Archive for the 'sculling' Category

Oct 25 2013

The Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club

Published by under Books,Rowing,sculling

You can't buy it (which is a shame), but the Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club has been published. My copy arrived yesterday via the mail. This is a project I was honored to help draft in the late 1980s when I was fresh from publishing The Book of Rowing with Overlook Press and had just joined Boston's Union Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in a city known for its rowing.

David Thorndike, Charlie Clapp, Cap Kane and countless UBC members contributed to the effort which took a herculean effort over a decade and half to be born. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, picking through the club's archives, interviewing the most venerable members, and identifying the big gaps in the historical record which needed to be filled in before the project was ready for the printer. I confess to fading out of the picture for a while, but the project was revived and finally pushed over the deadline this past year, emerging as a gorgeous "coffee table" book printed privately for the membership.

Which is a shame, as I'd stack this tome against any book in the rowing history pantheon. The photography is gorgeous, the historical archive priceless.

The project was pushed by David Thorndike in the 80s as the 150th anniversary of the club approached and its first history, published at the turn of the previous century was in desperate need of an update. The club has a unique place in the history of American rowing, coming as it did in antebellum Boston at a time when Harvard and Yale were only just beginning their rivalry on the water, now the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. The early logs are a humorous and plucky look at sporting life before spinning classes, Crossfit and paleo diets. When men obsessed more about their uniforms than actual exercise, when rowing consisted of leisurely rows up and down the tidal Charles River and through the islands of Boston Harbor, never really racing, just touring around in the novel pursuit of leisure time.

The role of the UBC in the history of American and international rowing is deep and storied. Basically emerging as an alumni club for Harvard rowers, it sent championship crews to the Henley Royal Regatta, counted nearly a dozen Olympians among its alumni, and sits, socially, at the center of Brahmin Boston, its clubhouse standing at the foot of Beacon Hill near the Hatch concert Shell. A tour of the boathouse and clubhouse is a trip back in time to the 19th century, the walls and floors permeated with the sweat of generations after generations of politicians, lawyers, bankers, surgeons and eccentric characters from another era. The club has seen its share of challenges. The state dammed up the Charles and filled in the Embankment cutting it off from the river. The club went coed in the late 80s after years of being a men's club. Rowing faded in popularity in the 60s and 70s as the sport went into a general decline, but today the place flourishes, alongside the sport, anchoring down the competitive rowing scene on the Charles, sending crews up river to do their best.

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Jun 27 2013

Harry Parker God of the Charles

Published by under Rowing,sculling

I never rowed for Harry Parker, but I rowed against him, and I lost.  Since I have written on rowing, I thought it appropriate to remember the most successful coach, or at the very least, the best known, in the entire sport.

In his 50 years of coaching the Harvard men's crew, Harry had 22 undefeated seasons, about 16 unofficial national championships, and most regretfully for me, a Yalie, beat Yale 44 our of the 51 times the two colleges went head to head on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut -- that's the oldest competition in American sports.

I met him several times -- once as an applicant (I didn't get in) -- twice as a competitors (I lost both times to his crews) -- and once as a writer when I was researching The Book of Rowing. He was a difficult interview, maybe it was me, but Harry personified the word "taciturn" and was renowned for his sphinx-like demeanor among those who rowed for him on the Charles.

I'm not a sports statistician or historian, but I don't think there is another coach of any sport -- amateur, professional, collegiate -- with as long and successful career as Harry Parker's.

When I rowed the Harvard-Yale race in 1978 -- still the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life -- I spent close to 20 minutes in an oxygen-starved. lactic acid-soaked near-death state staring straight astern at Harry's craggy visage as he rode along confidently in the coaches launch as his boat pulled away with open water and kicked our ass. I literally lost my shirt.

The Harvard Gazette has a great recounting of the legend that was Harry Parker.

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Dec 30 2012

Erg race registration reminder

If by any remote chance you are thinking about competing on the indoor rowing circuit this winter, my two favorite races are now open for registration.

Cape Cod Rowing's Cranberry Crunch, aka "The Cape Cod Indoor Rowing Championships" takes place Sunday, January 27 at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, MA. Doors open at 10, racing begins at 11:30, distance is 2,000 meters across various age groups and by gender. There is a 500 meter sprint challenge as well. Registration is at Regatta Central for $20.

And the mother of all indoor regattas, the venerable CRASH-B Sprints, aka "The World Indoor Rowing Championships", is taking place February 19, Sunday, at Boston University's Agganis Arena. Registration deadline is January 14 and costs $25 for masters, $20 for collegiate and high school rowers. The distance is 2,000 meters across lightweight and heavyweight classes for men and women. If you miss the registration there is a walk-on "bullpen" race where you show up, pull your piece and get counted against your class. This is my last year in the men's heavyweight 50-54 category and perhaps my eighth year racing at the Sprints.

 

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Dec 12 2012

Erg Playlists — 2013 edition from Row2K

I've written before about the necessity of a good playlist to make it through a winter's worth of erg rowing. Now that I am training for the CRASH-B sprints (Feb. 17 in Boston, registration now open until Jan 7), I back to messing around with playlists on my android phone.

Row2k -- the best source of all rowing news online -- has a feature on erg playlists and a poll to vote for your favorite (I voted for Rammstein's Du Hast as it is prominent on my go-to list and is utterly teutonic sturm und drang). I also respect the Rage Against the Machine on Row2k's list, but have to puke on Jackson Brown. Now to go compile this sucker off of Amazon and load it up for my next bout with the Wheel of Pain.

If you row and you read Row2k you owe them a contribution. Send them $60 and get an awesome t-shirt. No site matches the depth of their coverage, the completeness of their calendar, the awesomeness of the features, the relevance of their news and the usefulness of their classifieds.

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Nov 19 2012

Relentlessly Self-Improving

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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Apr 27 2012

And they’re off …. Worst Rowing Start Ever

Published by under Rowing,sculling

There's a reason they call them "the Bumps...."

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What's with the demented squirrel?

Some background from the man who wrote THE goddamn Book of Rowing:

The "Torpids" or "Bumps" are a traditional rowing contest conducted on the River Isis (part of the Thames) in England every Spring. Because the Isis is too narrow to permit side-by-side starts, the crew start about a length and a half apart, with the coxswains (the little people who steer the boats) holding onto ropes secured to the river bank. Everyone starts at once -- when a gun or horn is sounded -- and the object is to row as quickly as one can and "bump" the boat ahead of you.  If bumped you keep on rowing with the possibility of being bumped again. If you are the bumper, then you get to stop rowing and somehow advance up the ladder towards being King of the River. Or something like that.

You try to figure the rules out from Wikipedia. I can't.

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Aug 08 2011

More Hydrofoil coolness

Published by under Rowing,sculling

Tom Friel -- fellow master's sculler and former boat-mate at Brooks in the 70s -- shared this cool video of a Yale project to fit a single scull with hydrofoils.

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Jun 30 2011

Sean Maloney’s Rowing Recovery

Published by under Rowing,sculling

I met Sean Maloney in Beijing in 2008 during the Olympics. A fellow rower, he had just returned from a row down the course at Shunyi, something I was insanely jealous of as my colleague Alice Li hooked him up with a boat and permission. I didn't get a chance to row in China, but the expression on Sean's face as the conversation changed from business to rowing made up for it as he described the awesome feeling of rowing down the lanes where the world's best would compete in a few days.

Viewed as one of the top talents in Intel's executive ranks and the likely successor for the top job, Sean suffered a stroke in 2010. The doctors said he wouldn't row again, so he got in a boat and proved them wrong, competing in the 2010 Head of the Charles.

This video is him telling the tale of rowing and his recovery. I have to say, one year later, he sculls better than I do and has a great finish.

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Jun 21 2011

Training for the Charles in Cotuit

Published by under General,Rowing,sculling

I remembered yesterday that the deadline for entering the Head of the Charles Regatta is coming up soon, so I logged into the HOCR.org site and filed an application for one of the precious slots in the Grand Master Singles scull event. I was lucky enough to score an entry in 2003, pulling a dismal 23'03" and finishing second-from last in a field of 39 senior masters. I had my excuses -- it was my first Head alone, sculling (I've always participated in a team boat with at least four rowers), and I had a torn intercostal muscle in my right rib-cage, necessitating a massive overdose of Advil on the dock.

Update 8.3.11: Entry wasn't accepted by the HOCR Gods so no Head of the Chuck this year for me. I did enter the Green Mountain Head in Putney, Vermont though. Better scenery.

Excuses, excuses and hope springs eternal. So once more I am crossing my fingers and hoping for an entry in this fall's regatta, arguably the greatest rowing event in the world.

Application filed, I woke up this solstice morning to bluebird skies and zero wind. I set out the trash cans, drank a cup of coffee, and ten minutes later was backing away from the beach at the foot of Old Shore Road in my old Empacher. I set out around Grand Island in a counter-clockwise direction, rowing a slow stroke rate with firm power, cranking along on a mirror-like surface completely pleased to be able to do such a graceful thing on a whim on what I parochially consider the best rowing water I've ever rowed on. 8,000 meters and 43 minutes later, and I was pleased to see my average pace at at the same level it was eight years ago in 2003, a good harbinger I hope of some fall regatta success.

Funny, but in the back of my mind looms February and the 2012 CRASH-B sprints, the world championships of indoor rowing. Every pull-up, every overhead power snatch, kettlebell swing and burpee I've done this spring has been with that ugly six and a half minutes of agony in mind. To see them payoff on the water is very rewarding, but for some reason the boat is far more arbitrary a gauge than the merciless ergometer.

Training for the Head of the Charles is a matter of working towards a 5 km distance. Funny how the presence of 100,000 cheering spectators seems to shave a minute or two off the time -- but to give you and idea of what I'm up against. Here's the course on the Charles River as mapped in the g-map pedometer:

And here's the same distance mapped on Cotuit Bay:

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Apr 11 2011

The Real Deal: water rowing resumes

Published by under Rowing,sculling

My rowing club, the Union Boat Club in Boston, has a rule for cold-weather rowing called the "Four-Oar Rule." It's simple, makes sense, and is safe. When the water is under 50 degrees fahrenheit no one can go out on the Charles alone in a single scull, or together in a two-oared pair. The only safe combination is two people in two singles, or four people in a four, or two people in a double (two oars each). It's all about the capsize effect and hypothermia. While thankfully rare, capsizes do happen (I average one or two a year, usually because I hit something because I'm not looking over my shoulder every twenty strokes or so) and are real inconveniences to recover from.  First is the shock effect of rolling into the water after working away and building up a good sweat in the sunshine; the next thing you know you're blowing bubbles under water trying to get your feet out of the sneakers screwed into the foot stretchers.

Having that happen in cold water is not something I ever want to experience, so I tend to be wimpy and stay off of Cotuit Bay until some point in the spring when conditions feel just right -- warm temperatures, calm water -- to make my annual shakedown cruise.

That day came late this year, only this past Saturday, April 9. And this morning the email came in from the Union Boat Club that the Four-Oar Rule has been lifted.

I had an exceptional row -- considering it was the first of 2011 and my hands lack the required calluses - - and right from the first full stroke a few yards off of the Lowell's beach I could tell the past two months of CrossFit and the million of erg meters before that are going to pay off in a big way in terms of control and power.

I'll start following the CrossFit Endurance program which blends the six weekly workouts of the day with three rowing workouts that take place at least three hours after the Xfit WOD.  I'll shoot for one 2,000 meter time trial per month and start training for next year's CRASH-B's in earnest.

I find myself thinking of the current world champion, Michele Marullo, during the worst parts of the Crossfit workouts, and just when I am about to toss the towel and bag that one extra burpee, I think: "What would Marullo do?" Competitive impulses are a bitch.

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Apr 06 2011

The Body is Evil and Must Be Punished

Published by under General,Rowing,sculling

As I finished the indoor rowing season with February's CRASH-B sprints, I considered the dead-spot in my fitness/self-abuse calendar between erg season and  when on- the-water rowing can resume without too much risk of killing myself with a hypothermic capsize on Cotuit Bay. More erging was not an option - I've got 1.3 million meters logged in since June and don't feel the need to pile on any more.

It was obvious to me after the CrashB's, that if I am going to move to the front tier of master's rowers next year I need to focus on sheer strength. My cardio-vascular/VO2 max capacity is fine, my legs and lower body are fine, it's all the rest that needs to go to the next level. Whaling away, an hour a day, on a machine as specific and restrictive as the erg is the very definition of putting oneself into a rut. I needed some cross-training, some exposure to some different routines, and the traditional gym wasn't going to cut it.

Me swinging the kettlebell

So the solution was to join Cape Cod Crossfit.

I've blogged about Crossfit in the past -- I took it up on my own in the spring of 2008 and stuck with it until the following winter when a torn rotator cuff knocked me out of action. The program - or cult, or whatever you want to call it -- was started in the late 1990s by former gymnast Greg Glassman in a couple bays of an industrial park in Santa Cruz. The philosophy is pretty basic and can be stated in 100 words:

"Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean & jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouetts, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports."

I took to Crossfit because it can be done solo -- without paying dues or showing up, or worrying about how you look when you do it in a crowd. It prizes fundamental, primitive exercise. No fancy Nautilus machines or stair-steppers or spinning classes. You pick heavy stuff up and put it down. If you can use your own weight to good effect - think a classic pull-up or push-up -- then that's the way to go.  Crossfit also loves the Concept2 ergometer (which is how I became aware of the program in the first place), and more and more Crossfit-trained athletes are starting to dominate the world indoor rowing rankings.

Crossfit happens six days a week in a former Blockbuster store in an upscale strip mall in the next-door town of Mashpee. A big welded pull up rack runs down the center. A couple dozen plywood jumping boxes, four ergometers, an array of cast iron kettlebells, and about 20 Olympic free-weight bars. Add in some gymnastic rings, a couple floor-to-ceiling ropes, and a lot of jump ropes and you pretty much have the classic Crossfit gym or "box."

I prefer the 6:30 am session which starts with a "warm-up" that would be most people's workout.  Burpees (the most evil calisthenic devised), kettlebell swings, wall-ball throws, and 500 meters of rowing gets me far more than just "warmed-up."

The workouts vary wildly from day to day.  Running one day, shoulders the next. Some take a half hour to perform, some five minutes. They are nearly always done as a group and against the clock, so there is an element of competition involved.

Today we did the workout of the day (or WOD) known as "Diane" (standard Crossfit workouts have female names for some reason). This consisted of doing 21-15-9 repetitions of deadlifts and handstand push-ups for time. I loaded the bar with 225 pounds and did the handstands from a kneeling position on a tall jumping box (modifications are permitted and strongly advised). The owner/coach Mark Lee walked everyone through 20 minutes of instruction on how to perform a proper deadlift and pushup, then he set the clock and counted down "Three-Two-One" and I was off.

Lifting 225 pounds off the floor to a standing, hanging position 45 times is not a trivial pursuit. Alternating those lifts with a blood-rush-to-the-head handstand is just plain mean.

I finished just under 7 minutes, stretched out on the floor and was home by 7:30.

Two months in and I am definitely feeling a serious difference. Soon I'll start mixing in rowing workouts and begin testing myself against the 2,000 meter distance.

Marc Monplaisir, a fellow masters rower, is blogging about his experience with Crossfit and rowing.

 


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Feb 18 2011

Countdown to Agony

In 48 hours, at 9:40 a.m., I'll be sitting on ergometer #19 on the floor of Boston University's Agganis Arena, staring at a small square LCD screen flashing the words: "Sit Ready" "Attention" "ROW."  While I dread it, I have to ask: how awesome is it to participate in the world championships of anything? Even if it is the world championships of indoor rowing? Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the event, which started in Harvard's Newell Boathouse in the grim winter following the cancellation of the 1980 Olympics (thanks to Jimmy Carter's Cold War displeasure with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan).  What was a humorous way to kill the tedium of winter training among a few elite Cambridge rowers has now turned into a major affair involving a couple thousand competitors and 10,000 spectators.

Then I'll be off and puffing for the next six and a half minutes until I pull the handle about 200 times and manage to spin the flywheel at a rate faster than the other 80 or so heavyweight men in their early 50s sitting on identical machines next to me. The results won't be pretty. The experience will definitely be ugly, and those six-and-a-half interminable minutes will likely be the worst six-and-a-half minutes I experience in 2011.

Or they may be the  best. In the end ergometer racing proves the cliche of the man who hits his head against a wall because it feels so good when he stops.

I'm tapering now with one light,  last row today on the deck in the springlike sunshine, a pyramid of ten, twenty, and thirty strokes at my race pace, then a rare day off tomorrow before Sunday's moment of truth.  Hydrating, carbohydrate loading, stretching, fretting over my warm-up and race plan, always anxious about whether to set a pace and goal that is within or hopelessly out of reach. Whatever happens, the event provides the venue and the inspiration to dig a little deeper and try a little harder than I would alone, in the shadows of my garage, racing myself against the clock.

Here's a virtual replay of the finals in my event last year (I didn't participate).


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Jan 30 2011

The Older We Get the Faster We Were

I'm using the same line twice in two weeks, but what the hell.

Rowed my first formal 2,000 meter indoor rowing race of 2011 today at the Cape Cod YMCA -- the annual Cape Cod Cranberry Crunch sponsored by Cape Cod Rowing:  the local club that rows on Lake Wequaquet in Centerville. I was entered in the men's heavyweight division -- there were eight of us ranging from maybe 15 years old up to the 60s -- and there were races through the afternoon for various categories of girls, women, lightweights and heavyweights.

My race -- the combined boys & men's 2K -- was first, so I started warming up almost as soon as I arrived, got good and loose, peeling off layers of clothing until I was conspicuously perched on the ergometer in lane one in my stylish Union Boat Club uni-suit, aka according to my wife, "The Dink Suit"

The eight ergs were networked and a lane display was projected on the wall showing little yellow boat icons with our names next to it. I rocked back and forth a couple times, mouth bone dry, and the monitor counted down -- Attention. Ready. Row!

I did a series of short starting strokes to get the flywheel up to speed, and then lit up at 36 strokes a minute for ten strokes with an average split of 1:20. I had written out a race plan on an index card that was on the erg between my feet, and even though I felt like Superman on Crack in the first minute, I resisted the dreaded Fly-And-Die strategy and settled down to 26 strokes per minutes at a 1:41 for 250 meters, and then further down to 1:44 for the next 250.

At the 500 meter mark -- 25 percent of the way through -- I started to breath twice on each stroke -- exhaling at the finish and the catch and inhaling on the drive and recovery as my metabolism shifted into oxygen deficit and my heart rate was climbing into the 160 range.

I did a hard power ten at the 500 meter mark and saw the 17 16 year-old kid, novice Andrew Pereira on the erg next to me -- a 220 lb., 6'5" beast from New Bedford Community Rowing who was definitely going to kick my butt -- was cranking a lot faster and pulling away. I was tempted to ignore the index card and chase, but a plan is a plan and the whole purpose of today's race was to gauge my speed three weeks before the world championships and the plan was to break 7:00 and aim for 6:45.

I felt great in the second 500 picking up the pace to 1:43 and rowed a power ten at the half-way mark. I ignored Pereira r and his coach exhorting him next to me, and stayed on plan, rowing the third 500 at 1:42, and the beginning of the final 500 at 1:41. With 250 meters or about 25 strokes left I "emptied the tank" and sprinted at 1:38. Ten strokes in and the junior was done, finishing with a 6:31. I put the handle down at 6:42.2, fast enough to win the adult division, but second to Pereira who won the Boys Division and had the fastest overall time of the day.

I won some schwag for the effort and felt good enough about the race to brag in a blog post. I'm now ranked 22nd in the world for the 50-55 heavyweight men's class.

9 responses so far

Jan 19 2011

I Erg, Therefore I Am

It's the depths of ergometer season -- when northern rowers are off the water and on their rowing machines racking up meters and laying down a base of fitness for the spring racing circuit.  Having racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million meters since I started erging in earnest in 1995, I have mixed emotions about a device that I spend an average of 45 minutes a day on, third in terms of device time after my bed and desk chair.  It's the extreme simplicity of the machine, the fact that I like to take my exercise sitting down, and the unblinking feedback its little computer gives me from one stroke to the next that  makes my rowing machine much more than a way to stay fit.

In some ways my ergometer is a daily test, a check-in between me and my willpower, a place to set goals, to even compete against others, but ultimately a place to zone out in a sweaty, 170 heartbeats and 26 strokes per minute cadence of exertion that leaves me miraculously charged for another 24 hours. Erging is all about goals. Micro goals of getting more than 8,000 meters in 30 minutes, or setting a personal best in the standard 2,000 meter race distance.  Macro goals like rowing 2,000,000 meters in one year, or 200,000 between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Erging is about competing, against the published times of other rowers, sometimes impossible times set by Olympians, but nevertheless times that somewhere deep inside one's ego reasons is possible to beat if you work hard enough.

Ergs are all about hope and possibilities, the optimism that one can be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Unfortunately, as my friend Charlie Clapp (silver medal in 1984 Olympics) is fond of saying: "The older we get, the faster we were."

Alone in the garage, door open onto the village center, watching the runners and strollers and traffic slide by, plugged into some electronica-trance music, stoner rock, or industrial metal,  sawing back and forth, back and forth, the thoughts that creep into my mind as I fight to keep my splits low and my form composed are amazing and nagging like a bad feverish dream. Thoughts of guilt over not trying hard enough, of not working hard enough, of eating that crap the night before, or skipping a day due to some aching ailment or another. But finishing a workout and beating a goal leaves me with a charge of victory that follows me off the erg and stays with me for the rest of the day.

There are moments of transcendence in rowing when everything suddenly goes very zen and effortless, when a flood of power and adrenaline surges and makes you fly. Rowers call this "swing" and it's a rare but sublime state that only rowers can understand when eight people in one boat suddenly click and the sum of the whole rises as close to perfection as an imperfect world has to offer. The right song, the right point in my training, and the erg can deliver the same brief moments of swing, when suddenly everything is right in the world and my legs, my arms, my back are twice as strong as they were an instant before.

The monotony of the erg is meditation. Swinging back and forth as if riding the end of a metronome clicking away on top of a piano. 26 strokes a minute. Ten meters per stroke. 500 meters in two minutes means 1000 meters in four. The mind does the arithmetic over and over and over, a Rainman insanity of counting through the stroke (one-two-three-four), the piece, the session, all while the machine blinks out its numbers, making stark judgments and humbling the best intentions and plans laid out at the start.

In two weeks the racing begins. First the Cape Cod championships -- The Cranberry Crunch -- when a couple dozen local rowers come together at the YMCA to endure the hell of a 2,000 meter race. Then, in late February, the World Indoor Rowing Championships, or CRASH-B Sprints, a wild affair with thousands of rowers from around the world -- Olympians to senior citizens -- competing in their age groups and weight classes for the coveted Hammer trophy.  Words cannot describe the agonizing anticipation one feels before the start signal is given -- the foreknowledge that in just a couple minutes one's body will begin to suffer an agony unlike anything experienced. Think of surgery without anesthesia combined with suffocation and a beating with a blunt object. The vision goes after a while shrinking into a little tunnel focused on the monitor; the lungs burn, thighs turn into wooden blocks, and the head begins to loll around and strange noises come out of it -- grunts and moans as first 500 meters, then 1000 (halfway!), and then the dreaded wall of hell until the final 500 when anything is doable and questions of survival give way to the anticipated joy of stopping.

Finish and look to the left -- people are still in agony, sawing away. Look to the right, the same, one after another letting go of the handle in a personal victory of having survived the worst 7 minutes of their life. The scores are posted, the judgment is final.

Erg scores are a modern rower's badge of honor -- exposed for all to see. While ergs don't float and great ergers don't always make great rowers on the water, the scores are crucial, grounds for invitation to training camps and college recruiting.  There were no real ergs when I rowed in college. Coaches made judgments and selection based on seat-racing and on the water performance. But as soon as Concept2 introduced the first machines in the early 1980s the sport was transformed.

Now erging is a sport unto itself -- Indoor rowing. No one is keener on it than the British, who have turned out some amazing ergers over the last twenty years. From English prisons to the Royal Navy, erging is a big deal in England, and nearly every country on the Continent has its own national championships. There have even been suggestions that the sport become an Olympic event.

I suspect I'll erg right up to the end. Rolling through the meters, thanking the Wheel of Pain for keeping the pounds off and giving me the chance to eat another slice of birthday cake and not huff and puff when I bound up a flight of stairs.  Today, with on-the-water rowing seeming so far away, I want nothing more than to sit in an actual boat on a sunny day and glide over smooth waters under my own propulsion; but once there I know I'll miss the stability of the machine, the way it lets me pound away without fear of capsizing or running backwards into a dock.

9 responses so far

Feb 21 2009

Post-rib recovery

I just climbed off the erg for the first time since Jan 7. Six weeks without exercise (other than beach walks) has left me fat and out of shape. So back on to the erg I went today -- 5,000 meters in under 20 minutes so the news wasn't as bad as I thought it was. Rotator cuff not affected by the stroke, so it would appear I have no more excuses and can try to work off the pounds in anticipation for the first water row on or around St. Pat's.

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I have over 500,000 meters logged so far in the Concept 2 log book for the year (C2's year begins May 1), maybe I can get another 100K onto the books before the calendar resets.

Tomorrow is the CRASH-B sprints in Boston. I have an entry, but I think my best effort might be a feeble 7:30-7:45. Maybe I should man up and waddle up there anyway. Guilt will weigh on me for the rest of the day. And this was to be the year I went for a 6:15 race as it is my first in the 50+ heavyweight category. Oh well. Always next year.

No responses yet

Nov 28 2008

Holiday hell — indoor rowing season commences

Every holiday season the good folks at Concept2 -- my favorite brand of all time, inventors of the Concept2 Ergometer, or indoor rowing machine -- conduct the Holiday Challenge: a hellacious 30 day challenge to row and log 200,000 meters on the rowing machine between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In the past, if you succeeded at rowing at least 7,000 meters per days for the duration of this challenge, you would win a printable certificate, the opportunity to purchase a t-shirt, and a free pin to wear with pride.

This is not a trivial pursuit. I have succeeded three time since the first time I did it in 2002, and find that if I don't get the minimum number of meters rowed in the beginning I won't be motivated to make them up later on. Well of course I didn't row yesterday -- two helpings of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts followed by two slices of pecan pie, one of pumpkin, a snifter of armagnac, and two glasses of Ruffino chianti -- it was Thanksgiving and I did do the Crossfit workout of the day (which is going to make this year's Concept2 challenge all the more horrible as I intend to do both in my quest for eternal youth and the ability to snap off 10 real pull ups followed by 100 pushups).

Oh well, it's in my DNA to abuse myself so. Some Anglo-Celtic-Teutonic yeomanic stock that makes it imperative that I turn myself into a human piston for 60 minutes every day.

As my stepbrother says, "The body is evil and it must be punished." Well, having logged 11,000 meters this evening, that means I have to row only 10,000 tomorrow to be on track for the little pin and certificate. Yay.

One response so far

Oct 04 2008

Rocktober

What could be finer?

  1. There is no wind at 8 am so I am about to go for a pleasant fall scull around the harbor.
  2. The dogs are frightened and avoiding me because of my bellicose behavior at 1:30 am when J.D. Drew homered to bury the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the second game of the ALDS.
  3. Hence my new motto, courtesy of Surviving Grady is: "WE ARE THE MOTHERF@#KING BOSTON RED SOX, CHUMPS, AND THOSE WHO OPPOSE US WILL TASTE THE LIGHTNING!"
  4. I am on vacation. Ten days of being and nothingness. It's time for the Fall Run and I am off to the Great Backside Beach to stand in foamy surf, sling eels into the darkness, and ponder my existence while staring across the Atlantic at Portugal.
  5. I am going to cook a roti de porc au lait for my dinner tonight.
  6. Perhaps I shall seek bivalves in the mud later today. Must check tides.

So, whereabouts this coming week? Going nowhere. How to contact me? Don't. Blog probabilities? Low, except to lie about fish I haven't caught, and to gloat about the BoSox.

4 responses so far

Jul 30 2008

Mega-row

Published by under Rowing,sculling

Nice thing about vacation is I can take a couple hours in the morning and get a serious row in before the day gets rolling. Today's Crossfit workout of the day was to run 15 kilometers -- and given my running technique has been compared to a pumpkin with serious issues -- I said to hell with that, spare the knees, and decided to row 15K -- which amounted to two circumnavigations of Oyster Harbors, aka Grand Island, aka Cotacheset ancestral home of the Wampanoags.

The first circuit was brisk and focused on technique, the second rotation was spent obsessing about the various blisters and chafings developing where skin met skin or wet spandex. My hands look gnawed. I literally have a blister forming inside of a blister on my palm.

Ah, but work is not far away. Morning war room call at 7, weekly Lenovo Marketing Board, assorted email spurts. As I pack for another day at the beach the first thing in the waterproof  bag is the blackberry, followed by the zinc oxide, iPod, etc. etc. etc.

I need to find a Beijing rowing club. there is a nice looking river near my hotel, it seems to run out of the lake where the Summer Palace is. I've seen crews rowing in Beijing in the past so I need to find out where their boathouse is. I doubt I'm going to get any time in on the Olympic course at Shunyi. (end sarcasm).

No responses yet

Jul 22 2008

Fall regattas

Published by under Rowing,sculling

Hope springs eternal and so I filed my application to scull in this fall's Head of the Charles Regatta. Having turned 50 in May, this would be my first year in the elder statesman category of Grand Master, but first i need to have my application accepted as it is a tough ticket to get into the Head unless one competes and finishes within 5% of the winning sculler's time. My last time racing the HOCR was in 2003 -- my first time as a sculler -- and I performed horribly, coming in third from last with a terrible time and twenty seconds in penalties. The low light of that October morning was hitting the Weeks Footbridge in front of the Harvard Business School and being urged to capsize by drunken frat boys there for the WASP equivalent of NASCAR crashes.

Thats the bridge I am about to hit in the background ...

That's the bridge I am about to hit in the background ...

Whatever, I rowed my first Head of the Charles in the early 70s when I was rowing in prep school, kept doing it through college, and a couple of other times in my college alumni boat. I've done the Head when no one but a couple hundred rowers were participating, and I've done it as a parent watching my daughter row it for my alma mater.

But, application acceptance or not, I did file my forms for the Green Mountain Head, which according to my good friend Charlie Clapp (silver medal, US Men's 8, 1984), is the best of the fall regattas because it is so darn pretty, has no spectators, and the prizes are a bag of apples, a block of Vermont cheddar, or a jug of maple syrup. I've rowed only one GMH and thought it a most wonderful experience.

So -- all this time in the garage gym working off the excess poundage now has an immediate goal. Don't hit the Week's Footbridge and try to do better than 2003.

5 responses so far

Jul 05 2008

Boat lust

Published by under Cape Cod,Rowing,sculling


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Originally uploaded by dchurbuck

I was walking back from the town dock last night after some late afternoon fluke fishing and saw this gorgeous 14' (or-so) lapstrake pulling boat sitting on a trailer down by the village center. I popped home for the camera and checked it out.

The oars were still wet, so someone and their friend were obviously enjoying a cold beverage at the KettleHo after a nice late afternoon row around the bay. The boat was immaculate -- it looked to be only a few years old, and was put together as delicately as a jewel box. I'm not sure what the naval architects would call it. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a Whitehall because of the double-ended canoe hull. Peapod might apply, but again, not sure.

This pretty much embodies everything I'd like in a traditional boat. I'm not a fixed seat rower, but this one would fit the bill if I were one. Oh, and the leather collars on the oars were stitched on with a perfect herringbone pattern that put my efforts to shame.

 

Clinker built hulls -- where the planks overlap each other -- are beautiful things. This boat is riveted together with bronze rods peened over washers.

6 responses so far

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