Elizabeth and I just got back from a trip to Craftsbury, Vermont where I took a 4 day course on how to row a single scull. It’s my attempt to make Tal’s father’s day card become a reality (she drew both of us racing single sculls).
The Craftsbury center is situated in way-the-hell-northern-Vermont. It’s the poorest and most rural of all of Vermont. The center looks much like any summer camp overlooking Hosmer Lake. That’s where the boat house is and the 3 docks where we launch from.
Most of the 25 rowing students were over 40 years old and some closer to 70. There were a few like me that have never been on a boat before, but the majority had moderate to expert experience. I did however wear the right shorts…so I got extra points.
The first person I ran into on my initial walkabout was Lynn she seemed fit and chiseled. She comes from Portland Oregon to coach a running camp at Craftsbury in exchange for rowing lessons. It was only later that I learned that I was walking besides none other than Lynn Jennings the most celebrated middle distance runner of her day. She still holds the Women’s 10K world record (on the road/not track) not to mention an Olympic medal, etc. She was only one of the five coaches, each sporting an incredible rowing accomplishment.
There is Carol Brower who owns her very own Olympic gold medal and Noel Wenner who competed in a couple of world championships. And of course Lisa who holds has an Olympic silver in rowing and a world record on the ERG/rowing machine. In short a lot of medals. Keep in mind all of these athletes are past their heyday and pushing 50, but they can still kick some serious ass. More on that later.
At orientation, being surrounded by some of the greatest and most committed rowers on the planet, I was asked what I wanted to learn during my stay at Craftsbury and all I could come up with is to get in and out of the boat with some grace. And maybe to someday row with my daughter Tal and not make a complete fool of myself.
Actually that’s not completely true, I’m also here to learn a new life-long sport that will keep me fit and on the water. And I want to do it with some mastery. As you get older, learning completely new things from scratch can be daunting. There are always a dozen reasons as to why it’s preferable to stick with the routine, the known. So the idea of throwing myself into something new was appealing.
It didn’t take long to figure out the routine…snack and tea at 6:30 AM, at the waterfront at 7:00 AM for a briefing, then rig the boats and go for a spin around the 2 mile long, Lake Hosmer. Back after 90 minutes, store and clean the boats, group stretch for 15 min and then dive into the crystal clear lake for a swim. I’ve never been to better swimming lake. If Oren was here, we’d rip up this lake.
Then there is another midday session where they run small group lessons and another rowing session in the early evening followed by dinner. So all together you can take the boats out 3 times a day.
Once you are on the lake, the coaches scurry around in little motor boats and give instructions as you row besides them doing you best to impress. Twice during the week they also videotape you for several minutes. Then in the evening you gather around the flat screen and watch yourself. This can be rather intimidating.
Imagine yourself sitting in a boat about a foot wide with a sliding seat holding on to very long oars. Now you’re supposed to row this thing to a most exacting formula; feather the blade, square at the catch, drive, release and recover. All this while maintaining a feather light grip on the oar handles as they follow semi-concentric circles – leading with the left hand and following with the right on some imaginary horizontal plane. Bla Bla…
Trust me that some of the briefings resembled a pre-flight check list for the shuttle. And if you know my sense of rhythm and ability to keep a beat alongside a set of imaginary instructions, you would know why I was scared shitless to have the whole class watch me attempt this for the first time on the big flat screen.
If that was not enough, we were also asked to point out all our mistakes while the video was rolling. In my case I had to have the guy run thru the video several time so we can absorb all the errors. Joking aside, it is a most humbling and effective way to learn something.
So where is the fun you ask? The whole thing seems technical and intimidating… that is until you are strapped in the boat and drifting from the dock. The lake is glass and the sun is not out yet. It’s just you, the loons and the boat. And the boat wants to go.
At the beginning you are gripping the oars handles in death grip, your face is contorted in fear and your mind is racing thru the pre-flight checklist, but every so often a solid stroke emerges and becomes a repeatable event. And that my friends is a moment of pure magic. Just like a thoroughbred, these boats are slick, fast and graceful, if they feel the jockey knows what he’s doing. When it’s right, it’s an effortless fast glide into a silence. That’s when I knew this sport is a keeper.
On the last day they put on a race. You are staggered according to your ability and race along the entire length of the lake (2 miles). You essentially race against the clock. So if on Monday I was on a beginner’s boat that was wide enough for a medium sized yoga class doing sun salutations, on race day I was riding a racing scull narrow enough to fit between the legs of an ant with a hernia. I was seeded 16 out of 25 and was hoping not to let my coaches down.
Oh and did I mention that Lynn Jennings, the running champ I met that first morning now at the ripe age of 50, was now making rowing her life’s sole focus, decided to join the race. The level of commitment this woman can apply to moving her body, or a boat is scary. On the last day of camp she showed us a few videos of some of her races. I watched a lot of sports in my day, but I’ve never seen anything like it.
Lynn has a secret weapon. It’s called a late race surge or a kick. She can sneak up behind the lead runner at about 400 yards before the finish and switch to overdrive. She showed this one race where 3K people started and at the end it was her against this other long legged “women-antelope”. As they rounded a corner, Lynn trips, but catches herself, stumbles and keeps running only to catch up to the “women-antelope”. This is where it got interesting. Keep in mind they are running at a blistering 4:30 min/mile pace. Lynn sneaks up and starts to track her prey. The antelope knows that Lynn has an overdrive-kick-my-butt gear so she tries to get away and keeps looking back to see where Lynn is…that was her mistake. Lynn changes to her blind side and then she kicks. Her final sprint is so fast and overwhelming that you think she’s a cartoon character on steroids. It was the most graceful and powerful piece of running I’ve ever seen. It was magnificent. And here she was lining up next to me for the race across the Hosmer. Oy.
I’m thinking let’s see how fast this rowing babe is. Maybe I can keep up with her for a bit. Maybe she’s a great runner, but has some genetic deformation and can’t hold on to an oar for more than 5 minutes. Hey, maybe I can show her a thing or two. After all I’m on a fancy racing shell and I have the right fitting shorts.
The race starts and I lean into my best catch and drive stroke hoping to get some sort of a respectable start on Lynn, but I was so, so wrong. So badly did I misjudge her that I might as well been sitting on square cement block anchored to a dock with a big fat metal chain. That’s how fast I was going compared to her. All I saw was one, or maybe two strokes and then she turned into a cartoon character never to be seen again. She ended up setting up a new course record. Let’s put it this way, by the time I got to the finish line, she was showered, dressed, dog walked, and an extension for her annual tax return in the mail. Oy.
But even worse, yes it gets worse. There was a 65 year old, overweight woman, who on a good day would pass for a librarian on a tenured track, was gaining on me. I was giving it my all, but there was no mistaking it, the pear shaped body was getting closer and closer. She has a steady, even and relaxed stroke. She’s been rowing for several years at a club in DC and knew what she was doing. I was just applying brute force and discarding all that I learned about, slow, steady and graceful stroking. I was panicked that the fat librarian was passing me and to make matters worse, she would get announced at the awards ceremony and claim her organic tee-shirt before me. And no amount of muscle was going to change it.This is the moment where it finally sunk in that this sport is all about technique and practice. Not strength. This is a good lesson to absorb early on. A very good lesson. I looked at my well developed leg muscles and shook my head in silence.
I did have a few flashes of genius during the race where all that I learned came together for a few repeatable strokes, I even relaxed and looked around at the magnificent lake, the boat hummed and the finish line appeared ever closer. I finally managed a smile.
At dinner I sat with some of the college kids that are part of another program. They are the elite cross country skiing athletes that live/work and train at Craftsbury year round. They are professional athletes; they get paid to train and compete all over the country. In return, they each have a project that contributes to the center like, running a kids camp, building a compost, installing solar power, etc…but mostly they train hard under the leadership of Peppe, their coach from Bulgaria.
I was really impressed; they were so fit, so highly motivated and talented. They all came from top New England universities and on track to become financial superstars, but they changed course after graduation. They dropped out of the mainstream race, much to their parent’s dismay, to learn about sustainable living and about how to be the best athletes that they can be. That was me 30 years ago (aside from the top university or top athlete parts); looking to take on the world and self propelling myself across its oceans, mountains and deserts to see if my body could absorb the distances and sights.
Some of them were slightly worried that they would never be able to earn living like their friends who have stayed the course and continued on to get “real jobs”. I smiled and thought back to something my dad told me after riding my bike for 7k miles across North America. He told me I did a great thing and that I won’t realize how great it was till I got much older. Same for these kids. They are doing great things. They are thinking for themselves, they know discipline, persistence and pain/gain. If I was their dad, I would we be sleeping tight at night.
Later, much later I had a chance to catch up with coach Noel. He made it to the world championships for a couple of years. I wanted to find out what drove him to sacrifice years of his life for this noble pursuit. He was a basketball player until his crew friends brought him down to the dock. Here he saw the comradeship and passion that didn’t exist in other sports. That’s what he was looking for and he never left. He is all about applying maximum effort, dedication and devotion to one thing long enough to master it . And he did. I saw him one morning doing a 500 meter piece against Coach Lisa. Watching them going all out with absolute swiftness, power and unison across the green waters of Hosmer lake was what I came for. And I’ll be back.