Well, that could have gone worse

On Saturday I did a long easy distance workout, so for Sunday I thought I’d do something a bit higher intensity. I also didn’t have much time, so I went to Pittsford Crew boathouse which is nearer my house than any other canal put-in. (I didn’t want to do the creek because it’s too shallow and the bay involves 2km or more of shallow at the beginning and end.) I got there, paddled downstream for a few km, and discovered that there was a full-on rowing regatta going on. I should have suspected as much when I noticed that most of the Pittsford Crew floating dock was missing – I guess they floated it down to the regatta site. When the Fairport Crew has a regatta, or even a training event, sometimes they’ve got no compunction about blocking off the entire canal or telling you to stop while they spend interminable time getting a heat started, but Pittsford were much better – they marked off their two lanes, and then there was a safe lane along one side. They appeared to be racing upstream and using the safe lane for returning boats and crews to the start.

On the way downstream, I had no problem staying in the safe lane. If there hadn’t been a regatta going on I would have been further out in the middle taking advantage of the stream flow and the fewer debris, but staying safe from rowers in a good thing. So score one for the organization. It appeared they were using one of the flood gates as a start area, and there were a lot of boats milling around, but I was able to thread the needle around them with no problems. I went several km further past their start/finish before turning back.

On the way back, it was a completely different matter. I had been keeping my heart rate in the high 4s (near my max) for quite a long time and I was feeling it. And when I got to the floodgate I had to thread through some more traffic, but when I got into the “safe” lane I found three 8-rower + cox boats just sort of hanging around there, but parked with their oars completely spanning the lane. The first one, I yelled “make some room”, and in my highly stressed state it appeared that they were slow to react and giving me attitude, so I yelled something regrettable about how they don’t own the canal and they need to share, only in more forceful language. The second boat was a repeat of the first – they moved, but not fast enough for me and I said more harsh words. The third one hadn’t even started to move at all by the time I got too close so I yelled “stay where you are” and had to risk exposing my back in the racing lanes, which scares the hell out of me. (As a Canadian, I remember all too well what happened to Silken Laumann when she was hit by another boat in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics: “I looked at the leg for a few seconds and knew it was serious when my muscle was hanging at my ankle and I could see the bone”.)

Further up the canal, I encountered more boats but the safe lane was wider and I had no problems getting past them and I could nod amiably or even exchange a non-swear word or two. I was starting to feel bad about the language I’d used against those first three boats. Yeah, they shouldn’t have blocked the canal to other traffic, but they probably weren’t expecting a kayaker to be making the sort of speed I was making – we racing kayakers aren’t that numerous, and I wasn’t exactly being an ambassador.

After I got home, it kept eating at me. So after a few hours I composed an email to the organizer of the event:

I don’t know if this is the right address for this,but I hope you can get it to the right people.

Today I was doing an intensive kayak training session on the canal and I ended up going through your regatta. For the most part it went smoothly and I appreciate the marked off safe lane or return lane you had provided. However on my return leg, near the floodgate, there were three 8s mostly stationary in the water completely blocking the safe lane. I’m old enough to remember the pictures of Silken Laumann when she had her leg muscle nearly severed in a collision with another scull and so I’m quite scared of the danger of going into your racing lanes.

I’m afraid in my haste and desire to keep my heart rate within the proper zone for that part of my work out, I yelled some rather harsh things to those three boats to get them to move.

I want to apologize to all 27 of the young men and women involved. I’m sure as fellow athletes you’re aware that we’re not always at our best in the heat of high intensity, but I shouldn’t have said the things I did. Sorry.

This morning I got quite a nice response.

Hi Paul –

Thanks for your note, which did find its way to me. I’m the President of Pittsford Crew.

We didn’t hear anything.

As someone who sculls a lot in a single myself, I understand your frustration. Some of the crews out there were pretty inexperienced, as the winter weather prevented many from getting in their full season. Regardless of their inexperience, the coxswains need to be aware of other boats on the water. I’ll get something put into the race notes for next year that will emphasize this.

I don’t know if there is a user group/ mailing list for the competitive kayakers. If there was, and you gave me the contact info, we could email people a week ahead of time so they know this event is coming.

Have a great summer.

Best regards,


So there’s that at least.

Round The Mountain 2014

So today I did the Round the Mountain race for the second time. The first time was before my shoulder surgery, in 2010. Unlike that time, I’m not going to be posting a fancy map and link to my GPS and heart rate data, for reasons I’ll get into in a little while.

Just like in 2010, the weather was coolish, but fairly breezy. A warm up paddle out to the point confirmed that like 2010, there was going to be some tricky waves in the first lake. There was also going to be some quality people in the kayak classes. However the touring class kayaks (and the guide boats) were starting in the first wave, and I was starting in the second wave with the unlimited boats. That meant that unlike Long Lake last year, I wouldn’t have Roger Gocking as a rabbit to try to match, but Mike Littlejohn was there, and he was just as strong and powerful as he’d been then. There was some unknown quantities, including a guy in a Think Uno surf ski.

At the gun, it was the usual chaotic mess. Doug was on my right, and he yelled “There’s your ride, on your left” just as a C4 was heading past. I got on their side wake, but after a couple of times where I misjudged the way they swing back and forth I decided their stern wake would be safer. But just then we left the relative protection of Ampersand Bay and got into the windy part, and I guess the guy in the Uno wasn’t used to it because he suddenly veered between me and the C4 and across mine and Doug’s path. We both ended up t-boning him, and he actually grabbed my boat to stay upright, and we all came to a complete stop. He pushed on past and I put in a major effort to get back on that C4’s stern wake again.

I was getting a nice ride off their wake, and it was smoothing down some of the worst of the waves. And they were going pretty fast, although not catching Mike Littlejohn. They did catch a C2, and the C2 latched onto their side wake. They seemed to know each other and exchanged some words. I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but I saw what looked like a couple of references to me sitting pretty in the stern wake (well, “pretty” is perhaps not the right word when you’re staring at the stern guy’s butt crack…) I was worried that they were plotting how to scrape me off, so I gathered my strength and surged up between them, trying to get a bit of a launch from the two side wakes.

It worked, but I soon realized that the C2 had latched onto my stern wake and I was dragging him forward to another C2. When I caught that C2 I had a look back and the first C2 was still inches from my stern. And we still weren’t catching Mike L. We weren’t losing ground to him, either. In retrospect maybe I should have stayed for a longer rest. But I was sure I could catch Mike if I just worked hard enough now that we were out of the wind and waves. So I put on another burst of speed, and I look back and I’ve got both C2s now latched onto my stern like a pair of limpets.

Now we’re passing lots of people from the first wave. I dropped the two C2s pretty quickly once we got into the twisty stuff. Because the water is higher than it was in 2010, I’m taking lots of shortcuts nearer the shore and out of the marked channel, and I don’t think they were always willing to follow me.

The two guide boats are powering along, and I tried to give them a wide berth because it’s a twisty river and they don’t always go as straight as people who are facing forwards. I think I passed them just before or just after the bridge. Can’t remember exactly, except I was passing under a gigantic dead tree that was sort of halfway out into the channel when I passed the one who was in front. Whatever beefs I had against that guide boat who interfered with Roger at Long Lake last year, you’ve got to give props for how hard they work. That cannot be easy moving those big heavy boats backwards up a twisty channel with hidden logs and rocks everywhere.

Around the same time, I passed Mike Finear, and he started telling me about all the problems he’d had so far, including taking a wrong turn somewhere and running aground somewhere else, but I’m afraid I wasn’t in a mood to listen – I still thought I could catch Mike L, although it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was pulling away from me.

At the carry, there was a green K2 and a woman who was semi-blocking the way while telling everybody within the sound of her voice that she’d just had knee surgery and to be careful not to knock into her. I asked her if I could go by and I did, but half way up the hill there was some altercation which I didn’t see going on behind me with two guys in an identical green K2 and a guy in a kevlar C1. They were swearing at each other and threatening violence, and I stepped aside and let them go by, yelling after them “there isn’t any money on the line, why don’t you relax”. The guy with the C1 was trying to carry it up on top of his shoulder like a K1 (instead of on his shoulder like most people do) and he kept dropping it, which I’m sure didn’t help his mood. Fortunately he was trotting faster than me so even given the time he was wasting picking his boat up again I didn’t have to pass him and risk getting sworn at or worse.

On the way down the hill to the dock, I fell and hurt my back a bit. And then at the dock I tried to get into my boat from a high dock, which is not something I ever practice (I prefer to stand in the water and do a cowboy straddle, but there was somebody there already). I tipped and fell over into the freezing cold water. I quickly dumped out some of the water, but I think I left about 10-15 pounds of water in the boat. I also realized that my GPS wasn’t on the front of the boat anymore. Hoping that the foam block it was on would float, I did a draw to one side to look at where I’d dumped to see if the GPS was there, but somebody dropped a canoe in the water right there so I couldn’t see squat.

At this point Mike F was coming down the hill, and I realized I had the choice of getting back to shore to hunt for my GPS and give up on the race entirely, or I could finish with a semi-decent time and hope the GPS turned up afterwards. I elected for option B. I’d seen Mike L getting into his boat when I fell coming down the hill, so he hadn’t been that far ahead of me, but after dumping I realized it was going to take a miracle for me to even see him again. Especially since I was paddling without a GPS and with all that water in the bottom of the boat. And I wasn’t paddling well. The two C2s I’d left behind back in the early part of the stream had passed me, and I was starting to see other people I’d passed earlier – some I was re-passing after losing time to them at the portage and some who were passing me because they weren’t exhausted and rattled like I was.

About a kilometer or two from the portage I got my miracle. Mike L was standing on the shore dumping water out of his boat – he must have cut in too tight on that corner and hit a rock or stump and dumped. I thought I’d never have another opportunity like this so I tried to put on some more speed, but I really don’t think I did much. I so wish I had my GPS track to see if I really had increased my speed.

At one point in the rest of the race, I heard a little muffled beep and thought that maybe my GPS had floated into the inside of my boat and I was hearing it from down near my feet or something, but a few hundred meters later Mike L comes by and I realize his GPS is beeping at seemingly random times. I tried to keep on him, I really did. I buried myself, but I didn’t quite hang on, and I think I finished about a minute behind him. I was so disappointed. But I figure that if I hadn’t lost all that time at the portage from dumping, and if I hadn’t been paddling with all that water, and if he’d still given me that “gift” of dumping where he did, I probably would have held him off. But that’s a lot of “ifs”.

After the race, I asked Brian Mac, the organizer, if he could make an announcement asking if anybody saw my GPS, either at the dock or where I fell down on the hill. But instead he said “I’ve got a safety guy there, I’ll radio him”, and sure enough a little while later I got word that my GPS had been found and would be returned to me when the safety boat returns. And sure enough, it was returned, still running. The foam block it sits on was ruined – on of the two feet with the velcro had been torn right off – and I never heard if it was in the water or on the hill, but it sure was a relief to know that I got it back, especially since I only got the heart rate function working right this Monday.

So the take-away from all this is:

  • I still suck at pacing myself.
  • Mike Littlejohn is strong as an ox, and is a formidable paddler in spite of the fact that his technique isn’t great.
  • I need to get faster.
  • I need to work on my portaging skills.
  • I’m sure glad I don’t get as hyper as those guys who were swearing at each other on the portage.
  • I’m luckier than I have any right to be sometimes.

A tale of three GPS/Heart Rate devices

As a kayak racer and a geek, I’m obsessed with numbers, data, tracking stuff. So of course when I’m paddling, I want a device that tells me my speed, time, distance, heart rate, and that will lead me through interval workouts, showing me distance/time remaining in the current segment, how many segments remaining. It also needs to be waterproof and hold a charge for a while.

When I first got a device, I followed the advice of many of my teammates and bought a Garmin Forerunner 301. It was an excellent device for the job – it did every one of my requirements I listed above, and more. Unlike just about every other device on the market it wasn’t a tiny little watch and it had the biggest display of any of them, which is important for kayaking because when you’re paddling you want the device mounted on the front of the cockpit or on your foot strap in a surf ski. It had 3 or 4 pre-configured screens and one customizable one, and when I decided I wanted even more data than I could fit on the customizable screen, I could set it to switch between the screens every few seconds. It was so perfect that when the first one stopped being able to upload to the computer, I decided that in spite of the fact they discontinued it, rather than spending $75 to have Garmin refurbish it, I’d pay $100 to buy one of their clearance ones.

There was only one flaw in the 301 – there was a shitty little rubber gasket that covered the USB port, and it was damn near impossible to get it back on. which meant that after a couple of days in the salt water in Tarifa, the USB port corroded and I couldn’t charge it any more.

So I decided at that point to buy a new Forerunner 310XT. It wasn’t quite as big a display as the 301, but it transferred via wireless and there wasn’t a rust-prone hole in the body. The 310XT has all the features I liked about the 301, but with a few nice extras – you can configure how many screens you have, how many fields on each, and what is in each field. I’ve currently got it configured with 3 screens, with three fields on each. The bottom two always show speed and distance, and the top varies between time, heart rate and lap time (and I’m thinking of getting rid of the lap time screen). One slight downside is that when I’m doing an interval workout, at the end of the interval it doesn’t give as much info on your last interval as the 301. When you finish a distance interval, the 301 tells you your time for that distance, but the 310XT doesn’t.

Unfortunately when it arrived it had two major faults:

  • If was really inconsistent about the wireless transfer – it would usually require me to re-pair the device every time I did a transfer. It didn’t help that just about the time I got it Garmin was recommending people switch from the “ANT+ Agent” to “Garmin Express”, and Garmin Express on the Mac was completely broken.
  • The heart rate monitoring was not reliable. I would put it on, and it wouldn’t show my heart rate until 5 or 6 minutes into my workout.

Garmin eventually responded to my complaints on their support site, on twitter and on this blog by sending me a refurb Forerunner 910XT to replace my 310XT. A 910XT is basically a 310XT but with some extra features for swimmers and cyclists, so the changes didn’t really affect me. But it did start transferring data to my computer reliably, so that was a nice thing.

But the problems with the heart rate continued. I tried using electrolyte gel to try to fix the “won’t start working until 5 minutes into the workout”, and that mostly worked. Except when I used gel, I’d discover that some minutes into the workout, usually an hour or more, it would start flaking out. My heart rate would flash and come back, but for the rest of the workout it would just start ticking down, lower and lower numbers every minute no matter what I was doing. I’d find myself in the middle of a flat-out 1000m “hard piece” in an interval workout and it would be showing my heart rate as 37bpm. I couldn’t reach 37bpm in a coma. Other people on the team had told me they used the electrolyte gel during cold weather because they weren’t producing enough sweat, and I’d never had a problem with the 301, so I was hoping to stop using the gel during the warmer weather, but without it I was getting the “no reading for 5 minutes” *and* getting the “ticking down after an hour” problems.

Again, I contacted Garmin through every method available to me, and the first response I got was just “oh, you’re wearing it wrong”. So I tried everything they suggested (wearing it to one side or the other, above the ribs, below the ribs, on my back), and one thing they didn’t suggest (I shaved my chest hair in a strip where I wear the heart rate strap), but to no avail.

At this point I was getting nervous, because I have my first race of the season this weekend and it looked like I wasn’t going to have a reliable heart rate reading during it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I ordered a Polar RC3 GPS.

The Polar RC3 arrived and right out of the box, it started reading my heart rate immediately, with no hesitation and no wait for me to start sweating. But unfortunately I soon discovered it had some severe drawbacks compared to the Garmin. The screens are not configurable at all. There doesn’t seem to be any way to make it cycle between the screens – that’s probably not a problem for runners and cyclists because they have more use of their hands, but that’s almost unforgivable for kayaking. I couldn’t find any way to set up an interval workout the way I wanted to set it up – there seemed to be a mode where it would set up some training according to their recommendations, but not to your coach’s recommendations. The weirdest bit of inflexibility is the color – they sell two different wristband colors. In all the pictures, you see the black wristband pictured with dark letters on a light background, and the orange wristband pictured with light(ish) letters on a dark background, but I thought that was just a stylistic choice. I picked the orange wristband because I figured higher visibility is better for finding it if you lose it. But it turns out that you can’t actually switch it from light on dark to dark on light – the color combination is set in the factory according to the wristband. You can bet it’s just one configuration option in the factory settings, so why they didn’t expose it to the users is just bizarre. Oh, and it also turns out it’s only rated IP5 instead of IP7 so you’re not supposed to immerse it.

So I wasn’t thrilled with the Polar. But since I was determined to have my heart rate for this upcoming race, I thought I was stuck with it. But then my step-daughter Stevie forwarded me an article where a guy who writes reviews of fitness equipment discovered that using a Polar strap (just the fabric and rubber part) with a Garmin transmitter (the part that clips onto the strap) solves a bunch of people’s problems with Garmin heart rates. And so I tried it and my Forerunner started registering my heart rate immediately. I went out and did an hour long workout, and it kept registering my heart rate with no cutouts and no ticking down. Nice!

So I’m going to pass the Polar onto somebody who runs, keeping the strap for myself. Garmin eventually said they were going to send me a new strap, and it’s supposed to arrive today or tomorrow, but I’m thinking I might go with the Polar strap for the race because I’m not planning any more long workouts between now and the race and I don’t want to risk having the same problems.