Digital Rowing

The Concept2 rowing ergometer is an amazing piece of exercise equipment that is the standard for off-the-water training for most college and elite national teams. At about $900, it is also one of the biggest bargains for someone looking for the ne plus ultra in home exercise.

Invented by the Dreissigacker brothers of Morrisville, Vermont, founders of the Concept2 Corporation (also the leading manufacturer of carbon fiber oars), their ergometer consists of a rolling seat on a steel beam, a handle with a bicycle chain which spins a fan, using the air as resistance. The rower’s progress is noted on a “performance monitor”, an LCD that shows strokes per minute, average pace, distance, and a wealth of other information that provides incentive and a very accurate session-to-session comparison of progress.

The Concept2 website has an online log for entering in one’s results, and a global ranking that lets one compare one’s best times with other rowers.

The machine is at the heart of the sport of competitive indoor rowing, culminating in the annual world championships, the CRASH-B Sprints, which pits thousands of rowers against each other in Boston every February. There are hundreds of regional and country competitions conducted around the world, with the sport being especially popular in the UK.

This morning I downloaded a program called RowPro. I connected my ThinkPad X60s to the ergometer’s performance monitor with a USB cable and was able to divert the output from the erg to the laptop. A nice graphic of a sculler indicated my progress down a virtual race course, and I set up a pace boat to keep me honest over the course of a 30-minute row.

What is very cool about the program is that you can row virtual races via the internet against other RowPro users,  upload your results to your Concept2 online logbook, and use the system to establish training plans. This, to my geeky mind, is extremely cool, and I can think of no other example of virtual physical competition. Stairmasters, elliptical trainers …. none of them hold a candle to the ergometer in terms of total workout and the added value of virtual competition.

Here’s the rankings for heavyweight men, age 40-49, in the USA. As of this morning I am ranked 25th in the country. At my peak, a few years ago, I was first in the US for the 60 minute distance, and my best performance in the world championships was a 6’28.7″ in 2003 over the standard 2,000 meter sprint distance (this was the most evil thing I have ever done to myself). I’m in training now for next February’s race and will be rowing long distances over the next three months before moving to interval training of intense short distances interspersed with rest periods to build up my maximum heart rate.

The trick is staying motivated. An iPod can carry me only so far, so I’ll buy the full version of RowPro and start virtually racing to keep the competitive juices flowing.

Buy an erg. You won’t regret it. Stick with it and you’ll get in the best shape of your life. I’ll make the bold prediction that indoor rowing becomes an Olympic event in my lifetime.

Cooking for the Chinese

Cooking is a favorite hobby of mine — one dinner per weekend is devoted to some serious time in the kitchen — Northern Italian, Indian, Chinese (Hunan), French, Cape Cod seafood … you name it, I’m game to try it.

Yesterday I went clamming on the low tide with my youngest sun under a gloriously blue sky and focused on “chowder” clams, quahogs bigger than my fist which make for excellent “stuffies,” a traditional way of preparing clams here on the Cape. With all intentions of making a version invented by Chris Schlesinger (owner of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass. and the Back Eddy in Westport), known as the “Ultimate Stuffie,” I made preparations to proceed in that direction when I received a phone call from my step-sister — the Beijing-based movie producer (Kill Bill) — that she was in town with some Chinese colleagues and they were homesick and craving some real Chinese food after a week of bland American restaurant fare. Knowing the caliber of Cape Cod’s Chinese restaurants, she asked me to polish up my wok.
So, change in plan. Fortunately, on my return from Tokyo on Friday, I swung by the Super 88 grocery store in South Boston to restock my Asian cooking supplies, the stuff that can’t be found anywhere.
The guest of honor was The Master. Yuen Wo Ping is the most famous martial arts choreographer on the planet. He’s the man who did the fight scenes in The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Iron Monkey, and pioneered the entire slo-mo, walk-on-walls, gravity-deying martial arts school of cinematic kung-fu. He was in town to see his daughter, who attends college in Boston, and she was accompanied by her Chinese friend. Also along for the dinner was The Master’s producer, who’s name now escapes me.

Yuen Wo Ping
So, here was a massive test of my Chinese cooking skills. It’s one thing to cook it for my family, it’s another to stack up against people accustomed to the real thing in Beijing.

I made (in two hours).

  • Ma Pa Tofu — bean curd in spicy meat sauce.
  • Chicken salad — shredded chicken and cucumbers on cold Chinese noodles with a spicy peanut sauce.
  • Dumplings (jiaozi) — pork, Napa cabbage and scallion in a soy-vinegar chili oil sauce.
  • Deep fried green beans in meat sauce
  • Hunan Garlic Chicken with fermented black beans

I trashed the kitchen in the process, used nearly every pan and wok, set off the smoke detectors, had a major respiratory event when I threw two handfuls of dried Szechuan red peppers into a wok full of superheated peanut oil, used forty cloves of garlic, about eight inches of ginger ….

Due to the language barrier there was very little dinner table conversation. Everyone went heads down with the chop sticks and started shovelling. First bite and my guests started commenting to each other in excited Chinese.

“The Master says you are the best Whitey cook of Chinese he’s ever seen,” said my step-sister. No cook takes a compliment seriously until his guests reach for refills. They reached. And they reached again. I knew I had achieved success when The Master had to wipe the sweat off his forehead with his napkin. Any devotee of Hunan cooking knows a good chili sweat is the mark of a good meal. Mission accomplished.