Thursday, April 6, 2017

Narrow River Race: Young Guns

Although the Snow Row is technically the first race of the New England season, it's more of a novelty act than a true race - the juggling pig of the surfski world.  The real action would start with the Narrow River Race, co-chaired by Wesley and Tim.  After being pushed one day into the future by inclement weather, we'd finally all get a chance to see the world of tomorrow.  I, for one, was looking forward to exciting new wine cooler flavors.

Another race day in the northeast...
The Sunday of the race dawned, disappointingly, like any other day.  Maybe a little warmer.  Contrary to what you'd expect from its name, the trademark of the Narrow River is not its breadth, but its depth.  The river is best described as "damp" - a thin glaze of water spread sparingly over a muddy substrate.  Just enough to keep the quahogs clammy.  Locals still talk about the flood of '89, when Joey Larson's water heater gave way up there on South River Drive.  With recent dredging of the shallowest section, however, at least this year we wouldn't spend half the race trying to extract our paddle blades from the muck.

Wesley and Tim have established Rhode Island as the de facto surfski capital of New England through their tireless promotion of the sport.  They've helped build a timeworn community of like-minded competitors that share a certain... dignified maturity.  It seems, however, that we seasoned paddlers are losing our allure.  The reassuring chorus of popping shoulders and the familiar odor of Bengay is no longer enough to maintain the duo's interest.   While Wesley and Tim have drafted some age-appropriate recruits from the sailing community in Tim Hacket and Rob Myles, they've also been cruising the beaches of Narragansett Bay in search of fresher fare.  They found it.  Obsolescence will surely follow.

Bob was dispensing vitamins freely before the race.  I'm not sure whether it was the riboflavin or the niacin, but by the fifth stanza of the race, I was seeing flavors with some truly groovy textures.
Lifeguards at Narragansett Town Beach (conveniently located near the mouth of the Narrow River), Mike Florio and Christopher Quinn joined us for their first surfski race.  Veterans of the state's grueling cross-discipline Lifeguard Tournament and hard-core fitness buffs, these guys were prepared to hit the water running.  That strategy may fly when saving a life (and, come to think of it, might actually work well for this particular race), but after we pointed out that it'd be a serious breach of ski etiquette, they agreed to stick to paddling.  However, requests that Mike tone down his contagious exuberance - similarly uncouth within our circle - fell on deaf ears.  Well, technically, fell on ears with frequency acuity much closer to that of a dog than to most of ours.

At least one paddler came prepared for the future.
Tim had warned me that despite being new to the sport, Mike and Christopher had been training hard and would be immediate podium threats.  I pooh-poohed this foolishness.  Clearly he was just smitten with their youth.  I'd be concentrating on known menaces Jan Lupinski and Mike Dostal.   Like Lyme disease, Jan is a constant and potentially debilitating threat in this region.  Although I beat Mike D at last year's race, at the USCA Championships he had thrashed me, rifled my pockets, and left me for dead on the shores of the Connecticut River.  It seemed unlikely that I could beat him, but maybe if I kept it close, he'd at least return my car keys and Blockbuster card.

Taking visualization to new levels, Wesley competed without a paddle or boat.  He wouldn't have even worn a PFD, but since it was already on when he woke up, he didn't bother taking it off.
At the captains meeting, Wesley and Tim explained that we'd be running a modified course of only 8 miles.  See, guys?  This is what a disciplined whining-based protest movement can achieve.  Sure, we'd been maced a few times and Tim Hudyncia still suffers from Taser-induced incontinence, but we wore 'em down in the end.  We'd head up-river about 2.5 miles, turn on a white mooring buoy ("at least the size of a VW bug" according to Tim), run back past the start an additional 1.5 miles, turn on a set of pilings, and return to the start.  We'd start and finish struggling against the wind, the current, and the tide.  You might think there'd be some joy in the middle section, but no... that'd be crushed by the slogging bookends of toil.

After last year's debacle, the race committee instituted a zero-tolerance policy for course-cutting in 2017.  Any deviation from the sanctioned route would result in an immediate DQ.  Was it my imagination, or were the guys looking right at me when relaying this new rule?  In any event, like everyone else (right?) I turned in the signed and notarized form indicating that I fully understood the implications of the coincidentally-named "Lesher Clause".

As Tim demonstrated, the penalty for cutting the course would be both severe and apt.
It was soon time to moisten our hulls.  I counted 21 boats lining up for the start - a new record for the Narrow River.  What luck.  We'd be running the shortest course ever, with the largest number of skis!  At 0.381 miles per boat, this race would be a piece of cake.  Chris Sherwood pulled me aside and patiently explained the error in my logic.  But still!  Post-race cake!

Wesley soon counted us down to a rolling start.  Youthful experimentation with a home gene-splicing kit having left me devoid of fast-twitch muscle fibers, I'm forced to rely on second-hand momentum from nearby paddlers to ease me off the line.  By then abruptly sticking my paddle into the water, I'm able to pop the clutch on enough slow-twitch fibers to achieve self-sustaining locomotion.  A half-mile or so later, I've steamed up to cruising velocity.

I told Bruce that he wasn't going to sneak up on anyone in a white boat with a fluorescent yellow vest, but he insisted that his ninja training would protect him from detection.
Unsurprisingly, Mike D had jumped to an immediate lead, with Jan and Chris Chappell following close behind.  I gradually worked my way past Wesley, Tim H1, Tim D, Tim H2, and Bruce Deltorchio.  During this move, Mike F kept pace on my right, completely exhausting his energy stores in a valiant effort to stay with me in pursuit of the leaders.  That kid's got moxie.  A few moments later, I caught Chris.  Rather than hanging around, I figured I'd attempt to slingshot up to Jan.  That term implies a more energetic movement than I actually managed (I've lost a lot of elasticity since hitting 50), but I did ease by Chris.  Despite relying on meager fat reserves by this point (perhaps on the soles of his feet?), so did Mike F.  Apparently the guy's got grit too.

With Mike D frequently disappearing around bends in the river, I tried to focus on catching Jan.  Perhaps we could work together to cut Mike's steadily increasing lead.  A half-mile later, I settled onto his stern wash.  I figured I'd just catch my breath for, say, forty-five minutes, then graciously offer to take a turn pulling over the final couple hundred meters.  His new Nelo 560 wasn't providing the comfortable ride I had hoped for, however.  The sweet spot on the draft seemed to be a foot or so behind where you'd expect, and I'm nothing if not unadaptable.  Approaching the low bridge that precedes the widening of the river, I decided to catapult myself past Jan (a move best appreciated at 64x, as in my race video).
I expected Jan would follow, but he dropped back a few lengths as we entered the lake-y portion of the race.  Mike F, running on fumes, stayed with him.  Twenty lengths ahead, Mike D was plowing through the headwind towards the turn.  My hopes for a rough water reckoning and subsequent Dostal comeuppance were dashed.  We were going directly into meager waves - nothing significant enough to disrupt his metronomic cadence.  Mike extended his lead.  At the turn, I caught a glimpse of Jan and Mike F ten lengths behind me. The latter was evidently now drawing energy directly from some other dimension.  Or perhaps it was time to recalibrate my estimates of his ability and rescind the pooh-pooh I had rashly issued to Tim.

It became a point of pride to keep the glint of Mike D's paddle within eyeshot, but it was clear that nobody would be catching him today.  Trying to focus on technique during the downriver portion turned out to be pointless, so I instead concentrated on a growing existential panic - my generation would soon be rendered irrelevant.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but, then again, maybe today.  Despite throwing frequent glances over my shoulder (partially splayed fingers covering my eyes to temper the potential horror), I couldn't get a bead on Mike F until the downriver turn.  The graceful arc I carved around the pilings had a radius about 10 meters larger than the narrowing river could accommodate, but by caroming off a wading fisherman I managed to get headed back upstream.  The next time maybe he'll remember to wear his shin guards and helmet.

Shortly after completing the turn, I saw Mike F barreling towards me.  I had less than a minute lead with 1.5 miles of upwind slog left.  Doing some quick mental calculations, I estimated that if I could just keep my heart rate at X for the remainder of the race, I'd ensure myself of a second place finish.  X seemed more like a number you'd apply to a bumblebee than a person, but what was I saving those beats for anyway?  I pushed my way upwind back towards the finish, turning over all motor functions to my lizard brain so that I could truly savor the growing pain.  I never managed to achieve that target heart rate, but I did work up quite a nectar deficit.

Finally freed from our pogies, Mike and I made up for lost gesture time.
Mike Dostal was waiting for me at the finish line, leisurely sipping tea while checking cricket scores on his phone.  OK.  I got a little lazy there - relying on tired British stereotypes for a titter.  He was actually smoking a pipe and watching snooker.  Just about the time I had regained conscious control of my body, Mike Florio roared by mid-river.  If we hadn't flagged him down, I suspect he might have done a few more laps before calling it a day and hitting the gym.  Jan and Christopher (who had moved up a couple of spots in the home stretch) pulled in a short while later to round out the top five.  On the women's side, Mary Beth claimed the title, followed by Jen Kreamer and Leslie Chappell.

Although Mike D would try to be the first to admit that comparing our performances wouldn't really be fair since he was in an ICF boat, I'm pretty sure I could beat him to the punch.  And, in fact, I loudly inoculated myself from any expectations the instant I saw the K-1 on his car (while silently rubbing my hands together at the prospect of the extra SSR series points).  Of course, the ICF-vs-surfski speed debate is the hot-button issue of these anxious times.  But as the Wall Street Journal recently noted, "by all objective measures, proponents on both sides need to get a life."  Let's just agree that, regardless of the hydrodynamic facts, I feel marginally better about being beaten this way by Mike.  When he shows up in a 12 foot Pungo next race and still inevitably smokes me, that's going to sting a bit.

Remember when I could make a reasonable claim on this being my boat?
Disoriented by the pleasant post-race weather, we milled aimlessly about the parking lot for a while before Tim corralled everyone and pointed us towards the Oak Hill Tavern for lunch.  We were a bit short on cash, so Bruce had to lend us three bucks.  That's not really relevant to this report, but it reflects pretty poorly on Bill.  Guess that kidney donation counts for nothing with you, huh?  Thanks to Wesley and Tim for throwing another great early-season race, and to Tim H1 for providing novelty prizes.  Special congratulations to Mike F and Christopher for jaw-dropping performances after only a few months on skis.  Some advice from a completely disinterested party - might be time to ease back on the training a little.  Don't want to burn out.  Also, have you thought about trying Greenland paddles?

As seen in this "before" picture, everybody arrived at the bar fully dressed.
Upcoming area races include the 15 mile River Rat Race in Orange, MA on April 9 (this coming Sunday) and the 6 mile Run of the Charles on April 30 (the Sunday after 10 weeks from the Thursday before last President's Day).  Best of luck to those braving balmy Florida for the Shark Bite Challenge.

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