The ROTC 19: My Race – By Mark Ceconi

Sandbagging (a.k.a. ‘cherry picking’): knowingly entering a given class utilizing the unfair advantage of age, boat and/or fitness, often resulting in under the breath grumbling and well-chosen expletives regarding one’s character from fellow competitors.

The 30th Annual Run of the Charles Race, or ‘ROTC’ for those in the know, took place on a sunny Sunday, April 28th, 2012. Talk in the preceding weeks hovered around the water level, or predicted lack thereof; we were coming off a winter woefully lacking in snowfall, and a spring marked by day after sunny day. Rumors flew via email, over social networking sites, via passenger pigeon, etc., that the 30th annual running of the Run of the Charles Canoe and Kayak Race would amount to nothing more than one long portage, over rocky riverbed and down city streets. Thankfully, due to a bit of rain the week prior to, and maybe an act of God directed toward a rising water table, this was not the case. The wind was, however, gusting to a fairly steady 20 mph over the duration of the course. It could be a factor.

The Author crosses the Finish Line

6 mile, 9 mile, 19 mile…which would it be? The usual suspects in our northeast surfski crowd pondered the pluses and minuses of each. The 6 is an all out drag race from start to finish, with nary a portage involved. The 19 (18.4 miles, to be exact) is for true masochists: comprising 6 portages, the longest a half mile along a busy Wellesley city street, it’s paddled at a slightly more measured pace than the 6 because, well, it is more than three times as long. The 9 represents the middle of the road choice, splitting the difference in length with 3 portages, offering a compromise between the two extremes.

I’ve always done the 19. Why? I don’t know, as I view the whole concept of running in general to be a flight-based activity, let alone with a boat hung on one’s shoulder. A former cyclist, my belief system holds that if the good Lord bequeathed us pedals or paddles, then we should use them. In actuality, my good friend, Sean Milano, initially suggested the 19 many moons ago back when we were humping 65 pound sea kayaks for the duration. My first foray involved an NDK Explorer; I might as well have raced a lead-filled picnic cooler for the distance. Sean would not make it this year due to family obligations-he was where he needed to be. This year, Wesley ‘My boat weighs 19 pounds’ Echols, and Tim ‘Magic Bars’ Dwyer would join us, along with regulars Roger ‘Under Armour’ Gocking, Tommy (Kahuna) Kerr, and lo and behold, Ray ‘New York Mayors Cup’ Fusco.

Ray is a self-professed sandbagger. The man has the fitness and prowess to have paddled from Split, Croatia to Italy, but would cherry pick the rec boat division at a Cub Scout Jamboree. As soon as Ray arrived at the Doubletree Marriott the night before, he proceeded to dissect and analyze each potential race scenario and cast of competitors, with the precision of one who had set his sights on the precious paper award certificate mailed to us six weeks after the event. This continued on through dinner at John Harvard’s Ale House, through our stroll through the city streets of Cambridge, back at the hotel room, and even through the chorus of “Good night, John Boy”s when it came to lights out back in room #1112. I must admit I did fan those anxious flames a little bit: “Make SURE you run river left through the rapid under the Moody Street Bridge. You’ll be able to hear its unnerving roar well in advance-the spectators line the bridge hoping for carnage with true NASCAR mentality. If you’re anywhere else other than river left…” Tom chimed in, picking up on the action: ” You’ll know it when you get there, just look for the blood on the rocks. ” (Evil smile…)

Four guys in two small hotel rooms can deplete the available oxygen pretty rapidly-somehow, I managed a bit of sleep (or possibly just passed out from asphyxiation), and we rolled out the next day to meet the ever-so-generous Aims and Terri Coney at the finish line in for a trailered boat transport to the start line. Rob ‘Flan Man’ Flanagan met us there, and clearly, clearly was not paying attention to Aim’s safety instructions on how to exit a minivan in the event of a catastrophic minivan emergency-we relied on Rob to release us from our third row backseat exile-we never would have made it out alive. Thanks again, Aims and Terry-you’re good folks, and we’re glad we could make you laugh a little with our antics. 

Arriving at Herter Park, the registration line stretched out like a scene from a Wal-Mart on Black Friday. For some reason, the usually extremely well-organized system seemed to be experiencing its fair share of hiccups. The captain’s meeting started later than the norm, yet start times were not adjusted to reflect this. Thus, racers were hurriedly throwing their boats in the water to warm up. I quickly stowed, taped, and set up my red and gold Westside EFT ‘She Who Shall Not Be Named.’ Popping the hatch to stow my wallet and car keys, I found a large, duct-taped bundle of kindling courtesy of my partners in crime, Jim Hoffman and Steve Delgaudio. Off to the water to warm up. The 19 miler’s warm up space is woefully constricted-if you paddle downriver, you run the risk of impeding the path of racers starting before you. Thus, everyone ducks under the low-lying arches of the stone bridge upstream, where coincidentally, you cannot view the start line itself.

This little bit of foreshadowing was necessary to set the stage for how this author missed his start time by at least a minute and a half. I futzed about on water with a friend’s GPS settings, and somehow emerged from under the bridge’s stone arches blocked behind a clot of SUPs, to witness my class paddling off into the distance. As I frenziedly weaved my way through vertical figures poling with pizza paddles, and tapped my GPS to start as my bow cleaved the start line, I heard Jim and Steve shouting from the shore: “We gave ‘em all a head start for you, Mark!!!” (Coincidentally, they too, would miss their start time in their 6 mile race later-as Jim would comment later, karma comes back around…) Since I was (in cycling terminology) ‘OTB’ (off the back) from the getgo, much of this race recap will be from, as my friend David Joblin has termed it, ‘the tail of the pig.’ Feel free to hit delete or stop reading, if a ‘Debbie Downer’ account depresses you. :)

Still here? All right, then… The first five miles to portage #1 generally slide by rather quickly…if you go off with the group. This is where the slicing, dicing and maneuvering initially takes place-alliances are forged, and gaps created. I could fuzzily make out the windmilling paddles of the racers ahead, so went WFO (a motocross term), to enact damage control.

Numbers on the Garmin averaged a fairly steady 7.5 mph, and eventually, I could recognize some familiar individuals on the horizon. I set my sights on Roger and Ray in their twin Epic 18x Ultras. The wind was a factor-a factor in my favor, as I do love a fine headwind. My Westside EFT (toted out of the garage for this one race a year), provides the perfect platform to apply power. Prior to the first portage, I passed Bruce Weik in his EFT, and Ed Dvorchak, calling out pleasantries as I slid by. I came up on and passed Mark Jacobson, from Charles River Canoe and Kayak, in his Tiger K-1. We reenact the same scenario just about every year. I knew as soon as the running legs began, he’d pitter-patter past me, so I used the speed of the EFT to gap him, hoping to open enough to offset what I knew I’d lose when we took to land. An old bicycle racing coach once instructed: “Never accelerate into undisturbed air,” and the same applies to kayak racing and water, albeit it happens at a much slower rate. With this in mind, I’d drop into another boats wash momentarily, just long enough to accelerate, then pop over the stern and side wash, picking off boat after boat. I also weighed such an early effort’s toll on having something left in the tank later in the race.

At the first portage, I reeled in Ray and Roger, who was cursing up a blue streak wading back into the water to retrieve his wheels that were once again, bent on a burial at sea as they did last year. For such a highly educated man, he sure can lay down a stream of curses to rival a longshoreman. Ray was uncharacteristically quiet, despite my winning words of encouragement. I attempted my best rendition of a jog behind him through the tight trail to the next put in.

Portage #2 comes almost immediately after that, so I hung back here also, thinking that we might trade pulls on the paddling portions. I was Mr. Positive, full of sunshine and good cheer. I think, had Ray been willing to expend the energy required to pick up a branch or maybe a pointy rock along this route, he might have beat me with it. Mark had made up time on the portages as I feared he might, so was right on us.

Portage #3 is the Godawful long one, roughly a bit more than a half mile down a busy public artery in Wellesley. Those with wheels really reap their benefits down this thoroughfare. You can hear them rumbling up behind you, a red rage takes over, and you entertain thoughts of causing them bodily harm. If I fell prey to these albeit justified urges however, my only legal defense would be to claim that I only do what the voices in my head tell me to do.

Maybe it was the good nature of the many volunteers lining the course, or the happy go lucky attitudes of the friendly police officers stopping traffic to allow our trudging bodies safe passage, but the good ole Ray we know and love returned around here, shouting something about stopping for lattes at the Starbucks we passed, his voice a trifle more high-pitched and maniacal than usual. He may have been gesticulating wildly with his one free arm. In any event, the man was born again-there was a newfound spring to his step and it made me laugh. Despite my bowed like a question mark posture, the portage passed mercifully quickly.

Up until this point, I had been feeling pretty special. This one took a lot out of me, without my realizing it. Although my EFT is relatively light, at 33 pounds, I had strapped a 100 oz. Camelbak under the rear deck bungees, so it wasn’t quite the feathery carry the K1 guys were enjoying.

Back in the riffles, Ray leaped in like a gazelle and paddled away, and I thought it well nigh time to squeeze down an energy gel for a little well-needed boost. As per the norm, I had pre-torn the tear-off tops of each gel, taping them to the foredeck. With one pull, the top rips away, you squeeze it quickly down, fling the spent package in your boat, and you’re off. For this particular race, I had picked up Hammer Gels, not the usual Powergels or GU packs I usually use. To my shock and surprise, I pulled the gel, tearing the top cleanly, squeezed it, and, nothing… Squeezing harder, the heavy-duty aluminized pouch of the Hammer Gel resisted my strong-arm tactics to pop it like a balloon into my mouth. My forearm bulged like Popeye’s. I resorted to tearing it like a jackal at carrion with my incisors, rivaling Roger for this year’s most creative and colorful use of expletives. The second one was no different. I gnawed at it like a frenzied beaver, finally releasing a precious squoosh or two of simple sugars into my gaping gullet. ‘I hate you, Hammer Gels!!!’ my carbohydrate deprived brain screamed.

A race this distance is as much a mind game as anything else. On the heels of the Hammer Gel fiasco, I decided to settle in, remembering the good Mr. Delgaudio’s instruction to plant the blade, exit early. Finding my rhythm again, I edged past Ray, calling for him to ride wash. Ray was redlining at this point, and despite several Herculean attempts on his part, the hullspeed of the EFT won out, and eventually I was alone again. The wind picked up in intensity, at times threatening to tug the wing blade from my hand, the occasional Kamikaze Canadian goose honked in warning, strafing me by mere inches touching down on the water, and I dropped into that zone where the miles melt away.

I wish I could say I remembered each portage with crystalline recollection, planning my strategy for the fastest line, or most efficient dismount/remount technique. Really, the only two things I vividly recall are coordinating take out points with C-2 racers Larry Liquori and Shawn Burke, and Moody Street Dam portage #5, the oh-so-attractive take out winding through warehouses and chain link fences. My cockpit had somehow filled with water and suddenly shifted to the bow, as I staggered up the slippery, rock and root-laced embankment, lurching drunkenly toward a line of frightened spectators faced with a full bow of waterlogged Westside boat. They shrunk back in alarm, eyes wide at the prospect of being skewered on its blunt prow. I blurted apologies over one shoulder as mid stride, arching over and tipping its cockpit, I purged gallons of Charles River H2O, spilling down my shoulder and soaking my right side.

The Moody Street Dam ‘rapid’ I had ever so gleefully warned Ray about was a non-event. Each year, I worry a bit about it, knowing that a number of people swim regularly here. Each year, it amounts to nothing more than a couple quick up and downs through the riffles, nothing a surf skier would even raise an eyebrow at. Perhaps it’s the sheer stability of the EFT that welcomes this, but this year I aimed straight for the mini haystacks down the center. The spectators line the bridge above, hoping for a capsize. Punching through aggressively and cleanly, I could hear a few go: “Awww!” disappointed I wasn’t gasping and dog paddling for the shore.

The river picks up here-I love this section-the twists and turns invite skidding the stern sideways, shooting eddies from corner to corner-10 mph came up on my clock on a number of occasions. Then things settle down, one last short portage-balloons, I remember lots of balloons on the grass-and it’s the last push to Artesani Park in Brighton, and the finish line festivities.

The final stretch I hammered hard, Betsy Echols, and Leslie Chappell once again cheered me in, shutters clicking. Wesley helped me carry my boat on to the grass, and as I placed it down beside his cherry red Viper 55, Tom approached, already changed into shorts-a trifle demoralizing. Helen and Chris Parkinson came up to congratulate. Quickly doing the Superman routine in my vehicle in the parking lot into something warm myself, we rushed back to the river, to welcome in our peeps in the 6 miler. Chris Chappell was hard charging in his signal orange Mohican, nipped at the finish by Oleg Panchenko, who dueled with Chris for most of the race, then came around in the sprint with his green Nelo K-1. This race, too, was the victim of logistical errors, several racers caught by surprise when start times went off earlier than expected. Jim, Steve, Francisco, Mike, Bob, all paddled hard…the list goes on; Wesley and I were yelling like fishmongers over the wind to cheer them in.

In my race, I confess I never had contact with the front runners, unless we corresponded via FaceBook, chatted taping on numbers and Hammer Gels (!) on the grass at Herter Park, or rode shotgun in my RAV, road tripping up to Bean Town (Tom). Well raced, all.

The barbecue was a long-anticipated treat. Thank you, Pam Browning and Ted van Dusen, for allowing us to crash at the NECKRA space. The Flan Man was masterful on the grill, searing turkey burgers, brats, and sausages for a hungry band of paddle buds. The wind was driving, the laughter in competition for its volume, as we relived the previous miles in minutiae. Another great day…another great ROTC Race.

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About Mark

I gravitated to surfskis from fast sea kayaks, and prior to that, racing road and mountain bicycles. Living in the 'New Englandy' landlocked town of Ridgefield, CT, the salt water of Long Island Sound is thankfully not far. Although I enjoy the racing aspect of the sport, just being out there beyond the confines of the land is what's important; everything appears different from the water's perspective. A favorite pursuit is wielding the mighty pen to relive race memories via lengthy recounts of events that took mere seconds to transpire. 'Hope you enjoy the recaps, and look forward to seeing you out on the open water.