Friday, August 11, 2006

To the squishy middle aged woman in the erg room

It's clear that you're new to the boat house, new to rowing, new to athletics and that you've not been around serious athletes much. Or ever. So permit me to explain a few things right now that I'm certain you would have eventually come to understand on your own in a few months or years:

  • The erg is respected. There are some who say "ergs don't float" meaning that someone who's big and strong but not smooth may not be fast. True. But ergs don't lie, either: If you're not strong, you're not strong. And it'll show up in your score. And scores matter, if one cares about making the top boat. Right now, you care about not making your boat flip. So I don't expect you to know this yet.
  • The erg is feared. Unlike a human opponent, the machine is immune to psychological warfare. You can go out hard and fast, which might scare a human into giving up. The machine doesn't give up. It just is. If you try to pace faster than what you're capable of, try to pretend to be something you're not, you will melt down, and the erg will reveal you for the imposter you are. To succeed, you must push only to your limits, but no farther. No matter how much time you spend training on the water, nothing prepares one for battle with the erg, but the erg: It's a closely related, yet entirely different sport than rowing. You're just trying not to fall off the erg, let alone assert dominance over it. So I don't expect you to know this.
  • We respect those working on the erg. Sitting in one place, sweating and hurting isn't fun. But it's the only path to being beautiful and deadly on the water. The legendary erg scores national team folks post are not mere genetics in action: They come from thankless hours wrestling with the machine. The structure of the workouts and the discipline required to adhere to them are what creates speed, not just time spent erging. Discipline requires focus. We don't talk to people who are working, unless we've stood behind them, deduced what piece they're doing, gauged whether it's a serious workout, and know them well enough to risk distracting them by speaking. You chatter with the other mommies in your program while you erg, because, to you, this says "we like each other and are friendly". To us, it says you're not pulling hard.
  • We know who's who. When the national team guys drop by to work out, we know who they are. And even if it only looks like they're cruising, they probably aren't. We're extra cautious about disturbing the workouts of athletes superior in ability to ourselves. It's how we show them respect. Quick test for who you may bother: Anyone you'd not want to take on in a bar fight is probably someone whose workout you should not interrupt.
  • Music helps us work. Reason only goes so far. Emotion takes us beyond what's rationally possible. It's irrational to choose more pain. Music helps us tap into the right emotions to push to our limits. Since it's clear you haven't pushed the limits of much more than the elastic in your waist band, I don't expect you to get this.
  • Boy athletes and girl athletes use different music. Men tap their inner raging warrior hunter selves. Women seem to like cheerful and peppy. This tension is resolved by a first come, first served protocol with the stereo. I've had to sit through Dixie Chicks on days when a flock of women sets up camp before I do, and they've had to endure Marylin Manson and Tool when I queue up to tear the arms off the erg.

So keep these cultural covenants in mind the next time you are preparing to row slowly with poor form and feel the urge to turn down my Rage Against The Machine when I'm in the last 500 meters of 10 x 500.

Thank you.