t as thick as yesterday.Hooch 2019 1x

I rig the boat. Wiggle everything. Lay out the “put on before you go” stuff and the “going with you” stuff. Lots of nerves, up and down. Trying to stay positive. Stretching, moving to stay warm. Music helped take the edge off the unknown.

More people arrived at the venue. The fog delay ends and off we go. Now it’s a waiting game.

I expected to be hit with overwhelming fear and nerves launching, but it wasn’t too bad. Nervous, but I didn’t come close to tears this time.

The row up was horrible. Against that current, it was a literal workout just to get to the start. And then you have to go race. I thought about all kinds of things on the way.

  • I almost hit the first huge green buoy. I imagined flipping over and returning to the dock a total embarrassment.
  • Why am I doing this again?
  • I am an idiot.
  • I don’t know if I will ever do this again. There’s no one to share the burden.
  • When this is done, I want tequila and a double chocolate cupcake.
  • Please! Please! Counting again, and just trying to stay moving. Worried about being late, but was ok. Passed a few people, made me feel better.   Found my numbers.
  • I want to place well.
  • Stop. Your placing doesn’t matter. It’s about experience. Stay out of your head.
  • Oh. This person is in my race and I’ve passed them on the warm up. I can pass them again.
  • Stop. Passing doesn’t matter. You are not here to worry about passing/being passed.

I made it on time. Stripped the warm-up shirt. Sun is brilliant, current wicked, throat dry as the Sahara. Turned on the stroke coach app.

The race

The marshals call us over. Good news: no crazy nerves. Just breathing, watching.

I had to stop before the chute because our race was too bunched up. I worried about floating past the start horn.

While waiting I told 1768 and Anne they were going to pass me. I offered 1768 the buoy line.

My turn.

Bringing it up. Is that 1:55 at a 24? Bananas!

“1767, you’re on.”

The current shanked me hard starboard. I thought I was okay. Peeked left.

Too late. BAM! BUOY.

Fight to stay calm. To recollect, keep going. Don’t panic. It’s just the start.

Looking, looking, but I’m getting pulled.


Two buoys! Idiot!

I see the ladies following. It’s the same: they’re pulled hard to starboard. I yell buoy at one point, but they manage to miss it. Unlike me. 1768 almost went on the wrong side of the buoy.

The result of the early hits? Some shaken confidence and a tendency to over correct to port for the rest of the race. I steered a less than optimal course for the remainder of the race, sometimes three boat lengths over until I regained more confidence in my steering. This definitely impacted my final time.

1768 is gaining, but very slowly. Keep pushing her off. Checking stroke rate. Keeping a steady, even pace. Pushing back.

Anne, who’s in the next division Women’s 1x, is charging forward. She’s going to pass. She’s on line for a buoy, I yell at her. As she encroaches, I call a power 10 for both of us. I yield the buoy line to her.

It was awesome to see such low spilt numbers, but they crept up as I kept going. I couldn’t seem to keep them down.

I passed a boat in my race.

Where are those darn power lines? I’m starting to feel defeated. I look down. This is what I see.

I didn’t expect seeing his picture to literally warm my heart the way it did, especially in the middle of a race. My little plan for encouragement worked. Because no matter what happens, he’s going to be proud of his mama.Caelan in my boat.jpg

Started counting about half way. 50s, then power 10.

Watching the meters count on the app. Trying to keep meters per stroke up. Definitely starting to struggle, technically, and in keeping the pace up. I’m trying to be sub-2:00 but I can’t seem to find the magic sauce between meters, stroke race, and spilt.

Near the island, I started focusing on pulling through the finish and getting every inch of the stroke.

I pass a Boys Lightweight 1x.

The 2000 buoy. Okay, press harder.

1768 takes a big move while passing 1765. I respond in kind.

Now that it’s getting close, I stop worrying so much about pacing. I allow myself to start thinking about holding off 1768.

Breathe. Relax hands, trust the legs.

I’m not doing well, am I? I’m going to be way far down the finish list. Look down at picture. It’s okay. The finish rank doesn’t matter.

The 2000 to 1000 went by so fast.

I tried coming up in rate for last the 1000, and again at 500. Now it’s all about refusing to let 1768 catch me at the line. I’ve got 2-3 boat lengths of water on her and I want to keep it that way.

I hear Alan.


The finish is coming. I hear the announcer say “in the white boat,” but that’s it. Now I’m pushing. I turn to look for the finish line. Horrible stroke! My worst the whole race. Get it back together. Finish strong.

And a horn.

I knew it wouldn’t be a great finish, but it was over.

Initially, paddling the recovery circuit, I’m content. My goal was to gain the experience of racing a 5k, to find a sustainable pace I can grow from, to see how my new 1x does, and to work on my race jitters. I achieved all of those goals. I’m happy that I picked a stroke rate pace and kept steady for the whole 5k. I didn’t throw in the towel and take it down. I conquered my nerves. I held off 1768. I’m not ashamed of being passed by the next race; Anne is awesome and I’m happy to have helped her a little bit.

Drink Row Hooch 2019

It’s been 24+ hours since the race and I’m still waiting on that drink.

But I’m still glad it’s over. It was a relief to put the boat down and be in slings.

Holly asked me how I thought I did. I said probably 8th. Two minute later, I check the results. Lo and behold, I am 8th! Am I the place whisperer or what?

What would I do next time I race a 5k?

  • Strategy for better middles. I haven’t looked at my stroke coach app yet, but I suspect it’s going to show a slow down here.
  • Do more “moves.” Be more responsive to what’s on the course around me. I didn’t really try hard to “press back” 1768 except for her passing move and at the end. Nor did I really look hard behind me and try to “catch” another boat. All my looks were for steering purposes. Speaking of…
  • Better steering. My wide course definitely cost some time.

Racer’s Regret

Coaches will tell you “leave it all on the water” and to have “no regrets.”

Initially, yesterday, after the 1x, I had no regrets. I achieved what I wanted.

But then, as I looked at the results, that little seed of disappointment started sprouting.

I finished 7th in the raw and 8th with handicaps applied. Pretty solid middle. As I said before, I knew I couldn’t win or likely medal. The results prove that. But I felt maybe 5th or 6th could be a reasonable finish place for me.

When I see that 5th place and I were separated by just 14 seconds…yeah, there’s some regret there. Because you can definitely find 14 seconds over the course of a 5k.

Then there’s how the body feels. I realized around the 1k mark that while my breathing was labored and my cardio felt tired, my legs were still solid. They had more to give and I had to trust in them. Even today, they’re not as worn as have been when I raced 5k’s in the past.

So while I met my goals, now I’m definitely feeling that twinge of wishing…that bugger question, “what if…?”

If you had asked me yesterday if I would race a 5k in the 1x again, I probably would’ve said no. But today…today I am feeling hungry. Like I have a little more to prove.

But for now, I need some TLC to conquer the last of this cold. It’s a few days of rest before training again.


Post-Hooch cupcake. Tradition established 2012 to celebrate end of rowing season. 

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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3 Responses to Head of the Hooch 2019: Mission Accomplished or Unfinished Business?

  1. Michelle says:

    Now that you’ve finished fall racing for the season….I’m curious about your experience with the Faster Masters training program. Did you see significant improvement in your performance that can be directly attributed to their regimen? What did you particularly like about it and anything you disliked? I’m considering subscribing, but would love your feedback before I commit. Thanks and congrats on your Hooch success!

    • camckenna says:

      I liked being able to compare my progress over the weeks in each month. I’ve struggled with balancing how much anaerobic training to do; in that regard I liked it (especially October) and I saw improvement in that area. The last time I raced 3 head races at the Hooch was 2013; physically, I felt way better at the end of the weekend than I did six years younger and that’s despite nursing that head cold. Seeing as how I did the program for the two months leading up to that regatta, I’d say it’s a good sign it establishes a solid base. And I felt strong and capable at HOCR. I liked the land training, but my strength base was at a level that I needed more intensity and variety. So I did the land work 2x a week mixed with my strength routines 2x a week until I had to taper, when I just did their land training. And more meters. I’m not talented enough to do 15k in 60 minutes at low rate, so I started swapping a 60-minute row with a high meter day (usually 18k). But when you read Marlene’s head race advice it does talk about needing those long meter sessions for aerobic training. It’s just that wasn’t apparent in the training plan.

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Head Season & Faster Masters | 10morestrokes

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