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☆ Endurance Cyclist Turned Long-Distance Sculler ☆
I was on a hiatus in 1994 at my family beach house in Annapolis, Maryland. I was there for a few months during a time of my life when nothing mattered more to me than mountain biking. Suddenly I went from riding 5-7 days a week to not at all. I was concerned about losing my awesome fitness so I rollerbladed the Rails to Trails between Annapolis and Baltimore, I swam and I “worked-out” on the front porch with body weight and two ten pound dumbbells. One beautiful calm day I while I was doing bent-over rows with a way-too-light dumbbell … I looked up at the beautiful view of the Chesapeake Bay in front of our house, looked back down at the dumbbell in my hand and thought: “Am I crazy?”
This was in the days before the Internet … or before I knew anything about it. I began my quest with only the aid of the Yellow Pages to find one of those long skinny boats you row for REAL out on the water. I didn’t even know what they were called. I finally discovered a manufacturer located in Gainesville, Florida. It would be on my way driving down to Naples, FL where I used to spend a month or two every year. Next time through, I picked up a double … thinking since I would probably never buy a tandem bike, it might be fun to row with another person. I soon discovered I preferred rowing alone.
Then a year or two later, one day, in a strong wind, my sailboat blew over and crushed my double on the beach. Bummer. I got the insurance money and bought the lightest single that manufacturer made (I still didn’t know there were other boat makers).
It was all fine and good rowing that boat on the Imperial River in Bonita Springs, FL … but when the time came for me to get back out on the Chesapeake … the 7 am half mile row on glass from our beach to the Back and Spa Creeks was great. The 9 am return in traffic on the mouth of The Severn on swells and chop was a nightmare.
One day when I finally made it back to the beach, a neighbor was there waiting for me, having just witnessed my struggle. I offered to sell her the boat for a dollar!I called the boat manufacturer and asked what model single they made that had the same beam as the double. My next time through Gainesville, I traded for it.
I was very happy with this boat. The only reason I took up rowing was TO GET EXERCISE for cross-training. I was a cyclist, not a rower.
I just liked being outside and on the water while I exercised at the other places I lived part of the year. I was not concerned about speed. It was (is … I still have it and still love it although I have not rowed it for years) a light boat, very stable and forgiving. I could fit up to two lap dogs behind the foot-stretchers for our outings.
The heavier the boat was, the better for a great work-out! It was perfect for open water.
THEN in 2004 a hurricane destroyed the beach house. THEN the house I always stayed in on my trips to Bonita Springs on the river was rented out year-round and was no longer available.
My main residence is in a city where there was no convenient place to row where I could keep my boat by the water. I could not transport my boat without help loading and unloading it. So my boat hung in my garage and I didn’t row it for a couple of years. That was during the time a I was looking for property in Costa Rica and planning to move my health retreat there … so I was otherwise occupied.
One day, from out of the blue, I received a phone call from Bill, the president of the local rowing club. I didn’t know there was a local rowing club. He had heard from a woman in my neighborhood that I had a rowing shell. Bless his heart, he PESTERED me relentlessly until after a few weeks I consented to meet him at the club and row in a double with him.
So, what do you know? The rowing club was on the very lake I had kept my double for a while at a friend’s house in 1996. Coming from being an endurance athlete and starting out with long-distance rowing, I deemed that lake as too small to even get my boat wet. One day back then when I was out for a pretend row (anything less than 10 miles) a resident on the lake … Jorge, an Argentinean Olympian, rowed out to meet me. He adopted me as his pet and gave me some instruction. He took me to meet Ray, another resident on the lake who rowed. That was a long time ago. But there I was again, only now there was a proper dock and structure and an actual rowing club.
That day on the dock there were several fellows, including Bill and Ray. One of them mentioned the up-coming rowing marathon. I will never forget that moment. It was like that greeting card that shows a cocker spaniel hearing “blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah.” All I heard was blah blah blah MARATHON! My head jerked. I exclaimed “Marathon?! I can do that!”
And so it began.
I took my boat to the club and started rowing a couple of days a week to prepare. It was about six weeks before the Marathon Rowing Championships in Natchitoches, LA in November. I rowed not so much to build up my fitness, but to figure out how to stay on a boat for over 27 miles. Each time I went I tested a new kind of padding for the seat and modified the grips of my sculls to eliminate getting blisters on my hands. And my dog Hannah went on every row.
By the time it came to load up and drive the seven hours to the event, I was ready. I had perfected an ergonomically shaped seat-pad using three kinds of foam and a wicking cover — and I had made considerable progress in figuring out how to keep moving instead of fiddling around.
When I raced mountain bikes and rode Centuries … I never approached the events as a race. I always just thought of participating as a way to ride otherwise inaccessible trails and in new places with lots of other people who loved cycling as much as I did. I always simply tried to do my personal best and never worried about what anyone else was doing. It could be said I was not competitive.
I mention this to make this next part make sense.
It was early morning the day of the marathon. I was happy as a lark getting myself together to launch. My boat was still on the trailer and a nice man walked by, took a look at my boat and said: “Oh, my first boat was an Aldon.”
Well, my boat was not an Aldon, but I suddenly felt like Eve after taking a bite of the apple. I was stripped of my innocence! It came crashing down on me that my racing number was “1” as I was THE ONLY MARATHON ENTRY IN A RECREATIONAL BOAT!” My start time was FIRST!
Remember Julia Sugarbaker on the TV show Designing Women? Remember her dry, utterly sane and reasonable razor-sharp tirades? Well, I went off on a never-ending articulate, elegant and amusing rant! I have no memory of what I said, but the hair on the heads of my three rowing club buddies: Ray, Bill and Chuck … blew in the gale. I don’t have a temper, but when I get mad, I become very funny and scary at the same time. It’s not unpleasant, but it IS intense. To this day we laugh about it.
This was a moment in time that CHANGED me. None of us will ever forget it. I will explain how later.
From the fist day I started rowing, I alway did it with music. Therefore, for long distance, I have what I call a 2-2 stroke. You will see it on the music video. Don’t judge it. My new boat design will require it. At a head race my form is more traditional. But there is no way I am going to row over 3 miles without music. So at my first rowing marathon, I passed the start and realized my iPod was set on Abba. I asked myself, can I row 26.2 miles to Abba? I love Abba, but I knew the answer. So as boat after boat passed me, I tried to figure out how to work my iPod and get it to play random. That only took ten minutes. Then off I went!
The temperature was in the 40’s at start time, but by the time I was about eight miles from the finish, it had warmed up. So I pulled in at the dock of our Bed & Breakfast and picked up Hannah so she could finish with me. I figured she had put in all of the training with me and she should share the glory. 🙂
Hannah and I rowed merrily to the finish, thereby gaining the historical distinction (and a little bit of attention) for being the only boat to ever finish the Marathon Rowing Championships with a dog. I got a medal for that. Or at least for winning in my class since I was the only participant in it. I let Hannah wear it sometimes since I have two more like it now.
I didn’t get in the boat again until the next summer. Our first time out I rowed 15 miles. Ray and Chuck and I started loading up the boats every weekend to row on lakes and rivers near the city scouting for a better place to locate the rowing club. Oddly, it became glaringly apparent that in my recreational open-water single, I rowed faster, longer and stronger than my other marathon buddies in their racing shells (a Kaschper and a Maas 26). I mentioned this to a friend out at dinner one night. I said: “If I had a racing shell, I would be a contender!” He said: “I want to sponsor you.” I of course gratefully accepted!
The amount he offered I matched and began my search for my next boat. I tried to order a Kaschper but it was just a little over a month before the marathon and I couldn’t get one made and shipped to me in time. I was looking for a lightweight and my searches kept turning up the Maas Flyweight. I kept seeing that Diane Davis had won the North American Open Water Championships two years in a row in the Carbon Fiber Maas Flyweight. A high-tech open water racer that was eligible to compete in head races was a strong draw for me. I decided to see if I could get one in time to get accustomed to rowing it before the marathon.
I made two calls to the two closest dealers in Annapolis and Oklahoma City and left messages. Dave Lee, owner of Prairie Rowing in OK City called me right back. I told him I wanted a Carbon Fiber Maas Flyweight as soon as possible. He said he was out in California at the factory and would check to see if they had one. He called back to say they did not and it would take a month before I could get delivery of a new one. He said he did have a fiberglass Flyweight at his place in OK City. I told him I would have to think about it. I had my heart set on the same boat Diane had.
Fifteen minutes later, Dave called back to tell me they had a used boat that had only been rowed about 6 time that they could sell me. He asked me if I knew about the North American Open Water Championships. I said yes … that’s why I wanted this particular boat — because Diane Davis had won in it twice. He said … well they have that boat here. She had practiced in it a few times and rowed the races. I said: “Load it up!”
… to be continued.