row2k Features
Early Morning Practice
January 20, 2000
Alessandra Phillips

M. and I used to stroll the short distance from the parking lot to the boathouse, but this early morning cold pushes into our clothes so quickly that we sprint to try to outrun the air that sears and makes the warm beds we just left seem all the more inviting. My watch says it's five-thirty; this means we'll be able to get two ergs before the morning rush, at quarter to six.

The geese are nestling together on the river for warmth. At this hour, in the blackness it looks like they're resting on mud flats. I see them and briefly wonder why I did not realize the Schuylkill was a tidal river; closer inspection reveals that the birds are resting on ice.

The river finally froze two days ago. For a while when the weather was mild I had convinced myself that it was as bad as winter would get in Philadelphia; now I realize I have a standing date with the erg, from now until March, when the thaw finally makes it up here. I should know better, as I learned how to row in New Hampshire. In the harsh winters the sun disappears behind a dull gray haze for months on end, driving me mad with the desire to feel the warmth of the sun on my face, to see my shadow on the snow.

The ritual has become routine these days: to emerge from my quilted haven, pull on whatever rowing gear is clean (of course, this is a relative term) while I wait for the phone call that lets me know that M. is parked at the end of my street. Nowadays my life is measured in piles: clothes at the foot of the bed, prepared food in the fridge, a teakettle full of water, the mug readied the night before, so that all I have to do in the morning is stumble downstairs with a modicum of effort. It's amusing; I am usually so messy and this strict order, necessary if I am to fit everything into my day, is a new thing for me.

Like most mornings, today is a steady state workout, several sets of forty to sixty minutes on the ergometer. Boredom is the enemy here; to combat it, the regulars at this rendezvous create distractions; some mornings we listen to talk radio, other days someone brings in a mix tape, and all the while there is competition amongst ourselves, a running conversation in our heads. Can I keep up with the lightweight next to me?

That heavyweight woman is pulling better splits than I am: better keep up. The head games keep me from getting bored. I close my eyes and realize how much harder I can push myself if I pretend I'm on the water instead of watching the clock. A good, fast, aggressive song kicks in and the growl of the ergs picks up in intensity as the melody picks up in tempo.

After work, when my colleagues are departing for the train station or to meet friends, I start the forty-minute walk to the boathouse. Some nights I imagine how those mule trains might have felt crossing the mountains in winter; the wind and snow or rain beats hard against my legs, and I lean into it. Another hour on the erg; after a while, this monastic existence becomes familiar and almost comforting. I feel like every day is spent more carefully; when I do go out with friends, the experiences are much more meaningful, thanks to the structure placed upon my life.

At the end of the day I ease myself into the shower; I let the water, hot as I can stand it, run over my aching muscles, reveling in the steam and the scrubbing and the smell of soap and shampoo, letting the tension drain away. I spend much longer in there than I need to, as it feels like the more I stand under the stream of water, letting it permeate me, the better it will be to wash away any stress, whether physical or emotional. My mother used to call those long soaks "playing the Hindu", after the sacred river Ganges; she never seemed to understand what drove my brother and I to spend so much time around water.

Finally, there is the pleasure of bedtime; my bed has become a cocoon that lets me regenerate, rather than just a place to sleep for a few hours. I delight in the days when I have the luxury of going to bed early, burrowing underneath my quilt and letting the bedclothes cushion me against the world. A year ago it felt odd to spend an evening at home, not doing much of anything, but now it's nice to decline most invitations and choose to spend time alone, instead of feeling this needy rush to be out and doing something, anything.

And what comes of all this? I feel sharper, more aware of my environment, more fully alive. For once in the last twelve years, I'm not rowing with an injury, and while there's some regret that it took so long to achieve this, those years taught me that the mind helps one do anything. These days, rowing seems to serve as an outlet for aggression, where once it was a way of blocking out things in the rest of my life. My temper, which for so long scared me and was suppressed, is finally emerging, but constructively-in the willingness to assert myself. I'm not looking for a fight, but I'm not backing down from one, either.

So this is winter training. I have unfinished business with the river. Whether I'll get the best end of the deal remains to be seen; but so far, the journey has been worth it. I always wished to have a life where I would test myself, trying the limits and then pushing them.

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