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.

RI Blog #10: Injuries

Injuries

May 6, 2008

“Injury” is the Great Feared Word among competitive rowers. And the more competitive you are, the more you fear getting injured. If you’re in a group like Riverside Boat Club’s High Performance Group, for example, you’re training at least 9-12 times a week with a select crowd of highly competitive athletes who are all doing their utmost to improve individually and also kick your ass and everyone else’s. Your life consists of rowing, eating, and sleeping – in that order. If you work, it’s likely that at least part of your day is devoted to sleeping, when you’re not staring at your computer screen like a zombie. In a few cases, rowers of this caliber have real jobs. How they do it is beyond me (though I did spend one winter living that life and I had a real job, in addition to a wife and two small children). Rob Zechmann is one such example – he’s an engineer. There are many others. But the lucky ones in these groups have easier jobs, which require little to no thinking and may be part-time, or they have no jobs at all (i.e., mom & dad are footing the bill).

So everyone is beating the crap out of him/herself on a daily basis. Coaches love this – the harder they work their minions, the greater the chance of “natural selection:” the inevitable fact that some will get injured and have to drop out. That just makes the coach’s job easier! But for the athlete, getting injured is the worst-case scenario. When you’re living this life, you become addicted to it. You love the punishment, the exhaustion, because you have a single-minded focus of achieving what you always wanted to achieve – an ass-kicking performance at the ultimate race, the U.S. National or Olympic team trials. And if that doesn’t work out, you can take out your aggression at Club Nationals and/or Canadian Henley.

But it’s not just that one race you’re living for. You live for the process. The daily pieces against your peers. The progress that you’re making, week by week, as your body responds to the incredibly grueling schedule. Because if you don’t fall apart, you will get faster, unless your technique is simply beyond hope. Even then, you can hammer your way down the course – however grotesquely it may look – a lot faster than you could a few months prior.

But then something happens. Your worst nightmare. You’re powering along on a cold spring morning and feel a sharp pain in your lower back, or perhaps your rib. Or you’re in the weight room and you’re pissed off about something and lose your focus and overdo it. Or you don’t feel anything until the end of the workout when you try to lift your boat out of the water and again, there’s a sharp pain somewhere. And you say, “Noooo, noooooooo, this is not happening! It’s not an injury! It’s just a little pain. I’ll get over it. I have to get over it!” But the days pass, and you try to row and the pain not only doesn’t go away, it gets worse. Some, who are inexperienced (like I was in the early months of 2002) say, fine, the regatta is 2 months away, “I’ll train through the pain.” And if you’re that stupid, as I was, you will end up missing the entire season, as I did, and you will be completely and utterly heartbroken. But if you’re smart, you will say, ok, I will do what experienced athletes do and focus all my energy on healing the injury.

Unfortunately that requires a little thing called acceptance. And acceptance requires admitting it to others. And when you do, it’s like you’re telling them you have cancer or AIDS. They say, “Oh, I’m…..so, so sorry…” as if your mom had just died. They look at you with this very sad face, and then they slowly back away, because your injury cooties might rub off on them. And all of a sudden, just like that, you’re out of the group. You’re no longer joining in the reindeer games every day. While they’re all out there having fun (so to speak) on the water, you’re on the bike, nursing your broken rib. Or if you have a hamstring injury (like I did), you’re sitting in physical therapy, waiting in line for the electro-shock treatment with all the other pathetic souls. Your dream is shattered and your life is ruined. You cry yourself to sleep at night (okay maybe you only do that if you’re me). And worst of all, you talk, and talk, and talk……about your injury, to anyone who will listen. People in cafes. People on the subway. “See, I was going to be so great, and then I got injured…..” Of course you don’t talk about it that much to your rowing colleagues, because first of all, they really don’t want to hear about it (again, the injury cooties), and secondly, they’re all out there training like crazy and they simply don’t have the time, energy, or interest in playing psychologist/nursemaid to you.

But for the rest of the world who has to listen to you complain about it, have some pity on them and spare them ALL the details. Learn to sum it up in a few quick sentences, if you must talk about it. Or better, find a new hobby – you’ll be a lot happier in the end. And when you least expect it (later, not sooner), you’ll be recovered and back out there. It’s just a little injury after all.

RI Blog #9: Motivation

Motivation

April 30, 2008

It recently occurred to me that I’m entering my 24th rowing season, and I did not row in college. That is absolutely terrifying. “Midlife” is loosely defined as that point in time, usually at around 3 AM, when you face the stark realization that the number of years you have to look forward to is less than the number of years you have to look back on. However, given that definition, my “rowing midlife” is still far away, as I plan on 1) rowing until I die; 2) not dying at least until I’m well past 90; and 3) maintaining roughly the same quality of life that I have now. Ok maybe #1 is a little unrealistic. Let’s say I row til…say…85. That still gives me 37+ more years of rowing, putting my official rowing midlife at age 55 (do the math, 60 years of rowing, add 30 to age 25…). Hell, I’m a young’un! I turn 48 this summer, a whole 7 years away from my rowing midlife. And yes, I plan on winning my event in the Head of the Charles every single year after I turn 80 because I’m guessing there will be, at most, only 2-3 other competitors my age and my handicap will take care of the rest.

So the question gnawing at me today (and every season, actually) is, how in the hell do I stay motivated to keep doing this sport? I mean, what are we doing out there but the same thing, over, and over, and over. Sitting ass backwards and lurching our neck around every minute or so to make sure we don’t kill ourselves. As my dad’s squash coach in college said, looking over at the rowers, “I’ll never understand a sport where you can sit on your ass, go backwards, and WIN.” (Forgive me if I’ve used that in a previous blog…too senile to remember…too lazy to check.)

The answer is, for this masters rower, complicated. I think about rowing all the time, morning, noon and night. I love it so much that I think about it all winter. I think about it mostly when I’m not doing it. When I am doing it, I’m almost always as content as I can be, even when I have the dreaded crappy rows. Often I’m beyond content, existing in a state of complete fulfillment that nothing else can come close to. AND YET, I still struggle daily with motivation. Last Sunday was a perfect example. I had planned on showing everyone how awesome my newly weight-lifted muscles could propel me in my newly just-figured-out-how-to-row-in-it borrowed Van Dusen. Our Club, the estimable Riverside, held its annual Crusher Casey Challenge (CCC) Opening Day Race and Breakfast. I LOVE my club’s events, primarily because I love my rowing club. But I had stuff going on that weekend, it was supposed to be cold, and I went to bed late on Saturday night, lacking the proper “I’m getting up no matter WHAT because I’m gonna kick some ASS tomorrow!” attitude that is mandatory for racing. So I missed it. And of course, the water was absolutely perfect and it wasn’t that cold.

So I guess that’s the answer to “what motivates me:” Perfect water, or, the tremendous pain and remorse of not benefiting from perfect water on a gorgeous morning or evening. Any schmuck (sorry Howie) can blow off rowing when it’s windy or rainy. But it takes some real stupidity to blow it off when the water is good. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than seeing perfect conditions on the Charles and knowing I did not enjoy the sensation of propelling my single through that gorgeous water. Speaking of which, this week marks the first time that we’ll have several consecutive days of good weather. So….gotta fill the water bottle and run! The river awaits.

Motivation

April 30, 2008

It recently occurred to me that I’m entering my 24th rowing season, and I did not row in college. That is absolutely terrifying. “Midlife” is loosely defined as that point in time, usually at around 3 AM, when you face the stark realization that the number of years you have to look forward to is less than the number of years you have to look back on. However, given that definition, my “rowing midlife” is still far away, as I plan on 1) rowing until I die; 2) not dying at least until I’m well past 90; and 3) maintaining roughly the same quality of life that I have now. Ok maybe #1 is a little unrealistic. Let’s say I row til…say…85. That still gives me 37+ more years of rowing, putting my official rowing midlife at age 55 (do the math, 60 years of rowing, add 30 to age 25…). Hell, I’m a young’un! I turn 48 this summer, a whole 7 years away from my rowing midlife. And yes, I plan on winning my event in the Head of the Charles every single year after I turn 80 because I’m guessing there will be, at most, only 2-3 other competitors my age and my handicap will take care of the rest.

So the question gnawing at me today (and every season, actually) is, how in the hell do I stay motivated to keep doing this sport? I mean, what are we doing out there but the same thing, over, and over, and over. Sitting ass backwards and lurching our neck around every minute or so to make sure we don’t kill ourselves. As my dad’s squash coach in college said, looking over at the rowers, “I’ll never understand a sport where you can sit on your ass, go backwards, and WIN.” (Forgive me if I’ve used that in a previous blog…too senile to remember…too lazy to check.)

The answer is, for this masters rower, complicated. I think about rowing all the time, morning, noon and night. I love it so much that I think about it all winter. I think about it mostly when I’m not doing it. When I am doing it, I’m almost always as content as I can be, even when I have the dreaded crappy rows. Often I’m beyond content, existing in a state of complete fulfillment that nothing else can come close to. AND YET, I still struggle daily with motivation. Last Sunday was a perfect example. I had planned on showing everyone how awesome my newly weight-lifted muscles could propel me in my newly just-figured-out-how-to-row-in-it borrowed Van Dusen. Our Club, the estimable Riverside, held its annual Crusher Casey Challenge (CCC) Opening Day Race and Breakfast. I LOVE my club’s events, primarily because I love my rowing club. But I had stuff going on that weekend, it was supposed to be cold, and I went to bed late on Saturday night, lacking the proper “I’m getting up no matter WHAT because I’m gonna kick some ASS tomorrow!” attitude that is mandatory for racing. So I missed it. And of course, the water was absolutely perfect and it wasn’t that cold.

So I guess that’s the answer to “what motivates me:” Perfect water, or, the tremendous pain and remorse of not benefiting from perfect water on a gorgeous morning or evening. Any schmuck (sorry Howie) can blow off rowing when it’s windy or rainy. But it takes some real stupidity to blow it off when the water is good. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than seeing perfect conditions on the Charles and knowing I did not enjoy the sensation of propelling my single through that gorgeous water. Speaking of which, this week marks the first time that we’ll have several consecutive days of good weather. So….gotta fill the water bottle and run! The river awaits.

RI Blog #8: Rowing and Ballet

Rowing and Ballet

April 15, 2008

I had the opportunity to attend an interesting performance at Boston Ballet last week. My cousin, Margaret Tracey, is the head of the Boston Ballet school, having been a Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet for 16 years. She invited me as her guest to this intimate performance, showcasing a handful of the company’s finest dancers and explaining their techniques to a select group of Overseers and patrons.

I sat about 10-30 feet from the performers (depending upon where they were on stage), so this was ballet up close and personal. I have seen my cousin perform at Lincoln Center several times, all dolled up in her stage makeup and elaborate costumes, and she looked like a little butterfly, floating effortlessly on stage. But sitting this close to the dancers, I noticed the incredible athleticism involved in ballet, which is notoriously brutal on the dancers’ bodies  — especially their feet (as beautiful as they are, ballerinas typically have “gnarled” feet, so if you have a crush on a ballerina, don’t expect her to satisfy your foot fetish). The amount of effort put forth to make the dance look so effortless — complete with the obligatory smiles on their pretty faces — is staggering. Like all professionals, they make something incredibly difficult look so easy.

After I left, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between rowing and ballet. Like rowers, ballet dancers do it for the true love of the dance — you’ll never make a lot of money being a ballet dancer. (And for you dancers reading this, you’ll never make any money rowing! Have you ever seen an Olympic rower in a TV commercial or on the cover of a Wheaties Box?) I also thought of the lessons that rowers can learn from ballet. True, we don’t have to smile when we’re pulling our guts out in a race, but the idea of taking something so physically difficult and making it look graceful, elegant, and perfect is a goal that rowers should strive for. Watching an accomplished sculler, or the Danish women’s eight in the 2004 Olympics, you realize that perfect (or near perfect) technique can go a long way toward winning races. Sure, they’re pulling their guts out, but they make it look so easy. A perfect finish, blades out neat and square, followed by an effortless feather and perfect body angle before you go up the slide…complete preparation by quarter slide, and then dropping it in at the catch — not lunging it in, not slamming it in, not missing an inch of water because you hit it just right at the very end of the recovery — these are as beautiful to watch as my cousin as Princess Aurora in the NYCB’s long-running production of Sleeping Beauty (ok, had to get one more plug in there). And having it all happen 34 times a minute, all in perfect sync with the other rowers (if you’re not in a single), is art itself.

Think about the beauty and grace of what you’re doing next time you’re out there. And if it’s not beautiful or graceful, which is often the case for me, think about how to make it that way.

And now it’s 5 PM Eastern Blog Time, the wind has finally died down, and I think it’s time to have myself a little pas de deux with some of my friendly competitors on the good old Charles River. Until next time.

RI Blog #7: It’s Spring, And A Young Man’s Heart Turns To…

It’s Spring, And A Young Man’s Heart Turns To…

April 3, 2008

ROWING!! What else?

I rowed last night and it was about 35 degrees with a snappy, gusty breeze. My back was sore from lifting earlier in the day (see “bulking up” blog). And I realized the Van Dusen that I’ve been using while my King is in the shop is a lot less forgiving in the chop and wind than the King. And I’ve only “bulked up” a few pounds, so I’m not strong enough to muscle through the headwinds like I want to.

But mainly it was cold. DAMN cold. And yet, just being out on the water, hanging around the boathouse, seeing my friends…for a masters rower who avoids the boathouse from December until whenever it starts warming up, it’s an uplifting experience unlike anything else.

I’ve been there and done the all-winter erging thing, where you get to know the boathouse and all its inhabitants (including rats and squirrels) a lot more intimately than you ever wanted to. And you come to despise the sight of a rowing machine and yearn to pull real oars through the water. There’s a lot to be said for doing something totally different. If I were independently wealthy, I’d travel somewhere warm! Or at least be a ski bum. But for me, the “doing something different” consists of going to the gym mid-day during work and doing yoga, elliptical, maybe one erg a week, and some weights. Because then, when you return to the boathouse and get that first spring day, which for me would be TODAY (it’s almost 60 degrees out there!!!), it’s like heaven. The next step is…getting up in the morning. Now that would really be a miracle.

That’s it for this week – short & sweet! Unlike my stroke these days, which is long and choppy. Where is the technique this time of year? Nowhere at all. That’s why we have coaches. I just learned our first “fun” race – the Crusher Casey regatta – is in two weeks. Man do I have a lot of work to do.

RI Blog #6: Everything I Learned About Away Regattas…

Everything I Learned About Away Regattas…

March 20, 2008

Everything I learned about away regattas I learned during the summer of 2003. At two regattas, specifically. The first, Independence Day Regatta in Philadelphia, was, “how to do a regatta the wrong way,” with predictably mediocre results. The second, US Rowing National Championships (“Club Nationals”), a few weeks later, was where I learned from my mistakes and had some experienced help. It was almost as if it were meant to be that way, as the second regatta was the one I cared about, making the first one essentially a dress rehearsal.

I had no plan for Philadelphia. I drove down on Friday after work on Fourth of July weekend, got lost on the way down, and arrived later than expected at about 11 PM. I was supposed to meet my doubles partner, Brian Morabito, somewhere on the banks of the Schuykill to watch the fireworks (yeah, that was a good plan). I had no place to stay. When I got into the city, I got lost again and ended up in a bad part of town. Must have looked like quite the sight with my boat, in its bumble bee-styled cover (black & yellow stripes with a big eye on the front), on top of my Audi A6 wagon. I wasn’t trembling, but I didn’t exactly feel safe either. Kelly Drive was closed, so the plan to meet Brian was out, so I found a highway and saw signs for Bryn Mawr. I knew that town because Katharine Hepburn went to college there. I figured if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me. I found a nice hotel and got a room, thank God. It was about 2:30 AM.

Philadelphia was hotter than hell that weekend, as it is every Fourth of July weekend. On Saturday, we raced our heat and did well enough to qualify for the semis, but our rowing was pretty rough. After that, we spent a good part of the day walking around in the excruciating heat & humidity, looking for results to see how others did and who we’d face in the next race that afternoon. Big mistake! That tired me out big-time, but I didn’t have a clue. In the afternoon, we raced the semi and missed out on qualifying by several lengths. I had one more race the next day — a 1000-meter masters single race. I thought, hey, no problem!

I forgot to check the schedule for my race time on Sunday, which turned out to be sometime in the afternoon. So rather than basking in my awesome air-conditioned hotel room in Bryn Mawr all morning, I showed up on Boathouse Row at about 9 AM to make sure I didn’t miss my race and ended up hanging out in the heat all day. Didn’t matter that I was in the shade and sitting down. It was hotter than hell and twice as humid. By race time, I was faint and weak. I had a good start and hung with the front runners for about 750 meters, but then I totally bonked. I had nothing left and was completely dizzy and nauseous. I somehow made it to the end, getting fourth or something, but I limped over the line and felt like I was going to black out. I’ve never experienced heat stroke like that before or since.

Two weeks later at nationals, my roommates were Sean Wolf, Igor Belakovskiy and Pete Morelli. Amazing how being roommates can form the bonds of friendship. We had an awesome time and have been great friends ever since. Sean taught me everything I needed to know that week: Get a hotel NEAR the race course. Stay in your air-conditioned room – preferably in bed – most of the time when you’re not racing. Don’t worry about the results!! You have to row your own race anyway. If you can get them easily, fine, but don’t walk all over kingdom come in the heat to see how So & So from Michigan did. Finally, and most importantly, be prepared. Know the directions. Have a plan. Know the schedule and what time you have to race. Camden, NJ was just as hot as Philly had been, but Brian and I took silver in the Intermediate Light 2x, and I got a personal best for 2k in the single (despite just missing qualifying for the final).

One thing that eluded me was sleeping. I’m a very fidgety and light sleeper, especially when racing the next day. Sean gets horizontal and is out cold within five minutes – any time, day or night – and he could sleep through a hurricane. Oh well. Some things can’t be taught.

RI Blog #5: "It’s Not Personal, It’s Business"

“It’s Not Personal, It’s Business”

March 12, 2008

I love that tag line from The Apprentice.

The irony, however, is that everything in life is always personal. I suspect that Mr. Trump’s financial success, endless self-promotion, and enormous risk-taking are all deeply-rooted in his personality and background. The great rowing competitors that I’ve known take their sport very personally, as I suspect all athletes do. In Sara Hall’s book, “Drawn To The Rhythm,” she talks about how her personal experiences, going back to childhood, contributed to her ability to become a remarkably competitive sculler in her 40s in a sport she had never tried before. In a race, she could find that extra gear for deeply personal reasons. Her description of racing is one of the best I’ve ever read. I don’t have the passage in front of me, but essentially she describes all of the physical and mental agony of a race, and when she’s finished, she says (and I paraphrase), “It’s not fun. It is completely fulfilling.”

For me, rowing is intensely personal. It’s a positive outlet for age-old fears, doubts, and insecurities. It enables me to channel pent-up energy and frustration. I feel liberated after a good long row. And when I’m in a good mood, it’s even better. Gliding along a flat stretch of water on a cool morning gives me a sense of freedom that, for me, can’t be attained through any other medium. The combination of the physical and the spiritual blend into one. I just have to remember to keep looking around ever 3-4 strokes so I don’t crash into anything! (And yes, I’ve forgotten to do that a few times over the decades, and yes, I have paid the price.)

My mom once made an off hand “motherly” kind of comment that really bugged me. (If your parent doesn’t occasionally make a comment that pushes your buttons, please let me know so that I can grant you non-human status.) She said, “I think you should spend more time on your career and less time on all this working out, exercise stuff.” This from a woman who smokes and whose husband died of emphysema. She later retracted the statement, and I forgive her for stuff like that, for half the time, “she knows not what she says.” But it really got to me at the time. Hellooooo!!! Talk about just plain “not getting me.” Does she not realize how my career is simply there to pay the bills, provide for my existence, and essentially enable me to do the thing I truly love? Which would be…you guessed it. Row. Sure I like what I do – I had better, I spend a lot of waking hours doing it – but I’m not trying to claw my way up the corporate ladder for the sake of increasing my social and employment status, not to mention my blood pressure. Not that there’s anything wrong with it! (thanks “Seinfeld”) But it’s just not me. Greg Ruckman once asked me if I liked what I did for work. I said, “Greg, it enables me to row. And that’s all that really matters to me.” See that’s the wonderful thing about rowing – you don’t need to be a two-time Olympian (like Greg) to feel as passionately about the sport as he does.

When I was coaching a few years ago, I urged my guys to take all their personal “issues” – and who doesn’t have them? – and try to channel them. Most people have at least some anger, emotion, and competitiveness in them that has deep roots. I tried to my guys to channel it in a positive way before a race. Take all that life experience and channel it, and then bring it down to one simple idea before the starter says “Go.” And that one idea is, pull as hard as you freakin’ can for the next “x” minutes. Obviously there’s more to a race plan (see Tom Bohrer or many others for ideas). But some personal motivation can go a long way.

Over the past year and a half, I experienced what Queen Elizabeth described at the end of 1992 as an “annus horribilis” – Latin for, “a horrible year.” For her, it was the year her two sons, Charles and Andrew, got divorced, and Windsor Castle caught fire. For me, my brother Jay died, my father died, and my marriage broke up, all in a 13-month period from November 2006 to December 2007. As difficult as it has been, I take comfort in the many blessings that I have, and three spring to mind: The first is the perspective that can only be gained by being stripped down to my raw core, helping me better understand what’s truly important in this life. The second is the great loving friendship that I still have with my soon-to-be-ex, who I met at Riverside in 1989, and of course, the powerful love I share with my two wonderful children. And the third, without question, is rowing.

I think I’m starting to get excited to do some racing this year.

RI Blog #4: I’m On The Clear!

I’m On The Clear!

March 6, 2008

Yup. I finally did it. I got tired of my lifetime average weight of 148 lbs, around which I have not fluctuated more than a few pounds either way since I was 18. This summer I turn 48, so that would be three decades of some pretty serious weight stability.

Let’s just say I’m tired of being skinny and weak. I’ve been skinny and weak my entire life. When I was a kid, I got teased for being skinny and weak when I played Little League football. I played for the “Golden Buffalos” (named for the CU Buffalos in Boulder) in Denver, my hometown. My position was Left Out. Or Benchwarmer. Whichever you prefer. But all my buddies played, so I wanted to also. Besides, we always had games going in our yards, and I loved watching the Broncos, my favorite team, on TV. The coach would let me play guard or tackle when the game wasn’t on the line, which was a few plays a game. Offense or defense – it didn’t matter as long as I didn’t hurt the team. I liked crashing into people – when you’re a kid and have pads on, you really can’t get hurt that bad. It was fun. Practice was fun too, but I sure got teased. “Tracey – why don’t you gain some weight?” “Hey Tracey, what’s your last name?” Stuff like that. At the end of 7th grade, one of the star running backs wrote in my Yearbook, “Tracey – you’re a nice guy, but you’re too weak.” Gee thanks.

It wasn’t all bad. It helped me develop a thick skin and an attitude that would come in handy in adulthood, when I took up a sport where being skinny was actually helpful. See, in rowing, if you don’t weigh much, it’s less weight to pull through the water. Eureka! And, even better, you don’t have to be coordinated! I was in heaven. After many years of trying to figure out how to row, I finally found myself being able to beat the big clumsy oafs who used to beat me up on the playground (not the actual oafs, just similar oaf-types). Talk about redemption and vindication! Except for the big dudes who actually knew how to row – I couldn’t do much against them. But hey, life is about progress, not perfection.

So I had a few good years, as mentioned in previous blogs. But now, I find myself older, slower, and in serious need of some race-driven ego gratification. This winter, after dropping a lot of weight due to some unforeseen life issues (sorry, not gonna get all personal on you, but let’s just say it’s part of getting older), I have renewed my attention to….THE WEIGHT ROOM. And I’m happy to say that in two months, I gained back what I lost and then some. By lifting twice a week, I’m stronger and my joints feel better. Who knew? I just have to avoid what happened a few years ago: overdoing it and injuring my lower back. Hey, I CAN learn from experience. That’s one thing that getting older can do for you – provide wisdom.

So I’m talking to one of the trainers at my gym, a great guy named Jay. I asked him what he would suggest to bulk up, given that “bulking up” is all relative for me. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to give up my “light as a feather” advantage. But I would like to cease always having to pray for a tailwind. It would be nice to look at a headwind and say, “Hey, no problem.” Or at least, “Hey, maybe I won’t finish DFL.” Jay knows I’m lifting, and he knows a lot about gaining weight by increasing muscle mass. So he suggests this powder stuff to help my muscles heal faster – some protein/carb concoction. Muscles are all protein anyway! Hell, I never knew that. Well, my friends, today I have spooned some of this magic powder into my coffee, and…I’m hoping for the best.

In my event in last year’s Head of the Charles, this masters phenom named Greg Benning absolutely crushed the field, posting a new record time for the event of 18:19 (and change). He beat the legendary Tom Bohrer by 18 seconds! That’s some kind of margin. Only 10 guys finished within 5% of the winning time. I came in 11th, of course. But hey, it was a “comeback year.” I started 55th. But enough about me, for once (for a few sentences). Looking at the results, my friend Dino said, “Is he on the clear? I think he’s on the clear!” I cracked up. I knew Dino was joking (he was), but it was amusing. No, Greg was not on the clear, that I know of. He just trained like crazy, and he earned it fair & square. I am in great admiration of any achievement like that, especially at mid-life. So bravo, Greg. One guy grumbled something to the effect of, “Well, if I had all that time to train, I’d be faster too.” Well, if I had $5 million in the bank, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here typing these words right now. Everyone has excuses after a race. I just go with “I’m skinny and weak.” It works for me. But…not this year…WA HA HA HA. I got myself some “clear.” Ok not really – it’s just over the counter muscle stuff. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be a little less skinny and weak this year.

RI Blog #3: The Fountain of Youth

The Fountain of Youth

February 28, 2008

I’ll never forget the summer of 2001. If 1985 was my “Summer of Love,” then 2001 was my “Summer of Miracles.” I’d been a hack sculler since I taught myself how to scull in 1989, having moved downstream to Riverside Boat Club from CRI. I had a hard time motivating myself to even practice, getting out 2-3 times a week until I got my inevitable singles entry in the Head of the Charles, when I’d up the frequency to 3-4 times a week. For some reason, finishing under 10% of the winning time would get you in the next year, no matter what. Not sure if that’s still the case.

In 2000, we had a new coach, Kevin McDonnell. I liked Kevin a lot. Maybe it was his youthful enthusiasm. A lot of it was that I could understand him, unlike the previous coach, Datsi, whose English, if you could call it that, was virtually incomprehensible. Because of Kevin – but more because of a certain extremely cute sculler who I had a crush on – I decided to show up every day in 2000. You see, I turned 40 in 2000, and I was a Midlife Disaster Waiting To Happen. Fortunately for everyone involved, the object of my affection was married, as was I, and she pretty much didn’t have a clue that I existed. But the upside was that by practicing more, and actually listening to Kevin, I improved my finish to 4th place in my new HOCR category, the Senior Masters Single. I even beat the legendary Jamie Gordon from Philly, who had won the Masters Single handily the two previous years at age 38 and 39. I was psyched! I was so psyched, in fact, that I actually ergged once or twice a week that winter. I never knew what “winter training” was before that.

So into the 2001 season I bounded, full of vim and vigor and extreme cluelessness. Kevin was out there every morning with a whole passel of scullers. There was no “High Performance Group” at Riverside back then, so we got to train with Marika Page, Kent Smack, Dave Gabel, and many others who went on to greatness. Kent & Dave were just figuring out how to row, but by the end of the summer they managed to do well enough to go to Worlds as the U.S. Men’s 2x after a stunning trials upset.

My summer could not have gone better, rowing-wise. I entered a dozen races, and I got first or second in every one. They included a few non-masters events, the most exciting of which, for me personally, was the lightweight single at Riverside’s Cromwell Cup, where I beat Sean Wolf in the heats by 36 seconds (yes, they were separate heats, but as everyone knows, you can compare heat times when you win, but not when you lose). A dumbfounded Sean said to me after the regatta, “You don’t understand! I was on the national team last year!” I looked at him and said, “You don’t understand, you’ve only been sculling for a week and I’ve been at it for 12 years!”

At the Head of the Connecticut that fall, I had the privilege of rowing with Sean, one half of the 2000 U.S. Light Pair, in the Masters Double, and with Tom Keister, the other half of the 2000 U.S. Light Pair, in the Champ Quad – on the same day (Tom and Sean both referred to that boat as the “coxed single”). I won with Tom (along with Kevin McDonnell and Jim Donahue), but Sean and I got aced out by a few seconds due to handicapping. Grrrr… masters rowing – the handicap is only good when you win….

A few weeks later, I got 2nd in the Charles, four seconds behind Jamie Gordon. He and I would go back & forth for the next several years in a friendly rivalry that was truly awesome to be part of. In November, I decided to go to Princeton, New Jersey for the 8k Speed Order, an experience that I could bore you with over an entire blog, but will spare you this time because I’m feeling generous (and getting short on word count). The snotty Princeton undergrad doing registration, ensconced in her gazillion dollar boathouse on Lake Carnegie, looked at my puzzled face when she handed me bow #1 and said, “It’s a duplicate number. You’ll be starting last.”

Well, I finished 4th, behind Rich Montgomery, some other dude, and fellow RBC-er Tom Keister, who got me by 10 seconds (I never, ever beat Tom in a single…that was as close as I ever came). Ahhh, the good old days, when I was a young, cocky whippersnapper in my early 40s….  I only have one question: where the hell is that fountain of youth now? I could sure use it.

RI Blog #2: The Older You Get

The Older You Get…

February 20, 2008

One of the nuggets of rowing wisdom passed down through the ages goes as follows: The older you get, the faster you were.

Yes, dear readers, the great thing about getting older in rowing is…well, it’s like the “fish” story of old. You caught a fish that was “this big” (arms outstretched, the distance between them widening as you tell the story). I knew I was in big trouble last summer when my long-time rival, “Crazy Bob” Eldridge, introduced me to his mixed doubles partner as a “former has been.” “It’s even worse than being a has-been,” he explained to her. Knowing Bob as well as I do, I didn’t take it to heart, but instead laughed heartily as I redoubled my psyche and used the comment to prepare myself for kicking his ass later that day. (Fortunately it worked, as both races were doubles races, and he chose novices as partners while I was smarter and chose aces.)

But I digress! You see, for those of us who never made it to the Holy Grail of rowing, which is, indisputably, competing at the World Championships, or, better, the Olympics, the rest is just…whatever we choose to make it. But that is precisely what makes rowing such an awesome sport. You can truly enjoy it at every level, and you can enjoy the competitiveness at every level, if you are so inclined – as I am, said Mr. Eldridge is (ya think?) and countless others are. The little, and not-so-little, victories are the stuff that gets us up in the morning. Beating someone new during pieces on a random summer morning – someone who gave you a look before the piece like, “who the HELL are you??” – and then seeing his (or her) dumbfounded face afterwards…these experiences can carry you through the rest of the summer. Or at least get you up the next morning at 5 AM.

So when you get to be my age (God I sound old saying that!), you will hopefully have one or two seasons you can look back on to bore people with…over, and over, and over. Problem is, you can’t bore the SAME people with these stories over and over because, well, it starts to get kind of embarrassing. You have to find new victims (see “rowing evangelist” in my last blog).

My rowing career – the part in which I actually had some competitive results to even speak of – was far too short, encompassing a few seasons in my early 40s. But that means my stories of incredible triumph against all odds, facing competitors far bigger and much meaner than I, are innumerable. Adding great drama to my stories was the fact that I rowed my wife’s boat, a beautiful King that I inherited when she hurt her back and got pregnant, simultaneously (I was only responsible for ONE of those two events – honest!). So I was “the skinny old man rowing the wooden boat.” It made for great copy, let me tell you. Especially since I was the one writing the copy.

So stay tuned, and I will bore you to tears with stories so great, so incredible, so inspiring, that you will turn to this blog eagerly every week to see how I can outdo the last load of you-know-what! But alas, I’m out of word count. And I have to stick to my word count promise to Sean or….he might tell you the truth in one of his blogs.

Til next time, in which I may discuss one of my other “Tracey’s Axioms of Rowing,” such as, “In rowing, all you need to do is stay in the sport, not die, keep competing, and eventually you will win a TON of medals!” Either that one or “Finding a Mixed Doubles Partner Is Like Getting a Date To The Prom.” I have a week to decide.

Cheers!