Sean Maloney’s Rowing Recovery

I met Sean Maloney in Beijing in 2008 during the Olympics. A fellow rower, he had just returned from a row down the course at Shunyi, something I was insanely jealous of as my colleague Alice Li hooked him up with a boat and permission. I didn’t get a chance to row in China, but the expression on Sean’s face as the conversation changed from business to rowing made up for it as he described the awesome feeling of rowing down the lanes where the world’s best would compete in a few days.

Viewed as one of the top talents in Intel’s executive ranks and the likely successor for the top job, Sean suffered a stroke in 2010. The doctors said he wouldn’t row again, so he got in a boat and proved them wrong, competing in the 2010 Head of the Charles.

This video is him telling the tale of rowing and his recovery. I have to say, one year later, he sculls better than I do and has a great finish.

Training for the Charles in Cotuit

I remembered yesterday that the deadline for entering the Head of the Charles Regatta is coming up soon, so I logged into the HOCR.org site and filed an application for one of the precious slots in the Grand Master Singles scull event. I was lucky enough to score an entry in 2003, pulling a dismal 23’03” and finishing second-from last in a field of 39 senior masters. I had my excuses — it was my first Head alone, sculling (I’ve always participated in a team boat with at least four rowers), and I had a torn intercostal muscle in my right rib-cage, necessitating a massive overdose of Advil on the dock.

Update 8.3.11: Entry wasn’t accepted by the HOCR Gods so no Head of the Chuck this year for me. I did enter the Green Mountain Head in Putney, Vermont though. Better scenery.

Excuses, excuses and hope springs eternal. So once more I am crossing my fingers and hoping for an entry in this fall’s regatta, arguably the greatest rowing event in the world.

Application filed, I woke up this solstice morning to bluebird skies and zero wind. I set out the trash cans, drank a cup of coffee, and ten minutes later was backing away from the beach at the foot of Old Shore Road in my old Empacher. I set out around Grand Island in a counter-clockwise direction, rowing a slow stroke rate with firm power, cranking along on a mirror-like surface completely pleased to be able to do such a graceful thing on a whim on what I parochially consider the best rowing water I’ve ever rowed on. 8,000 meters and 43 minutes later, and I was pleased to see my average pace at at the same level it was eight years ago in 2003, a good harbinger I hope of some fall regatta success.

Funny, but in the back of my mind looms February and the 2012 CRASH-B sprints, the world championships of indoor rowing. Every pull-up, every overhead power snatch, kettlebell swing and burpee I’ve done this spring has been with that ugly six and a half minutes of agony in mind. To see them payoff on the water is very rewarding, but for some reason the boat is far more arbitrary a gauge than the merciless ergometer.

Training for the Head of the Charles is a matter of working towards a 5 km distance. Funny how the presence of 100,000 cheering spectators seems to shave a minute or two off the time — but to give you and idea of what I’m up against. Here’s the course on the Charles River as mapped in the g-map pedometer:

And here’s the same distance mapped on Cotuit Bay:

The Real Deal: water rowing resumes

My rowing club, the Union Boat Club in Boston, has a rule for cold-weather rowing called the “Four-Oar Rule.” It’s simple, makes sense, and is safe. When the water is under 50 degrees fahrenheit no one can go out on the Charles alone in a single scull, or together in a two-oared pair. The only safe combination is two people in two singles, or four people in a four, or two people in a double (two oars each). It’s all about the capsize effect and hypothermia. While thankfully rare, capsizes do happen (I average one or two a year, usually because I hit something because I’m not looking over my shoulder every twenty strokes or so) and are real inconveniences to recover from.  First is the shock effect of rolling into the water after working away and building up a good sweat in the sunshine; the next thing you know you’re blowing bubbles under water trying to get your feet out of the sneakers screwed into the foot stretchers.

Having that happen in cold water is not something I ever want to experience, so I tend to be wimpy and stay off of Cotuit Bay until some point in the spring when conditions feel just right — warm temperatures, calm water — to make my annual shakedown cruise.

That day came late this year, only this past Saturday, April 9. And this morning the email came in from the Union Boat Club that the Four-Oar Rule has been lifted.

I had an exceptional row — considering it was the first of 2011 and my hands lack the required calluses – – and right from the first full stroke a few yards off of the Lowell’s beach I could tell the past two months of CrossFit and the million of erg meters before that are going to pay off in a big way in terms of control and power.

I’ll start following the CrossFit Endurance program which blends the six weekly workouts of the day with three rowing workouts that take place at least three hours after the Xfit WOD.  I’ll shoot for one 2,000 meter time trial per month and start training for next year’s CRASH-B’s in earnest.

I find myself thinking of the current world champion, Michele Marullo, during the worst parts of the Crossfit workouts, and just when I am about to toss the towel and bag that one extra burpee, I think: “What would Marullo do?” Competitive impulses are a bitch.

The Body is Evil and Must Be Punished

As I finished the indoor rowing season with February’s CRASH-B sprints, I considered the dead-spot in my fitness/self-abuse calendar between erg season and  when on- the-water rowing can resume without too much risk of killing myself with a hypothermic capsize on Cotuit Bay. More erging was not an option – I’ve got 1.3 million meters logged in since June and don’t feel the need to pile on any more.

It was obvious to me after the CrashB’s, that if I am going to move to the front tier of master’s rowers next year I need to focus on sheer strength. My cardio-vascular/VO2 max capacity is fine, my legs and lower body are fine, it’s all the rest that needs to go to the next level. Whaling away, an hour a day, on a machine as specific and restrictive as the erg is the very definition of putting oneself into a rut. I needed some cross-training, some exposure to some different routines, and the traditional gym wasn’t going to cut it.

Me swinging the kettlebell

So the solution was to join Cape Cod Crossfit.

I’ve blogged about Crossfit in the past — I took it up on my own in the spring of 2008 and stuck with it until the following winter when a torn rotator cuff knocked me out of action. The program – or cult, or whatever you want to call it — was started in the late 1990s by former gymnast Greg Glassman in a couple bays of an industrial park in Santa Cruz. The philosophy is pretty basic and can be stated in 100 words:

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean & jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouetts, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”

I took to Crossfit because it can be done solo — without paying dues or showing up, or worrying about how you look when you do it in a crowd. It prizes fundamental, primitive exercise. No fancy Nautilus machines or stair-steppers or spinning classes. You pick heavy stuff up and put it down. If you can use your own weight to good effect – think a classic pull-up or push-up — then that’s the way to go.  Crossfit also loves the Concept2 ergometer (which is how I became aware of the program in the first place), and more and more Crossfit-trained athletes are starting to dominate the world indoor rowing rankings.

Crossfit happens six days a week in a former Blockbuster store in an upscale strip mall in the next-door town of Mashpee. A big welded pull up rack runs down the center. A couple dozen plywood jumping boxes, four ergometers, an array of cast iron kettlebells, and about 20 Olympic free-weight bars. Add in some gymnastic rings, a couple floor-to-ceiling ropes, and a lot of jump ropes and you pretty much have the classic Crossfit gym or “box.”

I prefer the 6:30 am session which starts with a “warm-up” that would be most people’s workout.  Burpees (the most evil calisthenic devised), kettlebell swings, wall-ball throws, and 500 meters of rowing gets me far more than just “warmed-up.”

The workouts vary wildly from day to day.  Running one day, shoulders the next. Some take a half hour to perform, some five minutes. They are nearly always done as a group and against the clock, so there is an element of competition involved.

Today we did the workout of the day (or WOD) known as “Diane” (standard Crossfit workouts have female names for some reason). This consisted of doing 21-15-9 repetitions of deadlifts and handstand push-ups for time. I loaded the bar with 225 pounds and did the handstands from a kneeling position on a tall jumping box (modifications are permitted and strongly advised). The owner/coach Mark Lee walked everyone through 20 minutes of instruction on how to perform a proper deadlift and pushup, then he set the clock and counted down “Three-Two-One” and I was off.

Lifting 225 pounds off the floor to a standing, hanging position 45 times is not a trivial pursuit. Alternating those lifts with a blood-rush-to-the-head handstand is just plain mean.

I finished just under 7 minutes, stretched out on the floor and was home by 7:30.

Two months in and I am definitely feeling a serious difference. Soon I’ll start mixing in rowing workouts and begin testing myself against the 2,000 meter distance.

Marc Monplaisir, a fellow masters rower, is blogging about his experience with Crossfit and rowing.

 


Countdown to Agony

In 48 hours, at 9:40 a.m., I’ll be sitting on ergometer #19 on the floor of Boston University’s Agganis Arena, staring at a small square LCD screen flashing the words: “Sit Ready” “Attention” “ROW.”  While I dread it, I have to ask: how awesome is it to participate in the world championships of anything? Even if it is the world championships of indoor rowing? Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the event, which started in Harvard’s Newell Boathouse in the grim winter following the cancellation of the 1980 Olympics (thanks to Jimmy Carter’s Cold War displeasure with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan).  What was a humorous way to kill the tedium of winter training among a few elite Cambridge rowers has now turned into a major affair involving a couple thousand competitors and 10,000 spectators.

Then I’ll be off and puffing for the next six and a half minutes until I pull the handle about 200 times and manage to spin the flywheel at a rate faster than the other 80 or so heavyweight men in their early 50s sitting on identical machines next to me. The results won’t be pretty. The experience will definitely be ugly, and those six-and-a-half interminable minutes will likely be the worst six-and-a-half minutes I experience in 2011.

Or they may be the  best. In the end ergometer racing proves the cliche of the man who hits his head against a wall because it feels so good when he stops.

I’m tapering now with one light,  last row today on the deck in the springlike sunshine, a pyramid of ten, twenty, and thirty strokes at my race pace, then a rare day off tomorrow before Sunday’s moment of truth.  Hydrating, carbohydrate loading, stretching, fretting over my warm-up and race plan, always anxious about whether to set a pace and goal that is within or hopelessly out of reach. Whatever happens, the event provides the venue and the inspiration to dig a little deeper and try a little harder than I would alone, in the shadows of my garage, racing myself against the clock.

Here’s a virtual replay of the finals in my event last year (I didn’t participate).


The Older We Get the Faster We Were

I’m using the same line twice in two weeks, but what the hell.

Rowed my first formal 2,000 meter indoor rowing race of 2011 today at the Cape Cod YMCA — the annual Cape Cod Cranberry Crunch sponsored by Cape Cod Rowing:  the local club that rows on Lake Wequaquet in Centerville. I was entered in the men’s heavyweight division — there were eight of us ranging from maybe 15 years old up to the 60s — and there were races through the afternoon for various categories of girls, women, lightweights and heavyweights.

My race — the combined boys & men’s 2K — was first, so I started warming up almost as soon as I arrived, got good and loose, peeling off layers of clothing until I was conspicuously perched on the ergometer in lane one in my stylish Union Boat Club uni-suit, aka according to my wife, “The Dink Suit”

The eight ergs were networked and a lane display was projected on the wall showing little yellow boat icons with our names next to it. I rocked back and forth a couple times, mouth bone dry, and the monitor counted down — Attention. Ready. Row!

I did a series of short starting strokes to get the flywheel up to speed, and then lit up at 36 strokes a minute for ten strokes with an average split of 1:20. I had written out a race plan on an index card that was on the erg between my feet, and even though I felt like Superman on Crack in the first minute, I resisted the dreaded Fly-And-Die strategy and settled down to 26 strokes per minutes at a 1:41 for 250 meters, and then further down to 1:44 for the next 250.

At the 500 meter mark — 25 percent of the way through — I started to breath twice on each stroke — exhaling at the finish and the catch and inhaling on the drive and recovery as my metabolism shifted into oxygen deficit and my heart rate was climbing into the 160 range.

I did a hard power ten at the 500 meter mark and saw the 17 16 year-old kid, novice Andrew Pereira on the erg next to me — a 220 lb., 6’5″ beast from New Bedford Community Rowing who was definitely going to kick my butt — was cranking a lot faster and pulling away. I was tempted to ignore the index card and chase, but a plan is a plan and the whole purpose of today’s race was to gauge my speed three weeks before the world championships and the plan was to break 7:00 and aim for 6:45.

I felt great in the second 500 picking up the pace to 1:43 and rowed a power ten at the half-way mark. I ignored Pereira r and his coach exhorting him next to me, and stayed on plan, rowing the third 500 at 1:42, and the beginning of the final 500 at 1:41. With 250 meters or about 25 strokes left I “emptied the tank” and sprinted at 1:38. Ten strokes in and the junior was done, finishing with a 6:31. I put the handle down at 6:42.2, fast enough to win the adult division, but second to Pereira who won the Boys Division and had the fastest overall time of the day.

I won some schwag for the effort and felt good enough about the race to brag in a blog post. I’m now ranked 22nd in the world for the 50-55 heavyweight men’s class.

I Erg, Therefore I Am

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.

Post-rib recovery

I just climbed off the erg for the first time since Jan 7. Six weeks without exercise (other than beach walks) has left me fat and out of shape. So back on to the erg I went today — 5,000 meters in under 20 minutes so the news wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Rotator cuff not affected by the stroke, so it would appear I have no more excuses and can try to work off the pounds in anticipation for the first water row on or around St. Pat’s.

I have over 500,000 meters logged so far in the Concept 2 log book for the year (C2’s year begins May 1), maybe I can get another 100K onto the books before the calendar resets.

Tomorrow is the CRASH-B sprints in Boston. I have an entry, but I think my best effort might be a feeble 7:30-7:45. Maybe I should man up and waddle up there anyway. Guilt will weigh on me for the rest of the day. And this was to be the year I went for a 6:15 race as it is my first in the 50+ heavyweight category. Oh well. Always next year.

Holiday hell — indoor rowing season commences

Every holiday season the good folks at Concept2 — my favorite brand of all time, inventors of the Concept2 Ergometer, or indoor rowing machine — conduct the Holiday Challenge: a hellacious 30 day challenge to row and log 200,000 meters on the rowing machine between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In the past, if you succeeded at rowing at least 7,000 meters per days for the duration of this challenge, you would win a printable certificate, the opportunity to purchase a t-shirt, and a free pin to wear with pride.

This is not a trivial pursuit. I have succeeded three time since the first time I did it in 2002, and find that if I don’t get the minimum number of meters rowed in the beginning I won’t be motivated to make them up later on. Well of course I didn’t row yesterday — two helpings of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts followed by two slices of pecan pie, one of pumpkin, a snifter of armagnac, and two glasses of Ruffino chianti — it was Thanksgiving and I did do the Crossfit workout of the day (which is going to make this year’s Concept2 challenge all the more horrible as I intend to do both in my quest for eternal youth and the ability to snap off 10 real pull ups followed by 100 pushups).

Oh well, it’s in my DNA to abuse myself so. Some Anglo-Celtic-Teutonic yeomanic stock that makes it imperative that I turn myself into a human piston for 60 minutes every day.

As my stepbrother says, “The body is evil and it must be punished.” Well, having logged 11,000 meters this evening, that means I have to row only 10,000 tomorrow to be on track for the little pin and certificate. Yay.