Each year, observers at the CRASH-Bs are treated to the spectacle of folks absolutely ripping the handles off the C2 erg. With the youth rowers, collegians, and current (and even ex-) Olympians, you expect it – these folks are in the prime of their rowing years. Increasingly, however, you see Masters Men & Women, folks in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even on into their 60s that are pulling times on the erg that might make some so-called youngsters blanch.
On one level, the explanation is close at hand; a big body, good aerobic base, and solid technique gets you most of the way there – a case in point is Belarussian Pavel Shurmei, who pulled a 5:47 in the Men's Open category this weekend, enroute to setting a new world record in the Men's 40-49 age division. Shurmei, age 40, stands 6'7", puts 290 lbs on the scale, and has competed in two Olympics; that's a pretty good place to start if you want to keep hammering out good erg scores later in life.
Likewise, Ante Kusurin, who went "only" 6:00 in capturing the Men's 30-39 division, brings sizeable rowing cred to the table, having rowed for Croatia as well as stroking a winning Oxford Blue boat.
But, beyond the ongoing heroics of "known" former rowers, or people with obvious physical gifts, it's the scores and times of "regular" rowing folks that turn heads; times like 7:00 for Jordan Falcone in the Women 30-39, or Ken Gates' 6:19 in the Men's 55-59 year old division, or 80-year-old Carlo Zezza going 7:34 in the Men's 80-84 division, all times that speak to a special kind of longevity...call it "erg-gevity."
So, is it a question of genetics, training, or simple good luck in staying healthy?
"It's training, and every time you stop it gets a little worse and harder to pick it back up," said Masters 65-69 competitor Chris Cooper. "You've got to keep in shape all the time. I'm rowing about three times a week at a rowing gym, and for other things, I run, bike, that's pretty much it. At this age if you can stay healthy that is the biggest thing. Stay healthy, be active, and you're okay."
A few competitors were willing to give at least a nod to the genetic factor.
"You look around here [at CRASH-Bs] and you see some real genetic freaks, so you can tell there is a genetic component to it," said Gates. "I think there's a choice component, of 'what are you going to do with those genes?' You can let it decline, or you can try to sharpen it and hang on. Obviously, you look at some of the people on the podium here and you realize wow, you can do this for a long time."
Gates maintained that solid, consistent training kept him where he is today.
"My time hasn't changed in 25 years; I've rowed the same time, between 6.17 and 6.24, for my whole life," he said. "I don't know why that is. I've changed my training to try to stay there. This year, my coach commented 'you've reached that age where it's hard to hold your muscle mass,' so he had me doing more heavy leg work in the gym, and then I worked on efficiency work, where I would do lots of 2Ks, but then try to keep a heart rate below a target level. What that did was really help me clean up my stroke and just be more efficient. As you get older, you can't just muscle your way through, you have to be more efficient."
Beyond the training component, there's the "life" factor as well; how much time can you carve out of your professional and family life to keep putting the meters in? Men's 30-39 winner Kusurin, practically a "spring chicken" amongst masters rowers, was quick to note that the humans in his life have been accommodating.
"This is way harder to do once you are over 30," said Kusurin, with an honest nod at the most limiting of factors, the ability to do the work. "I have a very supportive family, and of course, if you have a full-time job you have to squeeze it in there as well. I have a very supportive work environment; the guys in my firm work with me along the way. You just have to put the work in; if you do one session a day at least, and try to do it at high intensity, because there's no more time to do longer pieces, and then the body doesn't recover if you do too much. You just don't recover as fast as you do when you're younger."
Certainly, treating the "work" like "play" helps too, something that more than a few of the Masters winners touched on. "For me, I row a lot on my own," said Women's 30-39 winner Jordan Falcone. "Once I found out it was something I was good at and I really liked it, I started rowing a lot. Most of the time I try to do 10,000 to 15,000 meters a day. I love being out on the erg; I go out in my garage and it's just calming. I absolutely enjoy it!"
And so, at its core, much of this stamina is probably rooted in the simple need or desire to keep moving, and at a certain point, it's no longer about the score either.
"Absolutely," said 95-year-old Dottie Stewart, when asked if rowing helps keep her young. "I didn't 'pick rowing up,' I just used it as an exercise, and I've been exercising all my life. Being physically active is part of who I am."