Row your imaginary boat at indoor rowing race

Feb. 26, 2012 at 12:57 PM ET

By Cari Nierenberg

The World Indoor Rowing Championship was started by a group of Boston-based Olympic rowers looking for a way to break up the boredom of indoor winter training and channel their competitive juices until springtime. What began as a fun, little event for beer and bragging rights has grown into a large international competition featuring some of the world's fastest indoor rowers.

Last week, more than 2,300 rowers ages 14 to 91 from two dozen countries came to Boston University to participate in this event, which is also known as the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints.

You might think the event got it's name because competitors "crash and burn" while doing a 2,000-meter sprint on indoor rowing machines. But it stands for Charles River All-Star Has Beens, the men and women who came up with the idea three decades ago.

Indoor rowing regattas now take place around the country and the world, but the C.R.A.S.H.-Bs remains the oldest and biggest.

Participants -- grouped into categories by age, gender, and weight -- sprint for a mile and a quarter on a rowing machine, which rowers call "ergs." There's also an adaptive category for rowers with disabilities who compete in 1,000-meter races. 

Make no mistake about it, these are physically and mentally challenging races. "Rowing is the most aggressive sport for training the whole body," says Bob Kaehler, a three-time Olympic rower, physical therapist, and owner of an endurance sports coaching business in Holland, Penn. 

"It uses all the major muscle groups in the legs, back, and arms, which is why it's so unique, Kaehler explains.

What also makes rowing difficult and so demanding is that it requires muscular power, cardiovascular endurance, mental toughness, and good technique to coordinate the movements together

In a sprint race, those muscles are building up high levels of lactic acid as you push them to the brink of muscle failure, points out Kaehler. Training helps you learn how to tolerate this pain -- in the legs and lungs, and seemingly everywhere else -- and push beyond it.

It was a mix of adrenaline and pain and a sense of accomplishment that drew Shana McGough, 39, to compete in the C.R.A.S.H.-Bs for a second time.

A San Diego transplant and recreational rower for a decade, McGough recently joined CrossFit Boston where a rowing machine is part of their group strength and conditioning program. McGough says one of the coaches volunteered to teach the group better indoor rowing technique, and this motivated her return to the C.R.A.S.H.-Bs.

"Most rowers have a love-hate relationship with the erg," McGough explains, and "Training on it can get boring."

But the group workouts made it better: "I loved having a coach and a supportive community, and I love the training almost more than the event itself," she says.

At the event, McGough competed in the Women's Masters category ages 30 to 39. With a volunteer coxswain behind each rower shouting out encouragement and race splits, rowers race against the clock and each other.

Her race plan was to break up the race into four 500-meter segments and hit each split in just over two minutes. The middle segments of the race were the hardest for her because that's when she was definitely hurting and exhaustion set in.

McGough finished the race in 8 minutes, 24 seconds, good for 19th place out of 23 women.  "Eight minutes is a long time to sprint," she admits.

"There is something a little bit ludicrous about the C.R.A.S.H.-Bs," McGough says. "It's such a unique event; it's both incredibly serious and a tiny bit goofy," she adds.

That goofiness is evident by the hammer the event gives out to its first-place finishers. (This year, Kaisa Pajusalu of Concept2 Rowing claimed the top women's prize, and RemoMexico's Juan Cabrera was the top finisher among the men.) 

"A hammer is what you call a rower who rows really hard -- with a lot of force like a hammer would produce," says Linda Muri, an elite-level rower who helps organize the C.R.A.S.H.-Bs. "Sometimes it's not as technically pretty -- but really, really hard."

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