I was going to win the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints this year.
Actually, this was the third year I was going to win them – or my age group, anyway.
That first year, I subverted a pretty intensive training routing by adding a period of lethargic malaise followed by a mid-level bout of the flu. The final straw was a blizzard that trapped me in New York City for five days because train service to Washington was cancelled. Rather than erging, I was forced to eat dinner at 11 Madison Park – allegedly the “Best Restaurant in the World” that year – where normally-impossible-to-get reservations had opened up in the face of a city-wide driving ban. Having erged less than a week in the month before the competition, I ignobly scratched. I have too many erg tests in my life to have a time I didn’t like posted on the internet for the world to see. And those things hurt! The winning time (age 55-59) was a 6:46, which I probably wasn’t going to beat, anyway, but was in the realm of possibility.
The next year, I’d blown out my back and had not erged above a 16 since August and did not enter. The winning time that year was 6:57, which was well within my killing range.
So I was going to win this year! Especially if all I needed was a 6:56!
And then they go and change the Mid-Atlantics to the World Indoor Rowing Championship.
I mean, I figure I can go head-to-head with the local boys but when the pros from the UK and Oz and Peru start jetting in, all bets are off.
This year, though, in a fit of masochism, my club had decided to enter the San Diego Crew Classic in March which meant (aside from frigid morning on the water during the months I usually slept in) that The Worlds would substitute for our usual Spring 2K test and that wimping out was not an option.
I was actually feeling kind of good yesterday morning. As always, I’d missed my share of winter workouts. I took two weeks off to see if my knees would get any better and – when I read on the Internet that rowing on arthritic knees would cripple me at a relatively young age — went to a doctor who spent about 90 seconds looking at the x-rays and told me:
“Yeah, you probably have early stage arthritis. But, you can row as long as you can stand the pain [in this, he is with my coach]. Take some ibuprofen. And, if you want, we have shots.”
My knees stopped hurting soon as I got back to rowing, at which point I go sick for two weeks.
But all that had been on the other side of Christmas and I was feeling pretty OK Sunday morning. Not 6:44 OK, but 6:50 OK. Maybe 6:48. I was wearing my lucky pirate earring that my fiancée had given me for Christmas because superstition is free and it can’t hurt. And my little pre-test – 1250 meters at race pace two days before — had gone well.
It’s odd that guys rowing up to the starting line before a race will be chatting and laughing, talking to friends in other boats, almost carefree, while guys lining up for a 2K are as grim as prisoners lining up for their phone call. I think I’m as likely to puke before a 2K as after one.
We get to the floor and I realize the Brit in the expensive nylon sweat suit in line behind me is actually the coach of the guy behind him, and that the two of them are taking this race verrrrrrry seriously.
What I didn’t realize was that coach would begin bellowing encouragement in his charge’s (and my) ear the instant the race began. Now, I detest this sort cheer-leading even when it’s aimed at me, which it never is because I told everybody to cut it the hell out. But to have some stranger bawling trite crap like “You can do it! Coming up to 1750….Almost to 1750….You did it—1750! Almost to 1500….” continuously from two feet away was intolerable. And he was so much in my space that my arm brushed him on my layback until I finally back-whacked his thigh with my elbow and he moved off a few inches. It was a nightmare and, of course, I blew my cool in ways I never should have, splits going up and down, stroke rate going up and down and rage level staying high at all times. All I could think of was how much I hated this asshole screaming in my ear.
My last 500 pathetic. Usually I’m very intense for the last 500. Not always very fast, but as fast as my legs and lungs will possibly let me be. Usually there’s some split I’m trying to hit or to salvage “keep it (or get it) under 1:42.5,” say, and it keeps me focused. And, for a little under two minutes, hitting my split is even more important than the torture coming to an end (in truth, I usually spend the entire middle thousand of the piece scheming to end the torture – back spasm? Heart palpitations? — I’m only good for 500 meters of gallant determination). This time I was just “please God let this me over and him quiet (or dead – dead would work).” I didn’t even look at my split, just the meters ticking down. When the whole thing was over, I notice that the last split registered was a 1:54, which meant, embarrassingly, that I’d essentially stopped rowing before the finish line.
My time wasn’t awful: 6:53.7. The winning time was 6:30, and I finished 7th of 25, though a lot of the folks clearly were in it for reasons other than winning it (and good for them). But I feel as though it was well off my potential. I’m not sure what that screaming bastard/my own unfocused mind cost me in theoretical time. Maybe a second per 500, making me theoretically a sub-6:50 oarsman. Of course, theoretically, Hillary Clinton was elected president by a solid margin. And even that wouldn’t have put me ahead of Ralph, a rival and teammate who turned in a quite fast 6:48, or Steven, who tore it up at 6:44 (and who WILL remind me of it at the next practice).
I’ve told my girlfriend that, twice a week she will now be required to scream in my face while I do 5 on/5 offs. And I’m going to end this piece now, and get on the erg.
Because next year, I am going to win the Mid-Atlantics.
Charles Sweeney is a masters rower.