2021 Head of the Ohio

This regatta was an add-on. My 2x partner texted asking if I’d want to do a Mixed 4x and do a 2x at Head of the Ohio. I wasn’t sure at first. I liked the current head race schedule with lots of gaps between races, and less traveling. We also had some personal expenses coming up.

After a chat, and considering who knows when the opportunity to row this regatta will come up again, why not? Count me in!

Head of the Ohio is in Pittsburgh, about three hours away. Another new venue, new city, new adventure. That’s what this year has been all about anyway–touring the Midwest and checking it all out.

Just four of attended, rowing a women’s 2x, men’s 2x, and then a mixed 4x. We car-topped the 2x and rented a 4x. To simplify, we shared the 2x even though it’s a bigger boat for us ladies. Our driver had a truck big enough to car top and have all four of us carpool. He also scored us a deal on hotel rooms on one of the rivers.

So we’re leaving Friday. That day I work out from home, doing some light and easy erging and weightlifting. And what do I do as I’m wrapping up the lifting? I slip and drop a 10 lb weight directly on my thumb. Tears in eyes, and immediately I’m hoping I haven’t broken it. I need my thumbs to scull! Ice, ibuprofen, and it burns so bad. The whole thing is red.

It bends, so it seems it’s not broken. Phew. Hopefully just a bad bruise. Either I can row with it, I’ll row with it hurting, or I’ll row like lightweight Irish double, no thumbs at all. Only time will tell. In the meantime, I pack extra ibuprofen.

Four days after smashing it.

A running gag started at loading. I asked, just out of curiosity, why a hard case for transporting the oars versus the soft case? The answer: the hard case protects the shafts, not just the blades. Well, if your car flips over, your shafts aren’t going to be protected. And they’re not protected if you run into a buoy, a tree, another boat, etc… So “…but at least the shafts are protected…” was snuck into conversation all weekend.

Are your oar shafts protected?

Our quad left for HOTO the day before. Us ladies in the back had all the snacks, which was great because apparently child lock was engaged. If we were locked in, at least we had all the food!

As the only one who hadn’t visited Pittsburgh before, they told we the view from the tunnel was incredible. There’s nothing, and then you go through the tunnel and bam! City as far you can see. Our route did not take us through the tunnel, but I trust their word on it.

Pittsburgh at night, Mount Washington

After hotel check-in, we rode the Monogahela tram to the top of Mt Washington. Gorgeous views on the way up and at the top. We looked around a bit in our hunt for a dinner place and wound up a cool joint. This is what makes regattas fun–hanging out with your teammates, cracking jokes, and trying some authentic poutine.

Tram ride

Late night, and back to the super posh hotel until early wake-up. I mean, the place had glass doors in the shower. Not a Holiday Inn!

Head of the Ohio Race Day

Our early start began when the ticket machine for the parking lot couldn’t read our ticket. There was no attendant and no answer on the phone number. So we jumped the curb to get out of the parking lot.

I test my thumb. I’m hopeful it will handle it, as when I push on where my thumb callus sits there’s no pain.

The island the regatta launches from is quite large. Car-tops were in lot 5 next to Three River Rowing’s large boat house. We set up right next to the balcony. As we stood surveying the scene below, my 2x companion in crime said, “You have to watch out when taking the boat down because you can roll your ankle, it’s kind of zig-zaggy–” at about that time, she slipped into a two-foot deep hole she was standing next to. We all thought she was telling us this because of the giant hole, but she never saw it. Whoops!

Three Rivers Rowing

After slapping on the riggers, bow seat and I tackled the rigging. We’d practiced once and she was having the hardest time keeping us on a straight line, which is not our normal. We figured just like Bianca, something had to be off. And yep! Both riggers had different spans and bow seat was not square. The design of the boat required an allen wrench to move the oarlocks, which we did not have. A single rower next to us had one, but I had also tracked down the Wintech rep who happened to be at the regatta. He loaned a spread stick. Thirty minutes later, a few quadruple checks, and I had reset the span and moved bow closer to square.

“Honestly, I probably won’t even notice,” said bow seat of the men’s 2x. Sigh. Men.

Ta-da! Fog delay.

In the meantime, the venue held racing for a fog delay. We hit up the Three Rivers Rowing Bake Sale, and went for a walk down to the river. Along the way I spotted some vibrant blue berries on a vine along the cliff face. Big J asked if there were edible. We learned they are porcelain berries and while they are edible, the taste is both “slimy and bland.”

Enter running gag #2. Post-race berries anyone?

We walked all the way to marshaling idea. A cool point with an overlook. Nothing but fog, though. Read about the history of rowing in Pittsburgh. 21 clubs? That’s crazy!

I got 21 clubs…

With fog delay still on, back to the truck to wait. I started changing the gearing on my oars. Lightweight J teased me for fiddling with everything–the boat and now the oars.

Another teammate showed up. Turned out he entered the men’s 1x last-minute. So now we were five.

Eventually the fog did burn off and launching began. Bow-in-chief and I launched the men for their race in the open 2x, then headed to get the rental 4x from Steel City Rowing situated. We had to rig the boat. Rowers are awesome; we recruited from other teams to help get it out of the middle of the trailer and down to slings.

Steel City rented us a very nice boat. After rigging, I started on full double-checks. Is everything tight, does everything move the way it’s supposed to, are the heel ties attached? All those little but important things. I found a missing spacer and then an oarlock with too much lateral play in it. I thought it was an incorrect pitch insert installation, and popped off the backstay. Nope, just a pitch bushing too large for the pin. I felt bad, because I was probably being a pain. What would lightweight J have to say if he could see me pointing out incorrect bushings?


Back at the truck, I checked the times to see if the men’s race was done. The times were super fast, with the men coming in at 14:18! Whoa!

The course at the Head of the Ohio is a bit different. Usually you launch and row 5-6k up the start, race the 5k, and have a shorter row back to the recovery dock. This regatta, the launch is more like 1-1.5k to the start, followed up an upriver 5k row back. We can see the start but not the finish, and we know how the men did long before they return. (Fourth in the men’s open, by the way, which is great for a master’s boat! They would have been 2nd in the master’s race.)

The men do return. We are switching the shoes; the boat has size 12 which are just too big for us to row. I have my extra set from the 1x, and lightweight J has a smaller pair of Bat Logic to slip in. While we’re making the swap, Big J warns us it’s actually a 4k. That explained the super fast times!

Then it’s first call for the Women’s Masters 2x, and off we go.

Women’s Masters 2x

Our boat arrived to the start so early, we did three warm up circles, but I still didn’t feel “warmed up.” My mouth felt dry; I wrote it off as adrenaline. Thumb seemed ok; it twinged a little bit when brushing too close to my body or if it slipped a bit from its usual position.

The event was organized from youngest to oldest. Guess whose boat was the youngest and going first? That’s right, with a handicap killer in the bow, we’re rowing like we don’t have a handicap. Two seconds really isn’t a handicap in a head race.

At the start

It’s an odd start in that they call us up by numbers–that’s normal– but then all the announcer says is “173, go!” So are you on the course, or is that building speed? You have no idea if you are “on” or not. There’s no horn or anything when your bow passes the yellow starting buoy.

The boat immediately chasing us hits the starting buoy. Reminder: the starting buoy is a big, puffy, yellow triangle, not a yellow one-foot circumference sphere. I’m not talking an oar graze, either, but a good oar-wrap around, have to stop rowing kind of hit.

We hear the men cheering, “GC–RA!”

Off the start, we’re going pretty fast. The stroke rate is good, the spilts are good. We’re opening up some distance, aided by the buoy collision. (Apparently the third boat also hit the starting buoy, but I did not notice.)

My personal strategy was to count strokes between buoys. Just focus on rowing from buoy to buoy to buoy.

It worked decently until the long stretch between bridges. You see, the course has two bridges near the start fairly close together. The other seven bridges are bunched together near the end. In the middle is a stretch of fairly straight open water.

Somewhere in here, the momentum started to slow down. I’m looking for a buoy, and counting…46…47…48…49… did I miss something?

Our stroke rate dropped to 26. I held it there a bit because initially our spilts were the same, but they started slowing. I tried to come back up to 28.

That’s when it started hurting. My mouth was parched, and I knew it wasn’t adrenaline, but dehydration. Forearms on both arms cramping; you know you need to relax your grip, but at this stage, when racing, once the cramping starts, relaxing is impossible.

First bridge after the straightaway.

I’m struggling mentally, and move back to counting buoys. This 4k feels like forever. I’m counting bridges–five I think. My legs hurt, my heart is racing, I’m fighting to keep the rate at 28 and get the spilt rate down.

Bow-in-chief says she sees the finish.

Thirsty, so thirsty. Arms are seized up. Five bridges–where’s the finish? Crap, sixth bridge. Did I misremember the count?

I’m getting desperate. Seventh bridge. I start looking for the finish, something I know I shouldn’t do–any sign, buoys, or a boat, or a tent.

A horn. Relief. Paddle down away from the finish. We’re very far up on the other two boats we can see. Looks like the yellow one passed the boat that hit the start, but I estimate at least a minute between our two crews. I reach back to fist bump bow; my forearm was cramping so bad my arm was shaking. She thought it was pain from my thumb.

Now it’s the long slog upriver, against current for the row back. After water and cooling off, we chat it over. I feel confident about medaling, but not sure about handicap. We had lots of space on the two immediate boats chasing us but if any of the boats near the end of our event had speed, their handicap could sneak in to win it.

I spy a fountain at the point. If we win bling, we should take a picture there.

The view on the way back.

The police are chilling at their waterside way station. They say hi, ask if we’re from Pittsburgh, then thanks for coming.

Now that the race pain is wearing off, I feel my thumb hurting.

Bow-in-chief asked me to rate our race. I said 3.5 of 5 mostly, because I personally was not happy with my conditioning or how I struggled at the 28, but I was confident we would medal and overall had strong performance. As a duo, I think we did well, we made calls, technique corrections, had a good course. I’m just always hyper-critical of myself.

I suggested we make a line-up change for the Mixed 4x because I didn’t feel confident I could hit the ideal rate.

As we reach the island, we get stuck behind a slow-moving 4+. We have to keep stopping. I use the time to check our results.

We won! Handicap and all!

Mixed 4x

Even with the long row against current back to start, we thought we had time to make the next race. We knew it would be tight.

As we get to dock, Big J is waiting. We’re past last call. He and lightweight J had staged it all, with the 4x down by the launch in slings and they moved the slings for the 2x so all we had to do was go up the stairs and put it down.

Crap! Now it’s a race to make sure we don’t miss our event. But I’m desperate for water, I’m dehydrated and I’m out. I can’t launch without water or I will be in a bad way.

We drop the boat and I sprint to the truck. There’s not time to pour anything; I yank the full 2L water bladder out of the back pack and grab my BCAA powder Tupperware. I actually unscrew the thing, take a sip of dry powder, and wash it down with gulps of water while running around boats back to the launch ramp.

As I sprint down the stairs, they’re carrying boat down to the launch.

There’s no time to discuss any line-up changes. I throw the water bladder, BCAA, and other gear down into the boat. Seat pad down, empty water bottle down, phone with stroke app down.

The men start rowing it out. I quickly manage to get some electrocyte drink mixed with a tiny bit of water left in the bottle and supplement with gulps from the bladder. It was actually a relief; exactly what I needed. I strap in, tighten down. No time to get the stroke coach set up. We’re all four rowing up the island.

We’ve been rowing bow-rigged boats for so long, it’s weird to have rigging in front. It forces me to watch handle height on the initial strokes.

As we clear the island, the start marshal accelerates towards us. I hear the starter calling our race; the start marshal tells us to turn now. We let him know another boat in our race is launching right behind us. They’re also late.

The starter calls our number, but there’s no way to make it time; we’re still a good 300-400 meters away even as we row with purpose towards the start.

“178, you are the last boat in your event.”

No! I’m thinking. Please let us go! Will we be assessed a late penalty? How much? Can we outrow it?

The starter seems to see us. Calls our boat. Tell us to “GO.”

We start second-to-last instead of third.

We pass a boat right away. I’m talking immediately out of the start. We just push right by off their port side.

I’m rowing blind with no stroke coach, no idea what my rate might be, where we are, or our spilts. I briefly think it might be for the best. Keeps my eyes up the horizon. Keeps me focused on rowing strong.

I start counting the strokes between buoys again. This time it’s working better.

We pass another boat. I hear them yelling, “pry!” and “don’t worry about being passed! Focus!”

Pass another boat, through the straightaway. I wait for the wall to hit, like in the 2x. But I’m handling this better than the 2x.

Row is slightly hectic, but trying to focus on bridges now. Seven, not five. Counting strokes through them.

Another boat as we come closer to the finish, way off port. They’re actually off the course on the other side of the navigation buoys near the painted seawall. Kind of funny because it’s the host team’s boat.

Bow calls final 100. I try to accelerate the rate and start counting…ten and we’re not done…another ten and we’re not done…30 strokes later, a horn.

My bow-in-chief (now sitting in 3) asks if I’m ok. I’m okay. For some reason, this race physically felt better than the 2x. Shared load? The quick rehydration with electrolytes between races? Lack of data to stress me out? Not sure.

Look around, trying to spot the fifth boat. No boat in sight. Big J asks about handicap; I know two boats in the event have a lot, but we were absolutely flying.

Now for the long paddle back and some calm, after the hectic launch and race start.

When the men are on break for water, someone looks up the results. We won, and by a lot!

Post-race glory

Mixed 4x selfie before medals

After dropping off the quad and grabbing medals, we all kind of all zoned out. Tired at last. Kind of funny how we all zombied around, slowly getting oars, changing clothes, derigging the 2x.

Dinner was at a nearby marina overlooking the race course. How Big J spotted a restaurant on the course while racing, I don’t know. I was busy, you know, rowing.

Learned the guys had also talked about changing the line-up while we were racing. Lightweight J was the only one with the stroke coach hooked up–he bowed our 4x–and his app showed I stayed pretty consistently at a 28, with a quick and brief bump up to a 32 near the end, probably where he said 100 meters to go.

We drove to the fountain to take pictures, but parking cost $10. Sorry, no photoshoot was worth $10 parking. So the we hit the highway home. The girls in the back, with all the snacks, but no slimy, bland berries. Singing “Take me home, West Virginia,” and all these weird songs about Ohio, and “This is How We Do It.”

This is how we do it.

Overall, the Head of the Ohio experience was a blast. No shafts were harmed.

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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