Wednesday, November 15, 2006

How I helped win a rowing marathon

This is a picture of Virginia and her boat, published almost a year ago on our photoblog.

She actually rows the sleek vessel in marathons, and doesn't just stand around shining it and admiring it and imparting interesting tidbits about it to passersbys on Town Lake in Austin, where she and the Austin Rowing Club train.

No, she puts the thing on rivers and lakes and rows for hour upon hour. Why, I don't know, but it seems to make her happy.

So now comes word that she rowed her boat in a marathon and won! And, if I may be so bold to add, she's no spring chicken.

She did it over in Louisiana on the Cane River. Here's how it went down, according to her.

She arrived last Friday night after driving from Austin, then set about to unload her rig only to be immediately set upon by thousands of mosquitoes.

"I counted 30 bites at once right thru the fabric of my shirt! Geez! Needless to say, we were slinging wrenches, nuts and bolts as fast as we could, and gratifully were able to leave in about an hour and a half."

Next morning: light breakfast (good idea! though I woulda opted for the Denny's Grand Slam with extra syrup.) At 6:30, the temperature was 49 degrees. Not bad, and it was supposed to warm up, too. Bad news: headwinds of 10-20 mph.
"In rowers mentality - 12 mph winds is usually challenging, and once they hit the mid to upper teens, you have to evaluate if it's really possible to row. I've raced 1000 meter courses in winds that gusted to 30 mph, and believe me it was not fun. I didn't flip, some boats did, but the race became more of a snails pace 'can I put the next stroke in the water or not' kind of race.

Virginia was assigned "13" as her bow number. This was so the ESPN announcers would be able to identify her on the broadcast (just kidding.)

Actually, she real happy with 13, though most rowers would consider it bad ju-ju -- she had the same number last year and won the damn race!

Virginia races a "single shell" boat and noted that her fellow female competitors had lower numbers than she did (the boys race in their own division.) Since it's a staggered start, that meant her competitors would take off before she would. Hmmm, this called for what President Bush and his council of advisors would says is "some serious strategery."
"Since you row backwards to the direction of travel, that means I wouldn't be able to see my opponents, and it would be possible for them to pull away from me, further up the twisty course, and I wouldn't be able to see them... If I was going to win this thing, I needed to pass these people before they really cared. If I waited until mid to late race, when my conditioning might give me the edge, then the tenacious ones might use me to push them to new levels of performance. Yikes...

Keep in mind that pre-race, one does not know the ages of the other rowers...When the race is over, the race committee hands out awards (1st, 2nd, 3rd) in age categories. Since I'm 51, I'm racing against ladies in 1x boats, aged 50 thru 59. Some of the women may be in their 40s but I wouldn't know who unless I just personally knew them or knew from other races what age category they were.

So I did know a couple of the 7 or so ladies in 1x's were in their 50's. I had to beat them. Unfortunately, I had to beat the unknowns also. One lady was obviously very young, and I knew she would not be a competitor, all the rest I had to worry about.

The means, the only way I felt I could upset the others was to take the risk and burn as much enery as required at the beginning to get by them all and then hope my conditioning would pull me thru at the end when I'd potentially pay the price for doing that. Great, it's only a 26 mile race.... But ok, burn it now."

She passed 3 of her foes in the first 100 feet! In 10 minutes, she passed all the other women. Take that, biatches (my words, not Virginia's.)

"So now the women were all behind me, and technically I knew time-wise I was beating all of them because I had started later and I had passed them. For the next 20-some miles, if I could fend off a female that may approach, then I would win my age category... Only one remained on the horizon for a number of miles. Depending on the river turns, I could sometimes see her, sometimes closer, sometimes further. She definitely tried to sprint up to me a couple times. But I would sprint out ahead when I could tell that was happening.

Not too much longer, the men's 1x's started to catch me, men are just faster, I let the fastest ones by me, not wasting energy trying to fend them off. I then waited to pick a middle of the pack male to use as my pacer for the rest of the race. For him to catch me, means that he was better. By making myself keep ahead of him, I would be rowing a faster race then if I just coasted at my pace and hoped the women weren't gaining on me.

That strategy worked up. I hung with a blue men's single for the majority of the race. I wouldn't let him by the couple times he tried to pass, and for the most part we were happy to just push each other onward. "

The aforementioned headwind was a problem. Sometimes, Virginia said it seemed she moved only a single meter with a stroke. Other times, the choppy water would wash over the deck or a gust of wind would push her boat to the right or left, forcing her to make "S" curves in the river (and making the marathon longer than 26.2 miles.)

At the "9 Miles To Go" marker, after 4 HOURS OF ROWING, she found her usual acute powers of thinking to be a bit muddled. As she puts it:
"I kinda lost track -- did I have 10k to row, or only 5K. I was burning out fast and the dreaded awful thought entered my brain and threatened to shut down the muscles. Every fiber in my body started to demand that I just quit the race. I literally battled myself for a full mile. How was I ever going to find the energy to finish it. Sure I couldn't see any women in sight, and all's I had to do was to not let them pass me. (as a matter of fact, I hadn't seen a single female in at least an hour! The young, probably 20 yr old had passed me eventually, but that didn't count anyway against, even though I didn't like it, I had to accept eye to eye she was better..). So I just had to finish. I tried all kinds of mental stuff. Eventually a double (2x) that I had seen trailing me in the distance for at least a half hour caught up to me. I asked them if they knew exactly how far it was to the finish. "Yep, 2 miles"
Me:"Is that all? Are you sure?"
Them: "Absolutely. Only 2 miles!"
I knew that no matter how slow, I knew I could put the oars in and pull the boat to the finish line. I was so tired that I just wanted to cry, but I didn't, not now. And sure enough on the next curve, I saw the bridge landmark that I had been hoping to see for awhile; it confirmed that I was getting very close to the finish. My almost breaking point, had been very close to the finish. I could do this. At this point, I decided to let the mens' blue 1x go, to quit fighting, to take a full 30 - 60 second break, and then go on. I stopped, at a complete stop for the first time. I knew it would be hard to get restarted, but ....I'd do it. I stopped. Becasue the temp had never really gone up much, I had not drank a couple of the water bottles I had with me. I knew that I only needed the water that was left in the one. It's illegal to litter, throw out old water bottles into the lake, but there's nothing illegal about emptying the unused ones and lightening the load. Albeit more of mental boost than anything. But I had my little 30 second ceremory right there, gleefully pouring out the contents of two big water bottles.

I resumed the rowing after that. Slow. But none the less, moving the boat forward. Not a rower in sight. No women. No one. Cool.

Another curver or two, and I could see the finish. I had done it! Incredible!

It's hard to describe the feeling when you pull across the finish line, completely exhausted, and knowing that you had done it. It takes a while for the message to reach the brain, and then for any excitement to enter. I had done it.

On top of that, I was fairly certain I had won. Again. I'd need to wait to confirm.

A bit later, it was confirmed. I had beaten the two other ladies in my age category. One of my same age competitors had scratched. I was number 1 of 3.
I had also beaten the women in all the other categories, except 1, and I don't feel bad about not being able to beat a 20 year old, when I'm 51."

She finished the race in 4 hours and 21 minutes.

Virginia further explained one of her mental strategies that helped her win the gold. When she was at the end of her rope, looking at a spot on the bank where she could easily pull her boat out of the river, she said she visualized three people standing there, cheering her on: her husband Harrell, who was my freshman roommate at college, my wife and me my ownself, your correspondent Banjo Jones.

So, while Virginia was rowing and suffering and enduring physical and mental strain that few of us would willingly endure, I was performing a vital function many miles away. I was part of her spiritual pit crew, so speak. SHE COULDN'T HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT ME (and Harrell and my wife, who also helped, I guess.).

And all I had to do during that 4 hours and 21 minutes was sit on my couch, watch college football and eat nachos. I was happy to help, Virginia. I'll start getting shape for next year's marathon right now.


Anonymous said...

I think this is what you call retirement, boomer style. Congratulations and thanks for being a great example Virginia!

Anonymous said...

This is a great story. Maybe you should call it The Gold Woman and the Sea. I mean River!