I was rested and ready to roll as I left Zagreb early on the morning of Tuesday, September 10th. I had some anxiety for several reasons, however: I knew I'd be crossing into a country with political issues (the Hungarian government has become more authoritarian over the past year); I'd be renting a car in a foreign land; and I would be dealing with all of the practice and race logistics at the World Rowing Masters Regatta (or "Masters Worlds" as we refer to it at Riverside).
I'm a spoiled rower…the biggest race of the year for me is the Head of the Charles, and my logistics for that massive-of-all-regattas consist of driving ten minutes to the boathouse and walking my boat down the ramp. If I go to an "away" regatta, I usually stay pretty close to home and car-top my boat. The last time I did Masters Nationals, it was just down Route 9 in Worcester. So this was going to be an adventure. Typically, the farther away from home I race, the closer I get to missing my start.
My GoOpti shuttle was right on time, just as it was in Trieste and in Lake Bled (GoOpti is a great company). However, when we arrived at the Hungarian border, a bit of a chill came over me. A few cars had been pulled over for an unknown reason. Then WE got pulled over for an unknown reason. Apparently, the driver (who spoke virtually no English) didn't have the proper "papers" to get us through the border. I had a bit of a tingle through my nerves.
Stopped at the border - heat sheet saved the day
However, in some weird premonition before I left home, I had thought, "It might not be a bad idea to have a printout of my heat sheets handy." I did, in fact, have that printout, and when the officer arrived at our car after about a half-hour wait, he looked at me in a not-very-friendly way and said, "What is your purpose for coming to our country?" I had my heat sheet in hand, with my name highlighted and the WRMR logo at the top, and as I handed it and my passport to the guy, I said, "I'm racing at the World Rowing Masters Regatta at Lake Velence." He looked at my heat sheet and passport for a long time, going back and forth. Finally, he handed them back to me and waved us through. The driver was sweating. I felt I had redeemed myself for the driver's license incident in Florence.
The magical heat sheet
After checking in and getting settled at my hotel in Budapest (the car pickup was a breeze), I drove to the racecourse, hoping to get in a practice row. Filippi was the official boat-rental company, to whom I had paid my 30 euros per race to rent a single. But unlike my experience at Silverskiff in 2008 and 2009, where they simply showed up and gave us brand-new singles to row, along with espresso in the parking lot from the back of their van, it was a little more involved this time. Which was understandable, given that this regatta - and the number of boat rentals - was so much larger. As it was late afternoon and the course would soon close, it looked like I would not get a row in on this day. Determined not to give up, however, I saw a guy getting out of a single after practicing, ran over to him and asked if I could pay him to row his boat for a practice. He was rowing a Swift boat that he had rented. He was a beast of a guy, but very friendly, and he said, with a thick accent, "Go to Swift or WinTech tent - they give you boat." So I did.
I walked over to the WinTech tent and was greeted by a friendly woman named Daniella. After a great conversation, she said they had a beautiful single that would fit me perfectly. I then met her colleague Dave Lopez, and he was equally friendly and helpful. Knowing I was from Riverside, they walked me over to this boat and kept talking about how "special" it was. When they showed me, I was both stunned and psyched. It was autographed by Linda Muri, a long-time friend from Riverside who I had known practically since I joined the club in 1989. I was thrilled. This boat had good karma.
The 'Linda Muri Boat'
In fact, the whole experience was beginning to feel like it was all "meant to be." I decided to try to get a refund from the rental and, if that couldn't happen, just eat the cost. I wanted a good boat, and now I had one. Furthermore, I could practice in it whenever I wanted to. They also had a really sweet pair of C2 oars for me to use. Beautiful.
Dave and Daniella of WinTech
The next day, I went to the Filippi tent to ask about a refund. I wasn't upset or anything... I knew it could be a stretch. They were very nice but said refunds had to go through RegattaCentral, which made sense (I decided to look into it after I got home). While waiting in line, I noticed someone familiar standing next to me. It was Susan Francia. "Susan?" I said, and she gave me a friendly hello and a hug. I had met her on my road trip in 2012 in San Diego and we became Facebook friends afterwards. She said, "Esther [Lofgren] is also here!" which I was thrilled to hear. I asked, somewhat shyly, "Do you mind if I get your picture? I'm writing for row2k again." She said, "Sure thing," and went off to get Esther. Wow.. I thought. Again with the karma. Esther used to belong to Riverside and we had met a few times, and were also Facebook friends.
I asked Susan if she and Esther were racing a double, and she said they were. I then made the deliberate understatement of saying, "I suspect the two of you will do pretty well." "Yeah…" she said in a flat monotone. "We'll see." I just kind of laughed to myself and thought, okay, this must be the typical pre-race, stone face, Bill Belechick kind of public persona about predicting race outcomes among athletes of this caliber. No predictions; no hype. Just do your job. My next thought was that, if they allowed betting on these races like they did in the 1800s, I would bet all my retirement savings and mortgage my house. In fact, Susan said later that "It was a 'just for fun' race." (And of course, they won.)
Surrounded by Olympic Gold
We got the picture, which was very gracious of the two of them, and I walked away, feeling light as a feather. Two of the greatest athletes in all of rowing. I love this sport. Interesting footnote about Susan, which I didn't know until I Wikipedia'd her that night, is that she was born in Hungary and is fluent in Hungarian. Her name is actually spelled Zsuzsanna.
The next day was my first race in the D single (down an age group - why not? I'm here. It's only a few years younger). I was a bit nervous because, other than trekking around Rome, Siena and Florence, and biking in Bled, I hadn't done a hard rowing piece in two weeks. And that doesn't really compare to 4x1000 meters or 3x10 minutes or 4x1500 meters, or any of the other stuff we do in the Charles River Basin to beat the crap out of ourselves training for sprint racing.
I have to race with THESE skinny legs?
I blasted off the start, as usual, because I have a fast start. I don't mind saying that because it's true, and also because it doesn't mean a whole lot if you can't blast your way through the remaining 750 meters. It's not a fly-and-die thing, I've just developed a good start over the past several years. I'm usually leading at the 250, but then it's a matter of finishing. I've improved at this, but if you look at the picture that Daniella took, you can see very clearly that I have toothpicks for legs. I weigh about 148 pounds soaking wet. It's a genetic thing… and I'm definitely not complaining, but it can be a challenge.
During the race, I got passed by a couple of guys, so I ended up finishing third. I didn't expect to win the D single - just have a decent piece and get into racing mode after all the traveling. I did, however, get a comment at the dock about my weight. A guy from England in my race asked how much I weighed. I told him "about 148 pounds," and he said, "JESUS! I weigh 154 and I thought I was light!" I smiled, and then proceeded to cough my lungs up for the next 45 minutes or so (another downside of the long period without a hard workout).
With my first race under my belt and my lungs warmed up, I was ready to take on the two races I really cared about - the E single on Friday and the E double on Saturday.