Or rather more accurately, a photo of us having finished.
I’ve never wanted to quit a race shortly after it started in my entire 27 on-again, off-again years of rowing.
Twenty-six shells (nine singles, five doubles, nine fours and three eights) bunched at the starting line for the mass start at Lake Samish in Bellingham this past weekend. One-half mile distant the pilings of a bridge would narrow the field to only one boat to pass through at a time. Beyond that the rest of the five miles were open water.
Pre-race instructions were carried out under overcast skies. Ripple-free, the glass-like water beyond the shore where we stood suggested course records might fall.
But at launch time the wind began to blow, the water turned to chop, the rain poured and without yet taking a racing stroke we were soaked and cold in our t-shirts and tank tops.
I’ve always had trouble with pre-race jitters but sandwiched between 77 other rowers in 26 shells spread out over some 400 feet all to take off at the blast of the horn and somehow be funneled in less than four minutes to a space maybe ten yards wide, while shivering against the side-ways blown rain, ninety seconds into it I wanted to quit.
Struggling mightily to breathe, losing rapidly the ability to block out the ‘what-in-the-heck-am-I-doing-out-here’ mental anguish that robbed me of anything approaching what we’d discussed over and over again as a pre-race strategy, I seriously considered asking my daughter to turn back.
But I never got the words out. Partly because ‘let’s quit’ would have sucked what little bit of oxygen was available to my gasping lungs but more from the encouragement my daughter offered from her position in the stroke seat where she set the pace.
“We can do this dad.”
I don’t remember much of the next five miles except that the entire way we battled – many times within a single oar’s width – a bow-coxed four where there was constant chatter over the onboard microphone through which the forward-looking cox encouraged her crew to pass ‘that double’ (that was us), and ‘ok, we’ve got two seats on that double’ (they were passing us), and ‘we’ve got ’em’ as my daughter and I slowed to allow them priority through the far turn buoy.
They swung wide, we cut inside, with the result that with three miles to go – the race half-done – we were once again side-by-side.
More microphone chatter about ‘that double’ and now I was not only exhausted but also irritated.
‘Double-this’, and ‘double-that.’
Evidently daughter Christina, in her first ever rowing competition, had had enough too. Because as we approached the final turn with about a hundred yards to go and I said ‘no final push I just want to get this over,’ at the same time the cox in the four said over her PA system ‘ok, let’s take this double.’
Christina would have none of that. Single-handedly, as I tried rather feebly to do my part, she powered through each stroke, our boat leaping toward the finish, the crowd cheering along the shore and with every leg-driven slide of her seat, the oars bending from the strain, we held them off.
It was our own race-within-a-race. Our efforts would not be recognized at the awards ceremony. We had finished last in our category.
But we finished which, by definition, is “to stop doing something because it is completed; to have reached the point at which there is nothing left to do.”
“We can do this dad.”
That we had done.