The Cuyahoga Crash and Burn

The 2022 running of the Head of the Cuyahoga is done.

I said last year that I probably wouldn’t row it again in the 1x. To set the scene, if you’re not familiar with the waterway, it is extremely challenging. There are two sharp turns of 110 degrees or greater, requiring starboard pressure and then two sweeping port turns, plus several smaller dog legs requiring course corrections. In short, there are very few straightaways. The course itself is run through an industrial sector where there are bulkheads and concrete seawalls on both sides, which creates reverb if there is any wake. You pass under a number of bridges, some of which narrow the course. There are also boats parked along the side in several places. If you’re not a rower, imagine driving a semi truck at full speed through an obstacle course. Cuyahoga is probably one of the most challenging courses out there.

Course map doesn’t reflect the many intracacies

I talked myself into the 1x to test my strength, stamina, and speed after all these months off recovering, retraining, and rebuilding.

Everything until that point had been going well at practice. Clearly the hand wasn’t perfect, but I had no major pain issues as long as I rowed under a 28. At 28 and higher, it started getting tweaky. I’d been working on this, throwing 28+ short pieces to start. I figured I’d row at a 24 spm, slow for a single, but my current sweet spot for speed and distance.

I’ve also finally lost my Covid-5, dropping six pounds over the last few weeks! So things were looking up.

Originally a two-time Olympian was entered in my event. That took the pressure off trying to win again because there’s no way I catch match a former National Team rower. I could focus on myself and my performance.

Then she didn’t appear on the heat sheet schedule. Winning was back on the table, possibly.

So I felt prepared, even though we’d made a significant change to my technique two weeks prior. I figured I’d hold the style as long as possible, and probably end up with somewhat of a hybrid as I grew more tired. I watched course recordings multiple times, noting the landmarks and what line to take. I felt ready.

Women’s 1x

The rubber band that holds my phone in the stroke coach clip snaps right as I put it in place. I usually have an extra in my bag, but I always pack down to base essentials for the race. My coach takes the shoelace from my teammate’s shoe and they tie my phone into place. Awesome!

The row from launch dock to the start line went as it usually does. At least this time I didn’t run into any sidewalls or safety boats. I actually steered pretty decently. There was a lot of congestion on the course. The traveling lane is narrow and gives priority to the racing lane.

I can see the person who will be chasing me in the event as we row to the start. It’s evident she is a strong rower and will present competition.

As soon as we arrive, they spin us to go. I hate that; I always need a moment to get centered. I take it anyway–quick drink, turn on the stroke coach app. This time the course isn’t as waked, so it works perfectly.

The call for me to start is clear. The mirror is initially disorienting, as I haven’t had much practice with it yet. I almost cross a green chute buoy, but I get my head in the game. A quick ten at 28 off the horn and then right down to a 24. There’s a card taped in the boat with my cues, and the first is “breathe,” as in to fight the adrenaline rush and breathe it out.

My chaser is moving well and it’s clear I need to steer a clean course to get an advantage. I’m also slowly inching away and if I can keep that up with good steering, I think I can win. Still, I feel the pressure. It takes about five minutes for me to stop worrying about her and focus on what’s ahead.

The first turn, Collison Bend, comes rather quickly. I cut it perfectly and gain ground. I can see the bright neon green hat of the rower I’m chasing in the mirror.

I try an accelerate 10 under the bridge. A headwind comes up and pushes back.

I’m slowly inching in on my carrot. We’re heading for the sweeping turn to starboard, which needs hard on port. Some of the buoys aren’t aligned well, and I do some bad steering. It costs some time, but I cut the turn well.

I’ve gained distance on my chaser. If I can just maintain this consistent but steady push away, I should be in a good position by the finish.

My right hand starts to feel tired and cramped. My port oar is sticking at the release a bit. I’m not setting well. Each stroke is starting to struggle, but it nearing halfway. This part is always a struggle. The stroke rate starts to come down, but I’m fighting it. Still ahead.

Bad steering. Too wide on a turn. Blade still sticking under water. Can’t feather.

My right arm is starting to hurt. It’s okay, push through it, I say. Just count tens. 10 to roll up early, 10 to catch then drive, 10 to hang. Just like at home. Gosh, it hurts.

Now I’m at at a 19. Sweat has rolled into my eyes and I can’t see. The right forearm is cramping up so bad I can’t roll the blade. I can’t feel the catch. Chaser is closing in. Expletive out loud- crap, I can be disqualified-but no one’s around to hear.

This isn’t a hitting a wall; this is bashing into a wall full speed over and over and over. I had about 2K to go. I can go into the pain cave and persist, but this was unlike anything I’ve raced through. And it’s just a hand, just a stupid hand, but every single stroke increased in pain. The water isn’t sweat, now it’s tears in the eyes.

I couldn’t steer. Nearly missed two buoys. I couldn’t get good lines. I underestimated one turn and went too wide; she closed in more. Overestimated the next and nearly crossed the wrong side of the buoy line. The neon green hat disappears from view. I try to go back up in rate, thinking maybe speed with light pressure will make this better. Another loud expletive starting with “F.” A serious consideration of just pulling to the side and stopping. But I still have to row home, so I might as well keep going at this point.

This race is combusting. I remember telling a teammate on shore how my goal was survival–it is literally about survival now.

It’s the last 300 and where all the spectators are. I hear someone cheering but I’m so embarrassed. Barely hanging on at a miserable 19spm, having to make the final sweeping turn, rowing hard on port side, which is all pressure in the right hand. It’s like a knife is slicing in. I can’t feel what I’m doing with the blade, just that it hurts. Sometimes I look and can see it’s squared when it should be feathered, or it’s halfway squared.

Where is the damn finish line? I just want to be done. It’s so far away.

I don’t mind losing if I’ve given 100% but this wasn’t 100%. I’ve never been so upset and relieved to hear a horn. I paddle up two buoys, enough to be out of the way before finally stopping. It’s a complete and utter relief to end what has been around ten minutes of torture. My hand is shaking. I don’t even care if the safety launches are asking me to move on; I need to stop. I sit for I don’t know how long. I just need a moment to process, to rest it, to get composed.

My chaser has made up enough ground to be within two boat lengths, and is the clear winner. I congratulate her but I don’t think she hears me.

Two teammates are gracious enough to help me with oars and the boat. I think they can see I’m not in a good headspace.

The muscles in the right forearm are totally locked up. They’re asking me what I need–is it ice? First aid will have ice. I don’t need ice, I need it massaged out, and they do. Teammates are amazing.

I look at the stroke-by-stroke play on the app later. It shows the blow-by-blow, how I’m cruising at 2:14-2:16 spm at a 24, right on target for about 1500, some steering wobbles and a brief pick back up. Then there’s a struggle period, where it’s inconsistent-up, down, but creeping down in stroke rate and up in the spilt. And then the end, where the spilts are absolutely embarrassing awful.

I posted about it on social, and some people texted me congratulations. I appreciate everyone being encouraging about it, but honestly, second place stings. Going slower than the year before stings. I feel ashamed that something as small as a hand and forearm muscles locking up was the undoing of what would have been a really competitive race. Friends have raced through broken ribs and won, but cramping is my undoing? At the same time, it’s hard to capture what I was going through that last 2000-1500m. I’ve never had a row like this before, not ever. I’ve hit walls, I’ve struggled, my muscles have been on fire, and I’ve lost plenty, but not like this.

Now that I’ve raced, I have some serious thinking about the next few weeks.

Mixed 8+

The second concern immediately after we address the “am I okay?” is the Mixed 8+–can I race the 8+ in two-and-half hours? I say yes. We’ve massaged it out enough it’s not rock-hard and locked up, I can bend it again, even though it’s trembling as I eat a bagel, peanut butter, and fig jam. I’ve taken two ibuprofens and work on stretching it. Plus, rowing starboard, the right arm maintains a straight, locked position, no twisting involved.

This lineup has never rowed together before and it’s our first “test” of the composite Mixed 8+ that will race at the Head of the Charles in the Director’s Challenge. Many of us haven’t been in an 8+ or sweep boat in ages, and someone hasn’t raced in a decade. I’m seated seven.

On the way out, it’s a Murphy’s law. Four’s seat isn’t rolling. We’re about 800 meters from the launch dock. It’s not impossible to get a seat, but hard. I’m calling a teammate on land to see if the wrong seat landed in our boat and is in their four. Four/five/six are trying to figure out what to do. Six bends something, tries it in his rails, and gives four his seat. It’s working, but grinding so bad I can hear it.

Brief interlude on way to start

Meanwhile, the cox mic starts squealing like a pig getting knifed. It won’t stop and it’s doing it at random intervals. Particularly, under the many bridges we pass.

And then my oarlock starts squeaking. I couldn’t help but laugh. Squealing cox box, grinding seat, and squeaky rigger. At least I can fix the rigger with a quick splash of water.

Someone asked for my two cents about what we needed to do before we launched. I said pause drill on the way up to get in sync as a crew. Then, because we had a 50-second handicap to overcome from a traditionally strong club, I said we needed to pass early and get open water as soon as possible if we wanted to win.

Our cox’n made that call early, urging us to catch Three Rivers by Marathon Bend, the first serious turn and about 1300 meters in. She calls them starting at three boat lengths up as we start. Stroke seat is dousing me with water. I don’t say anything, but secretly hope it doesn’t continue the whole 5k. (It doesn’t, he stops by the first turn.)

We’re inching, the cox’n says. Inching isn’t good enough. We hit Marathon bend without catching them. It’s hard on starboard, and the course is spot-on.

There’s a silly amount of boat traffic. Doubles and coxed fours. How there could be two events heading up the course impeding our progress, I don’t know.

From Marathon Bend to the bridge and abutement that marks halfway is about 1700meters. The whole time I spend waiting to see Three Rivers’ trail; to hear their oars and their cox’n. It’s not until about halfway that I can see their trail. Our cox’n says they’re making a move to hold us off–how are we going to respond?

I don’t know YOU TELL ME HOW WE’RE GOING TO RESPOND. This is an 8+, I’m a piston, not a thinker!

But personally I do a power 10.

We don’t move through them as fast as I would like. They go wide on Collision Bend, so we get the optimal inside. Now there’s a youth 4+ between us. I know that the best line is to gradually move from the concrete seawall on port across the course to the buoy line to set up for the sweeping turn that’s hard on port for the finish. But we’re not moving over. We need more open water on the Three River 8+ and the 4+. Slowly, inch by inch, we’re getting it.

Now we’ve got the room, but we’re still staying over.

Competitive Casey takes over. “CUT THEM OFF!”

“Let’s keep our heads in the boat, please.”

Look, my head is in the boat, I can see the open water, and I know we need a damn good line. We need seconds, and we’re running out of distance.

We do gradually make the cut over, forcing Three Rivers wide. I yell again about we need to move NOW if we want to win. I’m not sure we have enough distance to make up that handicap, not with how long it took us to catch and pass them. We’re cutting under the bridges, making that final sweeping turn hard on port.

At the horn it’s about a boat length up on Three Rivers. We’ve passed I don’t know how many other boats; Three Rivers was the only boat I cared about, so I wasn’t tracking, but there was a lot in the way. At least one double and two fours.

The final results show a three-second win in favor of Greater Composite. Whew.

I don’t regret yelling.

The Day After

Races were yesterday and so how am I doing today? I’m still not happy about it. I can hear people already, ‘you came in second place, after hand surgery, what are you moaning about.’ I get it, but that doesn’t change how I really feel. For me it’s a loss because I didn’t meet my expectations. Second place would have been fine if I executed the race to my best ability. That didn’t happen. It will sting a few more days, but I’ll get over it.

I woke up in the middle of the night with my thumb hurting. It’s not happy with me. My forearm felt sore this morning, and it’s been tight all day. Thumb also feels tight and irritated, but not painful.

I’ve already been brainstorming on how to overcome this problem, but I am very concerned about how racing a sculling boat is going to go this head race season. I had considered entering the 1x at the Hooch, but now I don’t know. I’m on the fence about racing a sculling boat at all. My next race is the Hoover October 8 in a 4x, but entries for the Hooch are due before then. I don’t have time to wait and test again in a team sculling boat.

Sweep rowing starboard did not bother it one bit. After talking with a rowing friend and PT, I won’t be rowing port this season, because of my hand and SI joint.

Three weeks to figure it out.


About camckenna

I write; I row.
This entry was posted in Home. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s