Reflections from a Rogue Rower
"It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor." -Cicero
Why do we do this? This rowing thing? And the "we" I refer to are my fellow Masters rowers. Oh, it's fun watching the young kids, the kids younger, by at least a decade, than my own child, row and compete. Especially rewarding to see them right after a race, still breathing hard, their faces flush from the all-out effort. Why aren't they pale, white, blanched like I look? We (us Masters, again) all think, but don't offer, "Just wait until you are my age and you pull a groin muscle just crossing your legs, when getting out of bed hurts. You just wait." And we smile, saying nothing. That moment is one of our personal badges of honor. That recognition that what we are doing is, indeed, something special. If only to us.
This community of Masters rowers is an interesting lot. There are among us those who have been rowing for decades, starting in college, rowing competitively for those four years and rowing ever since. This group knows what it means to "give it your all," to leave it all on the course or in the boat, to have nothing left at the end. To go "balls out," at the final sprint. For some of us, just that term presents a frightening image.
And then, there are others: Those Masters rowers taking up at various stages of mid-life this beautiful sport of power and grace. Among us are not only men and women who have never rowed, our community includes those who have never participated in any athletic competition. Ever! Talk about "balls out." I am guessing there are many among us for whom our mid-life crisis was this decision to become an athlete. What were we thinking?
And make no mistake, we are now, or once again, athletes.
Athlete: A person possessing the natural or acquired traits, such as strength, agility, and endurance, that are necessary for physical exercise or sports, especially those performed in competitive contexts.
I understand the strength, agility and endurance qualities should be measured on a continuum, a long, highly subjectively measured continuum, but somewhere on that scale, we each can place ourselves.
And because we are athletes, we are competitive. We row to win. We tell ourselves, deceive ourselves, that, "I just row for the love of this sport. I don't care where I finish - just that I finish, dry." Then we sit in our boats, alone, perhaps with eight other men and women, waiting. "Rowers, six minutes," counting down in our heads.
"Masters men single finals (S#*!, this is it)…. Attention (#*%#, I really should have a race plan)…Row." And all that, "I just love to row," crap is over the gunwales. It's on, baby.
For me that means forgetting that I am now in the third race of my entire two-year (about 12 months actual on-the-water-experience) illustrious rowing career, rowing against men who collectively have sixty-years (or more) rowing experience. My start sucks; I am missing water by my second stroke, and my butt keeps slipping off the seat. I am still upright, however. Lactic acid apparently already affecting my brain, I tell myself, "I have a chance."
I turn to check my line (Yeah, right. My line? Am I still facing the right direction? That's my idea of a line.). Thirty seconds into the race and already I can barely see my competitors. Does this translate into, "Just row your race, Jim. You are not going to win this one."? Hell, no. "Row as hard as you can, you dumbass!"
So I row, catching crabs every tenth stroke, trying to keep my butt in contact with the seat, weaving down the course like a drunken…well, like a drunken sculler, I guess. By the 500 meter buoy my Speed Coach is telling me I have already rowed 700 meters. I run through my mind that just maybe, maybe, this regatta requires just rowing 1,000 m. Period. You know, first one to reach 1,000 meters? I row on. It's coming back to me. I remember the words from a coach at Craftsbury, "Your boat does not move if the blades are not in the water." I stop looking at the Speed Coach. Hell, I've already rowed a head race by this time! When I can see the finish and clearly hear the crowd, I kick it in. "They didn't see your start, Jim, or the first 700 meters. You have lost the race, at least show them you do know how to scull." The crowd cheers, I finish strong, I finish last, I finish dry and I finish disappointed in myself. I am an athlete. I am a competitor. I can row better than that….or, maybe I can't.
No funny quips this year as I paddle past my club supporters. There was nothing fun or funny about this race. I rowed outside myself. I rowed like I promised myself I was not going to row. I shake my head, and row to the dock trying to look like a winner. People shout, "good job." Wish I felt that also.
Cindy carries my oars and I lift my boat out of the water. Next race is already on the dock. The dockmaster is really not interested in how I feel. He just needs me off the dock, now.
As I put my boat into the slings, the rowing community defines itself. My competitors come over, shake my hand. "Good race," they tell me. "Great race," I tell them. "You could have at least brought me coffee while you waited for me to finish," I joke. They know how I feel. They remind me how long they have been at this, this rowing thing. A hand to my shoulder, and they tell me to keep at it. These 50-something men, these rowing cohorts know what it means to race, to compete. They don't say it, but I know they respect my getting in that boat and racing with such limited experience. They know not many people would, or could, do what I just did, what I just accomplished. I'm starting to feel a little better.
Club members stop and ask, "How'd it go?" If they were watching, they tell me I looked good at the end. "I save the best for last," I share. And we talk rowing, what went wrong and what went right. They tell me to keep at it. They know how long I have been rowing. They respect my getting in that boat and racing, alone. I may not have rowed my best, but I rowed the best I could that day, that race. There will be other races. There will be better days. I am feeling better about my race…and the one to come.
Race Day: Part Two
The announcement comes over the loudspeaker, "The first event, at 1:10 after the lunch break, will be Open Mixed Double." That would be me. Me and my new rowing partner, Macey. Hah. New rowing partner. Like I had a former rowing partner. In fact, other than an occasional recreational double row, this will be my first double race. Lucky Macey. Had I offered her money to do this with me? What was she thinking? Now I'm beginning to question whether I really want to get into a boat with someone who would agree to get in a boat with me! What was I thinking?
About thirty minutes before our race, the wind picks up... a lot. I pace as I wait. Cindy lets me be. She knows me. I don't want Macey to see that I am not feeling real confident after my singles race. I need a better game face. I stand on shore staring at the now choppy water, the trees bending in the wind. "Holy crap. I could barely row on flat water three hours ago... I don't need this. I really don't need this." Coach Megan goes over our race plan, and I nod, knowing my "race plan" is to stumble at the top of the hill on the way to the dock, twist an ankle, rendering this other "race plan" completely meaningless. A part of me does not want to row this second race.
12:40 and it is first call for the Open Mixed Double. I grab my oars, picturing what a confident walk to the dock should look like. How would Zeno Muller walk to the dock? I likely look more like Harpo Marx walking to the dock. Macey and I carry down the boat, climb in and shove off. No turning back now. Macey warms up for thirty stokes, then me. And it feels good. The water is choppy, but that misleading stability of a double, one rower setting the boat, raises my confidence, my spirits and my excitement. "Maybe we can pull this off."
We row past the starting boat into the staging area. It is even rougher water; it is rolling water, the swells breaking over the gunwales. Macey asks if we should practice some starts, and I just laugh. It feels like our boat is one of those Hawaiian outrigger canoes riding the surf. At least the waves are heading toward the finish line. We spin, ready at the catch, half slide. "Row," Macey shouts, and we hit our start strokes, ½, ½. ¾, ¾, full slide. What the heck? That was good. Let's do it again. We do.
Making our way to the start boat, we are still ten minutes from start time. I begin to joke with the other boats. "We're rowing square blade all the way. Anyone else? And does this uni make me look fat?" The boat in lane two holds a young man and woman about my son's age. I share with them my family history of heart problems. They look concerned. Good. I'm getting in their heads. The starter suggests we can practice starts since there is still time. I ask for a head start, instead. The eventual winners take the offer, demonstrating a start USRowing should have on a video. I yell to the starter, "We'll take that one," adding, "Just as they spin to come back, start the race." The starter and other boat laugh. Humor calms my heart. I turn to my partner, offer her my hand, "Good luck, kiddo." "Let's kick some ass," she offers back.
Lyons becomes Leeowns from the starter. I picture us at the FISA World Masters Championships. "Freeoff and Leeowns, from Germany and France. Lane three. Attention. Row." And we are off. We hit our start five, then a high twenty, then settle into… something. I'm just rowing, hoping Macey keeps her usual straight line, and that she tells me what to do. The water is rough, but I am rowing better than I did in my single. I must have my blades two feet off the water. "Why am I not catching…." Oops, shouldn't be thinking that. There's crab #1 - and a good one. Macey stops at nothing. "Keep rowing you old bitch," she screams at me. At least, I'm pretty sure she said that. I KNOW she was thinking that. I get back my grip, and row like a girl.
I can still see one boat on my port side. It is the boat with the two young rowers. I yell to them, "Who's your daddy?" No response. "He's rowing in this boat, that's who."
I catch a couple more crabs, middle age kicks in, and I have to remind myself to breathe. The other boat moves out of view. As we pass the dock for the final leg, Macey shouts, "Power 20." I want to yell back, "How about a power two?" No words come out. You need breath to speak. I had none. So I gave it what I had left. The horn sounds, Macey calls for a paddle. "That's not for us," I shout, so we kick back up for five more strokes. The horn, I give it one more stroke for good measure. Macey paddles, and I check the boat for chunks of my lung.
We did it. We finished. Not graceful, but we got it done. Whatever our time was, Team Friauf/Lyons had just rowed a personal best.
In the five boats racing the two heats, we were nudged for overall third place by .54 seconds by the Juniors' sibling crew of Bott and Bott. This old boy will take that any day. In an apparent sympathy ruling by regatta officials, the Juniors and Masters' times were separated, and we earned a bronze medal. I'll take that also.
It turned out to be a good day to row. Turned out to be a pretty good day overall, a damn good day. I think I'll do this, this rowing thing, again. Why not?
-Jim Friauf, Masters Rower
Addendum: I just recalled an important part of my story. When sharing my butt-not-staying-on- the-seat problem with some fellow MRC members, one MWS rower and coach offered this observation: "It's because you have no ass, Jim." As a rower, I am saddened to hear that my powerful quads and gluts are not more visible in my tight spandex trou. I'm actually a bit hurt by that. However, the hurt is secondary to my overriding concern of how many of the rest of the women are not only looking at, but judging the quality and size of my ass! It is clear that I am going to have to start wearing sweatpants around the boathouse.