In January, 2014, I signed up for the CRASH-B Erg Sprints, to be held on Febrary 1st in Alexandria, Virginia. Now, you may wonder just what the heck are the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Erg Sprints? First, it helps to know that “Erg” stands for Rowing Ergometer, or more specific, a Concept2 rowing machine. I have now idea whatever happened to Concept1, but the C2 rowing machine is pretty much the best way to row without actually getting wet.
C.R.A.S.H.-B. stands for “Charles River All-Star Has-Beens”. Evidently, a group of Olympic and world-class rowers used to take on Harvard’s rowing team…and despite never practicing or using the same line-up twice, won a lot of races, some of them legitimately. As Concept2 rowers got to be more widely used, the regional competitions came to be known as CRASH-B sprints.
In my rehabilitation, I used a Concept2 to build strength in my legs, and decided I would sign up for the shortest race, a 2000-meter sprint. I logged all my rowing in the Concept2 database, and even got listed in the World ranking for my age group. Now, I was listed near the BOTTOM of my age group, but at least I got my name in the books.
In building up my rowing ability, I did a number of workouts, including slower, longer workouts, interval workouts, and some where I pushed as hard as I could until my lungs gave out. I even found a used Concept2 rower for cheap, and was able to get it in good shape with a minimum amount of maintenance. That way, I didn’t have to go to the gym, I could just go down to the basement, throw a movie in the DVD player and practice.
So, on days when I didn’t run due to the cold weather, snow or just general soreness, I’d head downstairs and get on the rowing machine. That was a good thing, because we got a few big snows in early 2014 – not as big as “Snowmageddon” in 2010, or “Snowzilla” in 2016, but big enough that I didn’t want to go outside.
The morning of February 1st, I drove to T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, Virginia. That’s the same school featured in the movie Remember the Titans. I parked my car, and walked into a whole universe dedicated to rowing. I only rowed on a machine, so I wasn’t part of the culture, but this high school was packed with people who lived and breathed rowing.
I walked into the gym where the competition was to be held – the floor was full of rowing machines covering the entire gymnasium. I went to the sign-up table and checked in for my race. Since it was about an hour away, I warmed up a bit, and grabbed a bagel and juice from one of the concessions.
Looking at all the other competitors, I started to get a bit nervous. I was in OK shape, but there were athletes from their teens all the way to their 80s and even 90s – they were all in great shape. I was thankful my race was only going to last less than 10 minutes, so I could finish, and get back into my warm up gear before somebody realized I didn’t belong in that group.
I went into the warmup room with the rest of my age group heat. I chatted with the others, and realized that I was the least experienced of any of them, but everybody was friendly, and gave encouragement. That made me feel a little bit better, but I was still nervous on how the heat would turn out.
We got moved from room to room by the race organizers, who were staging the different races and athletes. Occasionally, a rower who had just finished their heat would stagger into the locker room, red-faced and gasping for air. I wondered, “What are they doing to these people out there?” as we got closer and closer to our turn.
We moved from the locker room to the gym, and took a seat in the bleachers while we waited for our heat to be called. The floor had hundreds of rowing machines, and you could hear high school, college and regional teams cheering on their favorites as their team members pushed themselves to the limit.
That heat finished, and I heard a whistle as a race organizer called our group to the front. They marched us to a line of rowing machines and set us each in front of our nemesis for the next 10 minutes. I did a final stretch, got my watch ready to go, at down on my machine, putting my feet in the stirrups. I adjusted the straps to hold my feet securely, and moved the seat back and forth to make sure I wouldn’t fall off in the middle of the event.
I put in my headphones, clipped my iPod shuffle to my shirt, and hit Play. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” roared in my ears while I put my hands on the rowing machine handle and took a deep breath, waiting for the starter to give us the signal. I looked across our line of rowing machines, noting how I was the least in-shape person there, but at least I was there.
At the end of our row was a guy who looked to be about 6’5″, and built like Thor. When the starter said, GO!, we all pulled back hard to get started, but when “Thor” pulled, the front of his rowing machine would lift off the ground with the force of his pull. It was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be giving Thor any competition that day.
There are different schools of thought on how to row a fast 2000 meters. Some favor starting out slower, and increasing speed as you go. Others suggest finding a manageable pace and sticking to it. I was not in either camp. My rowing style could best be described as “fly and die.” I rowed as hard as I could, for as long as I could…until I literally couldn’t row any more. I figured it would be over…before I keeled over.
I made it through the first 1000 meters faster than my previous practice attempts, but I was clearly getting winded. Every pull seemed harder to finish than the last, and I was starting to get a little light-headed. Earlier, I had seen buckets near a number of the rowers, and I was starting to realize why those buckets were there. I was hoping to finish without having to avail myself of one.
With 500 meters to go, I was starting to get tunnel vision, and I could feel my mouth going dry. If I could just get the last 2 minutes done without throwing up, I’d count it as a victory. 200 more meters, and I was into my final minute. I could see the rower counting down to 50 meters, 30, 20, 10…and done.
I let go of the handle, and put my feet on the ground as I prayed for the room to stop spinning. After what seemed like half an hour (but was only about 2 minutes), the room stabilized, and I was able to stand up, stagger to the bleachers and down a Gatorade that I had in my gym bag. I could hear cheering in other parts of the gym as somebody set a record, or someone else won a tightly-contested race. I was happy enough to pick up my gear and get to the car – because in two days, I had to run in a different direction.
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