June 22, 2015 by 8junebugs
National Learn To Row Day was a few weeks ago, which means I’ve now been at this for a year. I’ve done head races in the fall and sprints in the spring. I’ve rasped through erg cough, I’ve rigged and derigged boats, and I’ve finally figured out how to fuel for this gorgeous and grueling sport. (Pistachios with Cheerios. Avocado tuna salad, with shredded carrot, in a whole wheat tortilla. SO MANY BANANAS.)
It’d be true, mostly, to say that this has changed my life. It’s given me a solid reason to stay fit, eat well, and get enough rest most of the time (life happens). You can row exhausted or hungover, but I can’t recommend it. You can row after a night of wanton buffet abandon, too, but it’ll suck. You can blow off land workouts, but not if you want to be competitive.
As it turns out, I really want to be competitive. What’s changed more than my size, weight, or tan lines is how I see myself. By the morning of my first 5K test, I had become, in my heart, A Rower.
A competitive rower. I heard a teammate talking about a conversation in which she described herself as such to someone else, and I thought, “Oh. Am I that?”
I am that. Twenty-hours hours before a regatta, I’m nothing but that.
This isn’t my normal everyday setting, regardless of what my teammates think (at least one thinks I’m lying). I’ve never needed to be the fastest runner, or the first person up a mountain. I’ll willingly share top billing on a project — as long as my boss knows the level of effort I put in, what difference does it make? I have almost never needed, deep down in my gut, to WIN. I’m more of a collaborator, as a rule.
That actually works for rowing. Yay! I’m all about what’s good for the boat. The aggression and the competitive side of me are apparently dormant until some official says, “Attention!” They kick into overdrive when my coxswain yells, “We’re on their bow ball, GET YOUR FUCKING LEGS DOWN!”
I did get competitive about color guard, which will sound weird to folks whose schools don’t have competitive marching band programs. Halfway through my first toss, I dearly wished I’d started sooner. I practiced my ass off to make up for the years I didn’t know it existed (thanks for nothing, clueless guidance counselor who thought a dancer would only be interested in cheerleading*). I was proud of the effort, the progress, and the results. By the time I graduated, everyone seemed to have forgotten that I hadn’t always been there…and that I never once attended USA camp.
I came into this sport much the same way: with zero experience, but some insight. Graham rowed first, so I was more familiar with some stuff than some novices who started with me. I fell hard for the combination of precision and power you need to make the boat go. It felt like a good fit for what I needed, and for what I’ve already got. When a cox says, “Gimme 10 for BIG LEGS,” I’m all, “Hey, I’ve got those.” Rowing is a pretty solid sport for my body type, height notwithstanding.
(I used to be considered rather tall. Then I started rowing.)
I wanted to learn everything, all at once, though, on our three-practice-per-week schedule. Once I rolled up to the intermediate women’s squad, I eventually felt more at home in the boat and in the boathouse; I got a better sense of whom to ask about what. Before then, I looked for bloggers, as one does — well, as I do, anyway — to feed my obsession and help me feel prepared for whatever we learned next. I’ve had great coaches all along, but reading quietly is less annoying than constantly pestering your coach to explain things off the water, outside of practice.
I also found I had a lot of feels wrapped up in this sport. I haven’t felt this passionate about something new (to me) in a really long time.
FYI: There’s a giant gaping hole in the blogosphere under the category of masters rowing, by the way. There are some good rowing/coxing/coaching blogs (the Ready All Row archives are unparalleled) and some that are useful from time to time (Olympian Megan Kalmoe is an excellent read in general, but was especially helpful the afternoon after I landed in stroke seat for the first time). Neither of these blogs are about masters rowing, but they’re out there, they’re approachable and useful, and they clearly express a passion for the sport that resonated with me.
Because of Ready All Row, when I coxed for the first time, no one believed it was my first time. This has been my experience over the past year. When I put in the time, log the meters, and keep my focus in the boat — when I shut up and row — my team forgets that I haven’t been doing this for years.
This is what I’ve been working toward.
How I row
I don’t miss practice unless I can’t avoid it or will get my teammates sick if I show up. I hate missing practice. Sleep is never actually better than a workout, no matter how true that feels when my alarm goes off. I don’t miss practice when it’s raining or foggy because erging with my teammates is always better than erging or running alone in our basement. I don’t even mind erging — it’s made a huge difference.
I’m the jerk who always has to carry two oars into racks at a time. I’m told this is common for stroke-seat divas. In my defense, it’s a lot like carrying flags, but with different weighting. I like the challenge.
I love the speed of a 4+ and the stability of an 8+. I’ve rowed once in a pair and…wow. It’s like a self-coaching boat — everything you do matters, and matters instantly. And if you’re in bow, you’re rowing and coxing simultaneously; learning to look over your shoulder after a year of “Keep your head in the boat!” is an adjustment.
I sort of want to race in a pair, but not really. (Yes, really.) (Maybe.) (I scared.)
I’m not sure I could race without a cox, though. I need a strong cox to keep me out of my own head.
I like coxing, although the steering makes me nervous. I would love to cox races, but I’m too big and I’d always rather row. Bowloaders are more comfortable, but I find it disorienting to not see the oars or have that back and forth with stroke seat. (I also find bowloaders disorienting when I’m the one in stroke seat.)
I’m a committed bisweptual. I’m a little stronger on starboard and a little more technically proficient on port, so either oar will do. I’m happier in stern, but I’ve got a pretty good sense of how I do in any seat in the boat. I’m comfortable at stroke and enjoyed racing there this last season. …which is to say, it’s my favorite seat, and the one that drives a lot of my workouts (form, rate, ratio…repeat).
I love it up there.
By the numbers, I have 6 medals to show for this last year, including a silver from a non-novice masters race and not counting the second-place finish at Gold Rush. (I’m told one of my fellow novices has a homemade medal for me — not our fault Gold Rush regatta only hands out gold.) I can hit sub-2 splits, but still lack the fitness to lock them in. What used to be my “fast” pace on treadmill runs is now the base pace I use for hill workouts. My weight hasn’t changed. My size hasn’t changed…much. I lost count of blisters, bruises, and barked shins long ago. I’ve recruited two people, one who loved it and one who didn’t (but still liked me). I’ve made a bazillion friends. I’ve learned from 10+ coaches.**
Beyond the numbers, I’ve found a passion I didn’t know I could have for any kind of sport. I find myself feeling like an athlete for the first time in my entire life; I carry myself differently and never turn down a chance to do something active. I’m more confident in spandex than I have been in a very long time — not because I’m smaller, or because there aren’t some bulgy bits, but because I have a badass reason to wear spandex and I couldn’t care less whether someone else thinks it looks good on me. This body has done some amazing things in the last year, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of its capabilities.
I’ve discovered a much, much deeper pain tolerance.
I’ve developed a deep and fierce commitment to my team — there’s no halfway for me on this. My Lucky Cox 4 Life(TM) likes to call 10s for each pair in the 8 during a head race, and that’s a sure-fire way to get my ass off the seat. There’s nothing I won’t do to get my team over the line.
Graham and I now share something active — a lifestyle — in a way we haven’t since I was in high school. We talk about practices and race plans, and we both have goals for next season. Doing this with a small kid in the house is hard, but it’s important to both of us not only to do well, but also to support the other so we both do well. It’s a tough lifestyle to maintain without the support of your partner. Regattas are our date nights; fortunately, rowing has also brought us a great network of friends with kids who babysit.
Our kid gets to watch and learn from this, and, to some extent, share in it. “Go, East Bay,” he yells from the shore; “Race hard, Daddy!” from the dock. He also pretends to row or race in the bathtub, or on “land” using a laundry basket and the Swiffer. “Mommy is all done rowing!” he’ll say when I come in from practice, followed by, “Mommy needs to get clean!”
And though he won’t sit through a full Sesame Street sketch (save a few Elmo ones), he’ll watch GoPro footage of Michigan walking through Drexel at Head of the Charles.
“Good job all crews!” He learned that one at 510 Sprints. We know this means he’ll want to play football just to piss us off, but right now it also means that he loves being by the water and gets very excited when we get to “see some boats,” and that warms my heart. Growing up watching both of us take care of ourselves, stay active, and contribute to our team will matter.
It matters to us, too. Rowing is something we wish we’d found sooner, but it’s also something we can do for just about the rest of our lives. There’s no shortage of poetry or prose describing the difficulty, the beauty…the sheer depth of this sport.
I can’t wait for next season.
* All due respect to the FHS cheerleaders — they were great! Not my kind of movement, though.
** In order, roughly: Sara Nevin, Jess LaFrank, Jordan Norberg, Ali Mittleberger, Gulliver Scott, Kirin Khan, Jeremiah Dees, Steve Messner, James Anglin, and Tom Caruthers. Also Gil Gazda, Greg Specht, and Lisa Warhus.