While a few masochistic hold-outs still suffer through the longer 19 and 9 mile courses of the Run of the Charles, the more portage-averse of us have settled into the 6 mile race like a long-lost shoe. With 30+ surfskis participating, this would be the largest ever junior ROTC enrollment. The entire graduating class of 2011 reunited for the occasion – former ski-cadets Chappell, Echols, Capellini, and Urena. Francisco even brought his original boat, which is the oldest Stellar still on active commission in the New England fleet.
Starting from Christian A. Herter Park we’d wind 2.5 miles down the Charles turn on a buoy, return a half mile past the start, then round a second buoy to head for the finish. On the downstream leg of the race, you pass under 5 bridges. Depending on your fatigue level, that number may increase dramatically on the upstream trip. Remember to report discrepancies to the timekeeper after the race – you’ll be credited for any extras. With a light current and few opportunities to tuck out of the wind, navigational strategy at this race consists mostly of avoiding bridge abutments and staying clear of the odd duck (which is what we call Bill Kuklinski when he’s out of earshot).
Before the race, I heard defending champion Jesse Lishchuk discussing a recent trial with the new Braca Xi (not sure if the model is a reference to the 14th letter in the Greek alphabet or the current president of China). In praising the paddle, he mentioned that he was able to maintain 12.8 km/hour at his cruising pace of 85 strokes per minute in his ICF boat. I don’t know about you guys, but I need to get revved up to a turnover of at least 100 spm just to hold my position against a slight breeze. Last year I obtained a Motionize sensor. Not knowing about Eric McNett’s inadvertent give-away promotion at the L2L, I paid full-price like a sucker. I realized I had stroke power issues when the meters/stroke reading was displayed in scientific notation. And not in a good way. Fortunately, you can adjust the units. It was too dispiriting to change to millimeters per stroke, so I went with meters per kilostroke. I’m happy to report that after intensive strength training, I’m close to breaking into double digits.
Craig Impens and Ben Pigott – both of whom normally would be serious threats – had independently assured me that their early-season training had been perfunctory. It seemed odd that they’d use that same term, but I took them at their word (and also put a down-payment on some can’t-miss Jersey real estate that Craig was pushing). Eric Costanzo had run the Bay Bridge Paddle in Maryland the day before (as had Jesse), so with any luck he’d still be recovering from crab cake withdrawal. Jan Lupinski and Mike Florio – from them, I expected trouble.
Mike loomed large in my nightmares after a disconcerting 3rd place Narrow River finish in his debut surfski race. It may take him a while to find his sea legs, but on the flat he’d again be a formidable fighter. Exploiting the mystery surrounding himself as a newcomer, Mike holed up behind the tinted glass in the backseat of a car before the race, only to emerge into the chilly afternoon in his shorts moments before the race, letting his purple satin robe drop to the ground while throwing intimidating shadow strokes. After the race, he’d reverse this process – returning to the car and declining all interview requests. His publicist would later claim that this gamesmanship was actually indicative of Mike’s lack of discernible body fat, combined with the fact that he forgot to bring long pants. Only the most gullible among us bought this “I was cold” justification.
Dodging the first wave of canoes to finish the 19 mile race, we warmed up and made our way to the starting line for an on-time departure. Jesse immediately took point, with wing-man Jan in tow. One of my New Year’s resolutions – along with using fewer asides and parentheticals – was to stay well right of the left-leaning crowd on the initial bend of the ROTC. Having embroiled myself in the bitter infighting along the left bank for the past three races, this time I’d take a more conservative route. As one might expect, Tim Dwyer attempted to shepherd me back to the flock by angling gently to port in front of me and firing a few cutting Facebook posts across my bow. I unfriended him, skipped a few strokes, and ducked behind his stern to liberty.
Shortly before reaching the first bridge, I pulled ahead of a tight formation consisting of Craig, Eric, Chris Chappell, and Mike to move into 5th position (which was wreaking havoc with my circulation). Jesse and Jan were already a good half-dozen lengths out front, with Ben and Andrius Zinkevichus giving independent chase. A half mile later I had passed Andrius and pulled alongside Ben, sizing him up to determine exactly how much time that two-month old back at home had sapped from his training. Thinking I saw some distinct signs of lethargy, I confidently made my move, only to find him locked onto a torpor-free starboard draft. It took a half-mile and several concerted intervals to pry myself free from his grasp. He would still manage to finish 5th, so I expect that once the kid is old enough to bungee to the back deck, father and son will be tearing up the race circuit.
Jesse and Jan continued out ahead by about ten lengths. Although Jesse had been pulling for the first mile or so, now Jan was leading the pair. Despite my efforts over the next mile, the stubborn gap between us remained constant. After the turn, Jesse retook the lead. As I straightened out to head back upstream, I glimpsed Mike charging towards the turn. Given how fast he had closed on me in the final stretch of the Narrow River, I wasn’t thrilled to find that he was within striking distance.
Within a couple of minutes after the turn, Jesse had gapped Jan. Over the next mile and a half, I whittled down Jan’s lead by slowing carving off pieces from my life expectancy. When I finally caught him at mile 4, I knew that it was critical to pass him with authority. I couldn’t let him know how much I was hurting. While enjoying a brief rest on his draft, I girded my loins for the upcoming battle. Apparently I was a little fuzzy on the meaning of “gird”, because punching myself in the groin did nothing for boat morale. Nevertheless, I peeled off to port and hurled myself directly into a stiff interval. It was working! I felt one eyeball bulging dangerously out of its socket and I was in real danger of suffering a kilostroke, but I managed to move along the shore inside of Jan into second place. By forcing myself to maintain the interval until I was well into megastroke range, I hoped to ensure that he wouldn’t grab my draft.
Chasing after Jesse seemed futile, but not every task needs to have a rational purpose driving it. Shuffleboard. Sudoku. Showering. And that’s just the S’s. At least this pointless pursuit would keep me occupied until a minute or so from the end. I’m going to try to avoid thinking of that as a metaphor for life. As I passed the finish line on our way to the upstream turn, I heard cheers from the shore. My parents, who insisted on attending the competition to “see if those years of piano lessons paid off”, had overcome their disappointment at discovering the nature of the event to root me on. They remarked afterwards that I had always played with “a lot of passion”, and that they were glad they could apply the same platitude to my paddling.
I was surprised to find that the second turn buoy was being patrolled by a sleek fishing boat with an electric trolling motor. I’m no ichthyologist (at least, not since the state licensing board revoked my credentials following those sardine-marlin hybridization experiments – with my vast legions of daggerfish, I would have ruled the seas!), but I’m pretty sure that giant orange buoys aren’t the kind of habitat that attracts sports fish. And yet here was this bass-cracker circumscribing tight circles around the marker. Underestimating his capacity for obliviousness, I had to correct my course at the last moment when it became clear he was going to block my direct line. And that’s how Jesse beat me by 47 seconds rather than 45.5 seconds.
Some of us geezers remember when you could buy a nickel’s worth of sweets for 4 cents and you could guarantee yourself a win by breaking 50 minutes at the ROTC. Probably because of all that cheap candy everybody was eating. Since 2016, though, you’d better break 48 minutes if you want to stand next to Jesse on the podium. With a time of 46:34, a race-weary Lishchuk broke his old course record. I finished at 47:21 and Jan at 48:02, meaning the newspapers could save a few bucks on film by reusing last year’s podium photo. Mike, Ben, Eric, Andrius, Craig, Tim D, and Chris C followed to fill out the top ten. On the women’s side, Mary Beth and Jen Kreamer sparred over most of the course, with MB ultimately getting the win. Leslie Chappell took the final podium spot.
Invariably, after I’ve had a solid finish someone will come up to me and say “Great job.” Hey, thank you. Then he’ll add, “I don’t know how you do it.” Well, by putting in the bucket hours, I guess. Then he’ll stare off into the distance, shaking his head slowly to underscore that my performance literally defies his belief. It’s difficult to not take some offense at this – at least until I get home and watch my technique on the GoPro video. It goes without saying that all of the above, including the head-shaking disbelief, is delivered with a pronounced Polish accent.
The rains that started halfway through the race tapered off just as the Capellini’s barbecued meat reached optimum temperature, proving once again the power of pulled pork. Of course, there was other food as well. Tim Hudyncia is legendary not only for an encyclopedic knowledge of semi-poisonous foods, but also for his willingness to broaden this culinary sphere with the help of unwitting test subjects. I haven’t been able to remember my middle name or comprehend US politics since last year’s Hudynciation. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see that he and Jen had brought chocolate ice cream to the pot luck. Evidently Tim had made a sudden about-face to conventionality. It was only afterwards I found that the ice cream was made from dolphin milk and home-regurgitated cocoa beans. Wasn’t half bad.
I hope somebody remembered to take some food to car-bound Mike.
We have a few weeks off until the Essex River Race. Check the site – same course, different registration venue. Come brine your feet in preparation for open water season. As usual, liquid, solid, and gelatinous refreshments will be available at our house following the awards.