2021 Head of the Cuyahoga

The last month has been an abrupt transition into head race training. Getting in all the meters has been a challenge, but I had one goal: be ready for Chattanooga in November.

But there was this other regatta I’d known about since Lexington when I was looking at potential races to go by myself. One that intrigued me was Head of the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, Ohio. When we moved to Columbus and people started talking about racing again, this is one that kept coming up. It sounded absolutely crazy, and I do like crazy. Here’s the course map.

Those are big turns to make in a shell, plus seven bridges to safely navigate under. That’s a huge challenge.

When racing kicked up again, I put Head of the Cuyahoga on my calendar, with the intent to race the single. I had a back-of-my-mind goal to win the women’s single here at some point. Sprint season and U.S. Masters Nationals sidelined any true preparation for head racing, as we started doing team practices and pieces to prepare for 1000 meters.

Welcome to the 25th running of the Head of the Cuyahoga!

Next thing you know, Nationals is done and it’s six weeks to the Head of the Cuyahoga, the first race of head season up here.

One teammate wrote a three-month training plan for head season. I jumped on that have been following it ever since. Most practices have been in the 1x or erging with some exceptions. Wednesdays are coached rows. I’ve been working on my catch and port side issues to try and gain some speed. Anaerobic training days have been full of suffering, but those always are the worst part of head race preparation.

Registration time for the Cuyahoga. I almost didn’t enter. The conditioning isn’t there; I was worried about going and finishing last. On the flip side, I’ve started working a bit on the mental side of the sport. Most of the messaging has been “it is okay to lose,” and “I have to lose to learn how to win.” That I need the courage to put myself out there. That the goal isn’t about the win, but something else definable, something else that marks improvement.

So I enter the Women’s Masters 1x, setting the goal that this will a reconnaissance row for a winning attempt in 2022. I don’t feel ready.

In the two weeks leading up to race day, I watch the race videos when I have time. Study the map. I write out the course. Try to plan what’s going to happen, to the degree you can plan for the unexpected.

The draw comes out and I’m the carrot. Everyone will be chasing after me. Not ideal. Immediately after me is a woman I know is fast; someone I expect to win. It’s her home course, too, and on a curvy course that’s an advantage.

I have a women’s 4x entry, too, but I’m not worried about it and actually don’t devote any mental energy into it. It’s all the 1x.

The Race Plan

Part of race planning

Head of the Cuyahoga is known for its crazy and hard port side turns. But it has plenty of back-and-forth maneuvering and few straightaways. The most straight is in the beginning, but even that wobbles a bit. The closer you get to the end, the more curvy the course. The finish line is on a turn. One large turn is named “Marathon” and the other “Collision Bend.”

My plan is to not win it. First goal: to row at a 24-26 spm and focus on steering. Second goal: Have a clean course. Third goal: Try to at least average a 2:16.1 spilt, if not beat it a little bit. That’s the average time for the entries in the Women’s 1x A-C for 2016-2019.

Race Day

We depart my house at 4:30am. It’s a two-hour drive from here to Cleveland. The sky’s still black when we arrive, but the downtown skyscrapers are lit up with colorful lights. The water reflects the lights up onto one of the many bridges.

I help rig my teammate’s double; they’re the third event of the day so we were always planning to roll in hot, rig fast, and get them launched. By now the sky’s brightening, and we can see the course.

There are boats everywhere. A whole bunch of clubs row out of these facilities, which is a warehouse-style structure and a second airplane hanger-style boathouse. There’s a facility called the Foundry near one of the river corners that has an indoor tank.

GCRA orange heading upriver today the start; last two bridges and turn in photo.

After the Women’s 2x launches, I get my boat offloaded and set up. Then I sit in one of the few open spots left on the river. The rest of the riverfront is occupied with chairs, team tents, and the deck of a restaurant. It’s a good view of the finish line; apparently the bridge is also a good place to watch but I don’t walk up there. Energy conservation. I watch a double go too wide and hit the cliff shoreline.

Our team 2x comes charging around the corner and finishes overall third. About 40 minutes later near 10am, my race is called. The first jolt of nervousness hits–I’m about to do this.

The Women’s 1x Race

After that, I don’t have time to the nervous. I have to row nonstop up to the start to be there on time. Immediately off the launch, a Junior Boys 2x is blocking the path. I have to steer around them, and almost hit the shoreline to do so. It’s not the first near-collision I have. The turns are insane. I wear my mirror on the left to watch for buoys, but you have to keep looking right to watch for the shore line and other obstacles. I almost collide with the bulkhead walls twice and the police patrol boat in Collision Bend.

Doing a good job of not freaking out about what I’m about to experience; first head race in my new 1x

The water is way bouncier then you’d expect for a river sheltered in a basin. The shoreline is mostly metal bulkheads or concrete, so all the wake is constantly reverberating without any natural shoreline or trees to muffle it. The wind is whipping down and around the buildings onto the course. The river is flowing *backwards* for some reason. I almost get swamped by the referee safety boat about 2500 meters up the course.

But I make it to the marshaling area, one of the second-to-last to do so. I’ve already realized on the way up that goals #2 and #3 are worthless. My only goal is to steer a clean course and not wreck my beautiful boat.

The marshal calls up 221, and that’s me. The buoys go green to indicate the starting chute. There’s no, “you may enter the chute, ” or, “you’re on,” or a start horn. Just “221, you may proceed.”

Lucky number?

The start is a blur. I remember seeing 222, the super fast girl I expect to pass me at some point and win, get going. It looks like she’s closing in on me. I remember trying to steer, keeping an eye on the shoreline. Expecting to go straight-ish.

The first one-two minutes I looked down a lot at my stroke coach. The app, RitmoTime, is usually reliable, but sometimes it gets buggy. This was one of the those times. The stroke rate was all over the place, and it wasn’t me. I would say, in order, “14, 40, 22,32,26,18, 42.” The spilt time wasn’t any better. I threw using that for anything out the window.

The water is bouncy and I’m all over the place. I can’t find a good rhythm. My technique is crap. I can’t settle in.

CRAP–the shoreline is right there! I row hard, HARD, HARDER on port, trying to turn away from the concrete-sloped shoreline, trying not to stop and lose time, but it’s too late. My oar whacks the concrete. The oar protector flies off. A quick assessment–the oar looks okay, not cracked. I keep going.

222 has moved much closer and is angled far more to starboard than me. I realize I’ve been an idiot–my whole intent was to follow the starboard buoys through the beginning but I totally forgot in my panic and constant looking at the shoreline.

I keep rowing crappily back over to the buoys. Now I’m sighting them in my mirror. I still expect 222 to pass, but it’s taking her longer than I expected.

Remind myself: who cares if she passes. Keep your eyes the course.

In a blink, it’s the first big turn–it catches me off guard. I didn’t expect it so soon. I recognize the brick building I’d sighted on the way up as a course maker. Hard on starboard. Now it’s using the shore again.

I gained ground on 222. I’m closing on a boat behind me. It’s in another event, and not a priority.

Another turn. I realize I’ve cut it too close–the metal bulkhead looms high overhead. I pause my stroke, watching in case I need to pull my port oar in, and I slide around with just inches of water.

Some dudes are fishing off the shoreline into the race course. Jerks.

I pass a boat, another women’s single in the event before mine. 222 and I are still about the same distance apart.

I’m tired. My legs are tired. My forearms are tired from ovvrgripping in this bouncy, unstable water. I’m still rowing like I’m desperate and I know my technique is crap. I some point I think, “I’m so glad my coach can’t see this right now.” I take a few strokes light and fast.

I start to notice that my close-cutting of corners is giving me an advantage. Every time I do I open up on 222. I double down on my steering and totally stop any glancing at the useless stroke coach app.

The two boats chasing me now are Western Reserve, one the single I passed and one 222. It’s well past halfway and I’ve held her off. I start to believe that maybe I can beat her if I can just keep this distance on her, maybe with my handicap, which is greater than hers. The other boats in our race I can’t see.

Another big corner. Crap–there’s a boat! It’s a huge yacht parked along the side. Another stroke pause to glide–missed again by inches.

We are in the curviest part of the course. Everything is tired, what little technique I had is breaking down. When I see the two Western Reserve boats move more to starboard, I take the same line. When they seem to angle more to port, so do I. I also keep using the starboard buoys and glancing to the shoreline. I cut a few buoys close, but keep the buoy on the correct side of the hull to avoid a penalty.

Another boat is in sight line. It’s the last 500 and the last big turn, the one through two bridges and around to the finish, is in sight. I yell, “I want the inside!” and I cut her off. It’s my right, as I’m the faster boat.

Bridge, bridge. I hear yelling. It’s all hard on port now. I can see the fat triangle buoy that marks the finish line in my mirror now. I guess it’s 30 strokes and start counting. The concentration goes on technique–must row clean!–but I have a horrible stroke with about 200 left right in front of the park with all the spectators. Major boat wobble.

More hard on port. 30 strokes is done. Trying not to hit the shoreline like a double did earlier today. Where is the damn finish?

Horn. Phew. A few easy strokes, but I’m pointed right at the shoreline. I let it drift and hold on starboard. I am relieved it is over.

I’m still unhappy with how I rowed. It was truly a technical mess. Rushed, bad port strokes, one collision and two-near collisions. All goals, not met. I complained about it all the way up.

Even though I rowed terribly, I still know I’m probably in a good position to get a medal since no one passed me and, outside 222, I couldn’t see the other boats in my race. I’m thinking second or third, depending on everyone else’s times. I’m not sure I beat 222; there were times she closed in and times I moved away. I think it will come down to handicap.

The results

When I see my name first, there’s a moment I don’t believe it. You read the results once, and then again. Reality sets in. I rowed like crap, and somehow I still won.

My teammate says, “What you need to realize is what is bad day for you would be someone else’s good day.”

What was supposed to be a “course recon” year turned into “I just won the Head of the Cuyahoga!” I got my medal and some sweet HOTC Champion sunglasses.

Look, ma, I won some sunglasses

Between the races

We have about four hours before our Women’s Open 4x. It’s a composite with Ann Arbor; given that all of us have medaled today, there’s a good shot we will do well even with all the junior boats entered.

So we eat, shop, lay around. I call and text people to tell them I won. Under the trailer is actually the coolest spot, and it has a nice breeze. We talk to people. A woman from Cincinnati, who knows one of our team members, says she loaned her boat for a 2x race and the duo ran into a bridge abutment on the way up. The shell took on water and had to be towed in. Whoops!

This is what it looks like when you have a big break and no team tent.

Women’s Open 4x

For this race, I’m sitting stroke. No steering worries! Just rhythm-setting.

At this point I know how horrible the course conditions are. Some sections have a head wind, the current still looks like it’s moving upriver (at least at the finish), and the water’s a trampoline.

It’s still horrible all the way up, except now the buoys are zig-zagged and no longer in a neat course line. I don’t envy bow seat.

We start 7 of 10 boats.

The plan is I will be responsive to the boat, the course, and what’s happening in setting the rhythm. I don’t set a target stroke rate because I think it will too hard to lock into a smooth 28, 30, or whatever. Sure enough, I can’t seem to get it up past 26. We play around with some 27, but with the headwind and jostling we don’t move.

This race had a lot of pain in it. The longer we go, the more everything hurts–my legs, my shoulders, my lats.

A headwind would kick up around a corner and I’d heard 3-seat behind me groan. I commiserated. It was strong enough I could feel it picking up the oar and pushing against it.

At one point a huge log skims by the hull. It was barely out of the water; how bow seat saw it enough to avoid a dead-on collision I don’t know, but I mentally gave her serious props.

We passed a struggling boat in the first 1500k, luckily before the first major turn at Collision Bend. It’s a good thing we did because they went so wide they went off the course. They could have t-boned us if we passed them there.

Bow called power 10’s. Some of these were around corners, or when we needed a course adjustment. That was hard. We sailed under one of the lower bridges, maybe ten foot clearance between water and the bottom. I hear two seat go “woo!”

The Ritmo App is working now, but it’s all over the place with our spilts. Some of it has to do with the river. You can feel when you accelerate and when the boat hits a reversing eddy. It’s too hard to be consistent; but you also know everyone is struggling with the same conditions. At least we are being mostly consistent at a 26 spm pace. I am doing my best to set up a consistent and long stroke, but again, I feel like I’m struggling.

We pass an 8+ that must be a novice 8+ or had boat damage, because the 8+ event was no where near our race. Some people aren’t rowing. Those who are rowing are going slow.

We come around Marathon Bend. From the bow, all I keep hearing is starboard. And more starboard. And keep on starboard. And HARDER starboard. My left shoulder is burning, my feet hamstring is killing, and still it’s “STARBOARD!” When is it ever going to END? Finally–“PORT!” It’s a relief.

A boat is gaining ground on us. They’ve been creeping up for a while, slowly but surely inching in. It’s Cincinnati, with the woman who stopped by to talk to us earlier. At the rate they are going, I figure they will probably be the winners.

Hard on port mostly all the way home. We do manage to come up to a 28 after the final two bridges for a nice push home. The water’s finally flatter and there’s no headwind. We hold off Cincinnati by about four boat lengths.

We pass no one else before the we finish. It is a true relief to be done, and I feel completely spent.

Two Mixed 4x’s actually finish close after us, meaning they also rowed through the field quite a bit.

Back on land, it takes a bit longer for the results to become official. We finish in third by 0.1 seconds. I’ll take it!

Bronze in the Women’s Open 4x

Head of the Cuyahoga done

So my first Head of the Cuyahoga is in the books, with two medals in two events, and a gold in the Women’s 1x. The course deserves its reputation as incredibly challenging. I place is right behind Turkey Lake in Orlando as one of the most difficult and craziest race courses.

These medals are cool!

One of the best parts of racing, especially head races, is the post-regatta food and beverages, which was absolutely well-deserved.

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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