2:29 pm

from “My Father’s Heart”

hardback // paperback // reviews

by Steve McKee

 My running life changed forever in September 1988. Noreen and I moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn, a brand-new, too-hip-for-me loft space with in an up-and-coming neighborhood. We painted the bare space while watching the Summer Olympics from Seoul, South Korea, on a tiny black-and-white TV. The place came complete with a fitness center in the basement, the fitness center coming with a Concept2 rowing machine. A first generation model, it had an exposed flywheel and a block of wood for a footrest. Looking back, it was an absolute dinosaur of a thing, ugly and ungainly. And I loved it.

The idea of rowing had long intrigued me. In 1964 the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia won the Olympic gold medal in the eight-oared shell and the next January some of the members of that team came to the York Area Sports Night, a big, big deal on the local calendar. And Dad once bought some sort of at-home rowing contraption – a wooden handle attached by a long, thick spring to a metal-bar footrest, from which extended two rails for a metal seat to slide back and forth. You planted your butt and pushed back with your legs while simultaneously pulling on the handle, which extended the spring. It was all very complicated. It also didn’t work. With the handle pulled to your stomach and the spring extended, any slack in the tension and you risked being whipped out of the seat by a suddenly contracting spring. And Dad, ever-cautious Dad, was probably correct when he said that eventually the coil would come loose from the footrest and whack him in the face like a striking cobra.

What I remember best, though, is Dad remarking offhandedly that tall as I was – “rangy,” he called it – I would make a good rower.

I took immediately to the machine in the basement. I was the only tenant who used the place regularly; it got to when someone else showed up I felt like they had just walked into my own basement. I took Patrick with me, ensconcing him in his car seat next to the rowing machine. Then I made the beginner’s mistake of thinking the power of the row is all in the back and shoulders. I was reaching too far forward with the handle, well past my feet and then, from that fully compressed position, yanking for all I was worth. Inside of a month all that enthusiasm had immobilized my neck and shoulders. I was so stiff in the morning that I literally had to put a hand on each side of my jaw to work my head slowly back and forth. And it took me far longer than I care to admit that the problem was me and not the machine.

Soliciting expert advice helped. I was then working at American Health magazine, where a contributing editor had been a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Eight – the glamour boat – on the ill-fated Olympic team that didn’t compete in Moscow because of the U.S. boycott. He offered two pointers. First, let the big muscles of the legs do the work. Second, think of the handle not as a twelve-inch piece of wood but as an oar twenty feet long. My Eureka moment. I could plainly see it. I stopped lifting the handle over my knees; doing so digs the “oar” too deeply into the water. I was of and rowing. Though not before my Olympic coach offered one final observation: that were I to put my rowing machine in the water, it would sink. As a member of the rowing fraternity’s most elite (and elitist) order, he seemed almost required to say this to the likes of me. But I caught his point and appreciated the advice. It has kept me humble even as I have now rowed, by conservative estimate, some 1,140,000 meters in 19 years.

The rowing machine provides something near the perfect exercise. It hits virtually all the major muscle groups (except, much to the bad in my case, the pectorals of the chest). But it can be used aerobically for the heart and lungs or anaerobically to build muscle. A rowing machine employs air, not water, against you. The more air resistance dialed in, the more the machine becomes a muscle builder. No surprise, I concentrate on the cardiopulmonary benefits, keeping the air resistance on the fan-wheel dial between three and four (of ten). That allows me to maintain a comfortable 500-meter pace of 2 minutes, 20 seconds, at twenty-three to twenty-four strokes per minute. And I proudly mean “maintain”: nineteen years ago when I sat on the sliding seat with no idea what I was doing, that 2:20 pace came to me naturally. I was thirty-eight years old. I’m fifty-five now, but still rowing as fast as ever.

The rowing machine comes as close as possible to putting the lie to the slog of Dad’s “road work” dictum. It’s not that it’s fun. It isn’t. It’s that I can lose myself so easily in the motion, become the rhythm. The time spent doesn’t fly by, it ceases to exist. When I “reach” with the handle in front of me and then “catch” the momentum of the flywheel when I begin to pull back again, that’s as perfect a moment as exists in my exercise life. Rowing is the only exercise in which I approach something near the Zenlike state that the fitness gurus advertise, espouse, guarantee. Even then it doesn’t come often, but come it does.

Subsequent Concept2 iterations have been designed to make the rowing action easier – a theory I have never grasped. This should be hard, shouldn’t it? But the love remains. I could no more do a “sprint” workout running outside on a track as I could win the 200-meter gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. I’d snap my Achilles’ tendon, I’m sure of it. (My fear of snapping an Achilles’ tendon far outstrips any heart-attack worry.) I could probably do such a workout on the bike, except I’m too much the wuss to get up to speed. I have been in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park minding my business when I’ve been passed on both sides by a freight train of serious bikers that leaves me gripping my handlebars, unsure I remember how to steer.

No, it’s the rowing machine for me. 

from: “My Father’s Heart”

hardback // paperback // reviews

by Steve McKee