Rowing? What’s that?

Funny thing about starting a rowing blog and then…not being able to row. Every year I have my Annual Spring Injury. No matter what I do or don’t do, at some point during the spring, I have an injury or some kind of interesting event that takes me out for a while. So far, I have managed to get back in the game early enough to do some summer races and then train for the fall head season, which is what I live for (for the non-rowers, head races are longer, 3 miles or so, while “sprints” are 1k or 2k, on a buoyed course, with a starting line and finish line).

Lance Armstrong’s book was entitled “It’s Not About The Bike.” Well, for me, for the time being, it’s going to be all about the bike. I went on my first ride the other night, going 23 miles to Lincoln and back via Trapelo Road. I had forgotten just how many steep hills there are from Cambridge to Lincoln on that route, but you know what? I friggin loved it. I may have to buckle down and get a new road bike this year, though I have a strong sentimental attachment to my 35-year-old Eisentraut Limited bike, which was a pretty elite racing bike when it was made in 1977 and still rides nicely (Albert Eisentraut was a well known frame maker based in Oakland in the 70s and 80s, and I bought the bike from the brother of a good friend of mine, Stewart Hilliard).

So I start PT on Monday and will hope for the best. I had this thing all year last year, but it wasn’t too bad. I iced it and just rowed through it. Then after the Head of the Charles last fall, I entered into a life of serious laziness, which I often do during the winter months, choosing to exercise only a few times a week. It was even worse this year, as I had lost my job and was no longer on a regular schedule. For most of my athlete buddies, this would have meant working out like 4-6 hours a day, but not me. Nope, I see a window of opportunity to be a complete slug, and I jump all over it. The benefit was that, after a few months of doing very little, the pain in my elbow was completely gone. I couldn’t believe it, and I was gearing myself up for the first Spring Season Without Injury.

But alas, it was not to be. I went to Colorado in February for my mom’s 82nd birthday and got a little too cocky. I lifted weights in the hotel gym and did some dumbell curls, only to realize afterwords that I was the real dumbell. Then I went skiing at Snowmass and woke up the next day feeling massive pain in my arm. I think it was the combination of those two events, but probably the weights – I can’t see how skiing can mess up your elbow.

I returned to amazing weather here in Boston in late February and went for a wonderful 9-mile row. Except it wasn’t that wonderful, because my arm was killing me after – it actually started hurting about six miles in.

So it’s back to the bike, rehab, and lots of hopes & prayers. It could be worse – last year I was almost killed when I had a head-on collision with a Boston College varsity women’s eight, doing 3-minute pieces at full pressure and high ratings. I was up past CRI, where the Newton Yacht Club stands opposite a massive sand bar, allowing only a small channel in which to pass. I was looking into the sunset going upstream and, in so doing, turned around often to make sure no one was coming (knowing the dangers). I saw nothing, and I had polarized sunglasses on, so I would have seen a boat coming even with the glare. But there is a slight bend in the river as you approach the yacht club channel. After 5-10 strokes or so, I turned around again and there were two eights, going full blast, with a coach behind them. They were doing 3-minute pieces at high rating and full pressure, upping the rating during the pieces. The two eights were side by side and the one toward the middle of the river was coming directly at me. I would guess it was maybe 20 feet away. I’m not sure, but it was clear there would be a crash. I screamed in panic, “hold water,” but to no avail. They were hauling ass and there was no way the cox could have heard me. I had just enough time to take one hard stroke with my starboard oar and then another quick short stroke with both. Just as I was doing that second short stroke, WHAM!!! the eight hit my boat at an angle, just about where my foot stretchers are. Busted the Van Dusen wing rigger in half, tore the gunnel up pretty badly, and sent me into the river, which was cold but only thigh-deep, as I was on the sandbar.

It was all fixed and I was not seriously hurt, but… that was my training-delaying experience last spring. I can’t help but relive the experience from time to time – had I not turned around, that eight would have gone right through my back, and I’m not sure what the consequences of that would have been, except to say, not good. Maybe having a little tendonitis isn’t so bad by comparison?


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 ( 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.