Erg Zen

Sunday is always the day for my big ergometer effort of the week — usually an hour of power — and today was one of those days of total erg nirvana.

Sixty minutes is a long time to sit on a rolling seat and roll back and forth on a five-foot I-beam staring out the open bay of the boat shop at the bare branches and a bruised looking November sky. An iPod will only cut the monotony so much, so it all comes down to meditation, focusing on everything and nothing at the same time while repeating, like a transcendental mantra, the same repetitious four-count stroke.

As a crew coach once told me, “Rowing is easy. What other sport lets you sit down and work only half of the time?”

By “half the time” he was referring to the “recovery” or the part of the stroke when the seat rolls back to the start, or catch, and in theory, you aren’t doing anything. The drive — when legs-back-arms all fire in one big burst to pull the oar handle — is where the work happens.

What’s interesting in an hour-long piece is first, how rare it is to do something mindlessly repetitious for sixty minutes. The only thing, technically, I do in a 24-hour period that is more repetitive is probably sleeping.
The other interesting thing is what happens physiologically to my body over the course of sixty minutes. I can track the progress from the heart monitor and the split times. Interestingly, the first 15 minutes or 25%, are often the worst in terms of total performance, as my body warms up and moves quickly over the first eight minutes from a starting heart rate of 75 beats per minutes to the magic moment at 8:00 when something kicks in and the sweat really starts to flow. By ten minutes my heart rate is 140 bpm and I’ve settled down into a 26 stroke per minute cadence, averaging 1 minutes and 59 seconds for every 500 meter split.

That 500 meter split is the number you focus on during an ergometer session. Anything sustained under a 2 minute split is pretty good. A racing rate, or sprint, is often under 1:40. In the last 30 days I’ve seen my average splits decline from 2:07 when I was a fat, out of shape whale, to 1:59, an eight second improvement. That average rate is what is termed my “steady state” — the rate at which I can cruise along without putting my heart rate over 170 bpm and dive into lactic acid hell. I should be cruising at 1:55 before I consider myself in good shape.
Anyway, erging is about mental arithmetic. Every session has to be approached with a goal in mind. Mine this morning was to row 15,000 meters in 60 minutes, meaning, I had to row an even 2 minute split for every 500 meters. Not impossible, but the mental torture one has to endure whenever the split slips to 2:02 and the next stroke tries to buy back those 2 seconds with a 1:58 …..

I start thinking about quitting about 25 minutes in. My back hurts. I ate too much last night. I really should rake leaves or pay bills. I’ll stop at 30 minutes with 7,500 meters. That’s a decent amount for the day. Then 30 minutes arrive and my conscience says, “dude, you quit halfway then you will feel like an incomplete loser all day” and the negotiation starts again. Every 5 minute mark is calculated as a percentage and then a fraction of the effort. 15 minutes in — 25% done. 30 minutes in — 50% done. Etc. Etc.

At 45 minutes or 75% of the way through the piece, the fun begins. Heart rate is at 155 and I’m soaked in sweat and have to keep wiping my hands on my shirt so I can maintain a grip on the handle. I am officially bored out of my nut. Every stroke is an effort to keep the pace under 2:00 and the damn monitor shows a projected finish of 14,800 meters. I start bumming out that I’ll miss the 15,000 goal I set out to accomplish, and loserness begins to settle in. Every minute is a struggle, every stroke equals 10 meters, each stroke takes 2 seconds. More math, more arithmatic. I start giving up, “it’s the hour that counts, not the meters, this isn’t a race”, and the splits slip to 2:05, a loser’s pace. Oh well, I tried. I’ll crack 15,000 some other time.

(sidenote, in the 90s I was fifth in the world on the Concept2 online rankings for the hour with 17,500 meters, so the hour is my distance of choice, the rankings list everything from 500 meters to 100,000)

It all comes down to the iPod. The right mix will save the day. Today my iPod was dead on arrival, I forgot to charge it, so I grabbed my son’s and hit play. He had migrated one of my playlists over and fortunately it was perfect over the last ten minutes, with Fugazi’s Repeater kicking in right when I needed it the most.

The projected meter count was still at 14,800, so with five minutes to go I started the mental negotiations and tried to psyche myself into a desperate, valiant effort to take back all those slacked off quitter meters I wasted around 13 minutes to go.

With one minute to go it was do or die. I had 30 strokes to spend and nothing to lose, so I took the stroke rate over 33 and started to thrash, head flipping back and forth, animal grunts, the whole mess. Thoughts of the Battle of Thermopylae, Ben Hur, Glover ferrying Washington back to Manhattan from Brooklyn, Washington crossing the Delaware, Blackburn rowing his dory with hands frozen to the handle …..

The split went from 1:58 to 1:32 — I’m-gonna-need-a-defibrillator-rate — and with five seconds to go the meter counter passed 15,000. Victory!
I ended the piece at 15,003 and felt like I just won the Boston Marathon. Of such small triumphs in a garage, basement, gym or boat shop is the sport of indoor rowing made.

What is interesting, at least to me, in the end, is the competitive aspect of human nature. Some people are content to just do something for the pleasure of the act, others have to do it faster and better … what started out as an effort to lose some weight is suddenly a desire to get higher in the online rankings, to climb a notch above the next person ….

Anyway, only a rower would understand the psychosis I suppose.

Here’s a link to a video of Concept2 founder Peter Dreissigacker rowing a very studly 500 meter piece.

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