Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Erg (Ergometer!)

Today I did something that I haven't done in a long, long, long time. I erged. And not just because I could, or because it was given to me by Coach. No, this I planned myself.

First, to make things simple, let me explain. Ever since getting back from Philadelphia, I've been fighting off a small (albeit pesky!) cold. My mantra of I won't get sick I won't get sick! seems to have been working in part. While my stuffy nose stayed with me for a few days, my throat never got to be too bad, and my sinuses didn't implode. As a kid who grew up with two or three bad sinus infections each and every year this was a pretty big deal.

I just had to sacrifice my swimming in the process. (Stop grinning - a few of you out there are smiling at this very moment. Kacie - I'm thinking of you!). Late last season, after reading Jen Harrison's blog about the wonders of swimming, I decided to take a new, HAPPY approach to the pool. Swimming IS FUN! Every workout would be an opportunity to play in the water, grow as an athlete, and oh yeah, get faster! So by the end of the season, I was really getting into it. And it paid off, because my splits got faster, and I felt - simply put - better in the water. Who would have thought? But it's totally true. (And it helps to start every swim with a jump off the high dive. The little kid in me never ceases to remind me of her presence!)

And after this past week of no swimming, I know I wasn't kidding myself at the end of last season. I really miss it!

My only consolation is that it's still my off season, and that nothing I was supposed to do had any kind of intensity or speed. Just technique work and a little pulling. Sigh. But I'm still bummed that I'm not in the pool. But I also realize that it's for the best. It's a heckuva lot better than being laid out for two weeks with throbbing sinuses.

Last June I flew home to Minnesota for two weeks. It was a chance for a wonderful mid-season break. I got to see my friends and family, attend Karyna's graduation, and I was hoping to get in a lot of great training. My body (along with the really sick guy on the plane next to me) were planning otherwise. Three days after I arrived, I came down with a doozy of a sinus infection. Yuck. In the middle of June. Double yuck. At my parent's house (and while it was great to have Mom and Dad there looking out for my every need!) - they don't have air conditioning. Triple Yuck. But in their defense, it's Minnesota - it NEVER gets all that hot up there. Back to double yuck. Unfortunately, last summer Minnesota had a record breaking string of 9 days of 90+ degrees, and I just so happened to be there, sick, while it happened. Quadruple yuck.

So there I was, cooped up in my parent's beautiful house, enjoying the splendors of their beautiful new kitchen, but sick as a dog. I was miserable. And my sinuses felt like they were going to explode. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have gone to the pool the day after I arrived with a stuffy nose. That only exacerbated the situation... I guess the only good thing that came out of it, is that now when I have a stuffy nose, I won't go near the pool. (You don't even have to cue the Jaws music for that one, folks.) What I learned (along with taking 2 weeks off from training entirely in the middle of the summer will drive me crazy), is that stuffy nose + swimming = full blown, worst-sinus-infection-of-your-entire-life.

Which means going on medication. Which makes you tired. And groggy. And cranky (sorry Mom and Dad for being ill-tempered!). And constipated (see the previous apology). And stressed out! And visiting a new doctor in a different state from your regular health care provider, is a big pain in the you-know-where. Long story short, I got my meds, but I was cooped up for nearly the entire trip, was forced to take it easy for a few weeks... and oh yeah, and I don't ever care to repeat that again!

Am I being a little overly-cautious now? Probably. But for good reason.

Hey, right now I'm on the road to recovery. No stuffy nose, no sore throat, no meds, no sinus infection! DING DING DING! We have a winner!

So even though today's workout called for a swim, I wanted to avoid the pool for another day or two. Just to be sure (and no, I'm not making excuses - again Kacie, I know what you're thinking!), because after all, who wants to be sick over the holidays? I mentioned my dilemma to Memo, and he suggested that I either add a little bit of bike volume (easy!), cross train, or just keep it simple and skip the workout. He assured me that I had plenty of time to prepare for IM Arizona, and to not worry about it. So being the good pupil that I am, Monday I spent an hour on the trainer instead of my swim, and today I cross trained.

Why cross train?

I know this sounds funny, but I wanted to get a workout in that specifically utilized my upper body, arms, and back - yet would still be a "total body" workout. If I'm not going to swim, at least I want to use similar muscle groups.

I went over the possibilities in my head. Hhhmmmm. Tennis? Ping Pong? (no - too much coordination. And besides, you get too many breaks). Bowling (no - too slow, and besides I always hit the gutter. My all time low is 22. My all time high is 65. And the high was accomplished with the aid of "bumper bowling" lanes. You know, the things that block your ball from rolling into the gutter. I'm embarrassed to admit it - I wasn't deliberately trying to miss, I'm just not very good. Let's just say that I'm not the greatest bowler. Enough about that). Golf? (No - way too slow). Water Polo? (No - you need a team, and besides I'm trying to avoid the pool if I can help it). Gymnastics? (No, the adductors are still too sore). Yoga, Pilates? (See previous reason why not. Well, that and I've got a serious problem with holding in my laughter. If something is funny - like a funny position name - I have a very difficult time holding in my laugh. In the past, I've had to leave the room. Very un-yoga like.)

And then it hit me: Rowing! Score!!!

A total body workout minus the impact of running, but with the added benefits that you use your entire body with each stroke you take. Sweet!

Minor technicality: I didn't have a boat. And I'm sure that there were sharks teeming in the Gulf Waters - but it was okay. I could ERG instead. (Ergometer, or indoor rowing machine, for all you non-rowing people).

I had my mission: today instead of swimming, I was going to erg! Bring it on, I welcome it! (Oops, wrong post).

Contrary to what most rowers will tell you about their experience with the erg, I love it. LOVE it. Yes, it's a torture device, yes, it has caused me more pain that I would ever care to admit. But it's also given me some of the best satisfaction, the best moments of my entire life. To be a rower, to be a good rower, means you have to be a little crazy. Just as in triathlon, you put up with a lot of time and hours spent working and crafting your sport. Rowers and triathletes focus on technique, on drills, on repetition. We push our limits, go beyond what we thought capable, and then reach even further. Triathletes, however, race anywhere from 1 hour up to 17 at the very most. Rowers are done with the standard 2k (2,000 meters - the Olympic distance event. The other common distance is the "head" race, typically a 3 mile race done in the fall, which takes anywhere from 18 minutes up to 30, depending on the conditions and boat size) in a matter of minutes. 8 minutes (or less in most cases - again depends on the type of boat and the conditions) later, you're done. Finished. Game over.

But the time spent working on each respective sport, on perfecting technique, the amount of hours per week is nearly the same between the two sports. (Okay - full IM training is the exception. But when I was rowing on the US elite national team, a typical week involved 15-22 hours of rowing, not cross training or running or any other sports. Simply rowing.) Triathlon is extremely different in the sense that it's a lot easier to space out the work-load over a 5 hour race. Rowing is the true oddity: an 8 minute race is over in a flash, but the individual puts in an incredible amount of time for those 8 minutes. 8 minutes of hell, of hellish agony, oxygen deprivation, screaming lungs, burning quads, fatigue brought on by stress yet the body still needs to remember form and tecnique in order to move the boat... Not only have you got a wizzard on your back, but you're haling your own ass with a boat load of wizzards. And 8 minute, all-out, blackout inducing, vomit tasting, limits pushing, over-the-edge flailing sprint. Because that's the race. (I'll take an Olympic distance or 70.3 race any day, thanks for asking.)

From a pure numbers standpoint, rowers spend infinitely more time rowing in non-race situations, practicing, perfecting technique, than they ever will racing. Muscle memory is one of the only ways it's possible to push so hard, take your boy to it's pinnacle, yet maintain the delicate balance and control required of handeling a delicate shell. It's at times like this when I can hear my old rowing coach Miriam (again, one of the best coaches I have ever had the pleasure of working with) say, "It takes 1,000 strokes to row a single perfect stroke."

I guess that's one of the reasons why I love rowing and the erg so much. In Minnesota, we didn't have the opportunity to row outside all year round, so instead we took out training indoors for 4 or 5 months while the ice and snow built up around the boathouse. The workouts weren't any less intense: if anything, they were more difficult. Rather than focusing on technique, on the feel of the boat, on channeling your energy into every stroke, instead when you erg, you stare directly at a screen that relays your splits, average time, energy output, stroke rating, meters covered, and calories burned (just thought I'd toss that one it) for every single stroke! Pretty cool for the first 2 minutes. But when you're cranking out 4 X 12 min at +:03 from your avg 500 meter split for your 2,000 meter test time (did I confuse you enough?), it gets old pretty quickly. Essentially you're working towards your max, and your numbers that you see with each and every stroke are a constant reminder.

That's why its no longer about what you're doing, how hard you're working, the numbers that you're cranking out, but rather, the mental tricks your mind will play on you.

It's so easy, just ease up. Just stop now. Then you can breath. Then you can see straight. Then you won't feel like your arms are on fire, that you're legs are about to give out, that you're going to throw up at every second. Just pull back, and this will all go away...


And that's why the erg is so challenging: because it's so easy to stop. Your body AND your mind are telling you to quit. They're tossing every ploy in the book at you, begging and pleading with you to simply stop. Every little bit of doubt, every weakness is exposed, until you're left in a blubbering, whimpering, sweaty, heap on a little, plastic, uncomfortable seat. It takes a lot more than "crazy" to keep going. (And you thought triathletes and rowers weren't all that similar...). News flash: we are.

But we do, we keep going. We press forward. We carry on in spite of everything that's screaming at us to stop.


Because the fear of stopping, the fear of giving in, is worse than any pain that we feel at the highest pinnacle of the workout. We keep going because it's simply what we do. After all - you can't stop in the middle of a race. Heck - you can't stop in the middle of life... you just keep going. Stroke after stroke. Pull after pull. Step after step.

And that's why I love the erg.

Today when I sat on the erg, an unexpected flood of emotions hit me like a wall of water. I was unprepared, and didn't quite know what to make of it. Yes, I've erged a bunch of times since I last seriously rowed: but I haven't since then sat at the erg with the intention of actually doing a workout, or planning a set. Instead it was a mere 10 or 15 minutes here or there, maybe 30 minutes easy at the most.

I could feel the old butterflies creep back into my stomach, and I could almost sense Miriam's presence standing over my shoulder watching my splits. I completed my warm-up, and then inputted my workout into the monitor. As I started my sets, I watched my numbers and my average splits begin to gradually fall. No, they weren't near what I used to do, but they weren't that far off... (It kind of makes me wonder what I would do if we lived in a place where there was a crew and boathouse... Yes I do triathlons and I love them, but I've always carried that rower mentality. I guess you can take me away from rowing, but you'll never take the rower out of me.)

With each pull I made, I felt stronger. I could feel my rowing-self awaken. Suddenly, my "easy" pieces became more challenging, as I decided to negative split each part of the workout. It didn't matter how many people were around and looking at me (I was red-faced and gasping for air as my erg whirrrred happily away), it didn't matter that my nose was a little stuffy, it didn't matter that I was in my off season. I just wanted to row. I wanted the feeling back. I wanted my lges to burn, my arms to pull, the erg handle to get slippery with my seat. I wanted to feel what if felt like to row fast again. I wanted to go fast, to move a boat, to hear the bubbles under the gunwales, to feel the catch of my oars in the water, and the send off my blades as I followed through on the stroke. And my attempt to erg, the mimic of the motion, was as close to the old rowing self that I've come in a long while.

And while it was hard, while I struggled, I was also in my element. Holy Cow, I didn't realize doing 6 minute pieces could feel so great! Simply stated, I felt lucky to be erging, happy to feel like my old-rowing-self, but also wistful. The erg wasn't enough: I wanted to be back in a boat, to feel the scull glide under me, to watch my puddles fade in the distance stroke after stroke.

For now, it's not something that I'll get to enjoy. Perhaps one day in the far far future. In the meantime, I'll stick to the erging as my cross training. And hope that my nose eventually clears up.

And who knows. Perhaps my absence from the pool for a few days will bring out the old Swimming-Self, and I'll experience the same emotions in the pool as I did on the erg.

So swimming or rowing? I'll wait for my nose to decide, thank-you-very-much. Both sound great, and we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Maybe I'll get to Nordic ski when I'm at home over Christmas. You never know. Yeah! Another old sport that I'll get to fall in love with again. So we'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I'm not really 100% sure what I'll do.

I take that back. I know one thing (for certain) that I won't do. Sorry folks, my all time high of 65 will just have to remain as is. No bowling for me, thanks.


Beth said...

I hope you feel better soon!

Had to laugh about the bowling score. I thought maybe I was the only one that couldn't score above 50... :)

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

Thanks Beth!

And the WORST part about bowling a 65?... The "walk of shame" that you have to do after throwing yet another horrible toss down the lane, as you walk back to your seat. If you're lucky, your friends won't tease you, and other bowlers in different lanes won't notice. Then again, as the game goes on and on AND ON, people tease you less and less because they realize that you really DO suck, and they don't want to rub salt in the wound. That's the worst feeling - when you know that you suck, everyone else knows (and has stopped kidding around), and there's nothing but defeaning silence as you roll yet another gutter ball. The story of my life in college. Good to know I'm not the only one!

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