Friday, May 29, 2009

What's so exciting about a 2K row?

The CrossFit Games Northeast Qualifier (NEQ) Day One workouts were announced a week ahead of time, on the Albany CrossFit site. The first included thrusters and burpees - an evil combination that I have programmed myself many times. Maybe not the sexiest of CrossFit exercises, but certainly classics. And, again, brutally effective in their capacity to leave you sweating and panting and broken on the ground. But the second workout of the day stole all the attention, and not in a good way. Just five little letters was all it took for the virtual crowd to start buzzing.

Row 2K.

I'm not going to talk about the NEQ organizers' strategy in programming this workout. I won't even begin to speculate the science-y analysis that went into choosing the movements, the reps, the distance. What I will say is this... what I heard on Saturday morning, was, "BORING." The crowd at Albany thought the idea of rowing 2,000 meters as one of only three qualifying events was, well, kinda boring. I mean, you just row. No heavy weights, no range of motion criteria, there isn't even any counting involved. Athletes strap in and, like, row for a few minutes. Between, maybe, six and nine minutes, which is kind of a long time to watch the same damn movement. So from what I gathered, spectators weren't thrilled about the prospect of watching people row. The general crowd consensus was that Saturday afternoon would bring heat after heat of the CrossFit equivalent of watching paint dry. Boring.

I'm here to tell you, people... it was ANYTHING BUT. The row was, for me (and I think many of my fellow spectators), the most exciting part of the qualifiers, hands-down. The. Most. EXCITING.

We rolled 20 C2 rowers into the competition arena and lined them all up in two rows, facing each other. As an athlete, should you so choose, you could look directly into the face of your competition as you battled for points. To have so many competitors in such a small space, all lined up in order, meant that the crowd could watch the field as a whole. It was kind of like a horse race - one clumped mass all moving fast and hard, straining to come in one meter ahead of the next guy over. The athletes' tension was palpable, and the crowd fed off the perceived intimate competition - athlete squaring off, literally head to head, against athlete.

At the beginning of each heat, the competitors stepped up, strapped in, grabbed the handles... and then waited, tense and twitchy, like shirtless, sweaty thoroughbreds at the starting gate. Their coaches stood behind them, just as anxious, waiting for the signal to begin. And in that moment, the crowd was quiet.

The horn would blow and the athletes would begin to pull. And it was clear, immediately, who could actually row. Because the event was more than six minutes long, it gave the crowd a chance to walk around, checking out each competitor. Technique flaws were readily apparent. Pacing mistakes were easy to spot. (I don't know a lot of people who can maintain a 1:20 pace for a full 2,000 meters.) But for those athletes that got it right... it was poetry in motion. Literally.

There were a few rounds where I was just a spectator, not judging. Dallas, my sister and I scoped out different vantage points during one of the women's heats. I stopped him at one point, and pointed to a ridiculously fit woman wearing a green bandana. (Edit: I have since discovered she is Jessica Dunn, a trainer at Albany CrossFit.) "Um, Dallas... what, exactly, is she doing?" Her technique was so different than anything I'd yet to see that day. She was moving, for lack of a better word... slow. It was the opposite of what EC Synkowski calls the "CrossFit Hustle", that rowing motion that takes you backandforth-backandforth as fast as humanly possible. She was... slow. Her recovery was slow. Her drive, while the perfect display of the legs-body-arms that EC taught us, was also kind of slow. But then, Dallas pointed out one thing. This woman had a MONSTER pull. Her technique wasn't slow. It was efficient as hell, because she was producing so much power with each movement. The longer I watched, the more inspired I became. She was, in a word, gorgeous. She made me want to be stronger. She made me want to be a better rower. She made me want to be HER. And she made me want her to WIN.

Because of the way this event was organized, we had the perfect opportunity to stay put and watch our girl while still monitoring the rest of the pack. Before the event, the organizers gave all the judges four different colored cards, each signifying a different meter mark - one when the athlete was down to 1,000 meters, the next when they reached 500. They instructed us to hold each card up in turn as the athletes got closer and closer to finishing the event. The last card was to signify the final 250 meters, as a signal to the crowd that the athlete was almost done.

I thought this was really dumb. I mean, I'm supposed to remember which card to hold up, and the crowd is going to be able to figure out what each color signified? Dumb. Except IT WASN'T. The crowd went wild each time a judge's hand went up, signifying a new milestone in the row. We watched breathlessly through a sea of pink cards, waiting for the first hand to come up blue. It told us who to watch, how close they were to finishing, who was in contention for winning the heat. The card system allowed the crowd to fully participate no matter where they were standing, and gave us incentive as spectators to fully invest our cheering potential in "our" athletes. It was brilliant, and I'm sorry that I called it dumb, Jason, David and Neal.

Anyway, back to my new girl crush Jessica. We were able to monitor where she was in the field because of the card scoring system, which meant I could stay right where I was and just watch her row. She was, in my mind, flawless. Her technique never deviated, her pacing was rock solid and damn if she didn't make every hard-fought meter look HOT. With the last 250M to go, her pacing sped up a little, but the power of her pulls never diminished. I whooped as her blue card was raised, watched as Caitlin Fabian pulled in first, and then yelled myself hoarse for the green-bandana-clad Jessica to finish strong. In the end, she pulled her 2K in 8:02, and finished sixth out of all the women for that event. She may not have won, but as a spectator, she made that heat. And as both a spectator and a judge, the 2K row was the most exciting part of my weekend.

I did not hear one rumbling of "boring" when that event was done. Not one. The crowd was charged, amped, pumped. Everyone was talking about how exciting it was, how much energy was packed into one small event area, how each heat, start to finish, was non-stop screaming and cheering. And if the crowd felt it, I know the athletes felt it, and I'd like to think that helped to drive some PR-worthy performances. So I don't know if a 2K row was the best choice to test a well-rounded athlete. I don't know if it perfectly balanced the demands of the other workouts, or if it truly measured enough of the ten aspects of fitness in an appropriate manner. But I do know it was as exciting as hell. If you were there with me, you know exactly what I'm talking about. And if you weren't... you missed out on some of the best that CrossFit has to offer, from an athletic perspective and a community perspective.

Also, have I mentioned CrossFit New England's Bern fell off his rower mid-event? He swears it's okay if I talk about it in this very public forum. And it's a story worth re-telling, so I'm going to check in with Bern to make sure I've got the details right first... but you'll hear all about it next week.

Addendum: Make sure you read NEQ Organizer David Osorio's comment regarding the thought process behind programming a 2K row as one of the events. I love that he dropped that particular brand of genius on us. Thanks, David.

Unfortunately, I can't find a single picture of Jessica actually rowing. Not that it would have done her justice. Trust me, she was beautiful. (Photo courtesy of Albany CrossFit.)


Ryan P said...

I competed in the Mid-Atlantic qualifiers and the 2k row was the most exciting event (besides the final 2 heats on day 2). It didnt matter where you were in facility or even outside, as soon as the first rower hit that 1500 meter mark, the crowd went crazy and cheered them on to the finish. It was incredible and definitely contributed to me rowing a PR.

Matt said...

Your girl in the green bandanna is Jessica Dunn she pulled an 8:04.4 on the row. There is video of her in the burpee wod on Albany CrossFit. She is a trainer there and looked strong all weekend. As an athlete this weekend I have to say the row is far from boring, I went into it with more than a little apprehension, form is critical to a good result, if you "grip and rip" the result will be ugly!

Melissa Byers said...

Sweet, Matt. Thanks for the info. If I had known she was one of Albany's trainers, I would have made Jason introduce me.

Jenn said...

Not sure where the 8:04 put Jessica in terms of place, but that's a really impressive time IMHO. Did each competitor choose their own damper settings for the row? I'm curious to know where Jessica had hers set.

David X said...

As a competitor that weekend, I was actually MORE nervous for the 2K row than I was for the thruster/burpee WOD earlier in the day!

I've had a strange relationship with my C2. There is no other piece of equipment that can make you feel more powerful or more humbled than that infernal rower.

When the row was annouced, I went back through every CF journal article I could find on rowing technique and rowing strategy just to ensure I was not going to miss any miniscule aspect that would leave me floundering out there.

The worst feeling in the world is when you just clear 500M and you've just realized you're gonna run out of steam before the end and your technique goes to shit and you start flailing away. I'm sure it feels like that realization that you are drowning a foot away from dry land and you just can't make it.

Anyway, I finsihed the WOD at 7:27, dogshit times comapared to the sub-7 that guys were pulling but it beat my PR by over a 1:30!

Jason said...

Sorry I didn't introduce you Melissa, had I known you had a girl-crush on Jess it would have been one of my top priorities.

Jess is a true badass. She stepped it up this weekend and we are so proud of her. Thanks for the kind words.

David said...

Byers thinks I'm Brilliant!!! Hooray!

Great write up, Melissa.
On top of the obvious physical demands of the row there are a couple other aspects that led us to choosing it

As you so eloquently stated, technique is everything with the Row. I don't care how strong you are, if you don't know how to pull correctly by 1000m you're dead in the water. This is especially true as your muscles start to scream, your vision becomes blurry and 500m feels like 5000.

Mental perseverance
Theres no "down" time in a row. With almost any other workout you're allowed several mini breaks between movements to get your bearings back, not so here. If the athlete doesn't have the mental fortitude to keep pushing no matter how hard it hurts then they don't have what it takes to win this event.

Another aspect unique to the row is knowing EXACTLY how hard you're working every step of the way. Most of us go into a WOD with a particular strategy or some idea of how we're going to pace it out. If that strategy goes to shit, we can still get through it by just chipping away at the reps. In the 2K an advanced athlete knows exactly what kind of splits they're shooting for and how they need to approach the event. We saw a lot of tough athletes with no strategy whatsoever. They pulled too hard and too fast and way too soon. These guys and girls didn't take the event seriously and paid for it in points. I even saw a couple people have to stop for a couple seconds, get themselves together and then start up again.

In short, the 2K is like walking a tight rope on speed, ...for time.

I'm really enjoying these Melissa, keep em coming!

Tyler Has Nothing To Say said...

Great post. Well, actually, all your posts I've read are great, but this one actually got me pumped. A story about watching people row on machines got me excited . You must be a good writer.

Dallas said...

While I wasn't exactly excited to watch the competitors in Albany row, it became apparent as soon as it actually started that it was gonna be FUN to watch. SO fun, in fact, that the intensity and sheer depth that competitors like Jess, Caitlin (of Guerilla Fitness), and Heather Keenan (of CF New England) showed SERIOUSLY fired me up for a max 2k row this week. And, as I'd hoped, that raging inferno of intensity spurred me to a row time that I'm really proud of now. Thanks, ladies, for showing us how true athletes dig deep. It's inspiring and just plain beautiful .

Thanks, Melissa, for rockin' yet another post. You make the 603 look GOOD.

Renee said...

bern was hysterical. i love that man

Bethany said...

You have the most beautiful writing! You have the ability to put what everyone else was thinking and feeling into words that I rarely see!

Katie said...

2k row = pure evil... give me some heavy overhead work and burpees and I'll take that ANYDAY... did I really just say I'd prefer burpees? *shudder*

Scoobi-dont said...

We had a similar strategy for the final wod here at the Rocky Mountain Regionals for signaling that an athlete was almost finished: the judge would put their hand up when the athlete had 10 reps to go.
The final wod was 7,000 pounds(5,000 for women) from the ground to overhead. However you want to get it there is fine (snatch, clean and jerk or press...whatev...) as long as you had full range of motion. I think the crowd- athletes included- thought this would be a lame, boring event. But just like the 2k row at the NEQ, it was chilling to witness! It was loud in that box, and every time a judge's hand went up, I got chills and the noise level went even higher! It was intense!
I think that the crowd's love for all things Crossfit has a lot to do with the ambiance and energy that comes out of events like this.

*if you guys havent seen it then I highly recommend watching the video of the mens final event for the RMRQ!!!

philip said...

Been rowing for, oh lord, a while. There's a saying among rowers -- especially older and weak rowers: "ergs don't float". That is, the biggest C2 erg monster isn't necessarily the fastest on the water and that's true. But there's something genuinely moving about watching people row until they're glassy eyed, blue in the lips and fingertips, going way past hypoxia.

C2 has software that lets people watch an erg race on a monitor with little fake boat icons. Fastest split means that rowers boat icon is in front. I don't know how expensive it is, but for indoor rowing sprints among rowers, it is pretty much required. Saves the trouble of little pink cards.

Jason Struck, RKC said...


Why use 'was' beautiful... according the picture you provided she IS beautiful.

I have client that rowed competitively in high school, both erg and crew. It's hard as hell to get her to raise her frequency above 17 strokes a minute.

I pulled a 3:41 1000m (i think good for a lightweight) at about 19 strokes a minute just a week or two ago. It's nearly impossible for me to teach my guys to SLOW THE FUCK DOWN. The hustle is alive and well in my gym too EC. Working on it.

Matthew C. Baldwin said...

As a former college rower, I would recommend CrossFit athletes occasionally take the time to study the elements of erg rowing technique (plenty of stuff on YouTube), and then every now and then practice controlling the "stroke rate" (strokes per minute... the upper right corner number in your C2 display) during a longish row (2000-3000 meters).

A typical practice would be:
(1) First get your 500 meter splits to a suitable number (e.g. 2:05-2:15 depending on your condition).
(2) Then work to maintain that split while reducing (or increasing) your stroke rate to 25.
(3) Do 25 strokes at 25 (have a "cox" shout them out for you) while maintaining the same split.
(4) Maintaining the same stroke rate, do 20 strokes in which you progressively REDUCE your 500 m split number (how? by driving ever harder with your legs of course)
(5) Relax and row slow and soft for 1 minute.
(6) From here, practice on your own: increasing and decreasing your stroke rate number, then holding it constant, while bringing down your split numbers.

Competitive 2k rowing is all about control and fortitude.

Apolloswabbie said...

Magnificent post, thanks! Paul