Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A date with an erg

This is an erg*:

It's a standard bit of kit for rowers, used particularly heavily in winter months when insufficient daylight prevents us from getting out on the water and we need something else to approximiate rowing on. I have a love-hate relationship with these things. I have sweated on them. Set personal bests on them. Achieved on them. Recited the periodic table on them (forwards, backwards and both up and down groups), not because I'm a complete nerd, but because for some reason I was required to learn it for my university exams. I have worked off hangovers on them. Vomited on them. Blacked out on them. Replaced the pain of being dumped with the physical torture of them. Failed on them. I have collapsed off them, I have cursed them and I have feared them. Ergs have caused me much pain since my first acquaintance with them a decade ago.

Rowing on water, particularly in crew boats, demands attention to detail, a never-ending quest for the perfect stroke - a balletic interplay of balance, timing and the controlled application of explosive force. Erging, by contrast, has had much of the complexity designed out of the motion, particularly with the removal of the need for fine dynamic balance, and provides an almost perfect environment to unleash one's base and ugly competitive streak. In addition, rowing on water is subject to unpredictability borne of the whims of Nature, including flooding, strong currents, high winds, choppy waters. Erging provides reproducible conditions. A poor performance cannot be blamed on conditions. Illness notwithstanding, everything is within my own control. I may have been weak. I may have given in. I can't blame a poor performance on bad weather. And good performances are not down to luck.

I think you have to be a particular type of person to be seduced by the concept that you can be solely in control of your own performance. It suggests, perhaps requires, a level of arrogance that I would find unpalatable in others, but which I con myself into believing is a virtue. A mantra we bandied around a lot in college was "Pain is temporary. Disappointment lasts forever."** The subtext is that you make a choice to accept disappointment if you fail to choose sufficient pain.

What with commuting, I haven't erged recently. In fact, before Sunday, I think it may be a good five months since I applied myself to one of these monsters. But I have missed them terribly. I miss the sense of having actually worked for something***.

I was therefore rather delighted to discover four rowing machines in the gym here, but it was with some trepidation that I approached an erg on Sunday, recalling the sickness generally felt after a session. I did a pick drill to start off (standard rowing warm-up exercise and handy for re-establishing technique), a couple of minutes light rowing, then a power test - three strokes to build intensity then five strokes at maximum power and speed. Unsurprizingly, my maximum power was a bit lot lower than the last time I did one of these tests. And it seemed to take a lot more out of me, as well. Suddenly the concept of just doing half an hour on the erg seemed rather more daunting than it had a few minutes previously.

Instead, I did a 2km erg. My personal best is a respectable-ish 7:27. I managed 7:58. There are persons of pensionable age with better test scores than that. That 2km test erg hurt a lot. Discovering that I could barely beat a lady old enough to be my grandmother hurts rather more. Next time, I would do better, be in more pain, not be so weak. Dammit - it was this sort of resolution to improve that got me hooked on erging in the first place.

I did a half hour this evening. It hurt after five minutes. I found myself reciting the periodic table, as much to numb the boredom and block the pain as anything else. Or at least I tried to recite it, but discovered I could no longer do this****. But I did manage to "empty the tank", or thoroughly exhaust myself, so was roundly chuffed. It also made me feel entitled to indulge in the soft cheeses at dinner.

Anyway, I must get to bed. I need my beauty sleep in advance of a date with an erg tomorrow...


*An erg is actually a unit of energy. The machine is more correctly called an ergometer, but back in my student days, it was a waste of life to use four syllables when one would do the job.

**We had others, too. "Bleed through your eyes", "Feel your bones crack", "Nurture the pain", "A bit of pain never hurt anyone", and so on, but I feel a bit self-conscious shouting those ones to myself whilst erging.

***Don't get me wrong, I work. I have a job. I participate in meetings and wave my arms in a reasonably effective fashion. But I fail to accept that sitting on one's posterior for vast chunks of the day can be 'work'. I'm not sure what I would call it instead, but 'work' suggests some expenditure of energy is required, in the 'work is the integral of force with respect to displacement' definition.

****This resulted in my taking ten minutes earlier this evening to sketch the thing out on paper. I cannot recall six elements (rare earths, admittedly, but still something I should remember. I am disturbed (take that in what sense you will)).


KindaBlue said...

I'm very glad you wrote this post, Doctor. It's so delightfully reassuring to learn that I have the 2km performance capabilities of an 85-year-old woman.

But Why? said...

Remember, kindablue: Pain is temporary. Disappointment lasts forever. Keep strong and nurture the pain as you make yourself proud (and power past the 85 year old woman on the erg next to you).

With those motivational thoughts in mind, I intend to have a night off erging and indulge in a wholly disappointing snooze before beginning my homework for the evening. (This is not quite panning out to be the relaxing and indulgent week away at a posh pad that I had anticipated...) xx

KindaBlue said...

Ah, but you're right. I've been through the pain, and am dead proud of the fact that I no longer have the athletic capabilities of a ninety-year-old... :-)

Five day residential courses with three-course dinners? Sheer luxury! I had a two-day non-residential auditing course with buffet lunches, and I had to drive there through thick fog!

But Why? said...

You no longer have the athletic capabilities of a 90 year old? What on earth is happening to the youth of today...??

...Oh. I. See. What. You. Mean. How silly of me. Erm, can I take that back?

Nice one! Great job, big man! Now go and find your inner octogenarian just bursting to show the world what she can do on an erg...

Do you think I have a potential future career as a motivational speaker?


Gary said...

I have a friend who is fixated with one of those machines at the gym - I manage five minutes and I'm dead - he's been known to do hours on one.

They had a competition where you mark a chart up with your distance covered over a period of time - "first one to row the channel" it was - he arrived in France long before the gym instructor did and got his photo in our local paper.

I keep telling him its an illness but he will not seek help.

KindaBlue said...

Just this once, Doctor ;-)

You'd make an ace motivational speaker! Thanks to your wise words I'm polishing my zimmer frame already, you see?

But Why? said...


I think compulsive erging is a symptom of a variety of illnesses, but as and of itself, well, I'm loathe to agree. Good on your mate. I used to love long ergs, but never quite got the hang of the nutrition to sustain them and usually ended up looking worse for wear at the end.

I am convinced that the endorphin high (that feeling of well-being you get following exercise) is merely an illusion. Think about it - you erg to the point of a blackout, you stop erging, you feel good. You don't need endorphins to explain that... xx

Thanks. (At least, I think thanks. Maybe I need that last comment explaining to me...?)xx

KindaBlue said...

Unleashing my inner octogenarian...

Yes... well...

...I'll get my coat.

But Why? said...

There's no need to trouble yourself. Let me help you with that... xx

DJ Kirkby said...

If I didn't already hate rowing machines with a unnatural apssion, I certainly would after reading this post!

But Why? said...

That is a wise and sage choice. I think anyone who has not yet succumbed to the irresistible draw of the erg should keep well away, as it can become an extremely time-consuming (not to mention anti-social) habit. Having said that, I'm think I'm too far down the path of erg-addiction to ever be immune to their charms - I've just been looking into getting one for home... xx