"What do you expect from your rowers?" I asked Harry Parker. He smiles and nearly laughs; CRASH-Bs is fun for him, perhaps bordering on the jovial.
"We just hope that the guys row towards their potential."
"So who should I watch?"
He gives me two names: for him this is simple, he does not need to think about this, he knows where they are sitting, and he merely says they will do well. I walked towards them, and congratulated them before their 2ks on the fact that Mr. Parker had mentioned them.
"It's pretty scary here—you just have to row it and survive," Michelle Guerette whispered to me as I dictated the men's splits into my recorder. The terminal phenomenon of physical torment catalyzes buckling in and jumping on the ergs, and after hours of tolerance each engine seems to be fighting back against the last abuser. The warm-up area (called the bullpen by all whom know its vigor) is partitioned from the stage of competition ergs by a black curtain, and rowers jump and stretch behind it, wedded to iPods pulsating sound waves that many hope will aide them through the throbbing stabs to come.
"I'm in so much pain," Simon Gawlick gasped after breaking 6 minutes. I asked him what he ate for breakfast; it was only bacon and eggs, and it seems that he has no distinct rituals for these days of rewarding torment.
I talked to Lisa Stone, CRASH-B board member and wife of one of the original founders, Greg Stone, for quite a bit after the final sprint, and she kindly relayed to me much of the affair's history. What began as the "Charles River All Sculling Has-Beens" was actually a race of Harvard rowing alums on the water against mostly Brown, but sometimes other, universities. After the introduction of the rowing machine, it was realized that the most entertaining way to pit old against young was on the erg. Solely due to burgeoning popularity, over time the event has moved from the erg room of Newell Boathouse through five more venues until settling just a couple years ago at Boston University's Agganis Arena.
The 2009 head count of 2,150 registered competitors was deemed low this year due to the recession - foreign and American populations alike were less teeming than in years past - but about five world records were still broken here. What was once an informal and nearly inane erging reunion has become the world's foremost indoor rowing competition, though I feel that that word "competition" does not do justice to the pain nor the magnitude of the races.
As is the case at sporting war, the best battles to watch were the most unequaled: Mr. Paul Randall was the oldest competitor, having completed 91 years of age, and Mr. Dick Cashin won the 55-59 Heavy Men's age group by shattering the previously German-held record by two seconds, lowering the already low bar to a 6:18.6 seconds. Mr. Joe Clinard gave the 90-94 Heavy Men's World Record an unprecedented beating, shaving sixty seconds off the prior 11 minute benchmark. England was the best-represented European country (or, one with the most competitors) with 41 athletes, with Norway and Germany close behind. Michelle Guerette jockeyed between autographing free posters for children and bestowing medals and hammers.
What is oft ignored about the epic scope of the humanism rendered by the race within the Bostonian Colosseum is its equalizing powers, its sweeping capitalism of democratic fairness: no richer machine is dealt to a richer man, no faster machine to a faster woman, no greater rights to the greater rower. The Sprints remain the one remaining torch atop the Liberty of Crew: huddled masses of immigrants foreign to the well-lighted shores of Boston, yearning for upright and unbiased competition. This makes the contest one of the last great meritocracies we know—perhaps the very last in a world where hard work and animal intuition may be the forgotten rags of racing unis worn long ago.
But amongst the sweat and screams and deafening applause and animal pain, it is so easy to forget that a river runs no less than the required race distance away, and that she cares not for the numbered clicks of your fan, or your numbers, or your hammers, only the character of your stroke. You cannot damper her wind, nor can you harness her in measures of time or distance.
After all, not five minutes after the last heavyweight man has unfurled his back from heaving breaths and gained the strength to leave forever the red folding chair behind his and every erg, a man from Concept2 breaks his erg in half and rolls it into the Agganis Arena's large industrial elevators, where it is lowered to a garage and shipped away.
And by five thirty, the concentration of the contest has dissipated into fragments of what once was; the competitor and the competitor's machine are now rivers apart, until the blue arteries of our land freeze over once again.
E.B. Walker is a Harvard Rower and Student and is currently working on a Great American Novel.