Just a few days ago, Kjetil Borch was back home in Norway doing high altitude training, rowing distances at low rates. His winter training for the lead up year to the 2020 Olympics had him scheduled in for high altitude and volume work for most of the month.
"The past two weeks have been quite easy," he said, "getting volume, and then just a few short bursts, maybe three times 30 seconds at a 40, or a minute piece at 40. And that's it."
But Saturday morning - after just flying into Philadelphia on Thursday evening - Borch was on the Cooper River, in Camden, New Jersey, rowing a 750-meter, all out, sprint for a cash in the 2019 Gold Challenge Cup, racing three other top international men scullers, including Robbie Manson, of New Zealand, Sverri Nielsen of Denmark, and Lithuania's Mindaugas Griskonis.
And, his rate never dropped below 40.
Call it a shock to the system. Borch did, as well as several other athletes who rowed in either the men's and women's Gold Cup event, or the US Lotman Challenge. In both events, the athletes had all rowed a full season of elite sprint racing, that has been followed for most of them by head racing or volume training in preparation for the coming Olympic year.
"It hurts," Borch said. "You've just got to rely on your body to accept the 41-42 stroke rate."
It apparently did because Borch led the pack of international scullers from the start and made it over the finish line to win in 2:32.96, despite catching a crab in the final two strokes, and with Nielsen less than a second behind him.
Finishing third was Lithuania's Mindaugas Griskonis. He was followed in fourth by New Zealand's Robbie Manson. "I had no idea who won," he said. "I caught a crab two strokes before the finish, and I saw Sverri coming. So, I had no idea."
It's an unusual race format for a time of year when most elite athletes are winding down from the long and difficult two-thousand-meter racing season. Fall is volume time.
In fact, the Gold Cup and US Lotman Challenge have been run the last several years as part of the two-day Head of the Schuylkill Regatta, which was in the first day across the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
The sprint regatta was moved to the Cooper River this year to better accommodate running a sprint event in the middle of a head race, and to allow for the addition of two other sprint challenges.
Those two new events included a men's and women's high school single, and a combined men's and women's PR1 adaptive single race. The racing is done to promote sculling in the US, and - except for the high school races - there are cash awards for the top four finishers in each race.
So yes, it hurts to race a 750-meter sprint at crazy high rates, especially at a time of year when rowers are mainly doing volume and head racing, but with a top prize of $15,000 for the winners in the Gold Cup, $8,000 for the Lotman winners, and $5,000 for the Blackwall Duling winners, the purse eases the sting a bit.
"It was a lot of fun," said Emma Twigg, who used the race to complete a comeback year as the New Zealand's single sculler. Twigg, who had solid year of racing, winning at the Henley Royal Regatta in July, and then taking silver behind Ireland's Sanita Puspure at the 2019 World Rowing Championships, won the women's event.
Twigg won just ahead of US sculler Kara Kohler, who finished second in the Gold Cup - and won the women's US Lotman Challenge to boot. Puspure was third in the Gold Cup, followed by New Zealand's Hanna Osborne.
"We don't get to do this very often," said Twigg. "So, it's a lot of fun. It was good. I can't complain. I went for it from the start, and managed to find myself in the front. It's been a really great comeback year and the key to it all was just enjoying myself.
"If I'm enjoying the training I'm doing, then somehow you seem to find yourself at the right end of the pack when you're racing," she said, adding that the prize money was a factor that will help with her preparation for the coming Olympic year.
"It certainly does," she said. "I was thinking about that in the last 100 meters. I was thinking, don't get passed now, don't catch any water, don't catch any buoys."
In the Lotman Challenge events, John Graves won the men's event, and Kohler won the women's racing, before turning around and going back up to the start to race again in the Gold Cup. It was a lot of racing for Kohler, but the combined purse from the two events gives her a cushion of $15,500 for training needs and living expenses through the winter and into the spring.
"It was definitely the best result I imagined for myself today," Kohler said. "Historically, I'm not the best, or the quickest off the line, or in the ends of races, so it's hopeful that I have some sprint ability in me.
"It is a bit shocking to the system after coming down off the high of 2k racing, and then getting back into longer pieces, lower rates. So there really was only a couple of training pieces of higher stroke rates to prepare the body, shock it a little, and then race today. There was some burn."
Graves had about the same evaluation.
"It's really tough," he said. "It's a pretty big shock to the system. I did a couple of starts this week, but they all felt terrible. I'd say it was a like trial by fire. But today was really good. I was a little bit scared of the head wind for a smaller guy, like myself. But I thought I did a good job of staying clean, and just getting off to a good start and then building into the lead," he said.
"(The cash prize) is huge. It helps to go into this year feeling like you can train the way you want to train, and do everything you need to do to be fast this coming spring."
Like the two other cash prize events, the para single race offered up a purse for all four competitors. 2016 US Paralympian Blake Haxton won the event.
"I thought it was a great event," said Haxton. "I love the format of a sprint for cash, and I think it draws more people into the event and the sport. The Camden boathouse is a great venue and they put on a great event."
While the high school races did not offer cash awards, it gave the younger athletes a chance to mingle with elite rowers, and an idea of what it could feel like to race in a sprint format, which is a change that could be coming to rowing.
In the years since the 2016 Olympics, FISA has been studying ways to cope with International Olympic Committee pressures to reduce the costs of building venues and staging Olympic Games, and finding ways to bring new sports to the table. Two changes being seriously considered by FISA are coastal rowing, and sprint racing.
It was a topic some of the Gold Cup athletes addressed Saturday.
"I think it would be fun to try a combination of racing, where we keep the 2k but do something else," said Nielsen. "The sprint distance is something we should definitely try to look into. I don't know if we change the whole thing to make it just a sprint race. The 2k is what rowing is. But to have a combination, maybe do an eight for 500 meters, or an eight and a quad, so you can double up.
"It's about the same to me," he said. "There is not too much of a difference. You rate a bit higher, push a bit harder, but pain is pain. It (750) isn't short enough to be a real all out sprint. You still have to pace this race a little bit. So, it's not too bad."
Puspure said she feels differently. "That would be a very different sport altogether. I'm sure people would adjust to the times, but it would be more sprint work than we would want to do," she said.
"If the reason is that it is not spectator friendly, there's cameras everywhere now and there's TV, you can place cameras anywhere, and you can follow people for seven-minutes. It's not that long of a race. I don't know if it should be changed. It's been 2k forever, so I think it should stay 2k forever."
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