My race win on Tuesday and my Joy of Racing thoughts have made me consider racing recently. I also had a long conversation with a rowing buddy from my years on the UW crew team yesterday. It made me think about racing and what the experience is like.
Road racing is highly variable with each race. Lining up for most races, you don't really know whether everyone will want to go fast, go slow or go wildly from one to the other. You don't konw how strong the riders will be. Some courses are more or less likely to go a certain way, but the group and the weather and the wind and lots of stuff can make the same course very different on different days. The length of road racing certainly plays into that. Probably most, but not all, track racing is much more predictable. Rowing was more like that. The distance of races, except "Head of the _____" races, is 2,000 meters or 2 k. That is a distance that takes "about" 5 1/2 to 6 minutes to cover in an 8-man rowing shell. The wind and therefore water condition can have an impact, but all of the training is geared towards going as fast as possible for that distance.
Rowing is made up of both strength and technique. Like a lot of things, the basics are easy to see or even do. The fine points, however, take literally tens of thousands of repetitions. Putting eight people in a boat and getting forward momentum is not that hard. Eight first-timers can move a boat with very slow and deliberate motion. Making an eight-person boat go fast, however, is a whole different story.
Without going into too much detail, the Peloponnesians developed the first modern rowing stroke (see how that was funny - I said not much detail and then mentioned something from nearly 2,500 years ago). The point, however, is that they slid back and forth to row. The average row boat has a fixed seat, a board usually, that you simply bend at the waist and move your arms. In a racing shell, the seats slide so that you can reach forward with arms at full extension and put the oar in the water as far back as reasonable and then fully extend your body backwards, using your legs, back and arms to move the oar as far through the water as possible. You then lift the oar out of the water with your legs straight, your trunk leaning back and your arms at your chest. You then balance the oar over the water as you move back up the slide to start all over.
I don't know if the description helps, but you can see that there are lots of moving body parts here. The trick is not just doing it right yourself, it is getting all eight people to do it in unison so that the overall movement is as smooth as possible. If you don't do this movement together, the boat will pitch back and forth, which further throws things off. And even if you do it smoothly together, if you come to the point of the stroke where you put the oar into the water going to fast or too abrupt, you "check" the boat, which means that your body weight will stop or slow the forward momentum of the boat.
On the other hand, if your team does all of these things with extraordinary symmetry and grace, the boat feels solid from side to side, even though racing shells are only about 20" wide and your oar is about 12' long, and the stroke will smoothly accelerate the boat and then keep it up at a very high speed and not "check" the speed of the boat.
This may seem like a lot of detail, despite the promise to avoid that, but most readers here will have limited rowing knowledge so I wanted to convey the basics. And here is why. I rowed for the University of Washington for four years. I rowed in full racing seasons each of those years, most regattas or races involving multiple heats, and with lots of pre-season inter-team racing. I basically rowed for six days of the week for about 40 weeks of the year for four years. UW crews were known for being brute force rowers, rather than finesse rowers (as Harvard was considered in my day), but we worked at being smooth nonetheless. In all of this rowing and all of this racing, I had one single solitary "perfect" race, in which the boat moved up to speed rapidly and maintained that speed with no check and no wobble.
Even all these years later, it is hard to imagine that in all of those races, all of those hours in the boat, there was only one time when every single thing came together just exactly and perfectly in the textbook way that it was supposed to.
The race was in my sophomore year. I was in the 3rd boat in the program at that time. The top two boats were at another competition and the 3rd and 4th boats in the program were representing UW at the regional championships. The coaches put a group of seniors in the 4th boat and they were the lead boat in the "Varsity" race. Our 3rd boat was the lead boat in the "JV" race, with the idea that we would be "sure" to win that race, but we were also supposed to be our second entry in the Varsity race later that day. As we were supposed to, we did win the JV regional championship and, as was the tradition, we literally were handed the shirts off the backs of the other teams. A while later, despite having raced a heat and the final in the JV race, we lined up for a heat and then, since we placed high enough, for the final in the Varsity race. My perfect race was that Varsity final. We were tired from all the prior rowing, having already finished three races to everyone else's one race in that final. I think that maybe our tiredness eased up our power just enough so that our finesse was allowed to shine, but whatever the reason, that race was the best and most magical that I experienced in all four years.
We were also handed all the jerseys from the teams we beat in that final and I think that as the eight of us received our spoils, we were all excited by the feeling in the boat and that we had a lot more races like that in our future. We didn't know that day that it was to be a singularly perfect experience.
I actually went on to row all of my Junior and Senior years in the top two boats in the program, and most of them in the top boat. We won a lot of races including against every single Pac-10 school, lots of other rowing power-house schools and some international crews, but not one of those races was as perfect. Because of I was in the top two boats I never went back to those regional races, since we had a bigger race scheduled that same weekend, and I was rowing with guys who were considered the strongest and best rowers in the program. We did make the boats move down the course faster for sure, but I never again experienced that mystical, magical feeling of my one perfect race.