2000 meters: Best. Therapy. Ever.

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For me as a rower, the last two years have been… long. I had this coach, who was, for me, a bad coach. Other people will tell you he’s a great guy, rah rah, but for meto me, as an athlete, he was a bad coach. For me as a rower, he failed to do the job he agreed to do.

I’d had it mentioned to me before I even met him that he had a tendency to take his life out on his rowers. However, at the time, it had been attributed to the issues in his life at that time, so I’d decided to give it a try.

This turned out to be a very bad idea, because as time will show, he has made the same mistake all over again, and since I was around, I became first the object, and then the target of his inability to deal with the rest of his life. When I stood up for myself and other rowers, he blackballed my ability to work as a coach, lodged false professional accusations against me, attempted to blacken my personal reputation, and did everything he could to make it as hard as possible for me to continue to train in the boathouse.

I am aware that I’m not the first person this has happened to. However, unlike an 18-22 year old college girl, I was 30 years old. I was well aware of my rights and the system, and I wasn’t about to graduate and leave, which is most likely why this habit of behavior had previously carried on unchecked for so long.

With that in mind, I attempted to ask for assistance from the proper authorities, who chose to believe him, an older authority figure who was also a fairly well-known alumni of the University. I sat in a meeting with a university official who did not know that the “friend of the family” who’d accompanied me was also a lawyer, and after enlightening her to the fact that I was in fact also a University employee, a little fact that seemed to have been forgotten along the way, I had her officially inform me that, based on what my old coach had told them, I was “crazy”, “unstable”, “psychotic”, a “stalker” and that I was “unfit to be allowed around young children”. According to her, everything was my fault, I had no recourse to defend myself or refute the accusations against me, and the University was refusing to do anything to deal with it. Or, to quote this particular Title Nine Sexual Harassment officer exactly, “If he was a sh*tty coach to you, that’s not my problem.”
Yes, that conversation actually happened. In front of a 3rd party witness. For realzies.

So it continued. I was treated like crap because I’d spoken up in defense of myself and a group of high school kids, and everybody acted like I was crazy. Every other coach or authority figure stood there and let it happen, and we all learned whose morals are based on what is convenient rather than what is conscientious.

The thing is, that kind of psychological pressure’s gotta go somewhere. No matter how good you are, and not to be immodest, but after where I grew up, I’m pretty good -  that kinda sh*t’s gonna hit the fan at some point.

For a long time, it meant that I was throwing up. For months, I used to throw up every day before practice — when Hoff lived with me that summer, she would set her alarm 15 minutes early, come wake me up, & go back to sleep while I went to the bathroom & got it out of my system. Incidentally, I can offer the tip that if you throw up with enough frequency, your dental fillings will fall out, so I’ve got a small crater in the back left of my mouth which would warn against vomit as a coping mechanism.

Along the way, my team fired him – and in terms of how that got taken out on me as someone still within his professional reach, you can probably guess how well that went for my world.
Yah.. What you’re thinkin’? It was pretty much exactly like that.

Eventually, my team got shut down – another stellar show of classy behavior from the same people who accused me of being a psychotic stalker. When even the high school alumni that got cc’d on the email refer to the people in charge as “wow, what a bunch of assholes”… well all right then.

With the closing of my team, I began to train part time with another coach at another boathouse. Based on my experience in the LaLa Land rowing community, I pretty much walked in there scared sh*tless of how I would be treated. What I found is that not everyone is like where I’d been. I discovered that not all rowing coaches are moral cowards, and that not everyone coaches by abusing their rowers because they hate themselves.

Due to the distance factor, I still row during the week at my old boathouse, going to the new one on the weekend. And the happier I became with my new team, and my new coach, the more pissed off my old coach became until eventually, instead of talking smack about me as a person, or coming after my ability to get a job… he came after me. He did it verbally, he did it loudly, he did it in public, he did it in front of a group of underage rowers and another coach (who stood there & didn’t do a damn thing to try to stop him) and there was nothing OldCoach could do to defend his behavior.

What did I do?

I had a(nother) interesting meeting with the University’s Vice Chancellor of Legal Affairs, whom previous conversations had shown to be a rather nice, reasonable fellow. I didn’t file anything, I didn’t press charges, I didn’t put anything on paper, I was not part of any decision-making process of any kind. We had a nice chat, I walked out, and I left it to the University to make whatever determination they wanted to clean up their sh*t. If what I have since been told is truly going on, I honestly hope for his sake that my old coach is getting something constructive out of each & every session of the ongoing weekly solution which the University chose to… offer him.  And I’m pretty sure that on one level or another, I taught that man a couple lessons he’s going to remember for the rest of… ever.

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That takes care of him. But what, you may ask… what about me?

Well, that’s the part that causes me to describe things as… long.

The good news is that I stopped throwing up, which as you might guess has been better for my dental health, not to mention my overall well-being.

The bad news is that the problem for me hasn’t been my body, it’s been my brain.

Which brings us to… the erg.

I used to love the erg. On the team where I first learned to row, I was actually rather infamous for it. I didn’t learn to work out on a sports team, I’d learned to exercise in a gym environment, where I’d gone on to become a spinning & kickbox instructor before I moved to California.
So with that in mind, when you’re talking about long, drawn-out periods of ongoing muscular pain on what’s basically another cardio machine — I walked into my first boathouse unknowingly pre-built for the prime testing method of the sport. Within my first year of rowing, I wasn’t just pulling times that were competitive with our four-year D1 collegiate alumni, I was pulling times that beat them. I was cold. I was solid. I was freakin’ stone. I didn’t just make the erg my friend. I made the erg my b*tch.

My teammate Becky asked me once how I could just keep pulling a lower score each time, and I replied, “Well, I just turn my brain off. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

Which was why we put the emphasis on that when I started training with my old coach – could I crack 7:20 for a 2k? (for non-rowers, that’s a 1:50 average split for every 500m rowed over the distance of 2000m) I ended up getting close – my PR is a 1:51 split – not bad for a 29 year old who’d never rowed collegiately.

However, during and after all the crap with my old coach, I discovered my body’s non-vomit solution to dealing with the stress from having dealt with the situation.

Panic attacks.

The most public and humiliating of these being last year at erg sprints when I literally had two teammates and a 20 year old coxswain standing next to my erg, forcing me to finish the piece while I cried.
(and would you believe I still won my category? How eff’d up is that? Welcome to rowing.)

And it continued – I would literally have trouble just finishing a freakin’ piece. Add in a lower back injury this fall that stayed with me over the course of the winter, and yeah, it’s been a great training run – that is, if dictionary.com suddenly decided to define “great” as “spending from September to mid-January annoyed with your inability to spontaneously heal your body & feeling like a failure due to your lack of control over your own mental state”.
Oh, wait… no, no, they haven’t come around to using my terminology yet.
what’s up with that, man? As is often questioned in this city, “Don’t they know who I am?

As time went on, I got to the point where I could do training pieces and not freak out – I think my first breakthrough was a 20′ test where I pulled a 1:59 average for the piece and kicked the last minute down to a 1:56, after which I looked at the results with CoachIan and helpfully remarked, “So, based on that last minute, I should probably go faster next time.” He, in his dry British way replied, “That would be nice, yes.”

For me, each completion was a milestone — I never thought I’d be so happy to do a 2×20′ piece in my entire life, but to stay on an erg for 40′ straight and be okay aftewards… that was progress. In December I did a 7x350m with a Trojan that was home on break, and averaged a 1:48 split, kicking it down to 1:46 for the last interval, and I think both CoachIan and I were surprised at that one, since I’m pretty sure that’s the first time in about a year that I’d been able to really pull.

Then came the first 2k.

I can do this. I can totally, totally do this.

I sat myself down and I said to myself, “Self, we can do this. We will not freak out, we will just go. It will be fine.”

Oh holy Jesus.  It was so not fine.

You ever try to erg while you are truly and honestly hyperventilating? It is a bad time to be had, my friends. A damn bad time. I made it about 750m into the piece, and that was it. I was out.

When you’re faced with that, there’s only one thing to do:

Go back the next morning, and do it again.

I asked SK, who I suppose could be said to be one of our group’s mentor-type-peoples, if she’d just sit with me, and pace me for doing the distance of 2000 meters – not for time, not to compete for anything, but just to finish the friggin’ piece. And because SK is quite possibly one of the Nicest People in the History of Ever, she came in that Friday morning at 6:30am and sat there, talking me through the piece while she did her recovery steady state on the next erg.

And I finished the piece.

Don’t get me wrong – it was horrific, and I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy.

…well, maybe just the once.

On my old coach.

For educational purposes.
(What? Okay, ya know what – I’m nicer than I used to be, but I ain’t f*ckin’ Ghandi.)

The point is, I finished it. With a 1:56 split, but I rowed 2000 meters and I finished it. To borrow from Alanis, sometimes the only way out is through.

So I got off the erg that Friday morning, did practices over the weekend, and then the following Tuesday night, this time with HelloKittyRowerFriend next to me… I did it again. And I got all the way down to 1:53 for my split. I gave my numbers to CoachIan afterwards and had to admit that, “No, no, I’m not pulling yet.”

After that, I started to do it once a week. I’d purposely go into the new boathouse when no one was around and just… row two thousand meters. Didn’t talk to anyone about it, didn’t bother to record my numbers, this was not for time, this was not to beat anything, this was just me stepping through the distance at a good steady state pace to get my back… back into commission, and to get to the point where my brain didn’t freak the frick out in the middle of the piece.

In the course of doing that, and having made the decision in mid-December to eventually move closer to my new boathouse so that I could train there full on, I had to come to terms with something.


Over the last few years, I’ve really dealt a lot with how angry I have been. My whole life, I’ve been pissed off – first at parents who have never been interested in doing their job where I was concerned, at a system where I felt like I was constantly being screwed over, at a corporate structure which just has always seemed like a stupid way of treating people in general, and at the whole of humanity, whose knee-jerk reaction seems to be to do horrible, horrible things to one another when to do the right thing, to adhere to the morality that everyone makes mouths at having but almost never bother to actually follow through on — yes, it’s harder up front, but it makes life so much easier in the long run — these things have caused me to just be incredibly angry with everything and everyone around me.

So in rowing, I’ve rowed angry. I was always out to prove something to someone, or beat someone else, or get that spot in the boat because other people thought I couldn’t do it, and f*ck if I wasn’t going to show them how wrong they were, dammit.

Anger was what had pushed me.

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It is in being half in NewBoathouse, and half in the old one that I’ve truly come to realize that part of the reason I was fueled by anger for so long was that everybody else up there are even angrier than me. The more time I’d spend away from OldBoathouse and then go back would cause me to walk in and have the instinctual feeling of “Holy sh*t, you people look miserable.” My last business meeting with one of them ended up with me at home ridin’ the Vomit Comet again because I was just so not used to being around that any more.

I realize that may sound insane, but it really is something that you have to experience to understand. At Erg Sprints on Saturday, I ran into a girl whom I’d helped coach one summer right after she learned to row – one of her collegiate coaches had sent her to me to learn to scull. And EH explained that she’d dropped off the team because while she loved rowing, she hated the head coach since “I know this sounds weird, but he kinda crushed my soul.”
To which I said, “Honey, the reason I’m down here is because my old coach learned most of what he knows from your old coach.”
And the 20 year old looked at me & went, “Okay. Yeah.”

Most of all, what you learn from something like that is… anger requires the energy for something to matter enough for you to care about it enough to be angry. And I just don’t have that in me anymore.

In my new boathouse, they’re not angry. They’re nice people. I know they’re aware of what’s been going on at the other boathouse, because much like crying in baseball, there are no secrets in rowing. That’s part of the reason I feel comfortable writing this – I’m not saying anything that anyone who knows me doesn’t already know. Hell, I am aware of the fact that there are people I’ve never even met that have heard about me, so who are we kidding by staying silent? Nobody, that’s who.

But these nice people? These people who aren’t angry? These people who were cool to allow me what I needed to get this crap out of my system — they’re still winning as athletes. Since this summer, this group of rowers have been cleaning people’s clocks from San Diego to Canadian Henley and back again.

So I had to answer the question: if you’re not rowing to win because you’re angry, why are you rowing?

My answer turned out to be the same reason that I plan to move south to NewBoathouse full time: For myself.

I had to re-learn why to be a rower. Not to beat someone else down by crushing them on the course, but for the sake of building yourself up by doing better, because I as a person have the value of being worth the work of making that effort.

What did that mean on Saturday at Erg Sprints?

It meant I went in not with the intention of blowing through a time, or showing everyone that f*ck you all, I can do it without you. No. My goal was for me. My goal was to row 2000 meters in competition and mentally be okay. Finish the piece. Finish the piece without my back giving out. Finish the piece without tears. Finish the piece without a panic attack, and do it in public. Do it under pressure. Do it in the middle of a screaming mass of din and be okay.

As I was warming up, I became aware of another rower — someone who I’m well aware hates my ass because she didn’t like a managerial decision I made while I was running my team last year. After we fired my old coach, we tried her friend out, and ultimately let him go because, well, as the opener of this piece may have indicated, I don’t tolerate bullies – no matter who they think they are. Thus, I was well aware that despite the fact that we were listed in different categories, she was gunnin’ for my ass.

There the two of them were, the girl and the guy I fired, doing the Thing with the Thing, and the sad attempts at high-school sitcom passive aggressive intimidation, and I thought, “You know what? F*ck that sh*t.”

Then and there, I made the conscious choice to control my environment. I had already decided that I wasn’t rowing angry. I wasn’t going to allow that in my atmosphere to affect my row, and I have the ability to make sure it doesn’t.

I have that power because I learned a fun secret.

When an someone is fueled solely by anger, it is very easy to break them.
(Nicer? Yes. Ghandi? No.)

About, oh, a minute before we were allowed on the ergs, I was standing about five feet from the girl that was gunnin’ for me, and a very well-meaning older gentleman who rows out of OldBoathouse came up and asked, “So Claris, you’re going to go win today I take it?”
While normally I would have been severely annoyed at being interrupted by that right before getting into a race, this time I cheerfully replied, “Oh, I’ve spent the whole winter with a back injury. I’m not here to pull – I’m just here to try to complete the piece.”

And in that moment, I watched the girl who hates my ass lose her race.

I’d seen the heat she had to beat to win – she could have taken that time. But because suddenly I wasn’t there to kill, because I wasn’t going to feed her anger with my own… poof. She had nothin’. It was over before she even got on the machine. I heard her co-worker say later, “Oh, she missed the time she was shooting for by about ten seconds overall.”
(Which incidentally is also a really good reason to never publicly say what time you’re going to pull. Hubris, baby – it’s a b*tch.)

Was her time faster than mine? Sure. By about a 1 second difference on the split. But I’ll tell you a secret – I wasn’t pulling.

I got on the erg, and I did my piece. I hit 1:46 in my first 10 strokes, dialed back to 1:49 for the first 500m and settled into a nice 80% pressure steady state for the midsection. Somewhere around the 1k mark, I realized that another chick in my category who’d listed herself as having a 7:10 as her best time had somehow ended up behind me somewhere along the way, and I was in first place, so I just kept on keepin’ on, kept pulling ahead, increasing the meters between us, sat up & sprinted the last 250m at around a 1:48. Overall, I had a 1:54.something – I didn’t really check, but I ended up winning my category for the third year in a row.
(To give an idea of how uncompetitive my time was for our group of rowers, our open lightweight who raced at the same time in her category underweighs me by at least 30lbs and pulled a 1:49.3 avg split. That is a good time. Mine? Not so much.)

Granted, I three-peated. Yeah, I did it with a crap time.  But I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish for me. I kept my sh*t together. My back held up. I didn’t freak out. I got on an erg and I did something I haven’t been able to do in almost two years – I turned my brain off.

So… now what?

Now I get to re-learn how to row. Not just technique, though lord knows the moment I don’t concentrate on it I immediately fall back into the habit of being late at the catch, which oh my god, you’d think I’d have figured out by now but no no, I’m kind of an idiot that way.

Now I have to learn how to row for myself. The thing is, there’s no seat to race for – sure I’m in an 8+ for Crew Classic in April, but with CoachIan‘s group, there’s no boat for me to make. I’m the only openweight woman in our group, so it’s just me. In a single. Rowing against myself. And I need to figure out how to do that, which leaves me with only one option for that nasty little 2k.

Go back & do it again.

And this time, go faster.

Music: Everything’ll Be Alright (Will’s Lullaby) – Joshua RadinEverything'll Be Alright (Will's Lullaby) - We Were Here

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  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Kate

    Go you, lady!

    Also: erg test while hyperventilating?! DEAR SWEET LORD.

    I had a talk with an old friend this weekend about my own rowing issues, and how I have to be DISTRACTED while erging to not do something crazy – like maintaining a 28 pace for as long as I can. Her take? “That’s what made you a good racer; you just want to go faster if you can, fuck it.” And she’s right. Unless I have something distracting me from the pace, my brain DOES shut down and I just…pull. Crazy hard.


    It’s not anger, but I haven’t figured out what it is yet. I should look at that.

    • claris

      Okay Kate, I love you to bits, and I say this with all not-trying-to-be-snarky, but I want you to go back, read over some of your posts about your boss and your job, & then come back, look me in the font, & try to convince me you don’t have anger issues. because I’ve had that boss, and right now… you totally, totally do.

      Me, I love lower rates — one of my favorite things to do is to see how low I can row and still balance the boat. (If you go below 10 spm, the stroke coach stops recording.) I kept trying to get a couple other rowers to do a race where we saw who could cover 2k in the least amt of strokes, but no one else wanted to play. wuwts?

  • Megdalen

    This is one of your best introspective posts ever. I always wonder the details of the things you only hint at but I know that if I wait patiently you will figure it all out and it is beautiful, beautiful to see it all come together. (and this from someone who thinks you were the cat’s pajamas to begin with). I will pray for you as much peace and joy as you can take. May you be surprised at how much that turns out to be!

    Having said that, I would really appreciate it if you would row Head of the Charles someday. I promise not to be pregnant or giving birth so I can come down and watch and hold up a really big sign with your name on it.


    • claris

      Meg, I’d kinda love to row HoC m’self one day. An 8+ worth the race, I could probably make, but I dunno that my sculling is up to par enough to warrant a lottery entry. Not this year, anyway. Maybe a 2x next year if I find the right person to row with.

      Thankfully, it looks like we’re going to get some off-season collegiate girls this summer, so I have hope of possible sweep rowing. Sadly, they’re all a big bunch o’ young’ins, so I don’t think it’ll be much more than possibly an Open 4+ at SW regionals or just the collegiates finally cracking under a summer of sculling and going, “PLEASE DEAR GOD CAN WE HAVE A DAY WHERE I ONLY WORRY ABOUT ONE OAR AGAIN!” (which sometimes happens. *g*)

      But we’ll see. :shrug:

      And yeah, seriously – how many times are you gonna give birth, anyway? Haven’t you pretty much gotten that experience checked off the list now that you’ve successfully done it three times? ;)

      • Megdalen

        It’s not even like I was one of those girls growing up who loved kids or babysat the whole neighnorhood or “always knew I wanted to be a mother.” I don’t like other people’s kids. But I fell in love with a man and wanted to have kids WITH HIM, which is different. And as it turns out, I am damn good at labor and delivery. I know this sounds crazy, but I kick ass at giving birth. I don’t know if I am a very good mother, I think I’m okay but you never know. But seriously, labor and delivery? I am that good. And I am freely bragging because there is not much I am good at so I have to really hold onto the few things that I could so get awards for.

        • claris

          I love you, Meg. Seriously, that whole reply totally cracked me up – “I don’t know about takin’ care of ‘em afterwards, but I can pop me out a kid like a mo’fo.” ahahahahaaaa…

          Someone asked me the other day about whether or not I wanted to have kids. I don’t :mind: kids. I’m not against it in any way – I just don’t feel the biological URGE to SPAWN that some women seem to, especially out here where our divorce laws seem to make having a baby your matrimonial fiscal insurance. I think part if it is because I spent high school working as a nanny for 20, 25 hours a week, so for me, there’s no mystery — I’ve totally raised a kid from 3 mos -> 4 yrs — it just wasn’t mine! ;)

          When I came back the Christmas after my nephew Lil’Spawn was born, my b–i-l Pat went to hand over his 1 month old son to me & was all, “You have to hold his head…” and doing the New Parent Thing, and my sister walked by & told him, “Honey, just give her the baby — she’s got more experience than you.”

          In terms of physical care, my kids will be fine – that part’s not a problem. If the dog’s any measure to go buy, well mentally their viewpoint might be a wee bit… interesting. Which by the way, will not be all my fault, ’cause you gotta figure any man willing to breed with me in the first place – probably not all that normal himself! Just throwin’ that out there. Just sayin’.

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