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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle » Blog Archive » A Day At The Races

A Day At The Races   

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My hopes of racing in Nationals were dashed, but as I mentioned previously my rookie season as a paddler was far from over.  Nationals are the culmination (at least they are every other year when there is not a world championship), but there are still other races to participate in.  What’s curling without bonspiels?  What’s dragon boat racing without…well…races?

First up was the Independence Dragon Boat Regatta.  This is PDBA’s own event.  In retrospect it might have made sense to either simply attend the regatta as a spectator or perhaps join one of the teams participating.  But, numerous calls for volunteers went out to the mailing list.  The curling club is a completely volunteer organization and I know firsthand how important and hard it is to find enough volunteers to get all of the jobs done without a tiny core group working themselves to death.  Volunteering is also a really good way to kickstart your social involvement in a group.  We really started to get to know people at the club once we started helping out with events.  And at the end of the day helping out at the events is a lot of fun.  I had a performance of Footloose the night before and the night of, so I had some restrictions about how early I could come and how long I could stay but with a huge event open to the public and expecting 1000+ participants, the team was not going to turn away any offers!  X and I volunteered and, serendipitously, were placed in the food service tent.  Most people would probably avoid the food tent but X and I love cooking and entertaining and often dream out loud of opening a restaurant of some kind.  It seemed like a fun time.

We arrived, picked up out t-shirts and made our way to the food service tent where we introduced ourselves to the crew chief who was running the show along with his wife and son.  At first I was a bit concerned that we would be standing around in the way (one of the common pitfalls of volunteer situations - sometimes you get more people than jobs, sometimes you get team leaders who aren’t good at delegating.  In both situations you have volunteers with nothing to do).  There didn’t seem to be any specific jobs to be assigned to us.  But, the lunchtime rush was just starting to begin and a “Hey, can you do _____ for me?” quickly established jobs for us.  X was handing out plates, taking orders, collecting money.  I joined father Al and son Radley by the grills where I spent the next 5 hours servicing a series of rapid-fire requests.  Requests that came in so fast that it was often impossible to complete one before another came in!  I told Al that I always thought of becoming a chef and he said “You’ll be cured of that affliction by the end of the day.”  He was wrong.  After 5 hours I was completely soaked with sweat, had drunk 2 full liters of water and had developed a decent sunburn on my neck (I quickly snuck a sunblock break in the middle of the action but forgot to get my neck in my rush), and I didn’t really want to stop because I was having so much fun.  Nonetheless, I had to be able to get home and cleaned up and rested for the show that night.  We had built in some time to watch some races and explore the festival, but we actually stayed at the food tent through that time and had to go right home.  Footloose just requires too much energy to do without a break.

So our actual first dragon boat race didn’t actually include any racing.  We didn’t race, we didn’t see any races.  But we had a good time and the following practice for the first time I knew some people beyond just familiar faces that I saw at practice every day prior.

The real race would not come until July 12 at the Fingerlakes International Dragon Boat Festival in Ithaca, NY.  Since boatspiels are primarily outdoor events, this seemed like a good trip to bring along our faithful furry companion Maggie.  One cool thing about these festivals is that if you go on festival trips organized by the team, the team covers the cost of admission.  There is some prize money available so the team picks up the tab in the hopes that they will offset that cost by winning the prize money.  As a result you just have to pay for your hotel and transportation.  The only downside is that at bonspiels, food is usually provided with the admission cost.  It was strongly recommended that rookies participate in this event to get some race experience, so we had a lot of rookies in attendance which helped to unify us.

We left after work on July 11.  The drive was uneventful.  Maggie loves riding in the car.  After a few minutes of excitedly looking out the window, the motion puts her to sleep.  There was a little bit of traffic getting on the Turnpike and with the car not moving, she actually was getting a little antsy, but once we got moving again she was out like a light.  We bought her a doggie car seat and a travel harness.  The car seat may seam silly but it elevates her so that she can look out the window if she wants.  After awhile she got antsy, though.  I think the seat doesn’t quite give her enough room to sprawl out the way she likes.  We let her off the seat and just used the tow loop on the travel harness hooked to the seatbelt and after that she slept pretty soundly the rest of the ride.  We stopped about halfway to get some gas, a snack and take her for a walk.  She could easily go the whole way without a walk, but no dog has ever turned down a walk.

We arrived at the hotel around 11PM and checked in, dropped off our bags and took Mags for a walk around the hotel grounds.  I was a little worried that she would bark at every little noise she heard while we were in the room, but she was totally quiet  the whole night!  We got to bed early.  I had studied the somewhat complex race schedule and it appeared that our first time trial was not until around 10AM, but the e-mail from the coach asked us to arrive at the race site by 7:30.  I figured the coach knew something I didn’t (maybe all paddlers have to check in regardless of race time?) so I got to bed early to not be TOO tired.  I was able to bum a ride with a teammate staying in the same hotel which meant that X and Mags wouldn’t have to get up with me so early.

We arrived at the race site around 7:20.  The race site is a man-made canal (or perhaps a natural canal enhanced by humans) on the Cuyoga Inlet near the Ithaca Boating Center.  The weather was beautiful in the morning, sunny and cool with a little bit of a breeze.  The race course has a bridge just beyond the finish line where you can stand and watch the race and there were bleachers on the far side of the river.  In the background, rolling hills rose all around, covered with lush green trees.  I had heard that Ithaca was a dreary, gray place.  From my vantage it seemed anything but gray.

The PDBA contingent was easy to locate between the yellow shirts and the people that I recognized.  We got ourselves situated (note to self: bring chairs to the next boatspiel) and chatted about the drive up, the accommodations, etc.  Julian and some of the other rookies decided to camp nearby and between arriving near midnight, having to set up tents, and the sounds of a nearby couple’s amorous activities did not get a very good rest!  A short time later the coach appeared and with his trademark sarcasm/irony announced that no one was racing for a couple of hours and that we should have slept another couple of hours!  Guess my instinct was right!

We hung out by the riverside and the time went quickly.  It was really the first opportunity I had to actually interact with most of my teammates.  People chatter a little bit before and after practice.  It’s impossible to have a conversation during practice.  There is some chatter at the time trials, but most people are getting themselves psyched up for their run or cheering on people as they paddle.  So I got to actually meet some of these people and learn a little bit about them.

Before the women’s time trials, the coach gave them a pep talk including a strongly-worded warning not to look outside the boat at any time.  I’m not sure if his threat to bench anyone that he saw looking around was a serious one (note trademark sarcasm mentioned above), but it’s good advice either way.  I actually find it hard to look around when I’m paddling because I’m so focused on the actual paddling!

The races started with a pair of 250m time trials for each team.  Your times in the time trials relative to other teams in your division determine your seeding for the actual race bracket.  I have no idea if they use the best time, the average of the two or even the worst time to determine the seedings.  We had two divisions, women and mixed.  The women took the top seed with 1:10 runs each time.

Soon after, the mixed team was called up and we made our way to the first staging area.  It was already beginning to get very hot and the staging area had a shaded area to wait.  While we waited and got ourselves psyched up, another paddler gave me a pep talk.  He mentioned remembering how nervous he was before his first race.  I actually wasn’t nervous. On an individual level there’s really not a whole lot that you can screw up.  I was certainly a little nervous that our rookie-heavy lineup would get our butts kicked but beyond doing my job the best that I possibly could the performance of the rest of the boat was completely beyond my control.

We moved onto the second staging area where you pick up a life jacket (required for all paddlers) and a paddle if you don’t have your own and then line up before boarding.  For some reason they try to enforce a boarding procedure so they would tell us “Load both ends at the same time” or “Front end loads first.”  And it was different each time we loaded!  I guess maybe inexperienced teams might need coaching but we manage to successfully get in and out of our boats at practice 6 days a week, so it seemed to place an administrative burden on a process that is normally quick and easy with people trying to get in the boat and being stopped by officials on the dock.  We finally managed to load the boat to the officals’ satisfaction, though.

As the coach stepped in, he handed me a paddle and said “Use this paddle.  It won gold at Worlds.”  I’m not superstitious, but my own paddle is secondhand and has a sketchy palm grip that I had tenuously repaired with some epoxy.  I was not certain it would hold up especially under hard-paddling race conditions, so I stowed my paddle and grabbed the coach’s.  He ended up reclaiming his paddle after the first time trial (he wanted that length shaft instead of however long his other paddle was), so I used my own paddle the rest of the day.  My repair did hold up, however.

After shoving off from the dock, we did a little bit of warm-up paddling followed by a practice start.  It was starting to get really hot, so while we waited for our turn to start we paddled into a shady area provided by a tree on the bank.  As we waited there was some last-minute words advice to the newbies, general psych-up drills and the like.  The time came and we paddled to the starting line and began the tedious task of getting the boats into alignment which consists of the starter telling the various boats to paddle a little or hold water a little until they are all lined up.  Then they give the commands just like in the time trial…”Ready…Attention…GO!”

And we tore off down the river.  The 250m time trial ends in the blink of an eye.  It barely takes a minute.  Unlike the 500m, it seems like this really is a short enough race that even going full bore for the whole thing I don’t really get too tired.  We do this kind of thing in practice pretty much every day of the week.  We won our heat.  Of course it’s a time trial so the real metric is whether our time was faster than all of the other mixed boats in all of the heats.  It was, but we still had one more time trial.  The time trials were in short enough succession that we simply turned the boats around and paddled back to the start line.  Well first we paddled back to our shady area while we waited for the next race to finish.  We did a little refueling and that’s when I thought to myself that maybe I should have brought some water on board!  I made a note to grab a bottle next time around.

The next race finished and we paddled back to the starting line and took off again.  We got a similar time (something around 1:06) and maintained our position as top seed going into the head-to-head race brackets.  We paddled back to the dock and hopped out to await our first actual race.  I grabbed some water and a Clif bar.  X was now here with Maggie who was having a grand old time harassing other dogs and enjoying the attention of the people.  There was a big yellow lab sleeping by a tree and she walked right up to this other dog and poked him right in the belly with her snout!  She is crazy sometimes.  The other dog eyed her in a way that said “Are you serious?”

It was really hot, though, and we were concerned about Maggie in the heat, so X packed her up and we walked to the car.  X offered to drive me back to the race site.  It wasn’t very far and I thought I had plenty of time so I hopped in.  When I arrived at the race site a few minutes later one of the women NOT paddling on the mixed boat said “Hey, Troy…aren’t you on the mixed boat?  They called you up like 2 minutes ago!”  Wow…they turn these races around faster than I thought.  Despite my plans to the contrary, no time to grab a bottle of water to bring aboard!  I was going to have to tough it out.

We actually spent enough time in the staging area that I could have got some water, but I didn’t want to chance it.  We loaded up, went through the same rituals as before except we were now 250m further up the river so we had to find a new shady spot, which we found in a little cove.  The cove was near a farmers market and people visiting the farmers market gathered to gawk at the somewhat bizarre boat hovering near the shore.  We were called up to the starting line and the race began.  I just tried to focus on good technique and keeping in sync.  Since the race is seeded and were the top seed, we were up against lower-seeded teams so we did not have to go all-out and I did not have to kill myself.  We won our first heat and we were one step closer to victory.

I wasn’t feeling any dehydration effects yet, but I was getting worried.  It had been a good 4 hours since I really got a chance to hit some fluids.  When we got back on solid ground I didn’t waste a whole lot of time celebrating and pretty much ran for the food tents where I got a bottle of nice cold water and went through it pretty quickly so I got another.  It was also getting around lunch time so I decided to seek lunch.  They had some really interesting food choices.  The requisite hot dogs and hamburgers of course, but they also had Thai, Caribbean, Cambodian and Cuban food!  All of these sounded really good and as a fan of weird and exotic food I was definitely intrigued by the Cambodian food, but it smelled spicy and I ultimately decided that given the 90+ degree heat and the fact that I still had two more races ahead of me that I should eat something a little less exotic.  I settled for a delicious Cuban sandwich and some excellent fried plantains.  I finished my 2nd bottle of water as I ate, so I went back and got a third.  I was no longer too concerned about dehydration…dodged that little bullet!

We were called up for our 2nd run.  This time I had that water bottle with me!  We went through the same old staging and loading procedures and paddled to our shady cove again.  We were called to the line, got aligned and off we went.  This race was a little tougher but we kept our heads in the boat and our paddles going and again we were the first to cross the line.  We had now made it to the “A” finals, which for your curlers out there is equivalent to the 1st event.  The big dance.  It was Sunday on a Saturday afternoon.

X left Maggie at the hotel but came back to the river to watch the final race.  We hung out watching other races and exploring the vendor tents.  The old-timers admonished us to stay out of the energy-sapping sun, so we found a small patch of shade in our tent out of which we occasionally ventured to watch a passing boat.

At last, we were called for our final race.  In addition to the process surrounding our prior races, the final race staging also included an ID check.  Presumably this is to ensure that we didn’t stack the boat with ringers.  I don’t know if this has ever been attempted or is just being done as a precaution.  I hope it’s just a precaution.  Frankly I can’t figure out why, if you could come up with ringers to race in your team’s name, you wouldn’t just put them on your roster.  Maybe they are trying to eliminate last minute roster changes subbing in fresh paddlers who haven’t paddled 4 other races over the day? I don’t really know.  Either way, all teams passed the ID check with no anomalies and we were off to the boats. 

“There’s no tomorrow here.  Don’t save anything.  Leave it all on the water.  Even if we get a big lead keep paddling full pressure until you cross the finish line.”  Those were the words from the veterans.  We lined up at the start, got aligned, and attacked on command.  Not long after the race got underway things got a little hairy.  The boat to our right in lane 4 was having a steering problem.  I think their steersman might have lost his grip on the steering oar and sent the boat careening in our direction. 

When we practice we often have 2 or 3 boats and we keep them in fairly tight formation.  We practice upstream of just about all of the rowing traffic so we pretty much have the entire width of the river available,  yet we often run into situations where the boats are close enough to slap paddles.  We are strongly encouraged to paddle through these situations and resist the urge to stop, slow down, pull the paddle into the boat, etc.  Turns out there’s a reason for this apparent madness.

As our next door neighbor plowed towards us, our steerswoman shouted to the other steersman to get back in his lane, move over, etc.  By the time he had gotten his boat collected we were just a few feet apart and our starboard battery was slapping paddles with their port side battery.  We’ve practiced this contingency so it was pretty much business-as-usual.  They paddled through the interference until the other boat was out of striking range.  I have no idea how this impacted our performance.

This 500m all-out sprint was now starting to feel like the time trials.  I could see the bridge ahead just beyond the finish line.  It seemed pretty close, but it also did not appear to be getting any closer.  I was getting winded, my arms were tingling.  I just focused my eyes on a spot that allowed me to simultaneously watch both my seat partner and the paddler in the front of the boat and told myself to keep breathing, keep paddling and keep my strokes in time.

The lanes were generally unmarked except for a row of buoys every 100 meters or so.  I wasn’t interested in counting them as they passed, but I did see them as we went by.  I knew the other boats were alongside us.  From my vantage point I had no idea who was farther ahead.  I dared not turn my head far enough to look.  What I did notice was a set of buoys approaching and based on how close the bridge had finally loomed, this HAD to be the finish line, right?

Well let’s just say it’s fortunate that my long history in marching band has made me a very command-oriented person.  When the commander says “march,” I march until the commander says “halt” even if we’ve already reached what I believed to be the destination.  Likewise even though I thought we had crossed the finish line, I kept paddling as hard as I could waiting to hear the command to back off.  That command never came - there was still one more set of buoys ahead!  This was not the finish line.  I kept paddling and paddling and finally we reached that last set of buoys and went under the bridge and the command to back off was issued.  You might think that the actual race would be at least a little less strenuous than the OC1 test because the actual race takes less time and you aren’t singlehandly pulling the boat.  Well I was either slacking in the OC1 test or the race is MORE strenuous because I have not been that winded in a long, long time.

Immediately after crossing the finish line, I still had no idea who actually won.  From my vantage point I still couldn’t see which boat was farther ahead.  But word quickly filtered down to those of us in the back of the boat.  We had won!  After spending by entire first season of curling getting soundly beaten (and my second season getting beaten most of the time) it was certainly nice to start off with a win!

After getting back to the dock we shook hands with the other teams.  Fortunately dragon boating has not adopted curling’s custom of every player shaking everyone else’s hands, otherwise we would have been at that all night!  We cleaned up our team area and some team members made a plan to meet up for dinner prior to the official party that night.

Back to the hotel to freshen up.  We also tried to go in the hot tub but it was under repair so we settled for a few minutes in the sauna instead.  I would have like a nap but there just wasn’t enough time to make dinner and get a nap, so we settled for dinner where we made merry and got to know some of our paddling friends further beyond the boundaries of paddling.

Then it was time for the party.  The race organizers put on a great party.  In fact, the party is so popular that it seems the organizers agonize over increasing the cap on the number of teams that can enter (which would require Sunday racing and make people less keen on staying up late partying Sat night or even Sun night).  Honestly, I was totally bushed and I was primarily at the party for one thing and one thing only.  But first they had door prizes.  Nice door prizes.  A lot of them were bottles of wine from local vineyards, but there were some other things as well.  One of those other things was a cookbook from the famous Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca.  When they announced that, I thought to myself “Forget the wine….I’d much rather have the cookbook!  Not that we’ll actually win anything…”  Well when they pulled a ticket for the cookbook, X’s number came up!  Score!

Then came the important part.  The medal presentations.  You read that right.  Medals.  They give the winning paddlers gold medals!  OK it’s not like they assemble everyone on a podium and force the other racers to sing the Eagles fight song as a flaming Dallas Cowboys flag is hoisted to the rafters, but a gold medal is pretty fun.  I like curling pins because they are small and easy to store or display but I think I could get used to this medal business and will be happy to buy another shadow box to display it :-)

After a few more congratulations to my teammates, we headed out.  I was exhausted and we didn’t want to leave Maggie alone in the hotel room any longer than we had to, so we took the gold medal and the cookbook and headed back and went to bed!

The next morning we decided to explore the area a little bit before we came home.  It was rainy and overcast out.  Someone at dinner the night before told us that Ithaca actually has more rainy days than Seattle and that the Dragon Boat festival always manages to score one of the rare clear, sunny days!  Seems like he might have been correct.

We drove to the Cornell campus and wandered around it for a bit and then we headed back to the center of Ithaca where we were hoping to get lunch at Moosewood and also hoping that Maggie was welcome at their outdoor area.  Unfortunately Moosewood is only open for dinner on Sundays.  Boo!  We walked around a little bit and then decided to eat at D.P. Dough which X had located previously.  Not really exotic but there are no D.P. Doughs anywhere near us!  We parked a little ways away and walked over and ordered.  We noticed they had their own parking lot, so we decided instead of waiting to walk back to the car and drive it around.

SMART MOVE!  Just as we were getting in the car it began to rain.  By the time we got around the block to the parking lot it was an all-out downpour!  X ran in and got the food.  We decided that she should sit in the driver’s seat since she eats faster - when she finished and I was still eating she could start heading home.

Drive home was uneventful.  Maggie figured out how to back out of her harness, which she did with great stealth and zeal 2 or 3 times.  One minute she would be laying on the back seat on the passenger side, then you would look back and she would either be sitting proudly in the middle or sleeping on the driver’s side of the back seat or even on the floor!

In any case, my first race was a success and it was a lot of fun.  I can also add to “Olympic Hopeful” the title of “Gold Medal-winning Athlete,” a title which I have not hesitated in using even when it hardly makes any sense as in “You don’t like curry because you’re not a Gold Medal-winning Athlete!”

I’ll keep you posted if I go to more races this summer!

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