row2k kicks of our 2016 spring collegiate racing preview with an interview with Tufts senior oarsman JJ Zhou. Zhou is currently wrapping up a winter break solo bike ride from Boston to Florida to help raise funds for Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues. Check out JJ's tumblr page documenting the ride here.
row2k - How did this journey come about?
JJ Zhou - I started biking when I was three years old. Started out just around the hospital campus where my parents both worked, and then to my elementary school just down the road and eventually to my high school downtown. It has been a very important part of my life really—but never in a sporting sense. It has always been a way, or an excuse rather, to travel somewhere—known or unknown, far or close. This ride essentially is the same—to have an excuse to look at the east coast. Born and raised in Nanjing, China, a huge city. I have never had the opportunity to spend some adequate time on the road—it has always been jumping from a big city to the next.
Even after I moved to Boston, it has been from Boston to New York and back on a bus, a train or a plane. I slept through the most of it not knowing what’s happening outside. I decided this is the chance to indulge myself with gas stations, dissolute trails, crazy dogs and whatever life throws my way. That was the initial motivation—obviously having been on the crew team for four years, I’ve learnt to incorporate fitness training into my daily routine. This ride is also a way to improve my fitness. Lastly, I have been trying to start a career as a freelance photographer. I’ve been worrying about the freelance journalist communities working in extreme conditions—that’s when the idea of fundraising for RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) came about.
row2k - What are some of the logistics and statistics? Start date, end date, total miles, longest day?
JJ Zhou - The ride is roughly 1600 miles from Boston along the coastline down to Washington DC, cutting across Virginia and North Carolina to Charlotte, and then back to the coast to Charleston and then all the way South until I hit DeLand, near Orlando, FL, where the team trains during spring break. The Total elevation is a little over 45,000 feet. I broke the 1600 mile ride into 21 pieces and put in some random days for rests and recovery. It averages out roughly 80 miles per day—sometimes more and sometimes less. I started out on Dec 21st from Medford, Mass, and should be able to finish on Jan 18th.
So far, the longest day has been the 106-mile day from East Greenwich, RI to Hamden, CT. It was quite a hilly ride, and it started pouring at noon when I went across the New London bridge. I averaged 15 mph on that particular day and that adds up to 7 hours on the bike. Of course, rest was not included—so it was a sunrise to sundown kind of day. Usually, my day would start at around 6am. I’ll wake up, stretch for a little bit, eat a good-sized meal (depending on where I am, I’ll either cook oats or I’ll find a diner for a good omelet and oatmeal breakfast). Then I’ll get my stuff sorted, putting them into my pannier bags and stretch a little more. Usually after one or two hours after I eat, I’ll be on the road. I usually get to my destination of the day around 3pm or 4pm, I’ll stretch, eat and take a nap.
row2k - Where do you stay each night and how do you fuel yourself on and off the bike?
JJ Zhou - I stay mostly with friends from school, people on warmshowers.org and motels. My friends were happy to take me in and feed me with a feast of pasta, which satisfies me deeply. On days when I stay in motels, I try to find places where I can get pasta dishes or a lot of carbs immediately after I arrive—I usually put on my normal person clothes and then dash straight to the closest restaurant. (That’s not exactly accurate—I didn’t bring shoes other than my cycling shoes. So really I had to limp to places in those.) On the bike, I try to eat a banana each hour. But two weeks in I got really tired of bananas, so I went to get some gels and bars from a local bike shop in Charleston. I also made some granola bars at my uncle’s house in Charlotte when I stopped by there which have lasted me since. And I drink a lot of water during the ride—making an effort to sip a little every ten minutes.
row2k - How much time in the saddle did you spend before starting and what do you think the benefits are for your rowing?
JJ Zhou - Before the ride, I had been doing 50-mile rides twice a week and trying to fit in other shorter rides. These 50-mile rides substituted my long steady state workouts on the erg (mostly UT2, I still did some UT1 on the erg) and I did aerobic threshold and sprint workouts on the erg. The biggest benefit of riding averaging 5-6 hours a day on the bike is quite obvious—a large dose of steady state workout that builds a large base for the spring season. As a senior, i’ve come to realize that the aerobic part of rowing is what carries you through the last 500m at 40 or even 45 strokes per minute in the spring. I think cyclists, especially professional cyclists, are the toughest people on earth—they need to be able to go for four to five to six hours at full throttles on a daily basis. And they also need to deal with the elements: be it wind or rain or sunshine or snow. Rowers, in this respect, come second in terms of toughness.
row2k - Any unexpected challenges?
JJ Zhou - The biggest challenge is actually to fight off the desire to keep riding on days that my body is telling me to rest. After a five day stretch from Washington DC to Charlotte, North Carolina, I got quite fatigued—my heart rate was particularly low and it wasn’t able to go up as quickly as it usually does under pressure. I was planning on active resting in Charlotte for two days, but each day I went out for a 90-minute recovery ride, I would find myself extremely fatigued afterwards. So I decided that I’m going to take an extra two days and not do any physical exercise, except stretching and doing pull ups. And that’s what I did, I’ve been feeling quite well afterwards.
row2k - Tell us about RISC and why are you raising money for them?
JJ Zhou - RISC stands for Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues. It is an organization that provides hostile environment survival training for freelance journalists working in war zones free of charge. It was set up by Sebastian Junger, who worked with Tim Hetherington on Oscar Nominated documentary film Restrepo. Tim unfortunately passed away while covering the conflict in Libya in 2011 due to the lack of assists from colleagues while he was hurt in the field. Sebastian then set up the organization trying to help training freelance journalists in case of any unfortunate events like the one with Tim would happen again. Some of the most important stories of our age are covered by journalists who do not have institutional supports (training and insurances) from newspapers or magazines like they did twenty years back. Because RISC’s training is completely free for participants, they are only able to help within the limit of their funds. I hope my ride would be able to raise more funds for RISC—that could potentially save more lives.
Mission complete in Florida!
row2k - How did you get your start in rowing and what's your favorite thing about the sport?
JJ Zhou - I started rowing my freshman year at Tufts as a walk-on. Two of my friends from pre-orientation were going to join the rowing team and I thought the idea of being on the water would be pretty fun. So I went to the general interest meeting and met the coaches and some older guys on the team. The first day of training was on the ergs—something totally contradictory to all my imagination. But it somehow fascinated me—I saw it as a struggle between man and machine. Rowing remained that way for me for a good two years. I didn’t fully comprehend rowing until spring semester of junior year, when coach Noel Wanner taught me that rowing is not to rip water as hard as one could, but to grab onto the water as firm as possible and to shove the boat forward as much as one could. It was a mind-blowing experience—rowing turned from a number-pushing “hardo” sport into something that requires both hard work and being smart.
I was able to squeeze out a four-week period in the past summer to rowing a single at a local rowing club in Nanjing. That was one of the most rewarding rowing experiences I’ve had—the hours I spent in that tiny boat were my greatest teacher. Above everything else, It taught me that spending time and being patient gives the boat the potential to go fast. Nothing trumps going out in a single into a headwind and feeling the water grab onto the blades at the catch , stretch your arms out of the sockets and then you push the legs and swing through the stroke. I think about that a lot of times when I ride.
row2k - What has been your most memorable race so far and why?
JJ Zhou - The most memorable race would be the Head of Snake in Worcester this fall. 1000 meter into the race we were hit by a huge wake that bounced our boat up and down for a good minute. It was the most catastrophic moment in my racing career so far: I was worrying if we were going to flip or not. Amazingly, the boat somehow came together after that wake, and we were able to pull off a bronze-medal finish.
row2k - What are you studying at Tufts and do you have any plans yet after graduation?
JJ Zhou - I’m studying International Relations at Tufts with an emphasis on Western Europe. Because the major has a rather wide curriculum, I structured it in a way that I could learn from thinkers like Hegel, Nietzsche, Tocqueville along side with literary geniuses like Joyce and at the same time learn about western history from the Peloponnesian War until the Renaissance. By reading, thinking, writing and thinking again, I am constantly inspired. These inspirations go into my work as a photographer—most of my photography work deals with the peculiarity of modern life. Through the lens of these thinkers and my own thoughts regarding of the world, I was able to put what I am seeing and photographing into different perspectives. As of my time after Tufts, I haven’t formulated a very detailed plan yet. The long term plan would be to start a career as a photographer in East Asia, work on projects that interest me the most, read a lot and of course, bike and row.