Circumnavigating Grand Island

In the mid 1990s I purchased a single scull to row around Cotuit Bay. I built a rack for it on the back fence and painted the blades of the two oars with the same green-yellow-white palette used by my grandmother to help my color-blind grandfather pick out my father’s skiff from the rest of the fleet. Every weekend morning when I was home from NYC I would wake up at dawn, put on a pair of rowing shorts that were more likely than not still wet from the last row, slip on some rubber clogs and slip out the back door to lift the boat from its rack and swing it up and onto my head for the walk down Main Street and Old Shore Road to the harbor.

I’d pretend to laugh if someone I knew drove up the hill and rolled down their window to say “Nice hat!”

If I was lucky the tide would be high, otherwise I’d have to kick off the clogs and squish through the primordial clam mud, 40-lbs. and 29-feet of racing shell held high overhead with locked arms, grimacing as I stepped on broken clam shells and the black goo squirted between my toes before I could reach enough water to roll the hull out and down with a splash. The ladies of the Cotuit Rowing Club would wave as they rigged their oars in a four. Fishermen would look at me suspiciously as they backed their trailers down the ramp and checked out the fat guy with the too-tight shorts about to climb onto an impossibly skinny boat.

I’d set off on flat calm waters as the sun topped the pine trees on Grand Island, heading across Cotuit Bay, picking my way carefully out of the anchorage and down the fairway to open water where I’d turn the bow to point down the long straightaway into North Bay, lining up the narrow stern with the steeple of the Masonic Temple next door to Freedom Hall.

Ten strokes, starting with short quarter, half, then three-quarter length slides up and down the tracks on the rolling seat to get the boat moving, settling down to full strokes and lengthening every catch and drive as I started to sweat in the morning humidity. Turn around on the tenth stroke, take a quick snapshot over my shoulder for any obstacles like moorings, channel markers, fishermen cruising out to the Sound without any navigation lights, or other rowers, kayakers or paddleboarders who might not see me paddling away. Then counting off ten more stokes, looking backwards and upsetting the boat a bit, readjusting the course by pressing down on one foot more than the other.

Having plowed a borrowed Alden Ocean Shell double into a moored Boston Whaler, and rowing borrowed Grahame King double head oninto another boat at a regatta on the Charles River, my paranoia of rowing backwards without the guidance of a front-facing coxswain is deep and abiding.

The first leg from the cove at Ropes Beach through Inner Harbor to the Narrows is about 1000 meters. On the ergometer each stroke is typically counted as ten meters, so ten strokes can cover 100 meters. a distance long enough that a backwards glance is only enough to see if the next ten strokes can be hard ones, or if the bow is pointed at a dock and needs to start curving to port on the third stroke to thread the gap between the red channel can and the float at the end of the pier. I stay out of the channel at all times, preferring to hug the shore and find the gap there between any anchored boats and the beach. That way, if I flip the boat I wind up in waist deep water, a good thing if the water temperature is under 50 degrees and hypothermia becomes a fear.

10,000 meters of some of the best rowing water there is.

Then the transit of North Bay, the designated water skiing area, where everyone pushes the throttles down to the deck and relieves the boredom of the 6 mph speed limits in effect everywhere else in the Three Bay estuary. Fast motorboats can generate huge tsunami wakes that come at a rower from the side, lifting you three feet up, oars wildly swinging in the air, rolling you into the trough where the next wave washes over the boat and soaks one’s lower body in green water. Some motorboaters get enraged when a sculler paralleling the channel passes them on the right and pulls away. Once they hit North Bay they want to get away from me like an old lady passing a hedge fund princeling riding his $20,000 Colnago down the middle of Main Street, and take off with a roar and a big fart of two-stroke outboard exhaust for me to inhale on the next stroke.

Still, I catch up to them again within a mile when they leave the bay and hit the channel into Osterville and the boat yards. That’s where careful navigation is needed, threading through moorings off of the fourth hole of the Wianno Club golf course before sliding down the main channel between the boat yards and gas docks. The drawbridge is always tricky because the current accelerates under the span and its best to stay out of the center and take the shoreside arch in case another boat is coming around the corner from the Wianno Yacht Club.

Yesterday, as I rowed into West Bay, I realized the winds had shifted and started to swing back towards the usual southwest direction it blows from most of the summer. The gusts left over from Hurricane Teddy (which passed well to the east of Chatham the day before on its way to Canada) were shrieking in the late afternoon sunshine, kicking up a jagged chop as I popped out from under the draw bridge. Fetch and shadow is the trick to open water rowing. Fetch being the amount of open water that the wind has to work with to churn up any waves. The more fetch there is, the higher the waves. The wind shadow is the calm area in the lee, or downwind side of any land mass, usually extending out five to ten times the height of the land and trees. When transiting West Bay, a shallow body of water bisected by a busy channel, sometimes the trick isn’t to take the shortest line to the head of the bay, but to tough out a few minutes of taking the waves on the beam, the boat rolling a lot in the chop, just to gain the strip of calm water beneath the verdant mansions on Oyster Harbor’s eastern shore.

I was pooped by the time I sculled up to the entrance of the Osterville Cut, the man-made ditch flanked by stone jetties that divides the barrier beach of Dead Neck from the Osterville mainland. A big swell was infiltrating the bay through the channel out into Nantucket Sound, putting the wherry to its first big test since I launched it in mid-August, rolling me around enough to make me a bit queasy as I crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the Seapuit River, a shallow area the colonists called the “Wading Place” because they could drive their cattle across at low tide to graze on the island’s salt hay.

I waited for a couple of motorboats to make their intentions known, then zipped across the Seapuit to Dead Neck, beached the bow and hopped out, ancient bones and sore muscles making me hobble around on the beach while I drank some water and pulled out the pump to empty the wherry (which still leaks a bit, but had been taking an occasional wave over the side as I crossed the bay and took the wind broadside).

The Seapuit River is my favorite stretch in the entire 10,000 meter row. The sand dunes of Dead Neck block the worst of the wind, the river is too narrow for any chop to build up, and this time of year, when the water begins to clear, it’s a pleasure to skim over the shallows near the beach grass and get a clear stretch of water for some hard speed work.

My buddy Steve and I agree the worst part of the row is the end of the river where it enters Cotuit Bay near Cupid’s Cove, the ancient harbor entrance that silted over after the Osterville Cut was built in the early 1900s. On a southwest wind there’s a lot of fetch across lower Cotuit Bay and white caps build up over the shallows before crashing into the shoreline of Oyster Harbors where they bounce back into the next set of waves, creating a vicious chop that has to be transited broadside. I’ve had some dicey moments in my Empacher over the years, filling the cockpit with water and rolling so hard my knuckles would get smashed on the gunwales, but in the wherry the ride was bearable, I just had to grit my teeth and “sky” my blades high in the air during the recovery to keep them from spanking the tops of the waves.

And then, with the end in sight, it was a matter of getting through the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant, covered with little black buoys, across the main channel, and back into the mooring field off of Ropes Beach.

I pulled ashore next to the boat ramp, pumped out the boat to lighten the load, picked up the stern and set the green hull into the trolley I made out of PVC pipe and wheelbarrow tires. I had circumnavigated the Three Bays estuary for the first time in who-knows-how-long, something I hadn’t realized I missed until I finished it. Ten years ago, when I was competing as a “senior master” in fall regattas from the Green Mountain Head (my favorite) to the Head of the Charles (the most prestigious), I was rowing around the island five or six times a week, timing myself from the drawbridge to home because that’s roughly the same distance as the Head of the Charles course. In those days I could make the entire 9,250 meter row in 40 minutes. It took me over an hour this week. As Charlie Clapp says, “The older we get, the faster we were.”

As I strap the boat into the trolley and make it ready to be dragged up the hill to the house, every time without fail, someone stops their car, gets out and walks down the boat ramp to admire the boat and ask me if I built it, an indication I suppose of the boat’s unfinished condition and people’s fascination with home built boats in this era of plastic kayaks. I haven’t cleaned up the wooden frame since assembling the boat, so bits of dried epoxy and smears of paint need to be chipped and scraped off before I can consider varnishing the red cedar. Right now the wood is protected with a coat of teak oil, but I think later this fall I’ll put some time into finishing the boat properly before suspending her from the rafters of the garage in a kayak/canoe sling I purchased on Amazon.

Every row in the boat is an opportunity to tune the rig a little bit to make it row easier and smoother. I’ve had two Olympic rowers — Charlie Clapp and John Bigelow — take a look at the setup of the riggers, slide, foot stretchers and oarlocks. Both agree I needed to get my weight lower and the oarlocks higher. Once all the adjustments are made and I know I won’t be trimming any wood to get thing exactly right, then I can declare the boat finished and spend some time with a can of varnish to make her gleam.

Fine tuning the wherry

Tuning the new boat for better rowing

B Churbuck on the oars

I started building my first boat with expectations of turning it out in a weekend. but of course between the conception and the creation falls the shadow, and that shadow mostly consisted of scrounging for the right lumber and assorted pieces or waiting for UPS to deliver an order of epoxy and paint. While the construction was a great experience — especially planing things to fit with my beloved Lie-Nielsen pocket plane — I didn’t realize how long it would take to debug and adjust the boat to the point where it could be safely and easily rowed.

I built the boat for my daughter. She won the National High School Rowing championships in the coxed four event, went on to the Junior National Team, and eventually the women’s crew at the University of Virginia. I was surprised to see her post a picture of herself in the new boat on Instagram with the caption that it was her first row in a decade. Rowing is one of those sports that is very specific in terms of special equipment, and unless one joins a rowing club or buys a shell of their own, most rowers never pull an oar handle again unless its for an alumni row.

The trick in setting up a shell for sculling (when the rower has an oar in each hand) is finding the sweet spot in the boat to place the sliding seat and foot stretchers. Angus Rowboats has an excellent guide to sculling geometry, and entire books have been written about the science of rigging a shell, but I found the process to be one of patiently making incremental adjustments, setting the oarlocks a centimeter higher or lower, shifting the seat assembly aft towards the stern, everything clamped temporarily in place until that elusive sweet spot can be found before epoxying it all in place.

The leaks were easy to fix. I placed the boat on saw horses in a dark garage, bottom up, and slid a bright worklight under the boat, waving it around inside of the hull while I stood outside and looked for bright spots of light. I marked those with a piece of masking tape, flipped the boat upright, and coated the inside of the fabric hull with a skim coat of marine Goop — essentially rubber cement and silicone. Three coats of Interlux Sea Green boat paint on the exterior also sealed any open mesh in the polyester, and after three hunts of leaks I finally got the hull to the point where it barely leaks at all.

A small trailer was built from instructions on REI’s website for building a kayak caddy. A couple wheelbarrow wheels, two long lengths of schedule 40 3/4″ PVC, T-connectors, 45 and 90 degree joints, a poodle noodle filched from the back of the beach car, some glue and some straps, and now I can walk the boat down the hill to the bay every morning and get in a quick 5000 meters before sitting down for a day of work.

The boat rows extremely well in all conditions. One of the shakedown cruises was done in a 20 knot breeze and the boat handled the harbor chop beautifully. The hull tracks true and doesn’t hobby-horse over waves, slicing through them nicely. The run, or amount of glide between strokes, is less than a racing shell, but I can average five or six knots rowing at half-pressure.

Now that the rig is set, I can focus on cleaning up the boat and putting the finishing touches on it. I’m confident that I can row it year-round, especially if I’m careful when hypothermia is a threat and keep within swimming distance of the shore should the boat capsize or swamp. Winter is looking better by the minute.

True Rowing – the “Peloton of Ergs”

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.

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By the CRASH-B’s

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.

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590 Hours on the Erg and nearly 10 Million Meters Later and I’m still fat

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.

Crew

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.

 

Petaluma – an open wherry

I have been looking for a small boat project to cut my teeth on. The need is for a light, easily car-topped rowing scull that can handle a slight chop and be used for river, creek, and harbor rowing. It has to have a sliding seat and riggers like a true scull and be rugged enough to put up with saltwater and some general neglect. In other words I don’t want a racing shell or anything at the level of a Carl Douglas or a Graeme King single, and I already have a tired composite trainer, an Empacher single I bought in the late 90s with some dot.com cash which is woefully tired and due for a refresh.

I have no idea how to build a shell, but I assume it’s a real test of woodworking and boatbuilding skills. Both Douglas and King are essentially luthiers who command high prices and lots of patience on long waiting lists for their gem-like boats I want something relatively simple to build and more on the lines of a wherry than a racing shell.

So I started researching and came upon two designs worth consideration, both featured by Woodenboat Magazine. The first is the Kingfisher, a design by Graeme King that has been around for a few decades and is closer to the design of a true racing boat. With a V-bottom, the Kingfisher would appear to be a simpler design to build than a classic shaped-hull scull which is made by forming a thin skin of cedar over ribs. Because I am a “clydesdale” sized rower, I need something a little more capacious (sculls are sold in various sizes according to the weight of the person who will be rowing it and I am definitely at the XXXXL end of the scale).

I decided on the Petaluma, an 20-foot open wherry with no deck. This design was discovered in a garage in Petaluma, California and reproduced by a local boat builder, Gregg Sabourin. The original boat may date back to the 1920s — builder unknown — the only marking on the boat being the initials “CRC” which may stand for the “California Rowing Club.” The boat was probably rowed on the Petaluma River in Sonoma County which empties into San Pablo Bay at the northwestern head of San Francisco Bay.

According to Simon Watts, the California woodworker who sells the plans and building instructions, the original boat was planked in red cedar and fastened with copper clench nails.

petaluma

So I ordered a set of plans and now am looking for a local woodworker who can help me make the molds and has the tools needed to make the necessary cuts. Who knows? I may actually build a boat one of these days.

 

The Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club

You can’t buy it (which is a shame), but the Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club has been published. My copy arrived yesterday via the mail. This is a project I was honored to help draft in the late 1980s when I was fresh from publishing The Book of Rowing with Overlook Press and had just joined Boston’s Union Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in a city known for its rowing.

David Thorndike, Charlie Clapp, Cap Kane and countless UBC members contributed to the effort which took a herculean effort over a decade and half to be born. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, picking through the club’s archives, interviewing the most venerable members, and identifying the big gaps in the historical record which needed to be filled in before the project was ready for the printer. I confess to fading out of the picture for a while, but the project was revived and finally pushed over the deadline this past year, emerging as a gorgeous “coffee table” book printed privately for the membership.

Which is a shame, as I’d stack this tome against any book in the rowing history pantheon. The photography is gorgeous, the historical archive priceless.

The project was pushed by David Thorndike in the 80s as the 150th anniversary of the club approached and its first history, published at the turn of the previous century was in desperate need of an update. The club has a unique place in the history of American rowing, coming as it did in antebellum Boston at a time when Harvard and Yale were only just beginning their rivalry on the water, now the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. The early logs are a humorous and plucky look at sporting life before spinning classes, Crossfit and paleo diets. When men obsessed more about their uniforms than actual exercise, when rowing consisted of leisurely rows up and down the tidal Charles River and through the islands of Boston Harbor, never really racing, just touring around in the novel pursuit of leisure time.

The role of the UBC in the history of American and international rowing is deep and storied. Basically emerging as an alumni club for Harvard rowers, it sent championship crews to the Henley Royal Regatta, counted nearly a dozen Olympians among its alumni, and sits, socially, at the center of Brahmin Boston, its clubhouse standing at the foot of Beacon Hill near the Hatch concert Shell. A tour of the boathouse and clubhouse is a trip back in time to the 19th century, the walls and floors permeated with the sweat of generations after generations of politicians, lawyers, bankers, surgeons and eccentric characters from another era. The club has seen its share of challenges. The state dammed up the Charles and filled in the Embankment cutting it off from the river. The club went coed in the late 80s after years of being a men’s club. Rowing faded in popularity in the 60s and 70s as the sport went into a general decline, but today the place flourishes, alongside the sport, anchoring down the competitive rowing scene on the Charles, sending crews up river to do their best.

Harry Parker God of the Charles

I never rowed for Harry Parker, but I rowed against him, and I lost.  Since I have written on rowing, I thought it appropriate to remember the most successful coach, or at the very least, the best known, in the entire sport.

In his 50 years of coaching the Harvard men’s crew, Harry had 22 undefeated seasons, about 16 unofficial national championships, and most regretfully for me, a Yalie, beat Yale 44 our of the 51 times the two colleges went head to head on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut — that’s the oldest competition in American sports.

I met him several times — once as an applicant (I didn’t get in) — twice as a competitors (I lost both times to his crews) — and once as a writer when I was researching The Book of Rowing. He was a difficult interview, maybe it was me, but Harry personified the word “taciturn” and was renowned for his sphinx-like demeanor among those who rowed for him on the Charles.

I’m not a sports statistician or historian, but I don’t think there is another coach of any sport — amateur, professional, collegiate — with as long and successful career as Harry Parker’s.

When I rowed the Harvard-Yale race in 1978 — still the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life — I spent close to 20 minutes in an oxygen-starved. lactic acid-soaked near-death state staring straight astern at Harry’s craggy visage as he rode along confidently in the coaches launch as his boat pulled away with open water and kicked our ass. I literally lost my shirt.

The Harvard Gazette has a great recounting of the legend that was Harry Parker.

Erg race registration reminder

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.

 

Erg Playlists — 2013 edition from Row2K

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.

Relentlessly Self-Improving

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.""