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8 Down, 2 to Go

By Riley Robinson
Posted on October 19, 2019
8 Down, 2 to Go

Since Greg Benning turned 50, in 2012, the results of the 50-plus men’s singles at the Head of the Charles regatta have been pretty much a forgone conclusion.

Benning, 57, won his eighth race in a row Saturday, with a time of 18:43. He finished with a 51-second margin over Russ Cone, who came in second.

This large gap is due largely a sad absence in this year’s field, Benning was quick to acknowledge after the race. Jim McGaffigan was Benning’s closest competition in recent years, finishing second by just six seconds last year. McGaffigan died suddenly in February at 54.

“It was a weird race this year. Well, weird’s not the right word. It was a meaningful race this year… Everyone on this river knows everybody,” Benning said. “You’re sitting on the starting line and you’re trying to focus, focus, focus. And this stuff is really coming into your head.”

Once the race began, however, Benning’s focus quickly shifted to the course he knows so well, and a race that gives him great joy.

“It’s kind of like rowing Christmas,” Benning said. “Or homecoming.”

Benning, who rows out of the Cambridge Boat Club, first rowed Head of the Charles in 1982 in the heavyweight eights for the University of Pennsylvania, after walking on to the varsity team. He was a runner until he found rowing.

“My first year all I would try to do is get the oar in the water and get my legs moving,” he says.  “Still, it’s about stick the oar in the water, get the boat moving, try not to screw it up.”

His training is a little more intense and sophisticated today, both physically and mentally. He tracks his heart rate (should be around 165 bpm) his sleep (ideally seven to eight hours). Every morning he measures his blood pressure with a cuff that sends the measurement to an app on his phone, which compiles his health data points to rank his race-readiness as red, yellow or green. He’s been green all week.

Greg Benning (L) and Richard Kendall. Between them, these two Penn alums own 25 HOCR singles titles. Kendall (Class of ’51) has 13, Benning (’84) 12. (Photos by Riley Robinson)

Benning, a biotech consultant, also helped design a NK’s EmPower oarlock that links to his speed coach and gives real-time feedback on stroke technique.

“If you want to get better, you can watch what the world class athletes are doing, you can read a lot and you can write down your numbers,” he said. The biostat tracking app came from members of the Dutch national team, whom Benning met at a regatta in the Netherlands this March. Benning says many of his data-based techniques come from conversations with elite rowers he meets after races.

In the history of the regatta, no one has ever won a singles race ten years in a row. But maybe Benning’s analytic strategy will change that.

“Some of the stuff I’m working on is fairly wonky,” he said. “But yeah, I’ll be back next year.”


By Riley Robinson
Posted on October 19, 2019