Saturday, July 23, 2016

Global Rowing

My quad in Durban!

I have never figured out how to combine my crazy travel schedule with rowing in other countries, but this morning it all came together in a mixed 4x in Durban, South Africa. Mark Burgess, the president of the Durban Rowing Club, responded to my email, and said "Yes! Please come and row!" 

Almost as far away as you can get from Boston, in the middle of a dark, chilly winter (it was 93 degrees in Boston), we launch in the very beginnings of dawn onto an active harbor. Rowing around 3 meter high bouys that guide tugboats pushing fully loaded ocean liners, and then darting around those looming liners and building-high stacks of shipping crates was a surreal experience. I work to match up with the person in front of me while my starboard oar washes out with a gunwale high wave. This isn't the Charles River!

About half-way into our row, we pause in a glassy section and watch as the flaming ball of sun rises over the horizon. We rowers, from opposite hemispheres of this planet, share the moment in silence, then spin and head back through the wide open harbor, turning into tugboat wakes, and pull hard against the tidal current.

As we return to the dock, Mark says "What a great row. Come back tomorrow for an 8+!"

I grin happily. "Of course!" 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stolen November Morning

Mid-November is post-season in the rowing world. The last of the regattas are over, winter training is around the corner, and the cold, dark mornings don't suggest water sports. A late November morning on the water is not expected. It is stolen.

Yesterday's rains came with 20 mph winds and temperatures in the 30s. Icy docks and gusty waves kept me off the river and consigned me to my basement erg. It was a long, lonely workout I was desperate not to repeat.

This morning is warmer though still cloudy, but the river calls faintly, and I decide to give it a try. Two faithful friends join me and we launch in the pitch black, little red and green lights bravely shining from our bows. Silently we shove, breaking the silence only with the plop! of the oars and the whisper of the water flowing by the hull. Although their bow lights are visible, my friends are not, and I row in virtual solitude for the first 2000 meters.  We meet at our agreed upon rest area, for reassurance more than rest.  We continue 9000 meters into the middle of the Charles basin and spin.

Three of us side by side, in a vast expanse of flat water, and a city skyline peppered in lights, outlined in gradually brightening clouds. No red. No flames. No explosive dawning of a new day.

"Where's the beautiful sunrise?" I ask, thoroughly disappointed at the monochrome dawn.
"It's too cloudy" comes Loryn's practical response.

I watch a bit longer, hoping for color, but greeted by none. I know we have to head home, and I fight the feeling that daybreak has let me down.

Our return row is long, but as I relax, the familiar rhythm and flow takes over. There are few boats to be seen and the river is ours. I remember why I am here, and begin to enjoy myself.

As the last stretch approaches, Loryn slows down for me to catch up. We row, side-by-side, stroke-for-stroke, for the full 1200 meters. Catch and press...glide, Catch and press...glide. We mirror each other, pair partners in different boats, perfectly matched, rowing in sync. The rhythm of the late fall morning is ours.

One last November morning, stolen from the cold, snowy winter that lies ahead.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fall Rainstorm

New England skies let loose pent-up summer grief that pours down in steady streams of finality. Green leaves give up their vibrancy as daylight loosens her grasp around the edges. Autumn rain cleans up uncertainty as she washes away the last of vacation and prepares the earth for the inexorable seasonal shift toward darkness and cold. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Morning row after the equinox

The predawn black with its tight grasp on the world swallows me as I shove off the dock. My oars slice through a misty aloneness that is both calm and wary. 8 kilometers of silent rowing until the edge of night starts smudging with grey. I spin in the basin and face the city skyline edged in a scarlet aura of possibility. The red sky expands, stretching fingers of light into the fading ebony of night, then leaps down to the water around me and the world explodes in a wildfire of dawn.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Today I bought a phone in Ethiopia.

Today I bought a SIM card in Ethiopia.

The internet has been out in Addis Ababa since yesterday, and I decide it is time to buy a SIM card so I am not completely cut off from the world. The hotel reception sells these. I grab my wallet and head downstairs, phone in hand.

This should be the end of my story, and instead it is only the beginning. I must change the first sentence. 

Today I bought a phone in Ethiopia.

It should have been so simple--- a SIM card for my African Nokia. Instead, it becomes a 2 hour adventure, back and forth around my neighborhood (where the main dirt road has a 2 meter wide canyon running it’s length as a new sewer system is built. Area merchants have placed metal barrel lids nailed together, or 2x4s, to aid pedestrians, dogs and goats in the harrowing crossing, and the busy shopping district provides scores of observers eager to offer advice and delighted to witness my unusual odyssey.

With the help of a woman police officer, I am guided across an unstable 2x4 to the phone store (a 3-sided tin box), where they spend a lot of time figuring out that my phone (purchased in Malawi) won't accept an Ethiopian sim card, so I have to buy a new ETHIOPIAN NOKIA (buy stock in NOKIA. They have a brilliant business plan). I lack cash, and the Tin Box doesn’t take plastic. But the shop owner points down the road to an ATM. I proceed across the canyon (a middle-aged gentleman urges me “to run quickly to not fall in”) and find the ATM (doesn't take foreign cards), am directed to a second ATM back on the first side of the road (broken), and I return for further instruction to the Tin Box (in the process of this, I inadvertently pick a nice man's phone up from the counter and walk off with it). I follow their directions to the bank (across the road again) where they make copies of my passport, my Massachusetts driver's license, my ATM card, and an old Harvard ID. The nice man’s phone rings. I ignore it. It rings again. I ignore it again. It rings again and I answer it, (as I am filling out a third Byzantine form in triplicate) and say I will bring the phone back in 5 minutes.  I hang up. It rings again—and a voice speaks in Amharic. (I don't even know how to say "I don't understand" in Amharic--a professional oversight). A few minutes later, as I am standing in line in front of a teller behind iron bars, a young boy sporting a tattered "England" football jersey comes running in and taps me on the arm. "Phone! phone!" and he thrusts a striped plastic bag in my hand and grabs the nice man’s phone. I assume the kid’s legit and I let him have the phone (honestly, it happens so fast, I couldn't have stopped him), but now I am holding a bag containing an ETHIOPIAN NOKIA I haven't paid for. I can’t run after the kid, because the bank teller slides a HUGE pile of cash through the iron bars, which won’t fit in my wallet, and is (embarrassingly) too big for my bra. I stick it in my waistband and hurry back to the Tin Can, crossing the now familiar chasm that is my street. The kid is there, and so is the nice man with his phone. The shop owner holds out his hand for my cash. I reach into my pants (by now the money has slipped well down into my somewhat sweaty crotch) and pull out the damp bills. I peel off the requisite number and lay them on the board. The kid watches me with disbelief (Americans on TV carry purses). I shrug, stick the money back in my pants and walk proudly back to the hotel with my new ETHIOPIAN NOKIA, by this time quite nimbly crossing the Great Ethiopian Canyon. I arrive safely, and sit down and order a strong coffee. I relish the feeling of accomplishment I feel from buying a phone in Ethiopia.

Monday, October 15, 2012

8' @ daydream

I came off of the end of race season and headed into a hardcore winter training plan. 10-11 workouts/week. I was strong. I was getting faster. My legs were getting bigger. My splits were getting lower.

My job was getting more stressful.

And I broke.

I am not a 20 year old collegiate rower. I am a 45 year old professional, working a 55 hour/week job and raising two young adult children. I fit my workouts in at 4:30 am and 7 pm, around work, around my day, around my family and around my stress.

Despite a healthy lifestyle, good diet, lots of exercise, and a good family health history, my blood pressure shot up. My resting heart rate soared as well.

I was barely surviving.

I land in my coach's office, feeling like death, thinking that death might be closer than I am comfortable with. I confess that I have to cut back. Training will have to go. I quit.

I stand up to walk out of the office.

"Wait, Robyn." My coach is not done with me. I sit back down.

After months of "8'@ 22" type workouts, my coach tells me I need to meditate.

MEDITATE?!?!?!? Hell no! I row to push harder, to get stronger, to beat people, to win, to avoid the thought that I am aging. To avoid all thoughts of life outside of the boathouse. To escape.

Meditation is for zen types. People who relax. People who are easy-going. Who don't need medals. People who can sit still. Who can just BE with themselves. Not for competitive athletes. Not for me.

I resist. I refuse. I rebel. My coach smiles quietly.

I leave his office.

The next morning, my emailed workout is waiting in my inbox:

"8' @ daydream. Get off the erg, walk around for a couple of minutes. Do it three times."


I don't even know how to begin. "8 minutes" is familiar. I set the monitor for an 8 minute piece.

Then what?


I am in the front corner of the erg room, windows all around me. The sky is still dark. I stare out at the darkness, and swear at my coach under my breath. "Daydream?!?! How am I supposed to daydream? What Stroke Rate is Daydream????"

I close my eyes. I breathe in. And I try to daydream.

I listen to the whirr of the ergs behind me. I hear the staggered breathing of hard work being done. I feel my own breathing, and sink in there. I smell the accumulated stench of sweat, bengay and tired bodies. I feel my own muscles contracting and relaxing. I ease back up to the catch.

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, press with the legs. Slow up the slide, press and hang. Breathe. Breathe.

It gets easier. I know I am not pulling as hard as I usually do. But I also sense that is not the point.

I feel the swing and the rhythm. Familiar after so many months of doing this twice a day. Breathing, breathing.  I don't have to think about this motion. Swing out of bow. What I should daydream about? Slow up the slide. delivering babies in Africa. Catch and press. biking across the US. Alone. Breathe. climbing Kilimanjaro...Mt McKinley...Mt Washington in winter. Swing. I remember last winter, snowy paths, and clear skies. An idyllic hike. Press with the legs. My kids, may they grow up to be happy. Breathe. The smooth balance of a crew completely in sync.  Swing. I imagine the crisp fall air and my oars slicing through the icy  water. Press. I feel the run of the boat beneath me. Breathe. Swing. Press.

Breathe. Swing. Press.

Breathe. Swing. Press.

Breathe. Swing. Press.

Breathe. Swing. Press.

8 minutes


Friday, October 5, 2012

Seat Racing

In the Annals of Psychopathology, there are many articles about serious dementia, mental disorders or brain dysfunction. If you dig deep enough, you will see find the article entitled: Seat Racing Enjoyment as a Clinical Correlate to Axis I Disorder: Deliberate self-harm.

This disorder (a borderline personality disorder) is defined as the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue, frequently done on wheeled seats, facing backward, pressing with the quads until the serum oxygen saturation nadirs in the negative numbers and the pain centers of the brain explode.

This is a common pathology among those who enjoy rowing.

More specifically: it predominantly affects those rowers who enjoy seat racing.

Most specifically: this is seen frequently in those rowers who enjoy seat racing at 5:30 AM.

In general, I steer clear of the Annals of Psychopathology, as the topics explored therein seems far more personal than clinical.

This morning, we are put out on the water in undiagnosable line-ups of 4+s. We are told to race the other 4+ at a 26 SR. For 80 strokes (what a funny measurement. But then again, as a rower, counting strokes is easier than counting minutes. Or meters. Or breaths.)

We head downstream to warm up and find our swing. We press on the footboards. We take a few high tens. The adrenaline starts mounting. The perspiration collects on the brow...and the back...and the front...and the oar handles...

I love the feel of another crew by our side. That peripheral vision of the competition creates a surge of energy and with every stroke, I just press harder. I squeeze extra centimeters out of my drive. I breathe a few more molecules of oxygen into my anoxic muscles. The seering fire of agony ignites my quads. The bile surges up in the back of the throat. My lungs rasp in hunger for air. My heart races out of control. Every molecule in my being screams for this to STOP!!!!!


Pain may come and pain may go, but winning is forever...or at least until we spin and head back for another seat race.