How many rowers laughed when photos emerged a couple weeks ago of the bogus student “oarswomen” involved in the Operation Varsity Blues/college admissions scandal?
Critiques of the young ladies’ form aside (wrists aren’t flat, back is opening up too early on the drive), the one thing that would have doomed this would-be student athlete in the eyes of any college coach is the choice of rowing machine, or ergometer as they are known.
This young woman is on the ever-chic piece of rowing furniture known as a WaterRower, the stylish choice of rowing dilettantes everywhere. There is only one rowing machine in ubiquitous use by college programs, national/Olympic teams, and participants in the annual World Indoor Rowing Championship and that machine is the Concept II Ergometer.
Posing a person on a WaterRower in the hope that establishes their credibility as an experienced puller of oars is like a catching a counterfeiter trying to pass Monopoly money off on a bank teller. When a coach wants to know about the potential of a rowing recruit the one number they want is their 5,000 meter time. WaterRowers, while perfectly good rowing machines, don’t use the same monitor or the same mechanism as a Concept II, and are only used in trendy group rowing studios or by Frank Underwood, the ultimate political weasel in House of Cards (who winds up on his ass after the strap attaching the handle to the flywheel mechanism snaps).
There are many rowing machines, but only one Concept II. And there are only so many slots a college rowing coach has to fill with hardworking athletes who actually worked their asses off trying to get a seat on a college boat — giving one to an entitled, unqualified spawn of celebrities with more money than ethics is a crime against that poor rower who actually deserved to be admitted.
Rowing machines have been around for a while, but most people are familiar with the Concept 2 made in Morrisville, Vermont and used in the annual C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints — the putative world indoor rowing championship. In the last decade the ergometer has broken out of the boathouses and basements where they were alternatively ,loathed and loved by their users, largely due to CrossFit’s embrace of the machine for its high intensity interval workouts.
Since first appearing in the late 1970s as the Model A, the Concept 2 has become the standard rowing machine used by rowing teams to train and score rowers. There’s also a big following amongst non- and former-rowers, who used Concept2’s online logbook to log their workouts and compare themselves to other rowers around the world. Every winter — usually smack in the middle of the worst of the ice and slush — indoor rowing races like the Cranberry Crunch held here on Cape Cod give people like me a chance to compete against other people and not go slowly crazy cranking away listening to the same heavy-metal playlist I’ve been listening to since 1995 when I bought my Model C.
All those satellite indoor rowing regattas culminate with the C.R.A.S.H.-B’ Sprints in late February — a couple hundred ergometers on the floor of the Boston University hockey rink — with a digital leaderboard and an announcer and all the trappings of an actual sport. Those sprints are 2,000 meters and can take an Olympic gold medalist as little as five-and-a-half minutes to complete, to somewhere north of eight minutes for less endowed mortals. It’s an ugly experience marked by anguished expressions on red faces followed by involuntary vomiting int a trash can. The sound of the flywheels and the fan blades is Pavlovian for anyone who has logged a lot of time on an erg. My buddy Charlie who has a silver medal, used an erg on the balcony of his apartment in Arizona while he studied for his MBA and got in shape for the ’84 LA Olympics. He says the sound makes his stomach churn. yet he still climbs onto the machine every so often.
There have always been other rowing machines to pick from. A college teammate, John Duke, designed and marketed the Water Rower — which uses a clear plastic tank filled with water instead of the Concept2’s use of air pressure and a damper to simulate the drag of an oar through the water on the internal flywheels. Kevin Spacey rowed a Water Rower in House of Cards. I’ve never tried one.
Then there are the horrors that hotel chains used to buy and stick in their fitness centers. Those things were bad and led to Concept2 offering an “Erg Locator” on its website so addicts could book themselves into hotels with the real McCoy when they traveled on business. Those knockoffs weren’t nearly as bad as the “rowing machines” sold for $29.95 that used two screendoor pistons, and a squeaky seat on wheels to give grandma something to ride while she watched General Hospital.
There have been some software programs that have tried to enhance the monotony of indoor rowing. Because the Concept2 display has an ethernet port, I could plug it into my laptop, set that on a chair next to the machine, and row against virtual conpetitors or a computer-generated paceboat. Those programs would upload workout results to the Concept2 Online Rankings, and had options to show one’s power profile, and other super geeky statistical functions that did nothing to improve on the bleak truth that rowing is about as dynamic an activity as being a human metronome approaching cardiac arrest.
Stationary bicycles, treadmills, stairmasters — all of them are boring because they don’t move. The view never changes, there’s no wind rushing, no splashing, no risk of capsizing or getting taken out by a Cape Cod nailbanger in a Ford F-250 with a bag full of Fireball nips. Peloton is viewed as the digital exercise company that cracked the boredom issue by networking high quality stationary bicycles with online classes. I tried to ride one in LA last spring, but I was too tired to figure it out and missed the full Peloton experience.
Now a Cambridge company, True Rowing, is about to introduce a new indoor rower, the “Crew” with a 22″ flatpanel display and the promise of real time rowing workouts broadcast from the Thames, the Charles, the Schuykill ….. There will be instructors, and from what I can read from the press release and early coverage, an opportunity to row in synch with the rower (s) on screen. That’s a big deal because a lot of the trick in rowing is learning how to perfectly coordinate oneself with seven other people in a round-bottomed, 60-foot long boat that’s a little bit wider than your butt in lumpy water and waves.
The Crew is a good looking machine – a little too “Jetson” for my tastes — and has all the expected pieces such as an oar handle, a place for the feet, and a rolling seat for the butt. Resistance comes from magnets. I’ve towerd on ergs that used a basket of weights (the Gamut circa 1976), water, air, and even magnets to put some resistance behind the flywheel. Magnets were the worst and the method favored by one of the early makers of health club and hotel rowing machines. But no judging until I actually get on a Crew and pull a few strokes.
The obvious difference with the Crew is the monitor. Concept2 uses a display that gives the most basic feedback — split times, elapsed time, strokes per minute, calories, watts , etc, — so the rower can stare at a little square of grey LCD numbers and do constant arithmetic, calculating how many more strokes will be needed before the agony will end.
I wish True Rowing the best, and I signed up for a first look. At $2,000 for the machine and $40 monthly subscription, the machine is priced exactly the same as a Peloton bicycle. That prices the Crew at twice the cost of a Concept 2, signalling that True doesn’t have delusions of eating into Concept2’s base in the rowing and CrossFit markets, but is going after the rich guy with the same pitch the Water Rower used — rowing machines should be beautiful and capable of hanging out in the living room.
Dick Cashin is one of the investors in True Rowing, and that more than anything is the best endorsement for the Crew as he is a rowing legend who rowed in the USA eight in the 76′ Olympics, won the Worlds, a medal in the Pan American Games, and consistently wins his age group in the C.R.A.S.H.-B’s. I interviewed him for a story I wrote about indoor rowing for Forbes in the early 90s and he’s still active competing on and off the water. If Dick thinks its a machine worth investing in, then it’s a machine worth checking out when it starts shipping next year.
It was only a matter of time before the exercise-cultists discovered the rowing machine, aka “ergometer”, aka “erg.” I wondered why the concept of group rowing classes haven’t taken off — Chris Ives sort of pioneered the concept in the 90s, Swiss sculler Xeno Mueller has a devoted following out of his studio in Newport Beach, Josh Crosby breathed a new life into the Water Rower (the stylish piece of furniture rowed by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) and now, thanks to Crossfit, the wheel-of-pain has come into its own as the flavor of the month for gym rats seeking the next big thing to go along with their smart wristbands and perpetual search for the new and different.
While it would be tempting to point at the Sunday New York Times Style Section article as either the moment in time when ergs came into their own …. or jumped the shark, it is good to see the misunderstood, much maligned erg make its debut in the national press as something other than a weird thing used by masochists.
Here’s where Crossfit gets credit for taking the erg out of the boathouse and into the gym:
“Why the surge in popularity? Thank CrossFit — and nearly everybody selling indoor rowing does. That craze’s high-intensity strength and conditioning workouts sometimes require ergs, and CrossFit offers rowing certification for instructors. Some CrossFit boxes, as the gyms are called, offer temporary homes for group indoor rowing start-ups as they already have the machines and the space.”
My Yale buddy and fellow-rower Mike Ives gets a prominent mention in the piece:
“And on a steamy recent Tuesday at the West Side Y.M.C.A. in Manhattan, Michael Ives, 55, a former Yale rower (toting the gold medal he and his team had recently won at the Henley Masters Regatta in England) had to turn away some 10 hopefuls from one of his evening classes.
“I don’t think it’s a case of misery loves company,” Mr. Ives said. “It feels good, and it sounds good,” he added, referring to the rhythmic, almost meditative, whooshing of all of the ergs moving in unison. His class — pioneered by his younger brother Chris, widely credited with being the first to offer indoor group rowing, in 1995 — is a polished version of what crew teams might do off-season. There is no music, only the sound of Mr. Ives’s preternaturally calm voice offering pacing instructions.”
The indoor rowing season’s first race happened this morning — Cape Cod Rowing’s Cranberry Crunch — and I am glad to have that behind me. Nothing personally compares to the pre-race dread I feel about the 2,000 meter distance. It’s short enough to demand a maximum effort sprint but long enough to punish the rower foolish enough to go out too fast with the dreaded “fly-and-die” strategy.
I finished under 7 minutes — always the big threshold — with a 6:53, coming in second in the master’s division to a beast of a man, Rick Martin, who smoked me by ten seconds with a 6:43. This was not my best shot — I rowed a 6:50 after Thanksgiving — but since excuses must be made I’ll blame the flu that knocked me out during the holidays. I’ve been underwater ever since, fighting to regain my lung capacity.
Now I have a month to get it together for the Crash-B sprints in Boston. I’ll buckle down on the paleo program, keep throwing some interval work into my usual Crossfit regimen, and hopefully come closer to the increasingly dim goal of breaking 6:30 in my last year in the 50-54 heavyweight class.
If by any remote chance you are thinking about competing on the indoor rowing circuit this winter, my two favorite races are now open for registration.
Cape Cod Rowing’s Cranberry Crunch, aka “The Cape Cod Indoor Rowing Championships” takes place Sunday, January 27 at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, MA. Doors open at 10, racing begins at 11:30, distance is 2,000 meters across various age groups and by gender. There is a 500 meter sprint challenge as well. Registration is at Regatta Central for $20.
And the mother of all indoor regattas, the venerable CRASH-B Sprints, aka “The World Indoor Rowing Championships”, is taking place February 19, Sunday, at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. Registration deadline is January 14 and costs $25 for masters, $20 for collegiate and high school rowers. The distance is 2,000 meters across lightweight and heavyweight classes for men and women. If you miss the registration there is a walk-on “bullpen” race where you show up, pull your piece and get counted against your class. This is my last year in the men’s heavyweight 50-54 category and perhaps my eighth year racing at the Sprints.
I’ve written before about the necessity of a good playlist to make it through a winter’s worth of erg rowing. Now that I am training for the CRASH-B sprints (Feb. 17 in Boston, registration now open until Jan 7), I back to messing around with playlists on my android phone.
Row2k — the best source of all rowing news online — has a feature on erg playlists and a poll to vote for your favorite (I voted for Rammstein’s Du Hast as it is prominent on my go-to list and is utterly teutonic sturm und drang). I also respect the Rage Against the Machine on Row2k’s list, but have to puke on Jackson Brown. Now to go compile this sucker off of Amazon and load it up for my next bout with the Wheel of Pain.
If you row and you read Row2k you owe them a contribution. Send them $60 and get an awesome t-shirt. No site matches the depth of their coverage, the completeness of their calendar, the awesomeness of the features, the relevance of their news and the usefulness of their classifieds.
As part of my annual and irrational race against age, I did the second 2,000 meter test on the erg yesterday, and cut eight seconds from the first a week before.
I pulled a 6:50.1, averaging 1:42.5 per/500 meters, five seconds faster than the 6:55 I set out to row in my quest to break 6:30 by mid-February. I tried to negative split the piece, but as I always do, I started too fast — pulling 1:28 over the first 100 meters before settling down and finishing the first quarter of the piece at an average 1:40 pace.
I settled down more to a 1:44 for the second 500 meters, went into the pain cave at the mid-point and maintained another 1:44, but brightened up and flogged a 1:41.3 to finish the last 500 meters in a grunting sprint of ugliness.
My coach Mark is determined to get these last 20 seconds standing between me and my goal stripped away, and is emailing me nutritional advice. His demand that I start “eating like a man” is duly noted. The pecan pie remnants are in the trash, no more obsessive-compulsive carrot stick crap, just back to the paleo diet and some common sense.
I confess I haven’t rowed on the water once this calendar year. My only excuse is a shitty start to the season with the torn bicep back in January and the five months of rehab. Now it looks like that same arm has a “slap tear” at the top of the bicep, and that means some specific movements are both painful and very weak, including lifting the shell out of its rack and getting it over head.
The winter injury happened just in to time to knock me out of the 2012 CRASH-B sprints (the “world championships” of indoor/erg rowing) and I never got motivatedenough to wake up extra-early for the calm water and portage my scull down Old Shore Road to the harbor. Crossfit and the tedium of physical therapy had my full attention and now, with Thanksgiving holiday ahead, it’s time to start hyperfocusing on the indoor rowing season which traditionally begins for me with the Concept 2 Holiday Challenge (200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and ends with the Crash-B’s in February.
This is my last year in the 50-54 men’s heavyweight division. In 2011 I tanked after going out too fast from the start and bonked in the last 500 meters, blowing a nice pace and finishing 14th with a 6:39.9. I had won the Cape Cod “championships” at the Cranberry Crunch the month before with a 6:42 and was all full of myself and cocky at the Crash-Bs and went out too fast. I learned my lesson and left the arena at Boston University determined to come back better in 2012. I signed up for Crossfit Cape Cod the next week and have been training with an eye towards getting faster on the erg.
Today I did my first 2,000 meter test to set the baseline for my training over the next three months leading up to the race on February 17. I climbed on the erg, stripped off my shirt, set the monitor for a 2,000 meter piece and decided anything under 7 minutes would be a good place to start. I made it. Barely, with a 6:58.8. That meant an average 500 meter pace of 1:44.7. Respectable, but a long way from where I need to be in 12 weeks. Ironically, focusing on Crossfit has made me slower on the erg — proof that randomizing my exercise the Crossfit way between metabolic and strength conditioning isn’t as effective as my tried-and-true model of putting in tons of meters and shifting to short sprint intervals as the races grow near.
I logged my time on Concept2’s online ranking page and now stand 39th out of 616 heavyweight men ages 50-59. The winning time in my division last year at the Crash-Bs was a 6:11.4. The world record is 6:07.7 set by Andy Ripley in 1998. The world record — period — for men is 5:36.6.
Breaking seven minutes is a great goal for any guy in good shape, but being the competitive egomaniac I am, of course I am going to obsess on the winning times in my division and have my eyes on the next age group’s record of 6:18 set by Harvard/Olympian legend Dick Cashin. As for this year. I would dearly love to get under 6:30 in 12 weeks. That means shaving 30 seconds between now and then. It’s improbable, if not impossible, but it is at least aggressive. The question is how to develop a training plan that will get me there while allowing me to do the daily Crossfit workouts, and taper in time for the big event?
If I pull one 2K per week — say every Saturday. I should be shaving 3 seconds off every week if I want to break 6:30 on February 17. I bet if I were to attack a test piece now with the same intensity a race requires — “emptying the tank” — and leaving nothing to spare at the end, I might get to 6:45 with a superhuman effort. The question is how shave the last 15 seconds knowing full well the law of diminishing returns that sets in as one gets closer to the goal.
Developing a training plan to get from here to there is not a simple matter of plotting a line from 7 minutes on November 15 to 6:30 on February 15 and hoping a miracle will happen somewhere along that line. It won’t. Physiological adaptation doesn’t work that way.
In fact, to be more geeky about it. The best way to look at the challenge is not by gross finishing time, but the specific pace that has to be maintained to get there. For that I turn to the Concept 2 online pace calculator. The rowing machine has a monitor that counts down the meters, notes the strokes per minute and most prominently displays a big bold number — the erg’s equivalent to the speedometer on a car — the current pace for 500 meters. In Saturday’s baseline piece, my average split was 1:44.7. I didn’t row a a flat 1:44.7 every one of the 200 or so strokes it took to tick off 2,000 meters. I started with a 1:33 and gradually degraded to as slow as a 1:50 at one point. Fortunately, the monitor also displays an estimated finish time that one can improve by pulling harder, so having sat down with a sub-7 minute performance as my goal, I was able to keep the predicted time under 7 minutes and not let things decline and get out of hand.
Split strategies are essential to a great 2,000 meter performance. Using the Concept2 calculator and entering in 2,000 meters as the distance and 6 minutes, 29.9 seconds as the goal. I hit pace and it tells me that I would have to maintain a 1:37.4 pace on every stroke. Alas, I am not a machine so I start strong, fade, and then comes back to sprint to the finish. Hence my splits are all over the place. The experts say the trick is to pull negative splits — meaning go progressively faster every 500 meters and not do a “fly and die” and rush out of the start and go like mad until something goes very wrong (which it always does in a fly or die situation). The discipline required, not to mention the conditioning, is massive.
As Mike Tyson said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” All of my pre-2k battle plans go out the window the second I start whipping myself back and forth trying to get the flywheel up to speed and realize the adrenaline is pushing me way too fast out of the blocks. After I settle down to my planned pace, and do my power-tens on the 500 meter marks, the dreaded visit to the pain cave begins about 750 meters or three minutes into the race, then comes what my friend Dr. Dan calls the “talk with Jesus” in the third quarter following the half-way point. All sorts of bad thoughts creep into the mind in during the 500 meters when the lactic acid is flaming, tunnel vision begins, and one’s head starts to roll around. This is when the debate between survival and simply continuing and just stopping and puking happens. In a boat you can’t stop. If you stop it is a disaster like an eight car rear end collision on a foggy highway. No one stops in a rowing race. It just can’t happen. Rowing is all about the inner debate between the survival part of the brain and the more noble “because it’s there” part. To hell with winning. The third quarter of a 2K race is about continuing. The last quarter is the realization that in 50 strokes the agony ends and the realization that anyone can do anything for two minutes.
I just need to figure out a practical path to get my numbers down in what should be an interesting test of the “quantified self.” It is a very profound psycho-physiological-spiritual question to ponder: if hope springs eternal as the cliche says, and if one is a “relentlessly self-improving” man (to quote Doctor Evil in Austin Powers), at what point does the aging ego accept the fate of all flesh and realize that the wheels have started to come off and indeed, as we age, the rower’s adage of “the older we get, the faster we were” is the bitter awful truth?
A 18-year old, prime-of-life specimen of immortal perfection can look at next year and rationally expect, with hard work, training, supplements, steroids, whatever …. to go faster. Athletes peak in their 30s. Most Olympians are in the 20s, some in their 30s, (depending on the sport of course. )The oldest successful Olympic rower is Sir Steve Redgrave, who won five gold medal in consecutive Olympics. He won his last in 2000 at the age of 38 and then retired, was knighted, and was the guy who ran the torch from the motorboat into the Olympic Stadium during London’s open ceremonies this past summer.
The best way to show the reverse parabola of progress would be to plot all the erg scores from the Crash-B’s against the age of the competitors. It would show a quick improvement from the teens up through the 30s, then a steep decline that accelerates through the 50s. Masters rowers — 40 years and up– are generally Type-A personalities, well funded, and obsessively competitive on and off the water. I suspect not one of them accepts the truth that they are going to get slower next year, and most, like me, are throwing themselves into training plans, double-session workouts, expensive fish oil, post-workout protein supplements, weight regimens, and new boats (a new high end single scull costs well over $10,000 for 18′ and 35 pounds of carbon fiber). Speaking for myself — we’re fighting the clock.
To end this disquisition on age and improvement …. there is nothing like an ergometer to give one the naked lunch* truth that in the end, everybody has to slow down and stop some day. Eventually everybody runs out of water, has to check oars, and back down before slipping over the spillway and cascading, lifelessly over the foaming precipice. To that I call bullshit and hope to be the toothless cackling codger who walks out on the floor of the Agganis Arena in 2052 at the age of 94 and pulls a sub-ten minute piece and gives time and deterioration the middle finger.
*: defined by the William Burrough's novel Naked Lunch, where "Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.""
Saturday I competed in my first CrossFit competition — one for Master’s ages 50 to 55 — and failed miserably, completely humbling myself in front of a big crowd when two key movements failed me and disqualified me more or less. CrossFit is the dynamic fitness regimen that has burst out of its humble garage origins in Santa Cruz and has now spread to become the fitness fad of our times, with corporate sponsorships proclaiming it as “The Sport of Fitness.” I took it up in 2008, did it alone in my garage by following the workout of the day posted on the Crossfit site, and eventually joined a local affiliate, Crossfit Cape Cod, in February 2010 after getting drubbed at the CRASH-B Sprints and realizing I needed to get serious to get competitive.
Competitive impulses are going to be the death of me. All jokes about “mind’s making promises bodies can’t fill” apply here. I ripped my left bicep off of the tendon that anchored it to my forearm last January, I’ve trashed my back countless times on the rowing machine, my shins are ripped apart from deadlifts and rope burns, my shoulders feel like they’ve been beaten with sticks … all in the hope I can actually get faster when the truth is I am doomed to get slower.
The morning competition started with thrusters. I thought I was doing pretty good with 27 in one minute. But no. That was only good enough to tie for fifth place out of eight. It was just about the only thing that went well all day.
Then came six rounds of jump rope, pull-ups, and 85-pound cleans. Rope, I can endure. Cleans I can also endure. Pull ups? Total failure. I made the first round okay, but kept failing the subsequent rounds as my arms gave out. I kept throwing myself at the bar, but the judges wouldn’t give me the movement and I came in last.
Second round a few hours later started with an overhead snatch followed by three overhead squats. I had two minutes to hit my max. I did an “insurance” round at 115, then went up to 135 before calling it quits. That got me a third place in the third workout.
The fourth and final workout involved burpee box jumps, wall balls and toes-to-bar. Basically hanging from a pull up bar and swinging my body up until my toes hit the bar I was hanging from. I made it through four rounds then could go no further, and spent most of the time on the clock fruitlessly swinging, and missing. Again, last place. I finished seventh out of eight for the entire competition.
The agony of defeat. I slunk off the floor, tail between my legs, determined to fix my issues on the bar. And so it goes as old age approaches. Here’s the final results at CrossFit New England. They were awesome hosts.