Monday 17 September 2012

Devil Duck does Boston

TL;DR summary: 5:10:17 and I'll do it again but faster.

In more detail: I entered the Boston Marathon as a scull - something I've wanted to do for a while (ever since doing it with the ladies in an eight, and passing in the last few straights a number of sculls, apparently becalmed in the Sargasso-like seas of weed, and thinking: that must be really wonderful), but last year's cancellation foiled me, as did this April's IV. But this time nothing could stop me, I hoped. Trailering is the usual problem, and this time very few Cambridge folk were going, and no trailer at all. The St Ives folk offered to swing by Cambridge to pick us up... but then it turned out that they didn't start till 10:30 and I was off at 9, and they didn't fancy turning up 1:30 early just for me. So I was on my own.

2012-09-16 08.12.09 The solution was to put Joy on my roof rack, of course. But this involved constructing roof bars (since I have a rail and no bars, and the guy who kindly lent me bars that fitted his Audi didn't realise that the footings need to be different for a Citroen), and then (since the saxboard-bit of Joy is only 1.5m ish out of 8m total, and you can't strap her down too hard as she is wooden) using an aluminium ladder to extend the base forward so as to stop the front end waggling around. This seemed to work, but comments on why I was lucky to get away with it and should do it differently next time are welcome.

Anyway, having got up at 5 am, arrived at Peterhouse at 5:45, put Joy on the rack, waited for Silvia and Tanya (no, not that Tanya), and fiddled around, we left at 6:20 ish. Google swore it was 2:07 to Lincoln, but it wasn't really, so we were then by not-much-past 8. With me due to go off at 9:04, I no longer needed to panic and rush around. I had time to re-rig Joy (obviously essential), get my number (they give you numbers for Empacher slots, which Joy doesn't have, so I taped mine on, but badly in a hurry, so I had to keep calling out my number at the checkpoints along the way), have a shit (essential), buy two mars bars to eat along the way (see "nutrition", later), go through my kit and sort into going and not (partly done already but should really have done that yesterday), have another shit (optional but desirable, the two guys in the queue ahead of me who said to each other "I don't know what we're going to do for ages" were kind enough to let me queue-jump, since I was then off in ten mins) and then close up the car. Silvia gave me a hand with Joy, and down we go to the off.

2012-09-16 08.53.00 There is a bit of confusion with start order - I'm a bit worried that I'm notionally late, but they aren't. What turns out to be boat 3 - a J15 quad - is still on the stage, and a couple of low-number sculls due off after me are already on the water. But it turns out that despite what it says on the race instructions they are quite kind about the start order, at least when - as in my case - there is no-one backed up behind you (don't rely on this too much: the race instructions are pretty fierce, and later when boats need to be fed through they might get more ratty. We're the juniors, the elderly and infirm at this time, so are given an easier ride). So they don't object when I float around for a few mins getting my kit into order around my feet, tying on the watch, etc. To keep their lives simple boats go off on the minute, so if you miss one you wait a minute for the next, backing and so on, but then: off I go!

The race plan and the race

The race plan was to keep below 5:45 (my GPS watch gives as its primary unit mins per km, not per 500 m, so 5:45 = 2:52 split) for the first 10 km, and 6:00 for the second, and 6:15 for the third, thus getting me to 30 km within 3 hours. And this happened, even allowing for the transfer across the lock (fairly quick in a scull, since someone there takes the other end; I was across and off again in 2:40). At that point I was supposed to take stock and see how I felt. But what actually happened was that I hit a patch of heavy headwinds, particularly obvious in the trace around 34 km, and slowed down nearly to 7:00 at times, though never quite that bad. Also my bum started hurting after 30 km, even with a seat pad. Also my left leg started hurting a bit, as though strained, and I eased off a little several times.

It was never boring: how can anything be boring when you have little numbers to watch? Some people, I saw at the finish, had the map of the race taped where they could see it. That seemed quite pointless to me. There were various corners, but they are all easy to steer. Another fun game, especially on the longer straights, is to see some distant dot and think "that won't come past me until another 4 km" (or whatever; of course this game only works if you're one of the early, slow, entries). I got passed, first, at 4.5 km (J15 quad); then at 8 km (scull); then a double; then I think I was at the lock. Which was an amusement in itself: I had it in mind that the lock was at 13+ km, and their map says 13.5 km - but of course that is in sign-distance, and the 1 km sign is about at the start. So I was merrily sculling along at about 12.4 km by the GPS, thinking "I'll need to start looking out for the lock in another km, oh, I wonder who that chap is shouting at me" when I realised he was shouting "sculler, please come in here". So I did, and all was well. The main thing to realise about the lock, though, is that it is at only 12.4 kkm into the race - not even 1/4 of the way.

Just past the lock I passed boat #1, a J14 girl sculling, which I thought was very brave of her - I'd never have done such a thing at her age. And although you can get support at the lock, and people do watch from along the course, its still a long and a lonely way to go: she ended up taking 5:51. However, it does rather pop the bubble of anyone thinking "I'm dead hard, I did Boston" and should perhaps encourage anyone else worrying about not being up to it.

After that I got overtaken a bit, but not too much. I looked at the scenery a bit, though there isn't too much of that. I looked forward to corners, especially when I hoped they would get me out of the headwind. After a bit, say at 30 km, I stopped saying "hello" to passing crews: the easy camaraderie of the early-starters was lost as the fast-later-starters started to come through.

2012-09-16 14.27.15 At around 40 km I got a bit worried, because I was starting to lose feeling in my hands, in a slightly odd way. I could still feel the pain, but I'd completely failed to notice that my right thumb was no longer over the end of the scull, for example - it had slipped down to being mostly along the handle. And on a few strokes I sort-of couldn't really tell whether I was squared or not. Either this went away, or I stopped worrying about it, I forget which. Certainly things got easier: the headwinds dropped, or I pushed harder, or the river turned another corner, because I speeded up again - though it was clear at this stage that I wasn't going to make 5 h, so I didn't need to push to try to get that.

Up to 20 ish km, I was happily counting up the km's. And getting to half way was a milestone. Past 30 km I was happy to start counting down. At 40 km I could say to myself: that's just a lock (and back). At 45 km I thought of myself at the lock; at 48 km I was at the Pikey and Eel with just the row back through town to do. So it was a bit of a shock to cross the finish line at 49.4 km, Bardney lock all over again, though I wasn't complaining. And I would have had that J15 quad #3 if I hadn't steered into the reed bed. Weather: cloudy to start, to sunny at the end; no rain. Winds not too strong overall, but with a distinct headwind component in the middle third say.


There I am, smiling and happy, with the Stump in the background and Devil Duck in the foreground. The reason I'm happy is that my sculling, at that kind of distance, is constrained by technique, hands and bum; and only fourthly by fitness; which is why I was much less shagged than Silvia (so to speak) who managed an impressive 4:25 in her double.

2012-09-16 17.54.30 Afterwards, having de-rigged Joy and found somewhere to rest her, I asked how I was supposed to get back to Lincoln (having been reassured that there would be plenty of lifts) and was told to ask the commentator to ask; so I did, and she put out a request on the PA, and... nothing. That turned out to totally not work at all. What did work - and which the commentator put me on to - was asking the Lincoln Boyz if I could have a lift with them. Obvious, in retrospect. And although it took a while (I got in, fairly early due to my early start, at 14:20 but we didn't start back for Lincoln till about 17:00) I did as a special bonus present get a lift for Joy on their trailer, thus sparing me the return trip for Boston. From there, it was a little matter of putting Joy on the car and drving back home, and re-rigging her, and tidying all up.


I took 1 litre of water, which was enough. I also took 2 bananas, 2 mars bars, and some energy gels, which was enough - I didn't use all the gels, preferring the bananas and the mars. One thing I'd definitely change next time is to tape the food, at least that for the first few stops, onto the boat in easy reach instead of in the depths of my bag.

I did the race in 10 km units, at least to start with, stopping quickly (a little more than a minute) at 10 (banana) and 20 k (mars), then when rather shagged at 30 km I had a longer stop for nearly four minutes (banana and gel, I think), and three minutes at 40 (mars). And quick stops at 35 (gel) and 45 (just a drink?).

If I was running a marathon, I would take gels at 10 km and every 5 km thereafter - which is about every 20 mins. Because this is rowing, where its easier to carry weight, I took bananas and mars instead of just gels. But maybe that was just me being mean, since gels are £1 each and mars are half that and nicer... anyway: when I do it again, and care about my time more, I'll rely more on the gels.

Never enough time

This is just advice for young folk who have never done Boston before and want to: there is never enough time. So you need to prepare in advance: what you're taking, what you're leaving, where your food and water is, taping up your hands. There is no spare time at the start, there is no spare time on the water, and there is no spare time at Bardney lock, where all is rush-rush-hurry to get your boat over and off and out of the way.

One thing I was very pleased with this time was not having to stop to tape up my hands, thanks to (a) knowing where to tape them up beforehand and (b) some nice elasticated strapping stuff, which held on the plasters underneath. And I wore (very thin Ron Hill running) gloves.

Category error

If, like me, you're not really intending to win stuff, then you probably don't care too much about exactly which category you're in. But.

I'm a novice, and a Masters (C), both of which get you an "easier" draw, and Masters novice is even easier, in theory. The downside is you have to start earlier: I was boat 4, at 9:04. If I'd chosen to be a Masters C (not novice) I could have started at 10:06, and if I'd chosen to be Novice (not masters) I could have started at 9:50. Either of which would have got me the convenience of being on the St Ives trailer, as well as more bed time.

Less obviously, and rather surprisingly, I'd have actually won the novice category (the winner came in at 05:28:03) although not the Master C (04:28:13, well ahead of me and only just behind Silvia).

Oh, which reminds me: I was 3/3 in the Masters C novice category, though the split in times wasn't large in the grand scheme of things: 04:59:21, 05:04:08 and 05:10:17.

Advice and stuff

Is liberally sprinkled throughout this posting. I also see that I wrote some down after the first time in 2009. Of that I'd update:

* you can do it without support, as I proved (though incidental support, in the shape of someone to help you out of the water with the boat at the end, and across the lock, is needed but always available; thanks to the unknown people who helped me this time, and to Silvia who helped me at the start) but it makes the dance at the fnish hard. It was suggested that driving myself after the race would be unsafe; I don't think it was, but I did have more than 3 hours gap.

* I see that in 2009 (when it took us just under 5 h in an eight I strongly recommended getting a tailwind, which we had that day. I'd still recommend that :-)

And lastly, as the J14 sculler proves, you don't need to be some kind of Iron Man to do the event, so don't be discouraged: give it a go next year! Then I can have a place on your trailer and a lift in your car :-).


  1. Good write-up - congratulations for making it let alone getting a decent time. Just one question: How did you manage the errr bladder situation?

    1. Bladder wasn't a problem. I didn't drink too much en route and never felt the "urge".