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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle » Blog Archive » Two-And-A-Half Minutes Of Hell

Two-And-A-Half Minutes Of Hell   

I did not expect paddling 500m in an outrigger canoe fast enough to qualify for the national team to be an easy task by any means.  I did think that completing the test in a reasonable amount of time would be fairly trivial. 

In the week preceding my first test, I had received some good advice from my mentors and I had it all planned out.  I would start with 3 hard strokes to get moving, 20 sprint strokes to get up to speed and then settle in at my closest approximation of the stroke rate we maintain during practice.  Evelyn had also recommended doing a “Power 20″ (20 hard, up-rate strokes) every so often as well.  It all seemed quite sensible.  Backstage during Footloose I had envisioned it in my mind many times.  Based on race results I looked at, I project that it would take me approximately 2.5 minutes to run through 500m.  We routinely go full-bore at practice for 6 minutes or more, so 2.5 minutes should be a piece of cake!

The tests are usually taken in a section of the Schuylkill River Canal in Manayunk.  The canal is shallow, narrow, fairly well-sheltered from wind, and generally slow moving.  It’s basically a more controlled environment than the open river.  It’s also easier to manage since the paddler and the starter and timer are closer to each other and can communicate better.

I arrived at the test site a little early and found a few team members waiting on a bridge for the canoes to arrive.  Once they arrived, I helped carry them to the water and then walked to the other side where there is a wooden deck that is used for loading and unloading and where everyone hangs out while they wait for their turn. My friend from day 1 Cliff had volunteered to paddle the left-outrigger across.  Since he was already in the boat, it was decided that he would go first.  Since I was the only other left-side paddler present so early, I would be the second to go.  One part of me wanted to at least see a few people go before I went.  The other part of me doesn’t put much stock in last-minute cramming and didn’t think seeing others go would help much.  I put my name on the list and got ready to run.

After Cliff finished his time trial, I was helped into the boat.  As I paddled towards the starting line, team members walked along on the canal towpath offering me some last minute encouragement and tips.  Closer to the starting line I was introduced to a guy named Ed who gave me an overview of the race course and where best to steer the boat.  Unfortunately the canal has a dogleg to the left so just paddling up the middle makes for a longer, slower ride.

As I approached the starting line, Ed handed me off to Margaret and Bob.  They were to my right.  Bob was giving me some instructions about steering, how the start procedure would work and other first-timer advice.  I was drifting past them so I had to turn my head to the right to see them.  Observant readers will recall that in my last post, the conditions that led to me flipping the boat while practicing involved looking back over my right shoulder.  Obviously I didn’t learn!  Bob Gannon had said he was going to come take pictures…fortunately he had not yet arrived to document that part of the test!  Of course being an expert at re-mounting these things, I righted the boat, hopped right back in and splashed all the water out of the footwells and got the thing turned around.

The time had come.  Bob gave me instructions to get my boat pointed in the right direction.  The start procedure goes “Ready…Attention…Go”.  From “Ready” to “Go” should ideally be 5 seconds.  When the starter says “Attention” you raise the paddle, ready to strike.  Bob yelled “Go” and I dug in hard.  I did my 3 hard strokes followed by 20 pops and then settled into the body of the run, just as planned.  But I did not foresee just how different the “race” situation would be.  I have noticed one thing in practice - the first piece in a set is always hardest for me.  I think once I get through that one my heartrate is elevated and I’m in the working mindset.  But I didn’t have that first piece to get myself going.  Maybe I need to sprint up to the starting line to get myself in gear…I noticed one guy run up and down the towpath before he started, which is another possibility.

In any case I think I was out of breath within about 30 seconds!  Once I’m out of breath, I become a lot less efficient.  My paddling technique gets a little sloppy and I forget to work the rudder pedals, causing me to zigzag on the course.  One cool thing was other members of the team jogged with me on the towpath, cheering me on, calling out when to do a ‘power 20,’ reminding me to use good technique, etc.  Some people ask not to have a “cheering squad,” some say they don’t even notice them when they do it.  But I noticed and I think I may have used their presence as a fear of failure hack to keep myself.  As I paddled along at what felt to me like a snail’s pace, barely able to breathe, the thought of giving up with all those people cheering me on was unthinkable; I had to keep paddling.

I finally crossed the finish line and successfully circled around in the narrow canal without flipping the boat again and returned to the dock.  My time: 2:49 and change.  Is that good or bad?  I had to ask since I didn’t know either.  Cliff told me that he did 2:49 his first time ever.  That’s encouraging.  Cliff also said that 3 minutes is sort of the Mendoza Line here - if you can break 3 minutes you should probably persist.  If you can’t break 3 minutes you might want to find a different pursuit.  So I have potential, at least.  I still was not sure how fast I needed to go to make one of the national teams. 

I hung out for awhile after the run, cheering on my teammates, observing how better paddlers paddle and catching up with Bob Gannon.  Bob missed my time trial (and my flipping the boat) but stuck around taking pictures of the team and some of the architecture around the canal.  I had seen him since the end of curling so it was nice to catch up!

I had another test the following week, so I practiced hard all week and spent more time in the OC1 hoping to build my chops some and improve my steering.  I wasn’t sure just how much time I could drop, but I was fairly certain that I could make significant gains just from using good technique more consistently and maintaining a straighter course.  My second time trial was more of the same.  I didn’t sprint to the starting line, but I did paddle up harder than I did before.  I maintained mostly the same game plan.  I felt just as winded just as quickly but I was prepared for it this time.  One thing I did notice:  you go under two bridges in the course.  When I came out from under the second bridge, I remember spotting the finish line and thinking “I’m almost there!” but as I frantically paddled, it did not seem to be getting closer!

But, when the churning was done, I had two successes.  The first was that I did not flip the boat!  The second, I had clocked in 2:39, dropping 10 seconds from my previous time.  I definitely took a faster course and I think I also paddled with better technique.  2:39 was not going to be fast enough to get me onto the team for the National Championships, but at least I made some good improvements, although I have another 20+ seconds to go before I can make it.

Unfortunately, this was going to be my last shot at qualifying for the year.  You actually get a lot of chances to qualify, but I missed many of them due to my commitments to Footloose.  I am not dissatisfied with my performance.  I started late in the season so I did not have a lot of time to develop the strength and techniques, but I was able to get a reasonably competitive level in that short time. 

This also does not mark the end of the season.  There are still races to compete in other than the Nationals (and to by honest, I had not budgeted for a trip to California in July!), and those who were not selected for Nationals are welcome/encouraged to continue coming to practice (although they may be asked to give up their seats or switch sides.  I only had to switch sides twice for a portion of practice.  I only saw one person have to give up a seat.).  When I set out on this adventure, competing at the national level never occurred to me.  I just wanted to get in shape, learn a new skill, get back into paddling, maybe meet some new friends.  As long as I could keep practicing, I was not overly heartbroken about not making the team.  I’ll certainly try again next year!

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