It’s difficult to think of a good reason to set your sights on a 7-minute 2k row. It certainly isn’t enough to impress a decent rower – in the fantastic Lido For Time, 1984 Olympian Brad Alan Lewis regularly hits it in a boat, which is much, much harder than doing it on the industry-standard Concept 2 machine. Unlike a marathon, it won’t get recognition from your friends and family – 2k doesn’t sound like much, and even when you explain the time and effort that goes into it (probably more than it takes to get a shitty marathon time – I’ve done a 4:27 marathon, and the row took more training), they won’t really see the point. And most importantly, it is absolutely awful – I’d consider doing a marathon again, but right now, the afternoon after hitting a 6:59:7 – which took almost 12 weeks of dedicated training and planning, and left me slumped against a railing for ten minutes after the final sprint – I never, ever want to sit on a rower again.
That said, a 7-minute 2K is one of the most worthwhile fitness-related things I’ve ever done. Here’s what I learned from it.
(Targeted) hard work pays off
On my first attempt, I rowed a 7:43, which is basically dreadful. I was furious, because I’m generally in pretty good shape – and then remembered that I don’t fucking practise rowing. As I’ve mentioned before, I frequently need to remind myself that targeted hard work is the only real shortcut to anything, and so for a while I was certain that getting the right damper setting and fine-tuning my technique was all I needed to do to take 30 seconds off my time. It took about a fortnight for me to realise that this wasn’t going to happen, and that what I really needed to do was stop being a baby and start cranking the oars, three or four times a week, until I had the legs, arms, lungs and pain tolerance to get it done.
Olympic rowers are monsters
Apparently Sir Steve Redgrave decided he never wanted to row again after winning one of his many, many gold medals in rowing. I don’t blame him. Rowing is a special kind of hell, and I cannot even imagine what it takes to deal with the pain it takes for not one Olympics, but five. That’s 20 years of insane-level rowing, of doing workouts that are simply unimaginable to most people. According to Brad Alan Lewis, when The Social Network came out it was reviewed on his local NPR affiliate KPCC. ‘The reviewer said that he had no sympathy for the plight of The Winklevoss Twins because clearly they had not suffered a day in their lives,’ says Lewis. ‘Clearly this reviewer had never rowed for Harry Parker, much less trained for the Olympics. The Twins have suffered on a monumental scale.’ To put this another way: if you think Tabata training saves time because it only takes four minutes, you aren’t doing it properly. If you’re capable of doing anything else worthwhile in the next 26 minutes after those intervals, you weren’t working hard enough.
Rowing will get you jacked
Narcissistic? Yes, but: I already do an insane amount of pullups and deadlifts, as well as two sports (climbing and BJJ) that rely largely on pulling. After ten weeks of rowing, my back has never been bigger. This is no surprise – a 1:45 500m basically involves yanking on a handle nearly as hard as you can, 56 times in a row. I ended up doing that 10 times in a single workout. Want the sort of back that gets remarked upon during yoga classes (this actually happened)? Then row like a crazy man.
You can prepare yourself for anything
I am not built for rowing. I’m 5’7 in shoes and my legs are pretty short for my height. But the hell with that – 7 minutes, as Rob McDonald of Gym Jones once told me, ‘Is not some epic ordeal.’ It’s not even that good. It’s hard – harder for me than, for instance, hitting a double-bodyweight deadlift – but that’s good. Because the point, really, isn’t the number on the counter – it’s how hard you hard to work to get it there. The point of voluntarily doing hard things is to make yourself better prepared for doing more hard things, voluntarily or not.
You can test yourself anywhere
If anything, the solitary nature of rowing on a C2 makes it an amazing training environment. In a marathon or a strongman event, there are people there to get you through it. On a 2k row, there is nobody but you. On the morning I did my 6:59, I rode the train to the gym completely hyped on espresso, warmed up for half an hour and then completely wrecked myself in seven minutes. If you can’t get to a competition, or don’t like competitions – it’s worth remembering that you don’t need them to test yourself. In fact, maybe testing yourself without the bells and whistles of a huge, organised event is better – because when you sit down to write your book, or design your business, or whatever other hard thing the rowing is really preparing you for, you aren’t going to have friendly aid stations and a neverending wall of cheering spectators.
Happiness comes from hard-fought victories
Or as Pieter Vodden, who helped me out with a training plan puts it: ‘The point is that the basic feelings of happiness reside in the achievement of goals. Let that hard-fought shit nourish you.’
…and it’s not even really that hard.
In the 2013 Crossfit Games, one event involved rowing 2k for time and then immediately carrying on to do a half-marathon, with no rest. Jason Khalipa did the first 2k in a frankly insane 6:21, then settled down to do the half in 1 hour 18 minutes, averaging about 1:52 for each 500m split. That is ridiculous. Khalipa is taller than me but not much – and he’s not a professional rower. And he did that during a competition that last five days, where he did eight other events. Full disclosure: one of the things that made me angry enough to get the final sprint done was Steve Kowalenko, another Gym Jones guy, had heard about my little challenge and rowed a 6:59 a couple of days before me, just because he could. Don’t compare yourself to the standards most people are prepared to settle for – look at what’s actually possible, and then work back from there.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Brad Alan Lewis:
‘If you want to train for the Olympics, I say go for it. You may not get to the Olympics, but I’m pretty sure you’ll learn something along the way – who knows, maybe even something useful, such as disciple or courage or respect. Is training for the Olympics the best use of your time? That’s not for me to say. Start cranking the miles, (100 miles a week, come hell or high water), and see where it takes you.’
HOMEWORK: Row a 500m as fast as you can – not 2k, that’s insane. And read any (or all) of Brad Alan Lewis’ rowing trilogy: Assault On Lake Casitas, Wanted: Rowing Coach, or Lido For Time: 14:39. He’s a better writer than me, and better at rowing too.