R#3; 9:40 a.m.; Raceline C; Erg 76

FEB

27

2009

1:12 am

Sunday, February 22, 2009
Meters rowed: 2,000
Time: 7:45.03
Pace: 0 to 500m: 1:50/51; 500 to 1,600: 1:59/2:00/01; 1,600 to 2,000: sub-1:50
Total Meters Rowed * : 2,000

Truth in headlines (take your pick):

Stroke! ‘Rangy’ Rower Powers to Personal Glory at Championship

McKee, Sticking to Plan, Hits Marks Throughout 2,000m C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s,
Clocks an expected 7:45.03 in Vet Men 55-59 Class in Setting New P.R.

Or

Stroked: Ragged Rower Hangs on at Indoor Championships

McKee, in C.R.A.S.H.-B Debut, Somehow Avoids Embarrassment,
Finishes Well Behind Winner in an Old Guy Category

Or

McKee at C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s: “I Had a BLAST!”

Like I said: Take your pick; they are all true.

I am going to do my best now not to sound like the wide-eyed rube newly arrived in the big city as I try to describe the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s and my reaction to it.  Meaning I’m not going to say, “Wow, it was really cool!” Or, “ I had a ball!” Or, “Golly, the way you can watch the races on the scoreboard with those little boat-thingies is really neat.” Or, “The organization is stunning.”

I’ll say none of the above. Though each is true, too.

I’ll just say this: This was my first C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s, but I had been there before. At the National Volleyball Championships, banged out in an airplane hangar near Memphis, Tennessee. At the National Juggling Championships, tossed in the humid air of a sweaty gym at SUNY-Purchase. At the National Jousting Tournament, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; at the World Tiddlywink Championships, at M.I.T. I have followed friends (including eventual winners) in marathons in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska.  Numerous times I have watched the passing parade of the New York City Marathon from Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, only blocks from my Boerum Hill house. And a couple of times I have followed friends borough by borough and then somehow found them in the post-race holding pens amid the milling about of thousands of aluminum-foiled, worn-out runners.

The C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s were just like all of those events. And all those events were just like the C.R.A.S.H.-B’.s. A gathering of the faithful, of the true believers in a religion known only to the lucky few, who for one magical day have come together in a swirl of energy to create their very own center of the universe.

Each unique; all the same.

At the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s, this experience of an alternate solar system was only enhanced by the Agganis Arena itself — with the 100-plus Concept2s on the floor, it seemed the pull of their gravitational force was holding all the rest of us in orbits even to the far reaches of the stands.  For this alone the past six months of C.R.A.S.H.-B prep were worth it.

One wide-eyed observation. I’m sure in the old days of the Charles River All-Star Has Beens there really was that anarchic spirit that is now so fondly remembered. These days there are too many competitors, requiring too much organization to leave much space for that. (And what would the originals make of the VENDORS in the hall SELLING stuff?) But I could still feel it. Some of it, at least, that original energy, the initial dream. It could have been so easy to have lost that, but they didn’t. Kudos.

As for me. We must start on Friday night. I was in Brooklyn by then, up from York, Pennsylvania. On Saturday I would drive to Boston. But to kill time on Friday I went to see “The Wrestler.” Bad idea. Should’ve picked “Slumdog Millionaire.” I didn’t at that exact moment in my life need to watch the story of an aging loser athlete who nearly dies of a heart attack. (and probably does if the movie lasts another 30 seconds.)

Because by then I had pretty much convinced myself that if I did the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s … I was going to die of a heart attack. And I am being as serious here … as a heart attack.

I really did think this, and I had been by then for a few days.
Why was I dong this?
What was the point?
How NUTS was I to think I could pull this off?
Where did I get off thinking I could do this?
And now I was going to die on behalf of the answers.

I had myself completely psyched out. The race was going to take me — not to mention my heart and its two 20%-percent-blocked arteries — to a place neither of us had ever been before. I mean, it could happen, couldn’t it?  This was all new, and quite suddenly, new terrain for me. Rarely, if ever, do I think of my heart in this way. I do think of it often, but always as this … thing … pumping within me that I, me, myself am keeping alive by getting on that rowing machine. Now here it was, this … thing … that was going to kill me. And a burned-out wrestling Mickey Rourke with a six-inch incision on his chest was no help at all. Neither even were a few long eyefuls of an aging stripper Marisa Tomei in various states of near-complete undress. I mean, geez. Walking home with my face buried in my coat against the cold and gloom, I searched for a believable reason I could use to tell people why I had blown off the race and the past half year of my life.

Then, once home, I decided (uncharacteristically) to check my email before going to bed.  One was from a John Butsch of the Chicago Indoor Rowing Club, enthusiastically asking if I still planned to be at the race, and even more enthusiastically bubbling on a bit about how great was rowing and that more Paralympian and adaptive rowers were getting into it, and wasn’t THAT great?

Yes, it was, I suddenly realized.  And I realized this, too: Steve, get over thyself.

I’m not now going to say that I snapped out of it because, by golly, if these adaptive rowers could C.R.A.S.H.-B., then I could, too. That’s too easy, not to mention insulting. No. They simply reminded me why I had decided to C.R.A.S.H.-B in the first place. Just to do it. Just to try it. And just to be alive in the moment of the attempt.  I went to bed and slept great.

More of what I won’t be writing: A stroke-by-stroke analysis of the race. The headlines actually do tell the story.  And those little boat-thingies ARE really neat.  I wouldn’t have minded a 7:40; I think I could have.  But I am THRILLED with my time and my 24th of 32. My two big worries were nonfactors: I didn’t go out too fast, and I didn’t get distracted by the rowers on either side and take on their stroke count. I never even knew they were there.  One thing I would do differently? I wanted to row the middle 1,000 meters in “sub-2:00.” But if I really meant that, then I should have said that: “1:58/1:59.” Because looking at that little boat-thingie computer race, it’s clear I was psychologically content with 2:00. And I shouldn’t have been.

Now, meet my coxswain, Katie McDonald. In 1983 I followed Katie borough by borough in the NYC Marathon as she qualified for the first-ever U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trial, in 2:48.16.  Katie is one of the many women athletes now of  a certain age who back in a certain era laid the foundation for what women’s athletics has become. More, in 1981 Katie won the Atlantic City Marathon and took a straight-up, over-the-table, give-it-to-me winner’s check, the first of its kind. This may sound quaint now, but it was quite the deal then. Katie brought all this with her to the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s. And before my Vet Men 55-59 race she celebrated as she watched the Vet Women — “all these pre-Title IX women, Steve” — parade onto the floor.

Then it was my turn. Katie’s father died of a heart attack when she was 17. Perhaps I should have mentioned that before. I gave Katie an index card with some instructions. I asked her not to yell. I sat down on Erg 76 and Katie ran through the checklist. Then I rowed, Katie quietly keeping me to the straight and narrow of the pace I wanted to hit. I felt great. I knew I could do it. The only sound I heard for my 7:45.03 was Katie’s voice. With 400 meters left, when I wanted to go with whatever remained, get under a 1:50 pace if I could, Katie read exactly from the card: “Go, Steve. In capital letters, GO!”

When it was over and I was still sitting on the erg, I turned to Katie and hugged her. “Let’s see my Dad do that,” I said. I knew Katie of all people would understand.

* In competition