Saturday, October 13, 2018

So after spending some time in the cavernous depths of sorrow about losing a week's worth of writing, I have found it within myself to start writing again. The possible regret about letting an important chapter of this blog go unwritten has outweighed the inconvenience of losing the draft and I'm back to tell the tale. Who knows, maybe even in a more coherent and grammatically correct manner than the first time! I know I am not always great about posting regularly, but this minor crisis has shown me that this process of writing and recounting my experiences is not only hopefully interesting for the reader but is also an important exercise for me to gain and maintain perspective on this journey. Admittedly, the lost blog post was a difficult one for me to write which was why completing it was very satisfying and consequently losing it equally upsetting. It was not quite as dramatic as the shredding of the million dollar Banksy painting this past week, but pouring my heart and energy into something only for it to cease to exist did leave me wondering where it goes? Sure the draft and the words in it are gone forever but I know the meaning and awareness that I drew from the act of writing it doesn't just disappear.  No one will ever read that post but because of it I think I can write another. And here it goes. 

No Margin for Error

In the last week before we left for Worlds, I would describe my mindset as hopeful. It felt like up to that point we had a summer that was fun and full of purposeful distractions but that we hadn't really peeled off all of the layers to uncover new 2018 speed. Nothing had been particularly underwhelming, in fact, I would say we were breaking ground in a lot of exciting areas, most notably flexibility and technical mechanics, but we just had not seen new speed yet. It felt like we were producing similar things to 2017, which were acceptable, but the year to year growth had not shown up on the speed coach quite yet. That all being said, I was hopeful that during this last week of race prep work and as we started to rest we might start to see the fruits of our labor. And it was the case. Right as we started to sprinkle in a little more rest and some more speed, boom, we're cooking. A particularly memorable workout for me was 4 x 1k/7' rest-- probably the most honest 2k pace workout we do. Our big goal for the summer was to break 6:10 and this would be a very good indicator of how we were doing in that regard. We did all the pieces in a decent 4-5 mph tailwind. Two from a start, two finishing. The targets were 3.04 for the two starting pieces and 3.06 for the finishing pieces, hoping that our average for the workout would be 6:10 pace or under.  In the past this was a workout that, Ben Dann and I could throw down a 3:00 1k and then struggle to finish the workout. With Ben Davison, it's a different profile. Off the start, we got to rhythm, didn't overwork it, and had two really solid pieces going 3:03.7 and 3:03.4. On the finishing pieces, we went 3:03.4 and 3:03.4. It was remarkable consistency and definitely the best rowing we had done together--not to mention the fastest set of 1k's I've done in a double. I think Ben Dann and I had averaged 6:14-15 before and we the fastest 2k we ever did was 6:14.0. There is not a workout that is a perfect predictor for a 2k other than a 2k, but this workout gave us confidence that sub6:10 was definitely not unrealistic. You don't always need numbers to validate what your doing and give you confidence but this was a particularly important workout for us to feel like we were not the same boat as 2017 and we were going to Plovdiv with realistically high expectations. The thing about expectations is...they are the root of all heartache. Or so Shakespeare said. 

We arrived in Plovdiv and joined the rest of the US Team at our now infamous hotel, Hotel St. Petersburg. I will spare you all the details but lets just say the majority of the hotel was under construction, we had no air conditioning, and no shower curtain. It was pretty funny at times but the no AC thing really wore on me the first week we were there and it was around 90 F every day. Fortunately, the rest of our transition went pretty smoothly.  Probably the smartest thing we did this summer was lease a boat from Empacher for Lucerne that we would row at Worlds. We set the boat up the way we wanted in Lucerne and then were able to confidently slap the riggers on and go for a row right away. Of course, we had to make some minor adjustments but it was a great feeling to have the boat variable taken care of. We underperformed, no doubt about it, but it had nothing to do with our equipment, of that I am sure. The buzz around the boat park all week was about how fast the water was and how fast everyone was going in training. No doubt the water was fast and with the right wind there was certain to be some records broken. I wish I had paid more attention to what exactly was making the times fast because I think it might have been able to inform our strategy a little better going into our Heat. Looking back, my sense is that the first 500 in particular of the Plovdiv course is crazy fast, for whatever reason. Maybe its the way the chop builds throughout the course or the way the wind hits the water, but it just seemed like comparatively, the starting 250 was almost free, and the rest of the race was choppy and hard to row in. When we did starting 250's leading into racing, I was amazed by the numbers we were getting but I just chalked it up to the entire course being fast. More on that later. 
On Saturday afternoon, the Draw came out and the board was finally set. But there was an unexpected twist. Lithuania and Serbia had scratched so the progression had changed. Instead of having 5 heats with the top 4 going to 4 quarterfinals it would be 4 heats with only the winner going to the Semi and the rest going to 4 Reps. I was initially excited that two decent boats had scratched and that the event might be slightly more forgiving, but upon a more thorough look there was potential for some unfortunate situations if anyone bagged their heat. This progression works fine as long as the Heats are seeded well and as long as the seeded crews don't play games. Our heat featured Great Britain( winner of WC2 and Henley), Romania( Silver at Europeans), Bulgaria, Norway, and Ukraine. With only the winner progressing directly through, it looked unlikely that we would miss the Rep, but we felt like the best game plan was to finish as high as possible to get the best draw we could in the next round. Our plan was to go the full distance and we felt like in order to do that we would just need to draw upon the 1k's we did in Craftsbury. We didn't need to set a record to the 1k, we just needed to keep repeating speed the way we showed we could. If we were relentless, we felt like we might not win, but we would be a handful for whoever is ahead of us. 
As I mentioned earlier, we did not realize just how pivotal the first 500 would be in the race and our plan to race the full distance ended up translating into a less aggressive start. We found ourselves farther down to GB than expected and I called an audible for us to stick with them around the 750, but the damage had been done. They were already open water up and we were beginning to feel their wake in an already choppy third 500. Still, we were ahead of Romania, we were moving through Bulgaria, and Norway's stern was starting to come back into view. To be honest, I was really surprised. It just seemed like no one was paying for their quick starts the way that people normally would. It was as if the first 500 was just free to go as fast as you want with no repercussions. As we began to really dig into the fight in the third 500, the water was getting worse and worse and we were really struggling to find and maintain our traction. We had passed Bulgaria and were still ahead of Romania, but the Norwegians were hanging on. We caught a couple diggers in the chop and were never quite able to get the grip we needed to come through for second. We crossed the line in third and drifted towards the dock with our heads down. Neither of us felt totally gassed, it was almost like we couldn't row well enough together to actually full use our fitness. We were understandably frustrated but we also knew that the Heat was just the beginning and this regatta was just getting started. A lackluster Heat cannot define your entire regatta, we thought. And we thought wrong. 
Ben and I stood by the results board, looked at the times of the other Heats and waited for the Rep draw to come out. At the time, I can honestly say that I was not anticipating the Rep draw to be anything particularly surprising or damning. I was happy we had finished ahead of Romania and Bulgaria because I was confident we could beat all of the other non-seeded crews in the other Heats. Sure we had plenty to work on but I kind of felt like we had gotten jumped off the start and that was something I knew we could fix. We would have a great opportunity in the Rep to get back on track and then be ready to make a charge at the A Final in the AB Semi. Ben left the Results board and went to change and just as he did, an official came up and stapled the draw on the board. Rep 1, Switzerland, Poland, USA, Greece, Slovenia. Top 2 to AB Semi. Rest to CD Semi. Hmm...what? First of all, I didn't even see that Poland was in the Reps. I looked back at their Heat and sure enough they got fourth. The last time we raced Poland they won Lucerne, how were they in the Rep? We would later find out that the 2017 Silver medalists were slightly sick in the Heat and decided to shut in down early and save it for the Reps. Like I said earlier, once somebody does that, this progression is not great. When I told Ben, I could tell he was thinking, " Why does it feel like this always happens to us?" It doesn't always happen, I think this one is pretty egregiously bad, but its true that last year we had a significantly more stacked Rep than the other and although we won our rep, it took a lot out of us and didn't put us in a good position for the Semi. It's not that Ben and I looked at the Rep and immediately relegated ourselves to the C Final; in many ways, we yearned for this type of showdown with two proven medalists. It might not be exactly the setting we envisioned, somewhere down the line we would need to beat these boats to achieve our goals. So, yes, we definitely let ourselves have a "why us?" moment, but then we quickly moved to thinking how we were going to get over this hurdle. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the wind was swirly and it was unclear what kind of conditions we were going to be dealing with. As we paddled to the start, we saw the LM2x quarterfinals coming down and we could immediately tell that something was up. There were huge margins and every boat in the inside lane was winning. A cross headwind was building and as we took some warm up strokes into the headwind we began to realize that this was going to be a messy and slow race. Still, Ben and I both felt really good and confident. In the headwind, we would focus on holding the feather slightly, slotting the blade, and having a broader power application. As we pulled into the starting area, we were informed that the lanes were being shifted to the other side of the course and there would be a 20 min delay. We stayed loose, took a couple more short warm up loops and by the time we got back down to the starting area they told us to go back to the docks because racing had been cancelled due to unfair conditions. For a guy that hates to warm up and loves to race, this was a difficult experience.  A good amount of beet juice and espresso was wasted that afternoon. 

Our race was rescheduled for first thing the following morning. We came down and took a quick 4k loop on the course and then sat around for about a half an hour and sipped coffee before beginning our race warm up on the erg. It was a beautifully crisp, clear, and cool morning with little to no wind. We had perfect conditions but this early morning quiet environment was strange for a do or die race like this. Eerily similar to an NSR or Trials race on Mercer. I honestly don't even remember if the announcers had made it down for this early morning race, I just remember it being so quiet. I would say we did not have quite as sharp or explosive of a warm up as we did the day before, but I know Ben and I were both on the same page about what we were about to do. We needed to get off the line and put ourselves up in the fight right away. We backed into the stake boat and I looked over at Switzerland and Poland on our left and Greece and Slovenia on our right. All the action would be to our left. Gold and Bronze medalists from World Cup 3 right next to us and we needed to knock one of them off. If Poland was still sick or even a little off their game, we were going to make them pay. Last year at Worlds, we finished right behind the Swiss in the B Final, so this was a great chance to show that we had made a big step forward. 

The red light turned to green and we blasted off. Weight off the seat and launch. We had a clean start and clearly were bringing another level of speed off the start compared to our heat. Unfortunately, Switzerland also had a lackluster start in their heat( despite finishing in 6.05 in the second fastest time of the day) and they were also intent on leading from the get go. Still, both our boats were blazing our of the blocks and we sat slightly ahead of Poland and Greece, the reigning U23 World Champs, going through the 500. We shifted slightly down to 37 and the Swiss crept out a little bit on us. We were still sitting up on Poland by a deck or so and the three of us were moving away quickly from Greece and Slovenia. As we got to halfway, Switzerland had pulled out to 3/4 of a length and Poland had pulled even with us. I knew we had to try to match them here and for about 250 we did. It did not feel like a particular move that they did, but rather just gradually moving away from us with inches. By the 1500, Poland has slipped out to our bow and we sat a couple seconds down on both boats. Our boat felt light and I could fell Ben trying to go, but as we got into the red buoys I was stalling. My left forearm was going and I couldn't shift gears with Ben. It saddens me to even write those words but it's the truth. I spent so much time this year working with Marc on my shoulders and forearms to make sure nothing like this would happen, but here we were when it really mattered, and I was holding us back. I did my best to just send my legs and back with fury, but I didn't have enough dexterity to go to the type of speed we needed to go to.  All three boats held their position and we crossed the line in third, a couple seconds behind the Swiss and Poland. I don't know if we could have gotten through Poland but I know we had another gear to show and I held us back from going there.   Switzerland would go on to win Silver and Poland would just miss out on the A Final finishing 8th.  Romania and Bulgaria, who we beat in the Heat would finish 6th and 12th respectively. And your US double was on it's way to the C/D Semifinal later in the afternoon...

Unfortunately, once I burned my forearm up in the Rep, it was very aggravated for the rest of the regatta. We had our week come to a very anticlimactic end in extremely messy conditions in the C Final where I think Ben’s forearms were toast by the end, as well. We led handily in the first 1k when the water was more manageable, only to fall apart in the chop have Argentina move through us. It was insult to injury. We had beaten Argentina by 8 seconds in the B Final in Lucerne. So why was this happening and more specifically why now? Well, for me in the Rep I think it was doing more work with my left arm than my right arm and after a while of rowing at your max, it just shuts down. When we had the Empower Oarlocks on the 2x, this was the biggest thing I was working on. My Work value on my starboard oarlock was always significantly higher than my port. In order for the values to even out it would feel like I was only pulling on my right side. Clearly, I had a mechanical advantage on that side probably through some inflexibility in my ankles or hips. It’s crazy how it’s all connected. I think so many people have similar problems with their stroke but especially in the single you can compensate to make it work. In a team boat, you have to row as symmetrically as possible or in at least in a way that will help you match the arc of your partner. 

I’d say this is part of what frustrates me about our situation in the double; we know that there are important differences in our strokes that cause issues but we don’t have enough time to really dig into them to make lasting change. The imbalances that cause a forearm to freeze up are 100% fixable, but its only possible by rowing a massive volume of perfect strokes together. This is just something, up to this point, we have not been able to do and thats why when we race, our range of performances are much more sinusoidal compared to our competition. I know that we are capable of qualifying the double for the Olympics next year by getting top 11 at 2019 Worlds, but only at our best and with a few things going our way. We need to be operating with a much tighter margin between our best and worst performances to reduce the possibility of this year’s regatta happening again when it really matters—next year. In the M2x, there is no margin for error and if you're staying the same you are falling behind. Romania is a great example of a boat we beat last year that is now in the A Final and won a medal at Europeans. There's no reason we couldn't have moved up into the A Final instead of them this year. I guess, to be fair, we beat them in the Heat.  I guess one silver lining about us having a disappointing experience this year is that it has us asking the right questions before it’s too late. 

Something that we were certainly not missing this summer was support. We were incredibly fortunate to have Steve Whelpley, Dick and Judy, Troy Howell, and so many others at the Outdoor Center totally in our corner and behind our efforts. We are bummed that we didn't get to shine a brighter light on the GRP and the Outdoor Center with our performance but I hope people recognize that our double would not exist without the GRP. Thank you, Steve, for having limitless energy and passion and backing it up with a ton of hard work behind the scenes to make a special summer in Craftsbury. 

In the short term, Ben and I are both rowing the Champ 1x at the Head of the Charles against an incredibly deep international field. I have been down in Princeton for the last couple of weeks just getting back to normal training in the single but will be in Boston the entire upcoming week rowing out of CBC leading into HOCR. I raced this morning at the Head of the Kevin and am excited to spend the next week tuning myself up to race and working on my steering. I think considering I drove all day yesterday and this morning was my first practice on the course, HOK went decently. I wanted to race because every year I feel like I finish the Champ 1x and wish I could do something differently or better. I wanted to give myself the chance to make some mistakes and then correct them on the day that counts. I thought I rowed very close to my ideal race for about 2.5-3k and then had a pretty big lull from Anderson to Belmont Hill. Kevin Meador, this year's M1x at Worlds started behind me and while I had moved out well early in the piece, he was really closing the gap during that 3k-4k section. Once we got to the final stretch I was able to take the rate up and move out a little bit but I will need to eliminate that lull if I am going to have a chance at staying ahead of the crowd of Manson, Drysdale, Zeidler, Martin, Campbell, Davison, and many others. 

Thanks for reading, I really appreciate it. 

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