The recent weeks have been going nowhere. Winter came early this year, and is showing no signs of leaving. I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking about getting up, feeling restless and reluctant. Today is supposed to be special. I’m supposed to drive seven hours north and spend all my money on parking and bad food, to do something I could do five minutes from where I am now. I’m supposed to leave for the Crash-B.
I hate the erg. The point was to provide a simple, portable, standardized method of measurement. So anyone, anywhere could compete and be judged on equal ground. What happened? We have created a cult. The Crash-B is a sick, deformed monster on the loose and I am a flailing pus-filled appendage, trying to break free. I had better come up with a strategy.
The day the lake freezes I immediately assume a state of denial. Maybe this year I won’t have to go. Maybe Mike will forget about it. Maybe there will be a rowing renaissance and the erg won’t be important anymore. Maybe…I will get hit by a bus. I tell myself I’m training for something else: the World Championships, to beat the Canadians, for a shot at Pinset and Cracknell, or Tompkins and Ginn, or maybe even the Olympics—all of which, are eventually crumpled up and shredded through the fan.
For now, though, denial works.
Stick to the training program and it will all work out. The workouts have been going well. I’m not at the top, but within striking distance. After all the counted hours of steady state, the recorded interval work, and the weight sessions, I’m ready. The third Sunday has arrived.
Denial is against the ropes.
This has become a mandatory situation in my life. I basically have no choice, and I know it. The fist time I went I didn’t know any better, I raced it like a collegiate regatta; pace the heat then all out in the final. Now, there are consequences that go along with that game. The field is too good, to many possibilities. It has to be all out in the heat.
If the erg has done anything, it has unified pain and suffering. Everyone goes through the same thing. We all have our own different strategies. We all have out moment of re-evaluation at some point during any test, the severity of which depends on the quality of your training leading into test day. I feel relatively confident; I should be able to go around 5:52. I have a goal.
Denial has left the building
The day before the race Jon Watling and I went to the Harvard Boathouse with Wolf Moser. There is something about that place. (I always do better if I train there the day before.) Maybe it’s the history; you can feel the ghosts of legends falling with the dust from the rafters. Maybe it’s the dirt and sweat and time in the corners and cracks—it defines function over form. Or, maybe it’s the fact that the man it’s named after was run over by a train. It feels rugged. It feels like rowing. Thirty minutes of steady state, a mock 2k with a starting 500m and I’m ready.
After coffee and orange juice I drive to the field house. It’s always best to treat race day like just another practice. I’ve done this all before. The only thing that matters is the hurdle in front of you. Attack it. Balls out. Don’t worry about the next one until you get there.
The warm-up room is a strange place because it’s filled with people deeply involved with their own minds; in questioning self-competition. One of the largest regattas in the world consists of thousands of people competing with themselves—very strange. I’ve checked in, gotten my heat and lane assignment, positioned and danced for a warm up erg, dealt with the looks, managed bathroom lines and crowds and the thermal stench. I’m not really warmed up and not ready to go, but I have no choice. It’s 9:30.
On the erg next to me are two people who I’ll end up beating by well over a minute. Behind me is an appointed and eager coxswain—which most people dislike—but I don’t mind. I sort of like being yelled at by someone (at least then I know I’m not the only one involved). I could sense her enthusiasm as Harry Parker walks over and gives a uniquely passive but authoritative: “One minute gentleman. Stop rowing. Put the handles down.” We all listened. Sit and breathe. Grab the handle. Relax. “Attention…Row!” The red flag drops. High twenty. Get the split down. If I put more in at the front, while I’m fresh, the numbers while tumble at the end. Make it a high twenty-five then settle right to pace.
500m have gone quickly but this doesn’t feel as good as it should. I’ve already been yelled at twice by the prowling enthusiast behind me. My average is slipping up more than I would like: 1:28.8. The numbers are bouncing. I’ve got to stabilize and just get to halfway. Think efficiency and I’m almost there. 1000m are gone; re-evaluate. Can I break 5:52? Can I drop a whole second off the average in 750m?
This is a game of momentum—me against the wheel. I can feel the crowd behind me. It’s time to go. 26’s and 27’s from here on in. My calves start to twitch and tighten, but I’m still conscious of breath. My fingertips are going numb. 500m gone and my legs are screaming stop louder than the crowd is yelling go. Now I can’t feel my throat. My vision is almost gone, focus on one number—the descending meters. 1:25’s and I still have to sprint. I can’t see what the average is, but I know it must be close. 200m and it all relies on rate, the higher the better. The meters are tearing away, 70…50…20…zero. My whole body stops. There is no movement. I just sit in sweat and nausea and drool. My neck is cold. My lips are numb, but I can see. 127.9, 5:51.7.
I can breath.
As I bump and stumble through the next herd of competitors making their way to the machines, I run into several of my teammates. Nobody is doing that well. I have to find a church and pray. Things don’t look good. The last thing anybody wants to do is go through this shit twice. It’s absolutely pointless. I know there’s this short history of toughness to represent. I know the old days when they used to do 2500 meters—twice. Wow. Let me go flex in front of the mirror, lube up, and hop back on that erg right now. I wish I were that tough, those guys were crazy. Come on. The masters have figured it out; a second piece would be a waste of their day.
Over the next hour the heats finish and it becomes clear that I will be in the final. Now is the time to think sabotage; anything to get out the hell that will be contained in those impending six minutes. In between food and a nap, the brainstorming begins. I could stage an informal protest and blow out the first 500 meters, or see how long I could hold 1:13’s; be the rabbit. Then again, that might be worse. I could false start over and over; maybe they’ll kick me out. I could hold my breath until I pass out. I could have someone smash my face into the fan (just to see what happens). I could just go home.
Falling asleep I realize that no matter what I decide, I will lose. I realize that I have lost every erg test I have done. Everyone has. We all lose to possibility. If you finish a piece, then you lose. Time always wins—no matter what. You could have gone faster.
Despair sinks in with a kick to the gut.
“Hey man, you should probably get going.”
“Time already?” There is a Bond movie on.
“Yeah, it’s almost 3:30”
“Shit man, I feel awful.” I hobble towards the door.
Was that laughter?
I’m a little late, but it doesn’t really matter—warming up hurts too much to actually do. I take a few weak strokes followed by a pathetic twenty and head out to watch the other finals. Whatever final is before mine goes by fast; time really is relative.
They call my event and I walk to my erg. The ergs lazily fill up. There is an acute sense of absurdity among us and I wonder if the crowd knows why.
Most of the crowd is gone. The music and announcer, big screen, award ceremonies and status outweigh the audience. It feels like a sit-com with laugh tracks.
“So, are you going to break 5:50?” Teti says to me.
“Well…” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If I could’ve done that I would have done it this morning. “Yes” I say with a smile.
He must know that’s a lie. I have no idea what’s going to happen. 5…4… I better think of something…3…2…same as this morning…1…why not…. row!
Start and high twenty, well, better make that a high five—damn this sucks—settle right to bearable discomfort and try to breathe. I should have checked the drag factor. This is worse than I thought, 300 meters down and I can’t swallow. Maybe I should’ve ordered water with that cheddar burger with bacon instead of a coke. 500 meters in; somebody please hit me with a shovel. I think I’ll cruise here for a while. Now is not the time to be brave.
I could be practicing the Rubik’s Cube right now. I know this guy who can solve it in like two minutes. He seemed so happy. I could’ve been a NASCAR driver, or at least in a pit crew. I wish I could dunk, or fly a plane. I could be sleeping or even better, drinking. Isn’t Sunday a day of rest? This is wrong. But, at least I’m not dead…yet.
Distraction is good medication.
Almost halfway and I’m in ninth. Nice. I wonder what my overall point score will be. The little yellow boats are strutting along the screen. I can still see mine; I figure I can salvage this piece, for whatever that’s worth. Third five hundred and I can’t feel anything—except dry mouth and acid reflux. Might as well push it here, if anything I’ll be done faster. And then the screaming will stop. The last 500 meters always take care of themselves. This has become routine. The last few meters tick off the screen. I finish ninth. There went another Sunday of my life.
Would napalm thaw a lake?
For me, winter is officially over. I’m fit and ready to get on the water. I made it out of here with one good piece.
In two months nobody will remember today. I wonder if the men behind the torture curtains will ever change the program. Final only would be good, or even a 500-meter dash. Who knows? Maybe I should write a letter.