RI Blog #20: Rowers Are Messed Up

Rowers Are Messed Up

April 3, 2009

Rowers are really messed up. We eat, breathe, dream and in all other ways consume ourselves with this sport. And it’s so unlike most sports that most people are into. There’s no ball or “thing” that goes into a “thing.” There are no picks (except the pick drill). There’s no passing, no blocking, no tackling, no hitting, no pitching, no catching — no hand-eye coordination of any kind involving an inanimate object. You sit on your ass and go backwards. And in doing so, you have an opportunity to win. That is seriously wacked. Like in the movie “Office Space,” where the guy’s fiancé makes him see a hypnotist because he’s so unhappy.

They’re sitting in the office, and Our Hero is describing his situation: “Every day is worse than the day before,” he says, “So every day…is the worst day of my life.”

“So is today the worst day of your life?” the hypnotist asks.

“Yeah,” the guy responds.

The hypnotist looks at him for a few seconds and says, “Wow. That’s messed up.”

So for me, it’s like, every day I care about rowing even more than the day before. So every day that I live, rowing consumes me more than ever. John “Skip” Dise, a young hot shot at my club whose locker is next to mine, summed it up perfectly yesterday, as we talked about workouts, etc. Being in the mode of “trying to get back into shape,” I think about working out more than ever…how often I do it, how many rows a week I log in, etc. So I was very pleased with myself that I had had a pretty brutal mid-day training session at my gym with my trainer (who is both hot AND an excellent trainer – great combination! It makes torture fun!), and I was finishing it off with a nice evening row. A rare two-a-day for me — which, since I’m turning 49 this summer, is something to be proud of. So Skip says, “After your row, you can join us for yoga and make it three workouts in one day. And just think,” he went on, “You could have one of those days where the amount of time spent working out takes up the majority of your waking hours. Those are the BEST days.”

He wasn’t kidding. He was completely serious. And I was in total agreement. When you go to bed totally aching from working out several times a day, those truly are the best days. There’s something very OCD about it. People like Michelle Guerette, Greg Ruckman, Steve Tucker, Linda Muri, and on and on…they attend schools like Harvard and MIT, discover rowing, and then, rather than going to Wall Street or starting the next Microsoft, they devote their entire lives to getting faster on the water. In a sport that will never, ever pay much money. Never. There’s just not enough broad-based interest in it (and let’s face it, rowing is not a great spectator sport for non-rowers – see above for the lack of throwing, catching, hitting, punching, and bloody noses). Every once in a while, someone will catch a crab and be projectiled out of the boat or have their nose broken, but those moments are way too few and far between for Joe Six Pack (or Joanne Six Pack) to want to watch people doing the same thing over and over and over for 5-7 minutes.

The great thing about rowing – or any sport like it – is that this passion can happen to anyone at any level. You don’t have to be an Olympian to have the Olympic-caliber OCD fanaticism for the sport. I suppose I’ve had other dreams at various times, but now, and for the past 25 years, it’s all rowing, all the time. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about it in some form. Did I row today? (In winter, did I work out today?) Being an athlete has become more important to me than anything else, and I’m fortunate to have many interests…writing, music, history, economics, investments, and even, at times, work! (I really hope my boss doesn’t read this.) And it’s not like I even work out that much. I’m up to like 5-6 times a week now. Not bad for this early in the spring. But not like my friend Sean Wolf who, at almost 39, still does 12-14 workouts a week (or so he SAYS! In any case, I know he rows twice a day, every day, so it actually does add up). But the thing is, I THINK about rowing or working out ALL the time. If I worked out today, it’s a good day. If I didn’t, the day is not complete. If I worked out twice, it’s a great day. If I spent most of my waking hours working out (very rare for me), well, as Skip says, those are the BEST days. Amen.

RI Blog #19: Now Is The Winter of My Content

Now Is The Winter Of My Content

March 3, 2009

I think it is fair to say that, from a fitness standpoint, this has been the winter not of my discontent, but of too much contentedness, as the title paraphrased from Shakespeare’s Richard III suggests. After a successful fall season, highlighted by a decent (though personally not up-to-par) showing in the Head of the Charles, and a surprising 2nd place at Silverskiff in Turin, Italy, I got very mellow. Very, VERY mellow. I came up with new excuses that staggered even my own vivid imagination. I finished my log book and needed a new one. And since I can’t work out without a log book, the month or so that it took me to buy a new one at the drugstore was filled with a sporadic, at best, workout regimen. In fact, “regimen” isn’t even an applicable word for it. I tried to take up running, buying new running shoes in November, under the assumption that coughing up a wad of cash would motivate me. It did – for about 4-5 grueling runs, which were more painful than I can begin to describe. I avoided the erg, weights, and even yoga – my usual three-pronged attack during the winter months.

What I discovered was…….sleep. Beautiful, Glorious, Slumber. Sleeping in late on Saturday and Sunday mornings has become such a thing of pleasure. I stayed up late during the week, watching Seinfeld at 11:30 PM. You have to love the two-Seinfeld night, once at 7:00 and then again at 11:30. I lazed around on weekends. Hell, I lazed around all the time. I did use my bike trainer – maybe half a dozen times this winter? – and that was okay. But really I just lavished in the luxury of doing a whole lot of…NOTHING. Ok I did some things. I watched a lot of movies. I spent a lot of time online (match.com kind of sucks, by the way). I brought “couch potatoing” to a new level. I figured, hell, I’ve been through a couple of really tough years, and I’m still going through a divorce (which will hopefully be finalized soon)…I deserve to be a complete and total slug. In late December, I finally got a new workout log. Early in its pages I decided to take my running shoes indoors (since there were mountains of snow outside) and run on the treadmill at my gym. On or about the second time of this experiment, I got a little overconfident on a four-mile run and decided to “crank it up” for the last quarter mile. Well, that effort ended in “cranking up” an injury to my left achilles tendon. Niiiccceee…. Fortunately, being older and wiser, and having had many debilitating injuries, I stopped all workouts, iced it for many days, and ate Advils like they were M&M’s – the standard routine for all “elite” athletes (HA! Had to throw that word in there for a good laugh at myself). Not only did this allow me to really slug it up (I counted no more than 5 workouts for the entire month of January), but it actually prevented a serious injury and healed the tendon quite nicely. My laziness was not only enjoyable, it had become practical.

At Riverside, my beloved rowing club, they have a winter event called the “Tri-WRATH-alon” which involves running half a stadium at Harvard, running back to the boathouse, and then erging for 8,000 meters – or something like that. I’ve never done it. Maybe some day I will do it, but not this winter! No, I have come up with my own brutal event. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s the Official 2009 John Tracey “Tri-SLOTH-alon!” First, you sleep in on a Saturday morning…you get out of bed no earlier than 9:30 AM. Second, you roll into your sweats, stumble into the kitchen, turn on the coffee (both coffee and oatmeal have been pre-prepared the night before), have the usual oatmeal (with a ton of brown sugar, raisins and banana slices), and read something from a magazine or newspaper while listening to classical music. And finally, third, you sit on the couch, sip the glorious Peet’s coffee from your mug (Part III is a two-mug minimum), play on the computer, watch the morning news, and…just totally sloth it up. You only get up to take care of personal business (that’s all I will say about THAT), or to get the 2nd Glorious Mug of Joe from the kitchen. Part III is about 60-90 minutes in length. By 11:30-12:00, your day has gotten off to an amazingly wonderful beginning. Now it’s time to really kick it up a notch and find a good movie!

I hope this blog has been inspiring to all those who need an excuse to chill out. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me. I consider myself an expert in this newly developed field. I’m getting a Ph.D. in Winter Bliss. But watch out for me on the racecourse this season – I will be WELL RESTED!

RI Blog #18: Good Riddance 2008

Good Riddance 2008

January 14, 2009

2008 was an interesting year. Interesting in the sense of, you don’t want too many “interesting” years in your life. As the ancient Chinese curse states: May you live in interesting times.

In 2007, I had lost my brother (well, November of 06) and my father (September 07), and then my marriage ended a few days before Christmas. Without question, it was the worst year of my life. By January 2008, I was out of the house and living in a room at a B&B in the South End of Boston. I have never been more lost, lonely, or full of despair and hopelessness. I’m glad I still HAVE my life after all that. I made it my goal to try to “find myself” in 2008. But I didn’t really know what that meant. Who really can “find themselves?” I think it’s a life-long process. All I know is that I was completely stripped to my core, and I wasn’t just starting a new chapter in my life, I was starting a new volume. Volume I was over, and the book was shut forever. Volume II had begun.

As always, rowing was important to my existence. Rowing has given me hope, strength, friends, and support, not to mention the all-important physical and emotional outlets that are so vital for all of us. While I kept my personal issues close to the vest – I had a very small “circle of trust” that I relied on during the most brutal period from January through March – I still had my small circle of close rowing friends from Riverside Boat Club. These are guys I’ve had dinner with almost every week for the past five years. We have been through it all with each other, and we still get together and talk about rowing. And life. And women. And relationships. And everything. One of these friends lost his fiancé in 2008 to a brain tumor. She was a young, beautiful, brilliant, and very sweet friend to all of us. On the day she died, I found out that my cousin’s wife, one of my favorite people in our extended family, was in Mass General being treated for the exact same kind of brain tumor. SIGH. However, her will to live, without ever complaining about her condition, and his devotion to her (he never left her side for over a year), remain among the most inspiring examples for me. On a positive note, we’re all going to be in the wedding of another of our group – something that shows the circle of life…new beginnings. It’s awesome.

Death teaches us about life. It’s easy to say, you only go around once; you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Life is short. Blah blah freakin’ blah. But until you see your friend or loved one’s body, or your brother’s, or held your father’s in your arms an hour after he died, you don’t know just how short life really is. My brother dropped dead at 53, with no warning, from an aneurism in his aorta. I’m still in shock about it. I never got to say goodbye. But on the other hand, it was his time. No one has control over these things. I expect to live another 50 years and row the whole damn time, but even if I do, I know it will speed by in a flash. That’s why I don’t get stressed about things like work, or even a Harvard launch going through the wrong arch. A CRI or BC launch maybe… (kidding). My divorce will be painful for the rest of my life, but I have accepted that fact and I don’t let it rule me today. I feel relatively grounded and self-assured, but I am awed by the larger forces in this world over which we have no control. I love my apartment – it’s all mine, and I have made it my own. I love the location in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. I have a great relationship with my kids. My ex and I get along at a wonderfully superficial level, which is how it should be. But I have realized over this past year that really figuring out relationships, my place in the world, and finding true peace and spirituality deep within myself is a journey, not a goal. It’s not something you ever achieve, just something you strive for.

There are some specific goals I’d like to achieve this year…  getting Top 10 in the Head of the Charles in October 09; winning a few smaller races during the rowing season; finally having a decent race at Green Mountain in Vermont; traveling to some away regattas for fun – like maybe Oklahoma City or, if I can put together some speed, maybe Nationals. And of course, going back to Italy to try and repeat my performance of last November, if not improve on it. (I could write several blogs about my trip to Italy, and maybe I will – it was the greatest race I’ve ever been to in my life, and I got a silver in my age group to make it all the better.) I am really, really looking forward to finalizing a long, agonizing divorce. Of course, I’d love to make VP at work, but I’m not going to worry about that one…

As for relationships, I want to be realistic. I don’t feel I need to be in a relationship, but there’s nothing wrong with dating. However, to get into something really deep requires more progress. I’m still trying to get my bearings.

Like training for a race, I feel that the process of living your life is as much, if not much more, worthy than specific achievements. You go at it every day. Some days you kick ass and crush your opponents. Some days you give it your all and barely beat someone you never thought you’d be close to. Some days you give everything you have and come up short, but you still feel good because you gave it your all. And other days, you feel like shit…you’re tired and weak. So you just head home and rest up and hope that things improve the next time.

Life is about progress, not perfection. And the only way I know is to take it a day at a time.

Thanks to all who have read my blogs and given me some great feedback. Thanks to my good friend Sean who started this site and worked his ass off to get it up and running. I really love contributing to it, and it has helped me immensely.

So… back to the grind for 2009. Peace, happiness, and above all, FUN. There’s no enjoyment without some good laughs in this world. Let’s row our asses off but have a great time doing it.

RI Blog #17: Thanksgiving

Blogger’s Note: This is not about rowing. 

November 25, 2008

This is a little story I wrote in response to an email to the Riverside Boat Club List from the famous British rowing coach, David Martin, who had mentioned that he didn’t fully understand what “Thanksgiving” was all about. Hope it lightens up your holiday season a little.



Dear David,

Thanksgiving is one of the truly American holidays, so it’s no wonder you don’t understand it (you freakin’ Tory Monarchist you!!!).

Ok so here’s the basic rundown. About a hundred & fifty years before George Washington and his fleet-footed generals kicked your ancestors’ and the Hessian Huns’ asses by forcing them to chase our guys all over North America wearing heavy wool red uniforms (RED?? Choose another color dude! That’s an easier target than they have in Junior Archery class!), a group of religious fanatics (the “Saints”) and a bunch of other bounty hunters and/or otherwise bored or criminal Englishmen (dubbed “Strangers” by the Saints), decided to make a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to seek a new life. Being poor and unwanted, they could only afford a pathetic, way-too-small ship that someone called the “Mayflower,” and stuffed it with themselves and a bunch of disgusting animals (inspiring the idea of “stuffing”), and somehow, miraculously, made it across the “Pond” (sarcastic term coined by one of the Strangers for the harrowing North Atlantic). Unfortunately, they landed in New England, home of the Worst Climate on the Face of the Earth.

Anyway, the rag-tag bunch, along with the Holier Than Thou Religious Freaks, landed on the Cape, saw a bunch of beached whales, and were spied by the Native Landowners. Not wanting to settle on a bunch of cold sand, and terrified of the near-naked Natives, they continued on and found a cozy Rock somewhere near Route 3 South, right in the middle of construction of the Southeast Distressway. Fortunately, the Cape traffic was light that day, so they decided to make this their home. The Strangers went off into the woods, made friends with the Natives, introduced them to Johnny Walker Red, had a ROCKING good time, and probably did a little plundering on the side. The Saints struggled to clear the land, move all the rocks, and try to grow something amidst the cold, sandy, non-fertile soil. They were able to build some crude huts, but nothing grew and about half of them died that winter, freezing their asses off (their fronts, facing the fire, were fine, but their asses, facing away from the fire, literally froze OFF). Because they had outlawed Sex, they were not allowed to keep each other warm “the old fashioned way.” From this experience they developed a new Protestant religion called “Puritanism.” Ironically, they had come to the New World seeking religious freedom. But after they invented “Puritanism” – defined as “The Haunting, Terrifying, Unacceptable Notion that Someone, Somewhere out there is Having A Good Time” – they immediately closed ranks and became the Most Religiously Intolerant People Ever in Recorded History, putting any disbelievers into these new, funky devices called Stockades. (A “stockade” was like a mini guillotine with no blade. Your head and arms would stick through the holes so the people walking by could tweak your nose, stuff sand in your ears, kick you in the ass a few times, throw rotten eggs at you, and do any other acts of their choosing – known to the Puritans as “amusement.”) Interestingly, Puritanism lives on in New England almost 400 years later, but its definition has changed to mean, “You don’t deserve anything GOOD in this life unless you have really, REALLY suffered for it.” See the Red Sox, our rowing club’s policy for initiating new members, Boston weather, and many other 21st century examples.

SO. Where was I. Oh yeah, Thanksgiving. So after the first year, in which they had suffered Unmentionable Sufferings and still couldn’t figure out how to grow even a houseplant, they headed into November, cold, tired, and very discouraged – even Puritans could get a little down sometimes. But it was all God’s Plan, and still, this plucky group kept their Faith. And Faith was restored to them, because fortunately, down South in Jamestown, a young English Stud named Captain John Smith (not his real name – one of many aliases he used to avoid being captured for violating Puritanism) had hooked up with a gorgeous Native named Pocahontas. This incredibly romantic meeting – filled with more good sex than can ever be described in a Family Friendly Website Like This – paved the way for an era of Detente between the Natives and the “Whities” throughout North America.

As a result, the Natives of New England decided to share their enormously vast stores of food (after thousands of years living in New England, they had figured out how to grow stuff), including the old favorites, Turnips, Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce, the previously mentioned Stuffing, and a new, accidentally invented (on a soggy September day) food called Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Sir Kellogg, a Saint who said “F-this” and became a stranger upon arriving to the New World, became the richest man in America as a result of developing a new food called “cereal.” And thank God he did, because it’s still my favorite food.

So they had a Great Feast on the Last Thursday in November. Drinks were drunk, the Puritans even smiled a little, everyone ate a ton of food, and a New Era of Peace and Prosperity was declared by both the Natives and the Pasty White Freakazoids. After the Great Feast, they retired to the Native Chief Massasoit’s Grand Mansion and watched the Cowboys play the Lions on his entertainment center. Thanksgiving, the Greatest American Holiday, was born. The Puritans were so grateful, they gave the Natives these really cool blankets. Unfortunately, the blankets had some weird virus in them called “Smallpox,” and many of the Natives died soon afterwards. But the Puritans soldiered on, stealing the Directions for Growing Food from the Natives, and went to church faithfully every Sunday. They wrote inspiring hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “Die You Heathen Ingrate, DIE!!” and produced such Luminaries as Increase Mather, and his even more amusing son, Cotton Mather. Between the two of them, they were responsible for some of the greatest American Institutions of All Time – notably, Harvard University and the Salem Witch Trials. As the latter was responsible for the founding of Yale University, it is widely believed that the co-mingling of these great institutions resulted in the annual Harvard-Yale Boat Race.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

100% of this is true. It has to be – I got it from Wikipedia. I hope this has been helpful.

Peace, Love, and a Happy Thanksgiving to All.

RI Blog #16: Green Mountain Headache

Green Mountain Headache

October 9, 2008

I made the pilgrimage to Putney, Vermont yet again this year, basking in the crisp morning air, the fall foliage, the collegial feeling of a scullers-only event, the t-shirts, the egg rolls, the cheese sandwiches, the apple cider, and those incredible sugary cider doughnuts….

Let’s get one thing straight: I LOVE this race. I’ve been going to it since 1990, my first year of racing in a single. But there is something incredibly deceptive in all the quaintness. And believe me, this regatta has quaintness in spades. It was started by Peter and George Heller and is co-organized by Graeme King, the maker of the infamous King wooden racing shells (that I rowed for most of my rowing career, since I married an owner). A few years back, they sent an email to the previous year’s participants, inviting us all to the upcoming race. The email was classic. In the subject line, it said “Got Syrup?” (a take-off on the “Got Milk” ad campaign). When you opened the email, the first sentence said, “Wanna get some the HARD way?” You see, if you win, you get a large jug of Vermont maple syrup. Second place is a bag of apples. And third gets you a gallon of fresh apple cider. Again with the quaintness.

It’s worth reading the charming “history” on the regatta’s web site, www.rowgmh.com, which states: “The regatta attracts many elite scullers preparing for the other major head race on the Charles. Xeno Muller, Jamie Koven, and John Riley have all won the race, and the results sheet looks like a who’s-who of present and former national team members.” Yeah no kidding. You go up there thinking you’re going to have this lovely Fall rowing experience, paddling along blissfully in the gorgeous Vermont countryside.  So while you’re thinking how quaint and lovely it all is, having warmed up in the foliage-filled downstream portion of the river, you start the race. And if you haven’t looked at the intimidating list of athletes in your event, you find out big-time during the race. It is TOUGH. You row upstream, against the current, for an agonizingly long mile and a half. Then you get to the turn, which consists of two large buoys. If you’re lucky, you don’t have rowers around you, but in any case, you’re exhausted at this point and you have to somehow turn this long, skinny unturnable boat 180 degrees. Then you head back downstream and are just wiped out as you approach the finish, which seems to take waayyyy longer than it should.

One of the many years I rowed my ex’s King single (these boats are notoriously well built), I was trying to get up the steep steps carved into the dirt of the riverbank after my race. I was exhausted and weak, and I kept slamming the bow of the boat into the mud steps. On the third slam, I cried out, “Aaahhhh!!! My boat!!!” To which a bemused Graeme King, sitting on the grass enjoying the show, remarked, “I’m worried about those steps!” The boat was fine.

The toughness of this race is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it prepares you for the Head of the Charles. The competition steels you for what’s to come in another three weeks (GMH is always held at the end of September). On the other – well maybe just for me – it seems like something always goes wrong. Last year, my rigging was messed up. The year before I scratched due to injury. The year before that, my rigging was messed up. Another year, in pouring rain, I had an incredible race, until about the final 200 meters, when I got a whole bunch of weeds tangled in my skeg. I pulled this anchor for the final 50 or so strokes, and it was NOT fun. I did have a miracle year, I think in 2001, in which I got either 3rd or 4th place. It was the best GMH I had ever had and was definitely the exception, not the rule.

This year, I was determined to get revenge. I knew the course (or so I thought – it’s always tricky); my rigging was fine; I had been moving the boat pretty well in practice; and the weather turned out to be perfect, despite the threat of a hurricane. I had made reservations a year in advance at the Putney Inn, located right AT the race course, and my good buddy Pete Morelli bunked in with me (though the poor guy had to sleep in a cot). Everything was lining up perfectly. Good dinner at the Inn, good night’s sleep, and I woke up refreshed and ready.

I plowed into the race, giving it my all, and was careful to stay close to shore because of the current (I’ve always had this theory that you want to be close to shore against the current, to reduce its slowing effect, and in the middle of the river, near the buoys, on the way back, to benefit from the current’s force). I caught both the guys who had started ahead of me by the turn, and the three of us rounded it all at the same time. I was sandwiched in the middle, and was grunting like Serena Williams with each stroke, but we all made the turn without incident. I had done well up to that point, but at a cost: I was exhausted. I managed to hold it together on the way back toward the start, staying close to the buoy. One of the guys who I caught was Trevor de Koekkoek, my Riverside friend and training competitor. We stayed with each other the whole way down the second half of the course, neck and neck. I was holding it together, barely, when I noticed the upstream launch site, where I had launched. My brain started playing mind games (sure John, blame your brain…). I thought, hmm, I launched from there, it wasn’t that far to the starting line, maybe I can start my sprint. Well, it’s about 600 meters from that point to the finish line. And I maybe had a 10 or 20-stroke sprint in me. So my dumbass brain started thinking “Hey, if you sprint, it will be over faster!!” I did a 30-stroke sprint, after which I was toast. I turned around and the finish line was at least 300 meters away. I was absolutely demoralized and completely spent. For the first time in my life, I stopped paddling in a race due to exhaustion. Trevor, who I had pulled away from in my sprint, passed me and said, “Come on, John!” Gotta love that – encouraging me as he gleefully put lots of water between our two boats. I managed to pick it back up and held a 28-29 until I reached the finish line. Man was I disappointed. I am certain I could have held the 26-27 rate pace I was going for a few more minutes, but noooooo!! I completely misjudged the distance and sprinted way too early. Oh well. That’s racing. As in life, we make mistakes, and we have to live with them. There is no coulda shoulda woulda.

At the lunch afterwards, I saw that I had come in 6th place out of 34, which is not bad for me. But I was only five seconds off of Bob Eldridge and David Gray, long-time competitors of mine, who finished 4th and 5th, respectively. So of course I spent the afternoon thinking, “I could have been 4th! SIGH!!!!” But I’m reconciled myself with the result – after all, I still beat Trevor by eight seconds!

The best part of the day was yet to come. Trevor and I were scheduled to race the double. We were both absolutely exhausted and hadn’t even rigged the boat yet. But we finally mustered the energy to go for it, after I stated I would be more than happy to scratch. We rigged as fast as we could, with help from a random rower (thank you whoever you were!) and paddled to the line just barely in time for the start. Our foot stretchers were mismatched, our shafts were not parallel, and we hadn’t rowed together in over a year. But we were both plenty warmed up and rowed a nice race, getting second place. Now that’s what I call redemption.

See you next year, Putney, as I try once again to get some syrup – the hard way.

RI Blog #15: I’m So Not A Morning Person

I’m So Not A Morning Person

September 18, 2008

I used to be a morning person when it came to rowing. I used to be able to roll out of bed and into my car and then do a full workout without having any breakfast. Then I realized that food helped my performance on the water (duh), so I started having oatmeal & coffee. But, being the creature of habit that I am, that meant I had to savor my coffee and have the usual hang-out-in-front-of-the-TV-and-wake-up time along with it. So my wake-up time became earlier. Nevertheless, I still managed it. Even when I lived in the suburbs and attempted serious winter training during 2001-2002. I was dedicated. Up at 4:15 every morning, out of the house at 5:00, on the erg at 5:30, even on the most frigid, ice-encrusted mornings.

I kept up this schedule for years during the rowing season. Most mornings anyway. But often that was because I was part of a group and didn’t want to miss out. There’s something about that group dynamic that forces your mind into conformity. You become like a robot, laying out the clothes (I have to wear a friggin suit & tie every day), putting the gym bag together, putting it all in the car, setting up your breakfast (I still do that) – all the night before. Oh yeah, and I had to eat dinner, read to the kids, etc. as well, and still try to be in bed by 9:00-9:30. It was a lot of work, but once you become automated, it gets easier.

No longer!! Time and injuries do something to the mindset. Ok, maybe just my mindset. This year, I live close to the boathouse and I have more free time during the evenings. As a result, I have gotten into the habit of working out in the evening after work. There are two huge benefits to this. First of all, I’m awake and have been moving around all day. My muscles are naturally warmed up. My brain works – at least a lot better than it does in the morning. And since I’ve slept in, I’m pretty well rested. Second, I have a new training partner this year, Greg Walker, and he and I have been doing the evening thing for the past month or so, turning it into a daily routine. Usually there’s a phone call, then we meet somewhere between Riverside and Belmont Hill and do the workout. Having someone else there makes a huge difference.

Now the one downside to all this is that most of the other scullers who I want to test myself against row in the morning (not that Greg is any slacker; that’s another benefit to this summer’s evening workouts – he’s a hell of a lot more accomplished than I am). But if I want to join the larger group, I have to somehow get my buns out of bed in the dark and totally disrupt my routine. I tried this yesterday morning with disastrous consequences. I went to bed relatively early the night before. I had done two workouts that day and was really beat. I had a huge dinner and set my alarm for 4:30. But for some reason – probably the subconscious knowledge that I couldn’t sleep in, which has become one of the greatest pleasures of my life – I had a really weird dream and woke up suddenly at 2:30 AM. Wide awake til 4:00, at which point I said screw it, sleeping has become way more important than rowing at this point (and besides, Sean’s not REALLY expecting me to show up ready for the first piece at 6:00 at BU, is he?). So I crashed on the couch, watching TV, and eventually dozed off. It was a horrendous night’s sleep. I was so tired yesterday that I bagged all workouts.

I’ve tried many times to get up. A few weeks ago, I promised the “training group” that I’d be there for sure on Saturday morning, ready to do the 2 x Head of the Charles pieces that we usually do this time of year. Yup, I emailed the group. I’m in. I’m so there. Well, Saturday came and I slept right through it with no shame whatsoever. Ok, I had shame and guilt, but not enough to get me out of bed. WTF?? Man did I hear about that one. Martin Schwartz coined a new name for me, “John ‘Big Talker Late Sleeper’ Tracey.” Ouch. Man the truth hurts.

So this morning I conceded to my new schedule. Slept in, got like 9 hours, and now I’m ready to roll against Greg tonight. I think we’ll do Heather Moon’s workout – that she did….this morning.

When I have to race in the morning, then I’ll get up. Honest I will. I promise.

RI Blog #14: The Weather

The Weather

August 20, 2008

What’s more exciting than talking about the weather? A lot of things. Unless you’re a rower, in which case The Weather is always in the forefront of your mind. If you sleep in and miss a morning row (I’ve become an evening rower, so this is normal for me), you drive by the river on the way to work and see it perfectly flat, perfect temperature, with scullers plying the water with ease. You say “DAMN! Why do I have to work? Why can’t I be out there?” You know that these days are precious and few. When you do row in those conditions, and get a full, long, thorough workout, you drive by with this smug attitude, like, “HA. I was there. I experienced that. And no one can ever take it away from me.” I honestly do not think that normal athletes in normal sports have these types of feelings. But maybe it’s just me.

The weather is fun conversation. It gives us something in common with complete strangers – not unlike sports. We all have to live with it, and none of us can control it. Which makes worrying about it totally pointless. I love the expression, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it!” One of my favorite Dilbert cartoons was on a Sunday, and Scott Adams, Dilbert’s brilliant creator and writer, was narrating. In the first box he had a narration saying, “Top 5 ways to reject a guy hitting on you” (obviously giving advice to women). In one of the squares, the narration at the top said, “Use the phrase ‘my boyfriend’ in a sentence.” The square shows Dilbert talking to some random woman, and he says, “Nice weather today…” Her response: “My boyfriend likes weather.”

When racing, the weather goes from being 9.5 on a scale of 1-10 in importance to…an 11. And the more important the race, the more neurotic you become about it. Let’s say the race is on Saturday. It’s a big one. Maybe NSR I or something. Or the Head of the Charles. You literally start looking at the weather about 10 days in advance – knowing full well (or maybe not) that the most accurate forecast is, if not the day before, then the morning of. Or as John O’Day, the brother of George (who started the sailboat company) said to me once, “You want to know the weather? Look outside.” John was an avid sailor and knew a thing or two about the weather.

But you obsess on the forecast anyway, thinking, “Oh God, it’s going to be cold, rainy, and a headwind. This always happens to me!!” And you get more nervous, more freaked, and have more butterflies. What’s the point? As my friend Molly Haskell often remarked, in her curmudgeon-esque way, “It’s an outdoor sport people! There’s going to be weather!”

In the case of the Head of the Charles, which occurs at the end of October in Boston, it’s all about probabilities. You start thinking about the weather in August, when you get your singles entry. You dwell on it, wondering, hoping… “Maybe this will be the year when we get amazingly awesome conditions.” But why waste your brain cells? The chances are it’s not going to be great. Nine years out of ten, it’s going to be windy, cold, maybe raining, and pretty miserable. (Note that I listed wind first). That time of year, we typically get cold fronts moving through on a regular basis, which means either a northwest or northeast wind. Since the course, despite weaving all around, generally runs from southeast to northwest, this translates to headwind the whole way. And it’s usually strong, which means you’ll get blasted right out of the gate, after you go through the BU Bridge and round Magazine Beach. You feel it in the arches of the Powerhouse stretch going by Riverside. And you’ll get hammered as you go through the Anderson arch. I’ve been stopped almost completely in that arch (of course I don’t weigh much and have skinny legs, which does not further my cause much). Then you get a little break through the long Anderson-CBC turn. If it’s northwest, you’ll hit “the wall” of wind as you go through the Eliot Bridge – this is the “west” part of the northwest wind. That’s always a good time, since you’re pretty exhausted at this point and still have a good 3-4 minutes left in the race (in a single). If it’s northeast, it’s kind of a gift from God, because the “east” part takes over and you get a tailwind to the finish. Very, very, VERY seldom do you get the perfect southeast wind, which is a tailwind practically from start to finish. That might happen, on occasion, in September when you’re practicing, giving you a huge false sense of security because you manage to post a better-than-expected time. But in the third week of October? Don’t count on it. Last year, miracle of miracles, we not only had a warm sunny day, we also had a strong southeast wind. Oh, and there had not been much rain, so the public servants in charge of cranking up the current at the Museum of Science Dam had mercy, and there a was lower-than-average opposing current. On a day like that, you buy a lottery ticket.

What are the chances of having a repeat of 2007 this coming October 18-19? Slim at best, but you had better believe I’m praying.

RI Blog #13: Mid-Season Report

Mid-Season Report

July 16, 2008

So here it is smack dab in the middle of the summer, and what do I have to show for it? Well, I finally finished furnishing (note alliteration technique) my apartment, and, if I do say so myself, it ROCKS. I did a death roll in a Beetle Cat (sailboat) in a 30 mph wind, surviving with minimal damage to self and boat (death roll = sailing downwind with sail all the way out, bow goes into water, doesn’t come out, stern lifts up and entire boat dumps over to windward and is then completely upside down, or “turtled” – fun stuff). I am still gainfully employed and am perfecting my summer slackass techniques with great success. After being single for seven months, I have dipped my toe into the dating pool, and I’m still alive to talk about it (not that I really want or need to talk about it). I made it through another birthday without becoming colossally depressed. In fact, it was one of the best birthdays in a long time. Well, last year at the Phoenix, after a party hosted by a certain fellow Bastille-Day Birthday Celebrator, was pretty awesome. And, oh yeah……rowing. Sorry I got a little off-message there.

The rowing thing has had its ups and downs this summer. A series of mishaps, one might say. The season began on a pretty good track. I got out almost every day, was lifting once or twice a week, doing yoga once a week, and it all felt good. I liked the borrowed Van Dusen Advantage (wing rigger) that I was using and was moving the boat pretty well. I was even allowed to practice with the young hot-shot lightweights, which was a hell of a lot of fun, even if they dusted me about half way through each piece. But hey, I stayed with them for the first half!

Anyway, things were just cruising right along. The relatively disciplined practice schedule led to a fun RBC Sprints regatta, in which my masters buddy Rudi Vanderschoot and I won our doubles race, though I got 2nd to Andy O’Brien in the single. But hey, he pulled a 6:12 erg this year!! How do 48 year olds get so strong?

But then it happened. The beginning of The Curse. I flipped the single doing a standing shove. Now, I’ve been doing standing shoves for years – longer than many of you have been rowing. The esteemed Jim Hanley at Riverside taught me how to do it, and emphasized the coolness factor. I learned and now I do it every time. One day I was so confident that, seeing Igor up on the porch with his camera, I stuck my shoving leg way up in the air after I pushed off and he got a cool picture of it. Almost looks like yoga or ballet in a boat. Almost. Anyway, I arrived on the dock one hot afternoon, and my buddies Igor & Tom are sitting there, looking kind of bored. A large motor boat goes by and leaves a substantial wake (after I had put my boat in). I said, “Ok, watch THIS – I’m going to do a standing shove INTO THAT WAKE!” Igor carefully, but very quickly, got his camera into position, thinking, “This could be good.” So into the wake I shoved, was able to sit down, but when I was trying to push off of the dock with my starboard oar, the power of the wave rolled my boat and I had nothing supporting me on the starboard side. KER-PLUNK! In I went. But hey, no big deal – I was shirtless, the water was warm, and I got right out. It was fun and made for a great photo (or series of photos, I was soon to find out).

As I came out of the water, I realized I had lost my prized prescription Oakleys, along with my Sore-No-More seat pad, without which I cannot live, or at least row. So, devastated at losing yet another pair of Oakley scripts in the Charles, I became quite despondent. Worse, the chutzpah of tempting the River Gods did not leave me. A week later, I was carrying the Van Dusen and I tripped on some oars, landing hard on my right knee and scraping the @#$* out of it. The boat landed gently on my back, and even though I had some sharp back pains for a few days, it was ok. Then my borrowed boat started having issues – the seat wheels, which had never been replaced, were grinding and I could barely move the seat. I started having dreams that I was rowing in sludge while everyone — novices, kayakers, my friends — all went flying passed me. I literally had at least two such dreams. Finally I realized I had to get that boat into the shop – it was a borrowed boat, after all, and the owner, my buddy Lee Gresham, deserved a boat in pristine condition. And besides, something karmactically (don’t look that up because I just made it up) bad was happening to me, and I needed to make some changes.

I began addressing my issues one by one. I got my old King back from Graeme’s shop, and it’s in perfect condition. It is heavier out of the water than the Van Dusen, but it feels lighter in the water! Graeme King, a naval architect by training, is an absolute genius at hull design. Second, I bought a new Sore-No-More pad. And finally, I got a new pair of Nike sunglasses. I’m saving for Oakleys, but at least I have something. And, I can rationalize the whole thing because I needed new ones anyway! My prescription needed upgrading (I now row with Coke-bottle-thick glasses). So all I really lost was the frames, which are only 25% of the total cost anyway.

I’m now ready to resume lifting, resume yoga, resume rowing every day, and submit my entry for the Charles, confident that I’ll have suitable training. Oh yeah, and the best thing that happened to reverse the curse was that Sean finally took the time-lapse video sequence of me flipping off of this site’s front page!

Happy rowing to all.

p.s. I flipped the Van Dusen on Friday the 13th, and this blog, in which I wrote about the incident, is my 13th. Coincidence?

RI Blog #12: Don’t Blame The Equipment!

Don’t Blame The Equipment!

June 25, 2008

I always blame the equipment.

Well, I do have a general guideline – if I’m doing well, it’s me. If I’m not doing well, it’s the equipment.

Sometimes in rowing, everything just gels. You’re gellin like Magellan. You go out, row hard, and move the boat. You’re passing people and feel like Superman (or Wonder Woman). I had a few years like that, and they were a dream. But then age and its corresponding aches & pains – along with life and its corresponding aches & pains –  caught up with me. All of a sudden, the equipment seemed a likely scapegoat. I was rowing in a wooden boat – surely it must be the problem. So what if it was the same boat I rowed in when I medaled four times in the Head of the Charles and came in fourth in at Speed Orders? It felt slow, old…wooden. What I was missing was that I was the one who was slow, and old(er), and…wooden?

Not wanting to ditch the boat – it is, after all, a King, the sweetest of all wooden boats – I decided that the riggers must be the problem. People I’d spoken to said that King riggers were really the only problem with the boat. They were too flimsy, and no one had been able to make a proper wing rigger for a King. But a woman from New Hampshire had put Carl Douglas famous AeRoWingTM riggers on her King, and they looked sweet. They were super-high-tech, lighter, stiffer, aerodynamic, and generally really cool looking. I had to have them. I called Carl and gave him all the specs and even put him in touch with Graeme King so they could work out the specs together. I coughed up $800 and they were mailed to my house. I thought that surely, this would solve my problems. But they never felt quite right. I rowed with them for a few years and I could never get them to feel like the old riggers. The pitch was endlessly wrong, and I was damned if I could find anyone who could rig it properly (I hate rigging issues!). Then a friend borrowed my oars and said the pitch on my blades was way off – Eureka, I had found the problem! So I spent weeks trying to get the pitch on the oars right, to no avail. Finally, in frustration, I drove up to Durham, NH to have no less than Jim Dreher (I have Dreher oars) fix the pitch on my oars. He did, and I was sure I would have a dream of a race in Putney at the Green Mountain Head. I ended up having a nightmare of a race because I had become so used to rowing with it messed up.

Finally I conceded. The riggers I had used before, the original King riggers, which had always felt great, needed another try. I took off my $800 experiment (sigh…I hate when expensive experiments don’t go as planned) and put the old riggers back on. They felt like a dream. Just like the old days. I had some of the best rows in years last fall, and even put in a decent showing in the Charles, coming in 10th after starting 55th.

I’ve always wanted an Empacher or a Van Dusen. This spring I’ve been trying out a friend’s Van Dusen, and I have enjoyed it. But it still doesn’t have the same feeling as the King. So I think I’m going to suck it up, continue lifting weights, get stronger, do more pieces, and work on improving the horse, not the chariot. Besides, when you’re the skinny old guy in the wooden boat and you manage to win, there’s just nothing like it in the world.

P.S. Endless nicknames such as “Flipper” notwithstanding, I will continue to do standing shoves in wake, wind, and all other challenging conditions.

RI Blog #11: Mixed Doubles: A Date For The Prom

Mixed Doubles: A Date for the PromJune 4, 2008Okay, I’ve said it before, and now I get to blog about it…finding a doubles partner is pretty much the same thing as trying to get a date to the Prom. Finding a mixed doubles partner is exactlylike trying to get a date to the Prom.Let’s analyze the similarities, shall we? Everyone has been single at some point in his or her life. Some longer than others. Some a lot longer than others. High school was where this all played out with the most drama, but I’d be willing to bet that the dating world of college, 20s, 30s, and on up is not a whole lot farther removed from its adolescent origins. I guess the only thing different when people get older is that they become less willing – if they have any sense at all – to spend enormous amounts of time with someone they know is incompatible, whereas when you’re young & stupid, well…you’re young & stupid.

My aunt (mom’s sister) had a dating theory, which she called the “95/5 Rule.” She went to Harvard & Columbia and is freaking brilliant, and I always thought her insights were amusing and on the mark. Anyway, the 95/5 Rule goes like this: 95% of the people in the world want to date the top 5%. Now, of course, the top 5% only want to date each other. And if you’re reading this you’re saying, as I am, “Well, of course I’m in the top 5%!” Why wouldn’t you be? Don’t get me started. But, as often happens in life, we occasionally dip into the 95%, and we always regret it. Live & learn.

It’s the same with a doubles partner. Everyone wants the “perfect” doubles partner. You always want someone better, faster, prettier, cooler… You never want to trade down to someone less-than. There’s something about a double that is unique from other team boats. Chemistry is vital in all team boats, but especially so in a double because it’s just you…and your partner. A good double is like a new happy relationship: You have that extra spring in your step. You feel like you and your partner can conquer the world. Everything is easy and fun. You have confidence in each other. You’re a team but also two individuals. In short, there’s tons of chemistry. By contrast, a bad double has all the horrifying aspects of a bad relationship. You’re stuck in this thing together. There’s bickering, blaming, and excuses. For some reason you can’t work together – in fact, you seem to be working against each other. And then every little thing about the other person starts bothering you – their mannerisms, their stupid jokes, their technique issues, the fact that their technique sucks and yours is so much better. You’re trying hard to work with them, but they aren’t working with you. It’s all their fault! And I’m just talking about same-sex doubles here.

Mixed doubles are a whole ‘nother deal. I don’t know about your rowing club, but I’ve never seen two people of the opposite gender get into a double for the first time and not be the subject of at least some idle chit chat. “Ohhh…you’re rowing with So & So…” Even when everything’s on the up & up – you are just friends – there’s still talk. And if you’re two single people and you happen to jump into a boat together, well, let’s just say that many a mixed double has turned into a Love Boat.

Don’t even get me started on the rowing & sex metaphors. “Was it good for you?” “Mmmm yeah, it was awesome for me…was it good for you?” “It wasn’t really good for me – we never got into a rhythm…I think we were going too hard too soon – we need to work into it more slowly next time and then take it up.” “Who stroked? She stroked it…” HELLOOO!!! Are we still talking about rowing here?? Good Lord. And I thought this was a family web site.

My advice for finding the top doubles partner, the one you always wanted but thought you could never get? It’s very simple: beat ‘em in a single.