Olympic Rowing 2012: the US Women do it again

I woke up this morning, and before climbing out of bed, turned on my phone’s Olympics app and tuned into the finals of the Women’s eights just in time to see the US win its second gold medal in two games. My daughter’s classmate, Ellie Logan, is a member of the team, so it was very cool to see her on the medal stand a second time.

The highlight of Beijing was watching her crew win their first gold at Shunyi, and to stand in the grandstands as the Star Spangled Banner was played, bellowing the words with my friend Mike Mann while the Chinese fans all around us took our picture.

And they’re off …. Worst Rowing Start Ever

There’s a reason they call them “the Bumps….”

What’s with the demented squirrel?

Some background from the man who wrote THE goddamn Book of Rowing:

The “Torpids” or “Bumps” are a traditional rowing contest conducted on the River Isis (part of the Thames) in England every Spring. Because the Isis is too narrow to permit side-by-side starts, the crew start about a length and a half apart, with the coxswains (the little people who steer the boats) holding onto ropes secured to the river bank. Everyone starts at once — when a gun or horn is sounded — and the object is to row as quickly as one can and “bump” the boat ahead of you.  If bumped you keep on rowing with the possibility of being bumped again. If you are the bumper, then you get to stop rowing and somehow advance up the ladder towards being King of the River. Or something like that.

You try to figure the rules out from Wikipedia. I can’t.

Shock and Oar

The Boat Race, the oldest collegiate athletic competition in the world, delivered a first today in its 157 years of racing down the Thames Tideway when an swimmer popped up in the middle of the course between the Oxford and Cambridge crews and brought the race to a confusing halt.

Keep in mind this is a quintessential eccentric English sporting event, part of the holy circle that includes Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley — televised live on the BBC, bet fervently on, and followed with excruciating detail in the months leading up the way Americans might obsess about the Superbowl.

Broadcast live on BBC America, the Boat Race is finally accessible to American rowing fans — fitting given about 50% of the rowers are American ex-pats sitting in ringers’ seats.

I settled in with a cup of coffee — kicking my wife off of the couch and her usual morning diet of Real Housewives and Ru Paul Drag Racing — and watched with some sense of dreadful nervous empathy as the two crews lined up in the starting blocks and prepared for four miles of hell. The typical collegiate rowing race is 2,000 meters and is over in about six minutes; hence those races are called sprints. Oxford/Cambridge and Harvard/Yale fight it out, boat to boat, over 4 miles in 20 minutes — basically three and a half 2,000 meter sprints in one long grueling go, with the boat-to-boat pressure incredible for the rowers as they are constantly aware of whether they are leading or losing every hard stroke along the way.

For the non-rower, a rowing race is beyond dull. The sport is about consistency and impeccable timing, and after ten strokes of eight big men in a little boat you’ve about seen it all you need to see. Not today. This race suddenly erupted in a flash of spray and clashing oars as some “twat” (as the twitter hashtag “#boatrace” instantly dubbed him) popped up under Oxford’s port-side oars, just missing decapitation by a carbon fiber Concept2 hatchet blade.

The referee called a halt. Ten confused minutes later, with the streaking/swimmer in custody on a police boat, the two crews were lined up below the island and given a running start with about 7 minutes to row to the finish. For the rowers, flooded with lactic acid and already in agony, the wait in the cold wind must have be nasty, but off they went, in a hard charging re-start.

One minute later, while the referee was constantly warning Oxford to stay away from Cambridge, the two boats clashed and Oxford snapped an oar. Disaster number two and pretty much Race Over. Cambridge pulled ahead, Oxford limped along, the bladeless rower sadly going back and forth with nothing but an impotent handle in his hand. Chuffed, I switched off the telly.

The race ended up with Cambridge winning by five lengths, no official time was taken, no presentation made, and in general the whole affair ended sadly and with a whimper despite being dubbed the most dramatic in Race history.

That’s about as amazing as it gets in rowing. Soccer has its World Cut head butts. NASCAR its crashes. Rowing got a swimmer today. I can’t wait to see what Fleet Street does to the swimming idiot once he gets identified. Update: the douchenozzle is named Trenton Oldfield and here is his feeble manifesto.

Personal Analytics: Track Thy Self

I’ve been logging my physical activities and diet for a while, moving from spreadsheets to programs to web-apps to device apps in search of the best way to keep consistent track of my progress in the belief that if I don’t measure it, I won’t stick with it.

One of my former rowing coaches, Tom Bohrer, an amazing oarsman and former Olympic-level athlete, told me the first step towards success in losing weight is to log every bite. The discipline of noting what one puts in one’s mouth forces an awareness of what is on the plate and the high number of random, thoughtless calories that can creep onto the plate during the day. Tom had me write it down in a simple $1.00 spiral notebook and not bother with calories counts, ounces and grams, or totals. Just have the honesty to admit to the bag of Swedish Fish and the courage to show that transgression to him every week.

In this Moneyball era, some sports are very number/goal based and others are getting more so. Any of the racing sports — swimming, rowing, running are stark time-over-distance efforts that can be timed, charted, and plotted over time.  Team sports — football or lacrosse for example — are subjective and don’t lend themselves to improvement-metrics the way baseball does.

I’m most interested in the trend of personal tracking and the rise of technology that allows a person to track every step taken during the day, every session completed on the machine, every moment spent in deep sleep, down to blood glucose levels. Tim Ferris’ bestselling The Four Hour Body exemplifies the degree to which a person with enough motivation and money can obsessively test one’s self. This is a guy who flies to Central America where he can gets a lot of expensive tests performed cheaply. A guy who is open to any device or toy that will help him plot performance and levels over time.

I learned the discipline of logging early on thanks to the early efforts of Concept2 — the Vermont maker of the Concept 2 rowing ergometer, the standard indoor rowing machine adopted by most teams because of its high quality and very capable digital monitor, a device called the PM4 which was developed for Concept2 by the Pennsylvania company Nielsen & Kellerman who also make monitors for on-the-water rowing and portable meteorological instruments. Concept2 was smart in opening up the code interface to the PM monitor and equipping it with a USB and ethernet jack. Third party software such as RowPro followed, giving devoted rowers and coaches even more data about their performance. Concept2’s smartest move, in my opinion, was serving up an online logbook that allows a rower to enter their workouts and compare themselves on public leaderboards against other rowers of the same weight, gender, age over set benchmark times and distances. The online logbook at Concept2.com sees billions of meters logged every year, and gives a disciplined rower a clear sense of progress and goals.

For more than a year I have been logging my diet through a free tool offered by the Livestrong Foundation called MyPlate.  The web-service is designed and managed by Demand Media and is buried in a content site that delivers nutrition and health stories and social network functions which I pretty much ignore.

The calorie tracker combines the functions of a log book with a deep database of calorie counts and nutritional levels for essentially any food one could imagine, including branded food such as a quarter cup of Trader Joe’s organic dried white peaches to a Five Guys Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I can combine ingredients into standard meals to ease the logging of frequently eaten combinations, set nutritional targets ranging from the amount of sodium to the number of net calories consumed per day, and log and plot my weight, body mass index, and specific physical measurements such as the diameter of my neck, check and abdomen over time. MyPlate will calculate calorie levels to achieve specific weight loss or gain goals and does a good job of plotting progress on X,Y charts. A subscription version offers richer functionality.

To log my exercise progress — I could and do use MyPlate as it calculates calories expended and deducts those from my gross calorie count. Hence I can log a two mile run at 13 minutes, 43 seconds, and it will cough up a calorie expense of 438 and subtract that from the inputs.

Since I am spending most of my workout time in Crossfit — I also need to track my performance and progress against a lot of benchmarks ranging from my personal records for weight lifting such as deadlifts, back squats, snatches, presses and cleans, as well as specific Crossfit workouts such with names like Fran and Kelly. I had been logging that work in a paper notebook I leave at the gym, but a fellow crossfitter introduced me to a site called Beyondthewhiteboard.com which does an excellent job of letting me log my progress against my gym’s prescribed daily workouts. There is a food logging capability on the site, but it isn’t driven by a crowd-sourced calorie database, so I tend to ignore it. I do throw my weight in there though to keep a record of progress there as well.

The Four Hour Body piqued my curiosity about the role of supplements in physical well being and improvement. Ferris prescribes some fairly outre tips ranging from his so-called PAGG Stack (policasonol, alpha-lipoic acid, garlic extract and green tea extract) to induce a state of fat-burning thermogenesis , to eating three brazil nuts in the morning and at night to improve selenium levels and testosterone production. I personally agree with the man who said people who take vitamin supplements have the most expensive pee in the world, but I also spend a lot of cash on stuff ranging from Omega-3 fish oil to all sorts of pills, protein powders and vitamins. Since I don’t have the free cash to spend on a lot of blood tests to see exactly what is going on in my metabolism I take this stuff as an article of faith.

A good source of deep and usually impenetrable advice about supplements comes from the forums at Longecity.com which is where I learned about the online log service, CRON-O-Meter. This service is essentially MyPlate taken to another level of specificity for total nutrition geeks with automated tracking of very specific vitamin and protein information for those who believe food is essentially culinary pharmaceuticals and who like to geek out by reading every word of Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone diet founder or Gary Taubes, the au courant dispeller of the why we get fat myth. I tried CRON-O-Meter for a while, but I’m just not that anal retentive or well-heeled to figure out if I need more lysine or niacin or vitamin D in my life and then buy it.

Rising in popularity are sleep monitors as the fitness-measurers are pushing the idea that sleep quality and duration has a big effect on health, recovery from exercise, and general well-being.  The owner of my Crossfit gym, Mark Lee has been using a sleep monitor, and there are some that track the time it takes you to fall asleep, how many times a night you wake up, when you go into deep sleep, etc..  One brand I’m aware of is Zeo with a $150 bedside setup.

Then there are the new breed of pedometer like devices that track every step, capture all the data, and can be uploaded and tracked online. Fitbit is probably the best know of these, and at a $100 seems reasonable enough as it also purports to track sleep but I’m not compelled to wear one on my belt.

One can obviously go overboard on the personal tracking obsession and I know I am coming close to being too geeky about the whole thing, but you can expect to see and hear about more of it, not less, as awareness over dietary and supplement chemistry rises thanks to people like Tim Ferris; the paleo diet craze expands because of Reebok’s commercial embrace of Crossfit “the Sport of Fitness (Crossfit, aka “Cultfit” to its detractors, embraces paleo principles as part of the program); and the device makers push their meters, gauges, wireless scales and pedometers at you more and more.

My personal testimony to whether any of the tracking works is this: I’ve dropped 50 pounds in 18 months, cholesterol levels have plummeted (I took myself off prescribed statins and have yet to see if I can manage my HDL/LDL levels through diet and exercise alone), and I eat a fairly strict paleo diet that restricts calories to around the 2,000 per day level. My rowing times are as good, if not better than they were ten years ago, and my running times have improved from a sluggish ten-minute mile pace to a 7 minute mile in a matter of months. Yes, this is insanely narcissistic, but it is efficient, it beats the old method of carrots and cottage cheese, little paper calorie counter books, and endless jogs around the block with a daily visit to the bathroom scale.

 

Armchair rowing

The CRASH-B Sprints happened this past Sunday. I was 200 miles to the north driving around a snowless Vermont, my messed-up bicep still in its Tron-brace. At one point, as my wife and I drove through Stowe and Morrisville, home to the company that makes the standard racing ergometer, Concept 2, I realized my heat was underway and a few dozen poor fifty-somethings were suffering a very hard 2,000 meter race. Later in the day, when I found WiFi, I saw that the winning time was a blistering 6 minutes, 11.4 seconds,  35 seconds faster than my last time trial back in December. That 6:44 would have been good enough for a 13th place, assuming I didn’t improve in the intervening two months.

Now I have 12 months to get recover, re-train, and set my sights on my last remaining year in the 50-54 heavyweight division. Water rowing certainly would be happening right now given this clement winter and some beautifully smooth water the past few weeks, but I don’t think I’ll have the all-clear until May at least.

 

 

The Erg Will Not Be Denied

I admit it, I am not happy to be sitting out the indoor rowing racing season. I limped out of the Agganis Arena last February unhappy with my performance at the Crash-B’s, joined the local Crossfit gym, and worked my ass off for 12 months with the unreasonable goal of winning a yellow hammer in the 50-59 heavyweight class. I was on track to deliver a good time this year, but it wasn’t to be.

Then pop goes the distal bicep tendon and I’ve had to scratch all two-armed activities for a few months. I recently returned to the gym and have learned the erg can be done with one arm. I don’t do a lot of this — mostly 250 to 1,000 meter intervals. This was shot at the end of a 15 minute workout consisting of 250 meter rows interspersed with 60 single-under jump ropes. I managed ten rounds and can hold a 1:55 – 2:00 split if I work at it. The trick is figuring out what to do with the useless arm.

Now for 2013.

Modern Muzak

Muzak, also known as Elevator Music, has always been a great joke. Hearing a Steely Dan tune like “Do It Again” while leafing through a six-month old issue of Field & Stream at the dentist is its own special circle of hell, especially when the mind starts getting infected and singing along silently to the bowdlerized tune (“Back, Jack, Do it Again ….”). And many a great movie has used elevator music to great comic effect. My favorite being Dawn of the Dead (yes, it’s Zombie week at Churbuck.com).

Muzak, at least the true commercial version, is supposed to have a specific effect on the listener. According to the Wikipedia:

“Elevator music is typically set to a very simple melody, so that it can be unobtrusively looped back to the beginning. In a mall or shopping center, elevator music of a specific type has been found to have a psychological effect: slower, more relaxed music tends to make people slow down and browse longer.”

Which brings me to my constant musing about the effect that background music has on certain behaviors. I’ve written in the past* about the way that certain music can improve my ergometer results while other songs effectively kill it. This isn’t your usual athletic lockeroom get-psyched cliche music.  I’m not referring to Eye of the Tiger or House of Pain’s Jump Around. That Rocky soundtrack stuff isn’t what gets my 500 meter splits down an additional two seconds. Indeed, there is some academic research that confirms that some music can improve aerobic results but I’m too lazy at the moment to hunt it down.

When I tended bar it was a given that loud music drove alcohol consumption higher.  At some point in the evening the manager would always step in back, find the big volume control, and crank it when the joint was good and buzzed. Of course the din made it impossible to hear some desperate dipsomaniac shout an order over the heads of her fellow patrons for a pina colada, a peach daiquiri and a sloe gin fizz shortly after midnight on a Saturday night when the only thing that would keep the bar out of the weeds was sloshing wine into glasses and pulling drafts out of the taps. “What?! What?!” we’d shout, handing over a napkin and a pencil with a shrug and the implied suggestion to write it down. Obviously loud music made it difficult to conduct a conversation and all that shouting of “WHAT?” led to a subtle anxiety that could only be slaked by another drink and another drink after that.

Silent restaurants are spooky. I suppose a low volume soundtrack gives one the illusion of being in a sound bubble where one’s conversation can’t be overheard by the next table.

When I was writing unpublished novels and short stories in great earnest during college, I found I could only enter that special creative zone if there was music playing. Loud music. Something about writing to rock and roll got me into a typing groove. I can read fiction with soft music in the background — jazz, etc. — but can’t concentrate on academic level stuff if there are lyrics involved — the word absorption gets mixed up.

My big revelation, and this goes to the post’s headline, is my re-discovery of the Ambient genre and how perfectly it suits a day of concentration. In the mid-70s, when I was a college student, I had two roommates with very eccentric tastes in avant garde music. I’m talking stuff by Morton Subotnick, Sun Ra, Stomu Yamashta and most memorably, Brian Eno, in particular his Ambient 1: Music for Airports. For some reason, ambient is way back on my personal playlist these days.

I think of Eno as the father of ambient music — he’s a genius at elevating background noise from elevators and waiting rooms to high art. Another godfather of ambient has to be Vangelis, particularly his soundtrack for Blade Runner:

So, it’s strange as I age that my taste is music is not the chestnuts from my youth; one more rendition of Freebird or Green Grass and High Tides Forever and I’ll lose it. What’s surprising me is how my tastes have swung to utterly obscure musicians I would never have encountered were it not for the random intelligence behind Last.fm. So, with that said, here’s some names that deserve to be checked out. This is great music to plug into in the background when you’ve got other things to do.

  • Aphex Twin
  • Eskmo ( a favorite video)
  • Lorn
  • Boards of Canada (note the YouTube comment, “The Ultimate Homework-Doing Music”)
  • Carbon Based Lifeforms
  • Loscil
  • Stendeck
  • Totakeke
  • Monolake
  • Robot Koch

 

*: My erg playlist, from 2006 pretty much is holding firm. Suggestions always welcome as “erg playlist” seems to be a top search term driving people to this blog.

  1. Scum of the Earth: Rob Zombie
  2. Who Was in My Room Last Night: The Butthole Surfers
  3. Jesus Built my Hot Rod: Ministry
  4. Ain’t my Bitch: Metallica
  5. Rusty Cage: Soundgarden
  6. Sex Type Thing: Stone Temple Pilots
  7. New World Order: Ministry
  8. Hey Man, Nice Shot: Filter
  9. My Own Summer – Deftones
  10. Astro-Creep: White Zombie
  11. Them Bones: Alice in Chains
  12. Time Bomb: Godsmack
  13. Blizzards, Buzzards, Bastards: Scissorfight
  14. Du Hast: Rammstein
  15. God Save the Queen: Sex Pistols
  16. You Think I’m Not Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire, Queens of the New Stone Age
  17. Jump Around: House of Pain
  18. Liberate: Slipknot
  19. She Sells Sanctuary: The Cult
  20. California Uber Alles: The Dead Kennedys

Row, row, row the boat

Great Head of the Charles — light wind, smooth water, and a boat that came together surprisingly well for one that hadn’t rowed together as a crew before a single practice on Friday afternoon. The event was the Senior Master’s Eights — a 40+ fleet of boat with an average age of 50 or more — consisting primarily of alumni boats representing past Olympic teams, college classes, and boat clubs. I filled a seat in the Northern Virginia Rowing Association’s eight, on the portside four-oar.

from Row2K

(I am fourth from the top in the grey baseball cap, hitting my catch woefully early)

Great race as the crew improved their time over last year’s, and personally it felt more than good to just get a chance to participate in the world’s largest two day rowing regatta.