For nine months I had been filming a documentary on American women rowers training for the Olympics. In July I was sent a shiny new ERG in the mail so that I could film it in a studio.
When I got it, I figured I ought to try it out. If the rowers have to put up with it, I could at least get a glimpse into their world. On the first two days I had done a leisurely 2000m, in times of 13:00 and 12:00, respectively. While eating cookies.
On the third day, after a dinner of beef stew, beers and then a few cookies, I decided it was time for an ERG race. This time my goal was to hit below 10:00. 9:59 would be fine. I moved the ERG inside and put on the director's commentary on for the SEVEN DAYS IN MAY dvd.
Please understand, I don't work out regularly unless I can find a game like racquetball where I can beat the crap out of somebody (or vice versa) and not just for the sake of doing the same thing over and over. I'll run if I can watch a movie at the same time.
I begin. I try to remember Whitney Post's instructions on form. Typically, in life, I have no form. In anything. I bellyflop off the high dive. I look like a hunchback driving down the street. I run into doors and walls and get my cell phone earpiece caught on doorknobs. When I took a class in ballroom dance the instructor told me I was a danger to myself and others.
This time I pay attention to stroke rate at the beginning. First it said 48. Within two strokes I am at 26. I am not sure if that is good or not, but I do my best to maintain it. I am rowing by pulling back and up to my chest, like I've seen the rowers do, and not into
my abdomen like in the ERG manual. I try pulling into my abdomen a few times and the stroke rate jerks up, which I didn't figure is any good since I wasn't going any faster.
With 1700m remaining I am sure of one thing. I want longer legs. I am getting a lot of power out of my legs at the beginning of the stroke, but my legs end well before the end of the stroke and my arms, which aren't anywhere near as strong as my legs, have to take
over. It suddenly occurs to me why many rowers' waists are about six inches below their chins.
For most of the first 1000m I am at about 9:10 on the predicted time. I only have the mental capacity for three readings: meters remaining, predicted time, and stroke rate. I have to opt out of looking at the splits. The predicted time even goes down below 9 a few times.
Nearing the half-way point, however, I have had enough. I want to quit. I just watch those numbers creep up and up like Chinese water torture. Or like the diminishment of my quarters in Vegas. Or the pressure inside a damaged submarine: "400... 500... 600... pressure critical... abandon ship!" I see my dreams of being a successful captured prisoner, gambler, or submarine commander crumble around me.
Right at 1000m I see the numbers creep up to 10:00 for my estimated finish time. I know I've lost it. My legs are fine but my arms are killing me. I think about quitting but I decide to see if I have anything left. Surprisingly, I do. Good thing I didn't have light
With 900m to go, I am back to 9:40. My stroke rate had climbed to 30 briefly but is back down to 26. I am cruising. Suddenly it looks possible again. But with 600m to go I hit a wall. It is a balsa wood wall, but still a wall. I am dying. I feel my chest get tight. Sweat is dripping into my eyes and down off my chin. I have trouble breathing. It feels like my airways are constricting--am I having an asthma attack and would I know if I was? With every stroke a raspy bleating sound comes out of my throat as I feel a golf-ball sized flap of something open and close inside my chest. Perhaps it is my heart or spleen, trying to crawl out of my body to escape the violence.
John Frankenheimer says on the commentary, "It's hard to shoot two people walking down an alley." I want them to shoot me, literally. "You don't want them to walk into the light," he continues. Yeah, no kidding. And I realize he is warning me, "Mark, you don't want to walk into the light... don't go into the light." At 500m the estimated time is creeping up and up and I come within a hair of quitting. I actually almost let go of the handle. I lose my posture. I'm all alone, who the hell is going to know if I quit? And to further the argument, I could pass out and die, who's going to know if that happens? It occurs to me that I need a spotter. The only thing that keeps me going is the sudden realization that I am technically a master. I don't feel like a master (in the classic sense of the word) and I sure as hell don't look like one I am sure, but I qualify on paper. Later it occurs to me that I'm entering a profession past the typical age of retirement. But I get my third wind.
I wanted to break 10:00. If I was at 2000m now, I'd barely have it. I close my eyes, only to open them periodically. 495m. 350m. 288m. Like flashes of sun to the man stranded in the rowboat and sunburned, surrounded by sharks after a shipwreck. I don't look at anything else, I don't want to know. With my eyes closed I feel like I'm pulling my hands through my chest into space behind me. Once or twice my legs forget that we're still going and they stop. "Why are we doing this?" they ask. "You don't need to do this. You need to be sitting in front of a computer, editing film, drinking a Pepsi and eating Cheetos."
150m. 109m. Who cares about the last 100m? Who cares about the last anything? Does anyone remember who came in 10th in the general election? Some libertarian or Green Party candidate, or follower of Ayn Rand. Invariably, Ralph Nader. The last potato chips in the bowl are always just greasy crumbs. The last few lines on my 1040 tax form--I leave them blank.
But I keep going. 91m. I can't feel my butt. I can't tell if I'm still sitting on the seat or not. For all I know the seat has shot off into the kitchen and impacted under the sink, rupturing a water main. Fire trucks could be pulling up outside. Sparks could be flying out of the ERG. Between the geyser and the fire, the firemen don't know what to do. Low-pitched screams emerge. Parents walking their children by on the street hurry up, rush by, covering their kids with blankets.
With those measly 91m left to go, I have a choice. Do I coast, and just see what happens, or do I go all out, figuring that if I'm going to die, I'm going to die no matter what I do now. For some reason, a reason that I can't fathom considering how much beer I have waiting for me in my refrigerator, I decide to go all out. The ability to walk, and therefore get to all that beer, may be lost after I am done but so be it. My eyes are closed but white lights and colored stars are shooting through my head.
Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. The meters run out and I'm gasping for air. The sweat is so thick in my eyes I can't read the display. I stagger into the bathroom and cough up something that resembles a prop from Ghostbusters. I head back to the ERG and read the display.
9:24.0 with a stroke rate of 26. That was a sloppy piece and I'll probably pay for it tomorrow, but I hit my goal with something to spare. I hear the fans cheering as I stand up, arms outstretched. They are chanting, "Nine-two-four, nine-two-four" with techno music playing in the background. I quiet down the unruly crowd. "Please, please, please..." I beg them, "When I break eight minutes, then you may cheer."
Any of the National Team's scores, or Amy Fuller's 6:32.30 world record, let alone the men's record which I believe is under 5:30, are incredible. I do feel some sense of accomplishment--I am half as fast as the best of them, but I'll never throw half as many
touchdowns as Steve Young. Still, those elite ERG scores are inconceivable to me. You might as well ask me to imagine squeezing through the 2" diamond in a chain-link fence.
At right: Mark's melted Erg.
Mark Kornweibel (email@example.com) is a writer and director living in Los Angeles. Before fire engulfed his apartment on August 2nd, destroying or damaging nearly everything he owned except for the 400 hours of footage of the women's team, he had managed to shave almost a minute off his ERG time above. Tax-deductible donations to help complete the film (and repair the melted ERG) can be sent c/o THE EIGHT to the International Documentary Association, 1201 West 5th Street, suite M320, Los Angeles, CA 90017-1461, USA.
©2000 Mark Kornweibel