Rowing: First 5K in 30 Years, or The Land of the Comeback Athlete

I rowed a 5,000 meter trial this morning with my crew of eight in preparation for a race of that length next Saturday. I have lived to tell the tale. There is always a tale.

I am what I like to call a Comeback Athlete. I am quiet, but I have something to prove. A whole agenda to prove. I have more chips on my shoulder than the guy who cleans the machines at the Lays factory. I am not a skilled athlete, just an enthusiastic one. Because of this, people in my youth got down on me pretty hard (or I imagined they did) about my ever-expanding catalog of failures. Baseball, soccer, college rowing — the whole career.

Not me. But I understand.

Not me. But I understand.

So all that was left to me was to be tougher, or try to be. To surprise people who expect me to cave by crossing the line anyway, by standing up after getting knocked down, by showing up for the next practice. On this goal, I have based my entire athletic endeavor. And I gotta tell you, one of the sweetest things I ever heard was when the people who were certain I would never play adult baseball shook their heads and said, “Dang. He really did it. How about that?” (Well, it was more along the lines of “Fuck’s sake. If he can hit…”.)

I am 52. I rowed in college, and came back to it three months ago after a 30 year break because my wife and son joined their respective age divisions at the local boathouse. I have loved every second of getting back on the water. I skipped the first two big regattas of the year because I didn’t think my fitness level was up to it yet. The last thing I wanted to do was bonk 2,500 meters into a race and let down a whole boat.

But I began to feel that if I skipped another, my courage might legitimately come into question. My fitness has ramped up sharply, and my technical rowing skills have improved, although perhaps not as much as my fitness. It is time, as noted oarswoman Eleanor Roosevelt said, to force myself to do the thing I think I cannot do.

So I was glad when our coach decided to make Sunday morning’s practice a simulated 5K, the length of the Head of the Giblet race we will enter next Saturday on Turkey Lake in Orlando, Fla. Was I afraid I might bonk? Fail? Expire? Sure. Was I going to do it anyway?  Damn right.

As is usually the way with such races, the first six minutes of the total 18 or so were fine, strong, technically pretty good. Pressure in the legs flowed, recoveries up the slide were reasonable, timing pretty solid. And also typically, about the 13th minute, we began to get tired, to lose mental toughness — me especially. I am in the No. 5 seat, a starboard oar, placed behind a very solid and experienced No. 6 — I doubt that was an accident. Because of this, I was able to pick out a spot on the back of my crewmate’s head and focus on it. Eyes in the boat, not side to side. My business is in the boat.

About that 13th minute, our coxswain wisely called (at the coach’s suggestion) for a Posture Five, five strokes in which we maintain our 28-strokes-per-minute pace but focus on posture and position — to get up straight, to allow the maximum oxygen to get into our lungs, to put off fatigue, to stem the flow of lactic acid. It worked. The boat glided again.

But what was coming, we all knew, the experienced and novice oars alike. The last 1,000 meters. That anaerobic hell of our own making, the crumbling of form under the relentless artillery of fatigue, the world of don’t-have-it-but-must-find-it. Fear, loathing, and the respiratory distress unto death.

We operate as a crew. Win and lose together. Never call out an individual during a race or in front of the rest of the team. But in the business of scraping our souls for the last, best weapons to beat fear, we are all on our own. Some guys yell, like cowboys moving a herd. Others pinch their faces and look straight ahead. Some encourage the others and take the energy back from that. All do it, whatever their method, above the shouting of the coxswain and the screaming of their thighs, fighting against all reason for the promise of glory, or at least the absence of regret.

And so I did. I dug; I actually created for myself the image of digging in dirt for a tiny jewel of energy that would save me. Even so, the last 1K was sloppy, form-challenged, painful, horrid….but I hate to think what it would have been like without that image.

And I want another chance. Now I know that, two and half times the age I last tried it, I can do it again. I will not die. I will not get hurt. I will not cave. I will let no one down. I will do the thing I think I cannot do.

Ten minutes later, as we shouldered the boat into its rack in the boathouse, I may have felt on me the eyes of one or two of the crew who are apprehensive about my performance next week. Or I may have imagined it. I don’t care; I’ve been dealing with doubters my whole life. If the coach or boat captain took me aside and said, “Look; you’re just not ready yet,” I would step aside for the good of the boat. And there will be other races.

But if they don’t, I’ll be in that No. 5 seat, and I’ll pull my ass off. It’s what Comeback Athletes do.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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One thought on “Rowing: First 5K in 30 Years, or The Land of the Comeback Athlete

  1. Keep pushing. Or, in this case, pulling.

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