Q&A: Why Canoeist Pam Boteler Used an Erg Half Marathon to Cross Train

“Pam from Washington Canoe Club, meet Rachel from DC Strokes! I’m introducing you two because you’ll probably be sitting next to each other doing the erg half marathon this weekend!” said a text from mutual friend (and chiropractor) Dr. Joseph Henderson.

Pam responded humbly: “Oh lord. Please don’t look at my monitor or technique.”

Little did she know that I’d been pushing through two injuries since the previous October and wasn’t sure I’d even finish the half marathon at the MidAtlantic Erg Sprints in February.

“I’m looking for a 1:45:00 finish. So, not the fastest one out there…” I assured her.

On February 4, we sat down side-by-side on ergs in the T.C. Williams High School gym and got to work. I settled in to my long and low pace and, of course, took a peak at Pam’s monitor – 2:12/500m. She would go on to finish in 1:31:52.2.

Little did I know that Pam – though a novice to the erg half marathon – is a highly-decorated and renowned canoeist.

When Pam began competing in sprint canoe in 2000, events for women didn’t exist at the national level. Undeterred, she raced against men that year at the U.S. National Sprint/Kayak Championships and took home a gold and a bronze in the intermediate class. She also claimed the title of “first woman to compete in canoe” at the National Championships.

She persisted in 2001, racing in men’s events and claiming eighth place in men’s canoe when the season ended. Pam’s participation, and her efforts off the water, helped influence USA Canoe/Kayak (USACK) to change its bylaws the following year to create women’s events for Nationals.

Pam lead the way for women canoeists and can lay claim to being:

  • The first woman to compete in the Pan American Sprint Canoe/Kayak Championships
  • The first woman to compete at the U.S. National Marathon Canoe/Kayak Trials (30 kilometers) in an IC (high keel) sprint canoe, where she raced against men and took home silver
  • A member of Team USA who competed in the first ICF Sprint World Championships to include women’s canoe

She went on to rack up national records in 200m, 500m, and 1,000m events and was undefeated from 2000 to 2008. By the time she retired in 2010, she had participated in three World Championships, earned 11 medals at five Pan American Championships, and held 32 National Championship titles.

So why, after a storied international canoe career, did Pam choose to tackle the erg half marathon (21,097m)? Let’s start from the beginning:

RS: When did you begin paddling?

PB: I started paddling in the summer of 1992, training out of Baltimore Rowing Club, and had the opportunity that year to try out for Team USA to compete at the World Swan Boat Championships in Thailand. Despite broken ribs, I made it through heats and the A Final. The following year I joined Washington Canoe Club (WCC) as a dragon boat paddler, competing internationally as part of Team USA.

1992 USA Women Swanboat Worlds Silver Medal

What drew you to canoe and kayak?

In 1996, I joined WCC’s sprint kayak program and raced in kayak through 1999. But in the summer of 1998 a whole new world of sport challenge opened up to me when Canadian women’s canoe pioneer Sheila Kuyper visited WCC as part of her campaign to raise awareness about women not being allowed to compete in Olympic canoeing. She explained that part of Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics was to include women’s canoe.

Sprint, or flatwater, racing is one of the oldest Olympic disciplines. It is a classic test and combination of speed, explosive power, endurance, and balance. Races range from 1,000 to 200 meters and there is a 5,000 meter event at the World level. The basics of sprint racing are simple: fastest paddler who stays in their lane, upright, wins.

The sport of Olympic canoeing – or more accurately, canoe/kayak – made its debut in the Olympic Games as exhibition mens-only events in 1924. With the success of this exhibition, the International Olympic Committee added “Canoeing” (aka Canoe/Kayak) to the official Olympic program for the 1936 Games.  

Olympic single person canoes are 17 feet long, about a foot wide, and weigh 14kg/31lbs. The paddler is on one knee, with the other leg stretched out in front of them. They hold a long single blade paddle and propel the canoe by paddling only on one side, and staying straight by doing steering strokes with the paddle (there is no rudder under the canoe). You can read more about it here

When I saw Sheila on the water for the first time, she and a Canadian female teammate were finishing a workout with some WCC male canoeists. I had no idea know who she was, but I was in awe. I had never seen a woman paddling what had always been considered a “man’s canoe.” I had been a member of the WCC for five years and I never noticed and didn’t care that the women only paddled kayaks. I paddled kayak because that was my only option.

Sheila presented her message to our club and asked for our support not only for Toronto’s bid but for developing women and girls in canoe, and to support their path to Olympic inclusion.

This was a pivotal moment for me. I didn’t realize that discrimination – even if it was unconscious and unintentional – was happening at my own club, and in my own country.

After I met Sheila, I was inspired to play around in the canoe in summer of 1999, but there were no opportunities for women in canoe at the national level. I continued to race kayak until I switched to sprint canoe in 2000 when USA Canoe/Kayak changed its bylaws to allow women to compete against the men (in the Intermediate class). I knew Canada had women-only canoe events at their national championships and I wanted to support Sheila and be part of the U.S. movement. One of my goals for the 2000 nationals was to be one of the first women to compete in men’s canoe, and I thought tons of women would want to compete. I ended up being the only U.S. woman to sign up.

After retiring in 2010, did you continue paddling?

The WCC is my second home and my teammates are like family. I had been introduced to Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing in the early 2000s and raced a couple of times with the WCC women’s team. I had the most fun paddling in the outrigger canoe (6 person) and joined the team full time in 2011. Since then, I’ve been racing in outrigger canoe (6, 2, and 1 person canoes), ocean surfski (kayak), marathon canoe, and occasionally I’ve entered sprint kayak and canoe races at our canoe club for fun.

I know you’ve had immense success in sprint and marathon events. Which do you prefer and why?

I’ll be 49 in May so my body prefers the longer races now, but I still like doing sprints in training as they keep me feeling alive and strong.
I competed in sprint canoe from 2000-2010 and that decade was the most challenging of my sporting life – exhilarating, agonizing, frustrating, yet something I look back on with great pride and gratitude. I was an older athlete (retiring at age 42, twice the age of the average competitor), I worked full time, and was doing women’s canoe advocacy work in my “spare” time, so it was very difficult to get in the training necessary to be as proficient as I would have liked.

In 2002 I competed in the U.S. Marathon National Canoe/Kayak Team Trials (a 30km race). I became the first woman to compete in this canoe class at a national sanctioned event (a qualifier for the World Championships) and was the first woman in the world to do so. Women were prohibited from racing at the World Marathon Championships in canoe until 2015, so even if I met a qualifying time, I still would have been barred from competing at Worlds. I won a silver medal at the 2002 Marathon Trials and, after being on my knee for 3.5 hours, I was happy to have finished. I competed again in 2003 against the men at the U.S. National Marathon Trials, also 30km.

The marathon events are so grueling. They definitely take a different mind-body focus and you have the added challenge of proper hydration and food. That was my first foray into marathon racing. I figured if I could paddle on one knee and only on one side for 3.5 hours, I have a head start on many things marathon.

Has the rowing erg (vs. paddling erg) been a part of your training in the past?

Yes. I was scheduled to do the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints in 2015, but I hurt my calf the week prior to the event and did not compete. The rowing erg is a great cross-training tool and several of my teammates use the Concept2 Logbook to track workouts. We have a Washington Canoe Club team account to see how we stack up against others.

What motivated you to train for the erg half marathon?

I needed good winter endurance training to prepare for the General Clinton 70 mile canoe race at the end of May. I thought the marathon would be a great test and would inspire me to get on the erg frequently and for longer duration. I opted for the half marathon as a good balance between endurance and a need for relative speed/power.

Since I was rehabbing my left shoulder (two torn rotators) my physical therapist, Mara Berman of Lumaninance Healing Arts, told me that the erg would be an excellent rehabilitative motion and get me really focusing on posture and getting shoulder blades back and down. Not to mention the full body workout. My trainer, Kevin Maselka (@FitGuru1000), also encouraged the shift to whole body focus.

An extra incentive training more with my boyfriend, who was training on a rowing erg for testing for the U.S. national dragon boat team. He lives in Florida and we had already been working out together on Skype doing core and spin bike training. When I signed up for the half marathon in December, we started doing erg workouts (me on an erg at Golds Gym and him at his place on his erg). Since he was focused on sprints, I had the benefit of doing more distance on my own, but getting higher intensity training with him. We would start and end at the same time on our phones. Always great suffering with a partner.

What did your training plan look like for Erg Sprints? 

I started training on the erg for the half-marathon at the beginning of December. I sort of had a plan for how to vary my workouts, and also ensured I made time for just technique work and watching technique video.
I had a stretch goal of a 2:10 pace. And that was a BIG stretch at that time. I thought about modifying my goal in January, but I decided not to. I’d rather aim high and miss, than aim too low and hit.

My Concept2 log says I logged about 230,000 meters from December 5 up until race day, February 4, 2017. More important for me was I was able to get in longer sessions – longer than I had ever been willing to tolerate before. Knowing I was preparing for racing nine hours in the 70-miler at the end of May was motivation that I could do it.

A few good workouts for me included:

“No pressure, just do it” 5 or 6 x 15 minutes on/1:30 rest
During these sessions I focused on low stroke rate for some (16-18spm) and a little higher for others (22-24spm).  The final 15′ piece I did feet out to keep teaching my body to work together and fire my glutes better in particular.

Shorter intervals
20′ warmup, then 3 sets of 4 x 250m on/1 minute off, with 4′ rest in between sets. Then an easy technical 10′ cool down.

e.g. 15-30 second intervals to see how low I could get my average 500m pace.  Proper warmups and cool downs were staple.

Long distance training (and racing) can often lead athletes into some dark places mentally. How has your mindfulness/mediation helped?

I have worked incredibly hard at mental training since 2007. I was turned on to mindfulness meditation about two years ago and while I don’t practice daily, I try to meditate, including guided meditation, a few times a week, even if just a short duration. More important is I’ve worked very hard at just living more mindfully. I also go to great effort to ensure I am surrounded by positive people, positive messaging and positive images, and that my own communication out for other people is positive, purposeful, affirmative, and motivating.

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a mentoring program for a new non-profit called The True Athlete Project, which is focused on leveraging sport as a powerful tool for self-mastery and positive social impact. Mindfulness meditation and mentoring are tools leveraged by world class athletes to maximize performance. I’ll never be an Olympic athlete, but I certainly want to be the best me, so this helps me and I get to share with others.

What was your race day strategy?

I had asked Charley Sullivan (Head Men’s Rowing Coach at University of California, Santa Barbara) for his advice on the drag factor. I trained on older ergs at Gold’s Gym and the race ergs are brand new. My last experience doing the Erg Sprints 2k in 2013 didn’t go as desired because I didn’t understand the importance of knowing my training drag factor and setting the race erg at the same. This time I set it about right (101) for the half and that relative familiarity made a difference. 

I was intent on starting out at a 2:12 pace just to set the tone for being patient. I felt surprisingly good and relaxed but knew the second 10k could suck if I didn’t watch myself. Each 5k I wanted to bring it down a notch with consistent rating, always keeping my eye on the “projected time.” The last 5-8k was long as heck, as was the last 2k, but I finished. Perhaps I could have gone faster, but I did what I set out to do.

You used a CamelBak hydration pack on race day. This is something that rowers rarely do but seems an obvious solution for a half marathon. 

I noticed I was the only one there with a CamelBak, but I did have a plan and had to not care that I didn’t quite fit in. When I am training, and particularly during a race, I try to get any advantage I can. I can’t afford not to. If someone is missing a stroke or two to drink or eat, I can take advantage of that with my water system set up for no hands drinking–I can keep paddling. It was out of my way around my waist and the stiff necklace allowed for my tube to be right at my mouth for quick, no hands drinking. Because I really did want to do that 2:10 pace and hit 92 minutes, I did not want to stop rowing to bend over to find a water bottle. I’m always testing out different ways to take in fluids for longer duration events, so this allowed me to do that.

You mentioned rehabbing a torn rotator cuff. How did it hold up through the erg half marathon?

Everything felt really good and strong, and mentally I focused on one stroke at a time. I was really happy about that the most. I not only met my goal, but I focused on connecting my whole body. And I recovered from the event fairly quickly, paddling the next day.

Do you think you’ll row the erg half marathon event again?

Yes. This was one of my best winters for training, physically and mentally. Training on the erg kept me in shape and it gave me a much needed mental break from paddling. Also, logging my efforts in the Concept2 logbook and seeing what others were doing was motivating.

I started paddling more frequently again in February with a renewed vigor and feeling strong.

My friend Cindy Way surprised me by coming up in front of my erg and taking a photo after I started the race at Erg Sprints. I started laughing because I knew she was doing the marathon (she had trained in 2016 to row across the North Atlantic!) and, I, therefore, had no reason to moan about the half. She was the only woman in Erg Sprints open women marathon event so I hope to join her next year.

More about the Washington Canoe Club:

The club runs programs for all ages, in Olympic canoes and kayaks, and in many other paddle craft. WCC also run really fun community events – competitive and recreational – to get more people exposed to paddling and getting exercise via the beautiful, scenic Potomac River.
The WCC is one of the oldest canoe clubs in the U.S., founded in 1904, and the boathouse – an historic Washington DC landmark – is currently undergoing a major restoration effort.