Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Indoor Rowing

[Temporarily borrowed photo of the British Indoor Rowing Championship.]

I had been training for the 2012 Tour de Tucson but was having difficulty finding the motivation to put in the necessary miles. Then two weeks before the event I learned that my friend whom I was planning to meet in Tucson had pulled out of the event. I was discouraged and relieved at the same time. That same day I ordered online a Concept2E rowing machine (ergometer).

The purchase of this erg was less impulsive than it sounds, as I had been talking about it for several years but was waiting for my enthusiasm for cycling to die down. (There is some literal truth to this as my good cycling friend Fred Fischer actually did die unexpectedly). Furthermore, as I approached my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something new.

My erg arrived on November 7, 2011. Erik, Grant, and I set it up and did what comes naturally; we all attempted a 500m sprint and recorded the results. My initial goals were to achieve a 2k in under 7 minutes and achieve the 90th percentile in my age group.  Well, since it only took me 15 days to go under 7 minutes, I started to make some more ambitious goals.

I learned that in the Southwest USA there are two main indoor rowing competitions, the San Diego Indoor Classic (Jan 28, 2012), and the Long Beach Indoor Sprints (Feb 4, 2012). At first I wanted to attend those events as a spectator but then I decided that I should compete and use the ambiance to achieve a personal best.

I fanatically read the Concept2 forums to learn all I could about training and racing strategies--especially drag factors was a big concern of mine. I knew that my cardiovascular system was in peak condition (almost) from cycling, and my legs were also strong, but my back and arms were a little atrophied from all the cycling. Since I naturally have a strong back, and since there have been times in my life that I have worked my back hard with weights and yard work, I had a pretty good idea about how long it would take to build my upper-body strength.

My training strategy was fairly simple. I tried to spend as much time at race pace as possible without over training (short intervals). That means my total volume was low but my quality was high. I rowed five or six days a week, two speed days per week and one or two tempo days per week. I allowed my body weight to increase to 208. It was really enjoyable not to have to keep my weight down as I did in cycling events. In rowing my extra weight would not be the handicap it was in cycling, although extra fat is still a handicap.

On Feb 4th I drove myself to San Diego and couldn't find the event or a parking space. So after a bit of panic I finally parked a mile away at Mission Beach and hiked to the competition. I was greeted by a happy woman at the registration table but all I could say was, "I didn't know there would be no parking; I didn't train for that." She happily said, "Well, now you know."  I tried to muster a little happiness and wistfully said without making eye contact, "Maybe I'm taking this competition too seriously."

I walked around and sized up the event and saw Steve Krum, age group world champion for the last two years, who unfortunately was in my race. So I had no illusions about winning on this day. I simply had my own target pace and was attempting to achieve a new personal best.

When it was time to stage, I was in lane one, David Frost (President of the San Diego Rowing Club and past winner) lined up next to me in lane two. Steve Krum was in lane three. Two of the race officials approached Frost and Krum and said that they would be putting their foot on the back of their machines to prevent their machines from hopping during the first few violent pulls (legal assistance). Immediately I turned to the officials and asked, "Is this a service that you provide everyone?"  The race officials looked at each other quizzically and one said, "We can." In retrospect I wish I had said nothing but I was feeling edgy and competitive, about to have a self-inflicted near death experience and wanting every microsecond.

"Sit Ready." "Attention." Row!" And we were off. I raced without my glasses and could not read the bottom half of my screen to know what place I was in. I didn't care because I was doing my own thing. I had targeted a pace of 1:39 per 500m. I did not want to do what is called a "fly and die" which is when beginners go out too fast at first and then can barely finish. My race strategy was even splits, start to finish, which I achieved. I finished in 6:36.8 drag factor 135, second place to Krum and third for the entire event. I was happy with that. Afterward, Frost and I shook hands and he said, "See you on the water," which to me suggested that he was a little frustrated about losing to two ergers who had never rowed on the water. Ha.

Afterward there were a few people who were interested to know who I was. One of the race officials said that while I was rowing, they were trying to figure out who I was (and probably if I was going to fly and die). I must have looked a little funny because my stroke rate per minute was probably the highest of the day, which means that I was relying on cardiovascular fitness more than strength to achieve my results.

It seems that I am a small rower when compared to others at my speed. In rowing I have to compete against Goliaths, many of whom I can slay but there are some that I can never slay--physically impossible.

The next week in Long Beach I improved my time to 6:34.5 drag factor 140. The Long Beach event seemed bigger and had some more very fast times. I saw Krum again, and also Mike Caviston who was another age group world champion and author of the famous Wolverine Plan for rowing training. But the highlight was another guy, Jack Nunn, who was the best rower of the day. I talked to him a bit after his race and he told me that he was using a drag factor of 140 with a stroke rate of 31. I concluded then that if such a musclar guy could use a drag of 140 then I surely do not need to go any higher, if that, but I will experiment.

I hung around until the end of the event and then purchased one of the almost-new machines to bring back home to my cycling buddy, Brian McNeece and his wife Angie, which I set up in their house and gave them a quick introduction. I hope they become converts and will want to compete next year.

I still haven't decided how far I want to take this rowing thing. For now I am going to focus on yardworkouts.

Check out this clip of Cracknell and Pinsent in one of the all time great match ups.

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