Racing a World-Champion Rower in My Garage

This post was originally published on this site

On June 11th, my 38th birthday, I found myself head-to-head in a virtual rowing race against the 23-year-old rowing champion Oliver Zeidler. Me, a father of two who has been rowing in his garage for three years, against Olli. Ridiculous.

He can row 2,000 meters in 5 minutes, 38.7 seconds.

For most people, these numbers mean nothing. It might help to know that only seven other people have rowed that distance in under 5:40. I am not one of them.

Our mismatched matchup is something that could probably happen only in rowing and only now, because of the coronavirus. Here’s how it came about.

Three years ago, I purchased a Concept2, the standard-bearer of rowing machines, so that I could row in my garage. With no experience, I turned to YouTube to learn how the heck to work this thing, and stumbled upon a coaching site called Dark Horse Rowing, run by Shane Farmer, a former college rower.

I popped on my headphones and learned to row alongside Shane. Once I got the mechanics down, I realized I wasn’t half bad.

A year later, I joined a gym in our East Bay neighborhood, and met Natalie Guzikowski, an All-American rower from her college days, and my first and only rowing friend. She became my unofficial coach, and she transformed my stroke, along with my times.

Enter the coronavirus. Staying fit was now a matter of what equipment you happened to have at home. Thankfully, I had the rowing machine.

Rowers Choice, a consortium of companies that build, repair and distribute racing boats, decided to find a way for rowers to continue to compete. They invented March Mania, a virtual rowing competition for high school teams. It was arranged bracket-style, akin to March Madness, and 1,400 athletes competed.

But the adults wanted in on the fun, so Rowers Choice is now in the midst of its second tournament: the Global Rowing Challenge, with categories for masters (40 and older), open (19 to 40), and under 19. Rowers Choice went on a social media blitz and tapped every connection they had to attract competitors. “Once we got one rower from the American national team to enter the tournament, it caught on like fire,” Alex DelSordo, president and founder of Rowers Choice, told me with pride.

The Global Rowing Challenge is unparalleled in many ways. First off, distances change from round to round — a far cry from the standard 2,000 meters of regattas. Second, anyone can join. You enter with your time for a 1K, and get seeded in your bracket accordingly. Third, it’s virtual. Each round lasts a week, and you race on a rowing machine at some point in the week to submit your time. And finally, there is prize money — $1,500 for first place!

Coach Natalie sent me an innocuous text in late May with a link to the contest website. “Check it out!” I figured what the heck, I’ve been rowing a lot during the shutdown, why not try. There was prize money, after all.

The night the brackets were released, I stayed up late to Google the competition. The No. 1 seed in my bracket? Oliver Zeidler.

I looked him up and found this Wikipedia entry describing him as “a German rower and former swimmer. He is reigning world champion in the single men’s scull won at the 2019 World Rowing Championships and the current World Games champion in indoor rowing in the open men’s 2000m class.”

The way my bracket was set up, if I won my first round, I would race against him.

But first I had the 1,500-meter race against Alex DelSordo, one of the contest organizers. And it’s here that I must tell you about the pain cave.

As Natalie puts it: “The pain cave is a place where your legs are full of lactic acid, your lungs are burning, you can no longer think straight, and your body is numb from pain and exhaustion.” Here’s Shane Farmer: “The pain cave is where you have to come to a reckoning with who you are as a person. It is a constant challenge: Are you willing to go harder, are you willing to suffer to know that you gave all you have?”

As compared to a treadmill, in which the machine sets the pace and you try to keep up, the rowing machine will go as fast as you push it. You are the metronome, not the other way around. Worst of all, the machine spits out immediate feedback, and so in race mode, your gaze is fixated on the monitor and the unflinching numbers that tell you whether you’re going fast enough or not.

When I sat down to row 1,500 meters on May 31, I didn’t know what Alex was capable of. But I figured if I was going to beat him, I’d have to enter the pain cave. A few minutes into my race, every part of me wanted to stop rowing, but I had to keep going. When I finished, I collapsed on the floor next to the rowing machine. I couldn’t find a position where my legs were not throbbing.

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I submitted my time. I beat Alex by 0.6 seconds.

Next up? Olli Zeidler, all 203 centimeters of him. Olli was supposed to be Tokyo-bound for the 2020 Olympics, and was likely to do well. He has an impressive rowing pedigree: His grandfather and aunt were Olympians, his father was a junior world champion, his sisters row. Olli’s been rowing only a few years, and admits he’s still mastering the technique … and yet he’s a world champion.

It was a foregone conclusion that I would lose to Olli in the second round, a 60-second all-out sprint. So I figured why not email him and introduce myself as his competition.

Olli cheerfully replied with a video of his one-minute row. It was mesmerizing to watch how much power he generated while staying so in control. As I watched, it became apparent that he hadn’t gone all out, and a terrifying, electrifying idea crept into my head: He might be beatable.

My first-ever attempt at a one-minute sprint was the day Olli sent me his video. I was slower than Olli — duh — but his pace felt maybe, possibly, within reach. What if my butt didn’t slide around so much? What if I got better at my start? What If?

Isn’t this why we play sports in the first place? To let ourselves be swept away by the intoxicating fantasy of What If? What if I make a game-saving catch? What if I sink a buzzer-beater shot? What if the reigning world champion coasts and I pull off an upset?

My friends texted me GIFs of Rocky Balboa knocking out Ivan Drago. My wife, Giulia, and I strategized constantly, even though we had no idea what we were talking about.

I went for my third attempt on June 11. Giulia cheered over my shoulder the whole time. It was my best-ever one-minute sprint. But I did not win. Obviously.

Even while holding back, Olli rowed 382 meters; I rowed 368 meters. In the video you can see that I never stood a chance. The idea of Olli as beatable was utter fantasy. His stroke is patient and beautiful; mine is frantic. I start to fade with 15 seconds left. Olli could probably keep going like this for several minutes longer.

He is now in the Final Four of remaining rowers, and I am not collecting any prize money.

But that’s OK. This competition gave me something to focus on other than the coronavirus. I got to race against the best rower in the world, to push deep and see what I am capable of. There is no prize money for that feeling.

Just the pain cave.

Mark Lukach is a teacher and the author of “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward.”