One rower, two rower, three rower, four

Coming off the water, ironically my sculling buddy and I landed on the subject of numbers and counting.  Ironic because I’d already planned to write about counting in the blog. It just proved what I’d already been thinking.

Rowers are obsessive counters.

We were talking about breaking the long pieces into survivable units. She mentioned breaking the strokes into sets of 77 because it’s more manageable than 100. That, and, she says the Lord’s Prayer, which is 77 words.  “Our <stroke>…father<stroke>…who<stroke>…art<stroke>…in<stroke>…heaven…help…me…survive…this…head…race.”

Maybe not exactly like that.

In the last rowing week, I commenced long-distance training in the 1x. I exceeded my total weekly goal of 44 kilometers, and hit 47. I am alternating short/long days, with two long rows a week. Last week the long rows were 11k; this week they will be 12k. The focus of the week was technique, technique, technique. On every row I worked on refining every part of the stroke. Not all at once–each day had a slightly different focus. I started working on my hands, finding the right grip, and the release. I shifted into keeping my weight off the oars. Another row I worked on power application, making sure to be even and to roll from my toes to the heels. I rowed with my feet out for several kilometers. I flattened my hands across the top of the grip. I rowed with one finger. I tried squeathering and on the square every other.

By Friday I had 12 new blisters and two open wounds. My lower back is tight and sore and my chest aches in ways I did not think possible from rowing.

After eight months of sprint training, making the switch to head racing played games with my mind. Plus I’m going from the 8+ where other people are depending on you, the cox is thinking and steering for you, and you can hide a weak stroke. In the 1x, your fate is on your boat and no one else is there to bail you out.

Eleanor Logan on the US Rowing National Team has done the same leap. After winning gold in the London 2012 Women’s 8+, she’s switched to a single. About the switch:

Logan said earlier this year that transitioning from the eight to the single “is definitely a challenge, but something that I’m finding I enjoy. It drives me, and it’s fun to explore that area of my ability. I love the eight, but the single is completely different. The single exposes every weakness.”

And that it has. My grip is hard like a sweep rower’s, my posture collapses, sometimes I jump the last quarter, I don’t pull my elbows through, and I’m wobbly. Just for starters.

It was the counting that really drove home what a mind game single sculling is. Wednesday we had about 5k back to the boat yard against the tide. I decided to try and break it up into 100’s. I used to count by 100’s last head season. “100 strokes all swing–” or “100 strokes really keep pressure on the legs.” No big deal.

After counting in small bits like 10’s, 20’s, and 30’s, it is a big deal.

100 never seems to come. Sometimes I’d say, “In this 100, you are going to sit up every stroke,” and by number 50 I’d forgotten and was daydreaming about pretty clouds, or work later, or dinner. After one set, I would look back over my shoulder to see the progress made towards the mangroves or a far-off marker. Response: “I’ve only come this far? Boy, this sucks!”

On occasion, I’d do a set of 100 where I’d row a power 10/steady 20 or vice versa. Instead of counting “31,” I’d start back on “1” and have to remind myself “32, 33.”

Finally I’d count 89, and then it was, “Oh! You only have 10 left! Okay, time to get back on your drill!”

Plus steering and all that.

Rowers are obsessive counters. In the 8+, I had it down to a science. I knew that our race should be 120 strokes or less. The fewer, the better. I knew that it was five off the platform, 15 high, and it should be another 20 to 250. I would break the middle into two segments and count. If the cox’n said power 10, I’d stop my count and start with the 10. We’d hit the red buoys and I’d start right on 10, knowing in another 10 we’d go up, and then another 10, and another 10 to sail through the finish. At practice, if the coach called anything with numbers, like a pyramid, every stroke had a number. And trust me, if the cox’n called the power early or late, I knew it. I’d shout out the real number because it would irritate me that the count was off!

I’m not the only one who would do that, either. Stroke seat would also count every stroke.

Counting in the 1x and for such long distances is hard. One of my coaches used to say rowing a head race with Masters is difficult because we have ADD. We’ll have a solid start and everyone would be synced up. Around 1700 meters people would forget they were racing and stare at the scenery or think about what to cook for dinner that night.

I understand what they mean now.

But the numbers drive us. Rowing is such a precise sport, technically demanding, and mathematically beautiful. We row in 8’s, 4’s, quads, doubles, pairs, and singles. We symmetrically arrange our riggers and our oars. We measure the inboard and outboard, the tracks, the hulls, our buoyancy, our weight. Our speed is measured in strokes by the minute. We speak of “ratio” and counting the length of the recovery versus the drive. Our run is measured in the distances from puddle to puddle. Every race is measured in meters. To rate ourselves, we speak of erg scores, measured on our 500-meter average over a set distance, like 2000 or 5000 meters. We know how far each segment of the waterway is, from marker to marker, where a good 1k course is, and how long it should take us to get there. Rowers know wind speed, tidal movement, sunrise and sunset times. Our competitive boats aim to be the “fastest oldest boat.” We assess our competition by their age and handicap. We are a sport of numbers.

It’s no wonder that rowers seek to break the repetition of our strokes into smaller, manageable segments. We use numbers to bring meaning and focus. A start 5, high 10, shift 10. Power 10, Power 20. Last 250. Sprint 20.

And so we prepare for head races. Short counts don’t work. In an 8+, we count 100s. A head race should be 6 sets of 100, depending on wind, current, and crew. We plan for the start, the middle, and the end.

Sitting in the 1x, as I re-learn how to count 100 and become accustomed to how far 100 will get me, I am learning I may need a new system to survive 5000 meters, 10000 meters, etc. Since it’s just me, I can do whatever I want.

Maybe I will start, “Our Father who art in heaven, help me survive this head race….”

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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