"Attention!" This is it. Are you ready? Back straight. Your muscles tighten. You can see the lines in the stroke seat's strong shoulders. There is an electricity in the air. You know that the command is coming - it always does. The world is silent. It has stopped turning just to preserve the perfection of this moment. You hear the boat next to you shift its weight in the water. You breathe in. "GO!"
You and your boat-mates explode backwards. "Three-quarters, three-quarters, lengthen, lengthen, full." Your coxswain calls out the start sequence, screaming into his microphone. "High twenty, here we go!" You're going way faster than race pace. The serenity of the starting line has been replaced with the controlled chaos of the start itself. Your legs feel good. "I could do this for the whole race," you think. It's a lie. Your legs feel good because you just got a huge shot of adrenaline. "Seventeen... Settle in two... One... Two... Thirty-Five, here we go! Right on it!"
Everything is starting to hurt now. Your legs burn with each stroke as you drive your knees downward; your shoulders ache as you yank on the oar in an effort to make the finish the strongest part of the stroke. You've just gotten more strenuous exercise in forty seconds than most people get in a whole workout - too bad you're only 250 meters into the 1500 meter race.
The burn is more pronounced now. It'd be nice to stop now, take a breather. No. You can do this. It's one 1500 meter race. This is child's play. These other boats don't know what you've done. They weren't there when you threw up between your second and third 2000 meter erg test and then got back on and, somehow, managed to go faster on the last piece. They don't know about the days you were so tired you almost fell asleep in the boat and everyone was bitching and arguing and then you put it behind you the next day and rowed like champions. They can't comprehend the hell that your boat has been through. They don't know what it means to sit up and concentrate on your 12th consecutive 500 meter piece even though its 85° and you're out of water. They have no idea what your boat is capable of.
"Get ready for the first shift in two! One... TWO! Here we go guys... a little bit faster now!" You just passed the 500 meter marker. Your body aches as you go faster than the last stretch. You get faster through the race. Kick the other crews when they're tired. You train for this. You glance off your port side. They've got a seat. "We're taking our middle 20 in two! One... TWO!" The little man shouts numbers as you up the intensity. "That's the way to do it boys!" he shouts, "they're takin' strokes you're takin' seats!" Fools to think they can outrace you. You hear the heavy breathing of your two seat rower as you grit your teeth and pull through the 800 meter mark.
"Ten at 750 in two!" The pace goes up again. You want to stop. Everything in your body is screaming at you to stop rowing and collapse in a heap. Mental toughness. Each stroke hurts more than the one before. Once you get to this mindset there are only three reasons in the world why you can't stop and all three are sitting in the boat with you. You better not let your boat mates down. Forget all of the people that say you have to keep going for yourself. They've never felt this much pain. No. You can't quit because there are three other guys around you who are in as much pain as you. Feed off of them. Don't let them down. Keep going. "Last shift in Two!"
This is it! You're almost done. You gasp for breath as you move up the slide to the catch and exhale as you drop your blade in behind you and pull for all you're worth. "One seat down... We've gotta go now! Up two in two!" Oh, shit. Their sprint can't come now. You're not ready. They should go at 275 left like you do. You just can't do it now. You're at the point where you would pay someone to cut your legs and arms off because it would make them feel better. Why don't you just go ahead and ease up a little you pansy, let them walk through you. You can get your silver medals and be first in a long line of losers. You man up and respond to the cox's call.
You're on the second of four 10-stroke sequences. It would be three if the other boat hadn't pushed so hard. You hate them right now. But it doesn't really matter. You can't see anything. You have tunnel vision. All you see it the shoulders of your stroke seat laboring against the oar. Your heart is beating close to 200 times per minute and almost drones out the calls of the coxswain. "Up two in two again... I've got their cox... you're right on them…"
You should hear the cheering now. You saw on the way up this is where the spectators are. They should be screaming for you, trying to motivate you. Too bad you can't hear them. Your body is on the verge of giving out. You simply can't get enough air. Your mouth is too dry, every breath hurts. "Up." Doesn't matter. You quicken the rating. The boat leaps from the water. Every stroke faster than the last. It's mental now. 8 more. Your body is screaming at you. 7. Drive with the legs. 6. Close. 5. Ignore the bile coming up. 4. Pain temporary, pride forever. 3. Where's line? 2. Inhale. 1. Uhhhaaaahhhhhh.
It's over. You take scrambled, erratic breaths. The boat rocks violently to one side. You fall back, elbows on the gunnels, head back, mouth gasping for air. You don't have the strength to sit up. There's nothing to drink because you dumped the water bottles before the start to cut dead weight in the boat. All you can think of is the torrent of lactic acid flooding your muscles. The coxswain speaks in a hushed voice as to not boast: "you got them boys. Got 'em by a seat or two. Nice job. Three cheers for the field!" you manage to moan a "hurray" each time the coxswain "hips." Always have to be classy.
You sit up or, rather, as upright as you can - it's more of a death-like slouch - and begin to lightly row back to the dock. You're gonna get a big hulking medal for this. Nice job, kid. You're almost at the dock. The coach is waiting to shake your hand. He's smiling. He's only the first in a long line of congratulations you'll get this afternoon. The rowers here understand what it took for you to win. The younger guys will look at you with awe in their eyes. They want to be you.
The day winds down and you get on the bus and go back to school. A friend sees your medal. "How was the race?" he asks. What do you tell him? Not the truth. He won't get it. "It was good," you say as you struggle up the stairs to your dorm and fall into bed, a smile on your face.