Nov 19 2012

Relentlessly Self-Improving

Published by at 9:51 am under ergblogging,General,Olympics,Reading,sculling

I confess I haven’t rowed on the water once this calendar year. My only excuse is a shitty start to the season with the torn bicep back in January and the five months of rehab. Now it looks like that same arm has a “slap tear” at the top of the bicep, and that means some specific movements are both painful and very weak, including lifting the shell out of its rack and getting it over head.

The winter injury happened just in to time to knock me out of the 2012 CRASH-B sprints (the “world championships” of indoor/erg rowing) and I never got motivatedenough  to wake up extra-early for the calm water and portage my scull down Old Shore Road to the harbor.   Crossfit and the tedium of physical therapy had my full attention and now, with Thanksgiving holiday ahead, it’s time to start hyperfocusing on the indoor rowing season which traditionally begins for me with the Concept 2 Holiday Challenge (200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and ends with the Crash-B’s in February.

This is my last year in the 50-54 men’s heavyweight division. In 2011 I tanked after going out too fast from the start and bonked in the last 500 meters, blowing a nice pace and finishing 14th with a 6:39.9.  I had won the Cape Cod “championships” at the Cranberry Crunch the month before with a 6:42 and was all full of myself and cocky at the Crash-Bs and went out too fast. I learned my lesson and left the arena at Boston University determined to come back better in 2012. I signed up for Crossfit Cape Cod the next week and have been training with an eye towards getting faster on the erg.

Today I did my first 2,000 meter test to set the baseline for my training over the next three months leading up to the race on February 17.  I climbed on the erg, stripped off my shirt, set the monitor for a 2,000 meter piece and decided anything under 7 minutes would be a good place to start. I made it. Barely, with a 6:58.8.  That meant an average 500 meter pace of 1:44.7. Respectable, but a long way from where I need to be in 12 weeks. Ironically, focusing on Crossfit has made me slower on the erg — proof that randomizing my exercise the Crossfit way between metabolic and strength conditioning isn’t as effective as my tried-and-true model of putting in tons of meters and shifting to short sprint intervals as the races grow near.

I logged my time on Concept2’s online ranking page and now stand 39th out of 616 heavyweight men ages 50-59. The winning time in my division last year at the Crash-Bs was a 6:11.4. The world record is 6:07.7 set by Andy Ripley in 1998. The world record — period — for men is 5:36.6.

Breaking seven minutes is a great goal for any guy in good shape, but being the competitive egomaniac I am, of course I am going to obsess on the winning times in my division and have my eyes on the next age group’s record of 6:18 set by Harvard/Olympian legend Dick Cashin.    As for this year. I would dearly love to get under 6:30 in 12 weeks. That means shaving 30 seconds between now and then. It’s improbable, if not impossible, but it is at least aggressive. The question is how to develop a training plan that will get me there while allowing me to do the daily Crossfit workouts, and taper in time for the big event?

If I pull one 2K per week — say every Saturday. I should be shaving 3 seconds off every week if I want to break 6:30 on February 17.  I bet if I were to attack a test piece now with the same intensity a race requires — “emptying the tank” — and leaving nothing to spare at the end, I might get to 6:45 with a superhuman effort. The question is how shave the last 15 seconds knowing full well the law of diminishing returns that sets in as one gets closer to the goal.

Developing a training plan to get from here to there is not a simple matter of plotting a line from 7 minutes on November 15 to 6:30 on February 15 and hoping a miracle will happen somewhere along that line. It won’t. Physiological adaptation doesn’t work that way.

In fact, to be more geeky about it. The best way to look at the challenge is not by gross finishing time, but the specific pace that has to be maintained to get there. For that I turn to the Concept 2 online pace calculator. The rowing machine has a monitor that counts down the meters, notes the strokes per minute and most prominently displays a big bold number — the erg’s equivalent to the speedometer on a car — the current pace for 500 meters. In Saturday’s baseline piece, my average split was 1:44.7. I didn’t row a a flat 1:44.7 every one of the 200 or so strokes it took to tick off 2,000 meters. I started with a 1:33 and gradually degraded to as slow as a 1:50 at one point. Fortunately, the monitor also displays an estimated finish time that one can improve by pulling harder, so having sat down with a sub-7 minute performance as my goal, I was able to keep the predicted time under 7 minutes and not let things decline and get out of hand.

Split strategies are essential to a great 2,000 meter performance. Using the Concept2 calculator and entering in 2,000 meters as the distance and 6 minutes, 29.9 seconds as the goal. I hit pace and it tells me that I would have to maintain a 1:37.4 pace on every stroke. Alas, I am not a machine so I start strong, fade, and then comes back to sprint to the finish. Hence my splits are all over the place. The experts say the trick is to pull negative splits — meaning go progressively faster every 500 meters and not do a “fly and die” and rush out of the start and go like mad until something goes very wrong (which it always does in a fly or die situation). The discipline required, not to mention the conditioning, is massive.

As Mike Tyson said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” All of my pre-2k battle plans go out the window the second I start whipping myself back and forth trying to get the flywheel up to speed and realize the adrenaline is pushing me way too fast out of the blocks. After I settle down to my planned pace, and do my power-tens on the 500 meter marks, the dreaded visit to the pain cave begins about 750 meters or three minutes into the race, then comes what my friend Dr. Dan calls the “talk with Jesus” in the third quarter following the half-way point. All sorts of bad thoughts creep into the mind in during the 500 meters when the lactic acid is flaming, tunnel vision begins, and one’s head starts to roll around. This is when the debate between survival and simply continuing and just stopping and puking happens. In a boat you can’t stop. If you stop it is a disaster like an eight car rear end collision on a foggy highway. No one stops in a rowing race. It just can’t happen. Rowing is all about the inner debate between the survival part of the brain and the more noble “because it’s there” part. To hell with winning. The third quarter of a 2K race is about continuing. The last quarter is the realization that in 50 strokes the agony ends and the realization that anyone can do anything for two minutes.

I just need to figure out a practical path to get my numbers down in what should be an interesting test of the “quantified self.” It is a very profound psycho-physiological-spiritual question to ponder: if hope springs eternal as the cliche says, and if one is a “relentlessly self-improving” man (to quote Doctor Evil in Austin Powers), at what point does the aging ego accept the fate of all flesh and realize that the wheels have started to come off and indeed, as we age, the rower’s adage of “the older we get, the faster we were” is the bitter awful truth?

A 18-year old, prime-of-life specimen of immortal perfection can look at next year and rationally expect, with hard work, training, supplements, steroids, whatever …. to go faster. Athletes peak in their 30s. Most Olympians are in the 20s, some in their 30s, (depending on the sport of course. )The oldest successful Olympic rower is Sir Steve Redgrave, who won five gold medal in consecutive Olympics. He won his last in 2000 at the age of 38 and then retired, was knighted, and was the guy who ran the torch from the motorboat into the Olympic Stadium during London’s open ceremonies this past summer.

The best way to show the reverse parabola of progress would be to plot all the erg scores from the Crash-B’s against the age of the competitors. It would show a quick improvement from the teens up through the 30s, then a steep decline that accelerates through the 50s.   Masters rowers — 40 years and up– are  generally Type-A personalities, well funded, and obsessively competitive on and off the water.  I suspect not one of them accepts the truth that they are going to get slower next year, and most, like me, are throwing themselves into training plans, double-session workouts, expensive fish oil, post-workout protein supplements, weight regimens, and new boats (a new high end single scull costs well over $10,000 for 18′ and 35 pounds of carbon fiber). Speaking for myself — we’re fighting the clock.

To end this disquisition on age and improvement …. there is nothing like an ergometer to give one the naked lunch* truth that in the end, everybody has to slow down and stop some day. Eventually everybody runs out of water, has to check oars, and back down before slipping over the spillway and cascading, lifelessly over the foaming precipice. To that I call bullshit and hope to be the toothless cackling codger who walks out on the floor of the Agganis Arena in 2052 at the age of 94 and pulls a sub-ten minute piece and gives time and deterioration the middle finger.

*: defined by the William Burrough's novel Naked Lunch, where "Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.""

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