Hunt or Be Hunted: Some Thoughts on Head Racing

GRP scullers Jen Forbes (foreground) and Alex Spaulding (background)

from Troy Howell, Craftsbury’s Director of Sculling:

It has always struck me as a curiosity that our sport evolved in such a way that most people seem to feel that 2k racing on a buoyed course with six straight lanes is the only sort of racing that “counts” and that every other format is somehow a novelty item. Most forms of racing in most other types of locomotion involve cutting turns as tightly as possible, jockeying for position relative to one’s competitors, real time strategizing, and so forth. The closest we get to that sort of competition in our sport is head racing, and now that it’s fall in North America, head races are the order of the day.

The perennial question that most rowers and scullers first grapple with in regards to head racing is “So – am I racing the clock or am I racing all the other boats?” As with most seemingly  simple questions that are constructed with the intention of demanding a binary answer, the answer is “yes – to both” or more maddeningly “sort of – it depends on the circumstance, as well as upon what happens to be motivating you in the moment.” So let’s parse this a bit, while proceeding from the notion that “yes – you are racing the clock, and yes, you are racing all the other boats.”

First and most importantly, as with nearly all other forms of racing, there are only two vital items that will be listed and written down in the published results: name of crew and elapsed time. That’s all that most people will ever see of a race after it’s over. Course records are measured in minutes, seconds, and tenths or hundredths. Number of crews passed, near-misses with bridges, collisions with waterfowl, and so forth, are not part of that historical record. In the final analysis, then, we are all racing the clock and the clock alone, with the goal of making the boat go as fast as we are capable of.

Somehow, though, just racing the clock doesn’t seem as viscerally satisfying as racing another boat, and it is a rare crew that generates its best performance when no one else is around.  Rowing through and passing other boats is thrilling in a way that the clock just can’t match, and even holding off a faster crew for as long as you can often seems nobler than maintaining a stroke rate or even a split. The attraction of head racing, then, seems to lie in its quasi-predatory nature, and answering the question from one moment to the next, “am I hunting or am I being hunted?”

And this gets us back to the other side of our answer – racing the other boats. Given the every-ten-to-fifteen second format of head racing, we only get the feeling of head-to-head competition when someone has gained on someone else, and unless we are very familiar with the relative speeds and racing strategic tendencies of the people starting in front of and behind us, we never really know at what point in the race that may happen, so it can be difficult or perhaps even futile to try to set a race plan the way that one might for 2k or 1k racing on a straight course.

Head racing has a profound tendency to remind us of the truth of the old chestnut “if you want to make god laugh, tell him your plans,” so the best advice is something on the order of: find out in the weeks of training leading up to head race season what stroke rate and pace you are capable of holding and what the perceived exertion feels like at that tempo and level of effort. Start there, find a steady rhythm, and after a minute or two of that, start looking for opportunities to run roughshod over somebody, whether by out-racing them, out-sculling them, out-maneuvering them, or all three.

Above all, DO NOT GET LEFT AT THE STARTING LINE by allowing the crew starting just ahead of you to have too much of a time cushion. The starter is paying attention to the crew in front of you, and if you hesitate, the margin will just get bigger, probably before anyone other than the delighted crew in front realizes it. Remember that your goal is somewhat at odds with the goal of the starting line officials: they are more concerned with an orderly start so they will often err on the side of starting crews a little further apart. Crews themselves are more concerned with staying as close to their opponents as they can get away with so they can begin mixing it up with another boat sooner rather than later.

Passing other crews feeds the monster and often reveals deep wells of energy you might not otherwise have found. The other side of the coin, getting passed, need not be disheartening, and strategically, it leaves us with only two reasonable alternatives: 1) suck it up and try to go with ‘em if that seems viable; 2) shifting focus to the next challenge, which could be passing a crew that you and the other boat have BOTH been gaining on, or putting more distance between you and the nearest crew behind you. Above all, keep it thrilling and fun. If it’s going to be a slog, why did you enter? Race it up!

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