Row, Row, Row Your Erg (Not So Merrily However)

Three years ago, when I first started training at Crossfit South Brooklyn, I was introduced to the ‘pleasures’ of the rowing machine (more specifically the Concept 2 erg). My coach, David Osorio, took us through an initial training session; I was struck by how a seemingly simple motion had several distinct components, each demanding attention to form if efficiency in the stroke was to be attained (and importantly, injury to be avoided). Shortly thereafter, I tried my hand at a few thousand-meter sprints, and realized quite quickly that the four-minute burst required was enough to leave me gasping, shaking, and quivering in most parts of my body. (Four minutes for thousand meters is an exceedingly laggardly time for good rowers, but I remember being absurdly pleased at getting under the mark.)

But my experiences with a thousand-meter row had not prepared me sufficiently for what would turn out to be the most dreaded of all Crossfit workouts: the 2K row. Just like the 800 meter run (and possibly the 1500 meter run), which brings together a sprint with a middle distance run, and as such requires a punishing pace to be maintained for longer than the body wants, the 2K row demands a great deal, and because of the structure of the rowing apparatus, exacts it in the cruelest possible fashion.

The pacing for the 2K row is normally set up as a series of intervals: several ‘power strokes’–a pace slightly higher than the desired overall interval time–to begin with, followed by a settled pace till the 500 meter mark, then some more ‘power strokes’ followed by a settled pace again. This is repeated at the 1000 meter mark, and the 1500 meter mark, before finally, sprinting all out from the 1750 meter mark onwards.

My description above of the race strategy is quite impoverished; you’d do better to read my rowing coach, Nick Peterson, a former Olympian, on the same subject. Nick’s description of the physical demands of the 2K is quite apt:

Think of this as running as fast as you can for this distance, a mile and a quarter, while carrying a weight. Or, better yet, doing seven or eight minutes of deadlift high pulls, with 30 reps per minute – or 210-240 deadlift high pulls for time.

As I found out during my first 2K, nothing I had ever done before had prepared me for the misery of those last 250 meters: everything everywhere hurt and when I finished the row, I did not stand up, I merely unhooked the straps from my feet, rolled off the machine and lay there gasping like, yes, a fish out of water. My time: 8:07. Somehow, bizarrely, in an effort to convince myself I could do it at a sub-four-minute pace, I tried again a few days later, and came in at 8:05. It was as painful as the first time. (To my mind, this solo effort of mine ranks as my most impressive exercise endeavor ever.) Over the next couple of years, I’ve rowed a few more 2K’s, and have brought my time down to 7:46. I dream, someday, of making it under the 7:30 mark. Meanwhile, some T2-like creatures at my gym have banged out sub-7-minute times.

What makes the 2K hard compared to other Crossfit workouts is that: in time-limited workouts one can simply slow down and run out the clock; in workload-limited workouts one need only fear finishing last. Resting is not so hard to pull off. But in the 2K, there is no way to rest; you cannot stop, you are strapped in. And being strapped in to the machine means there is no rest for your contracted, lactic acid-infused muscles. So, there you are, attached to a demanding beast, one that will not let go till the required pound of flesh has been ripped out. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to sneak off to. The row has to be finished, and at a pace, which even if diminished does not let an aching muscle or pumping heart gain any respite. As I have often joked–rather grimly if I may say so–the closest I’ve come to seeing God has been in the last 250 meters of a 2K row. For this atheist, it is a frightening place to be.

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