It’s the depths of ergometer season — when northern rowers are off the water and on their rowing machines racking up meters and laying down a base of fitness for the spring racing circuit. Having racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million meters since I started erging in earnest in 1995, I have mixed emotions about a device that I spend an average of 45 minutes a day on, third in terms of device time after my bed and desk chair. It’s the extreme simplicity of the machine, the fact that I like to take my exercise sitting down, and the unblinking feedback its little computer gives me from one stroke to the next that makes my rowing machine much more than a way to stay fit.
In some ways my ergometer is a daily test, a check-in between me and my willpower, a place to set goals, to even compete against others, but ultimately a place to zone out in a sweaty, 170 heartbeats and 26 strokes per minute cadence of exertion that leaves me miraculously charged for another 24 hours. Erging is all about goals. Micro goals of getting more than 8,000 meters in 30 minutes, or setting a personal best in the standard 2,000 meter race distance. Macro goals like rowing 2,000,000 meters in one year, or 200,000 between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Erging is about competing, against the published times of other rowers, sometimes impossible times set by Olympians, but nevertheless times that somewhere deep inside one’s ego reasons is possible to beat if you work hard enough.
Ergs are all about hope and possibilities, the optimism that one can be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Unfortunately, as my friend Charlie Clapp (silver medal in 1984 Olympics) is fond of saying: “The older we get, the faster we were.”
Alone in the garage, door open onto the village center, watching the runners and strollers and traffic slide by, plugged into some electronica-trance music, stoner rock, or industrial metal, sawing back and forth, back and forth, the thoughts that creep into my mind as I fight to keep my splits low and my form composed are amazing and nagging like a bad feverish dream. Thoughts of guilt over not trying hard enough, of not working hard enough, of eating that crap the night before, or skipping a day due to some aching ailment or another. But finishing a workout and beating a goal leaves me with a charge of victory that follows me off the erg and stays with me for the rest of the day.
There are moments of transcendence in rowing when everything suddenly goes very zen and effortless, when a flood of power and adrenaline surges and makes you fly. Rowers call this “swing” and it’s a rare but sublime state that only rowers can understand when eight people in one boat suddenly click and the sum of the whole rises as close to perfection as an imperfect world has to offer. The right song, the right point in my training, and the erg can deliver the same brief moments of swing, when suddenly everything is right in the world and my legs, my arms, my back are twice as strong as they were an instant before.
The monotony of the erg is meditation. Swinging back and forth as if riding the end of a metronome clicking away on top of a piano. 26 strokes a minute. Ten meters per stroke. 500 meters in two minutes means 1000 meters in four. The mind does the arithmetic over and over and over, a Rainman insanity of counting through the stroke (one-two-three-four), the piece, the session, all while the machine blinks out its numbers, making stark judgments and humbling the best intentions and plans laid out at the start.
In two weeks the racing begins. First the Cape Cod championships — The Cranberry Crunch — when a couple dozen local rowers come together at the YMCA to endure the hell of a 2,000 meter race. Then, in late February, the World Indoor Rowing Championships, or CRASH-B Sprints, a wild affair with thousands of rowers from around the world — Olympians to senior citizens — competing in their age groups and weight classes for the coveted Hammer trophy. Words cannot describe the agonizing anticipation one feels before the start signal is given — the foreknowledge that in just a couple minutes one’s body will begin to suffer an agony unlike anything experienced. Think of surgery without anesthesia combined with suffocation and a beating with a blunt object. The vision goes after a while shrinking into a little tunnel focused on the monitor; the lungs burn, thighs turn into wooden blocks, and the head begins to loll around and strange noises come out of it — grunts and moans as first 500 meters, then 1000 (halfway!), and then the dreaded wall of hell until the final 500 when anything is doable and questions of survival give way to the anticipated joy of stopping.
Finish and look to the left — people are still in agony, sawing away. Look to the right, the same, one after another letting go of the handle in a personal victory of having survived the worst 7 minutes of their life. The scores are posted, the judgment is final.
Erg scores are a modern rower’s badge of honor — exposed for all to see. While ergs don’t float and great ergers don’t always make great rowers on the water, the scores are crucial, grounds for invitation to training camps and college recruiting. There were no real ergs when I rowed in college. Coaches made judgments and selection based on seat-racing and on the water performance. But as soon as Concept2 introduced the first machines in the early 1980s the sport was transformed.
Now erging is a sport unto itself — Indoor rowing. No one is keener on it than the British, who have turned out some amazing ergers over the last twenty years. From English prisons to the Royal Navy, erging is a big deal in England, and nearly every country on the Continent has its own national championships. There have even been suggestions that the sport become an Olympic event.
I suspect I’ll erg right up to the end. Rolling through the meters, thanking the Wheel of Pain for keeping the pounds off and giving me the chance to eat another slice of birthday cake and not huff and puff when I bound up a flight of stairs. Today, with on-the-water rowing seeming so far away, I want nothing more than to sit in an actual boat on a sunny day and glide over smooth waters under my own propulsion; but once there I know I’ll miss the stability of the machine, the way it lets me pound away without fear of capsizing or running backwards into a dock.