Learning how to keep afloat a single scull — a one-person rowing boat, a skinny little carbon-fiber vessel that typically weighs only about 30 pounds and is prone to flipping over if you aren’t careful — is, at its core, an exercise in correcting small mistakes and teaching yourself not to make them again. If one of your oars smacks onto the water in between strokes, you have to make a tiny adjustment in your arms or shoulders — nothing too big, or then the other oar will smack onto the water.
Rowing, and rowing a single in particular, is an experience that lends itself to plenty of cheesy metaphors and maudlin life lessons about balance and endurance and what-have-you. Attention to detail. Focused, streamlined, goal-oriented efforts rather than mindless work. Small course corrections as part of a longer journey.
For me, on a bright Sunday afternoon in mid-August, nervously flitting across a sleepy small-town lake as I rowed a single for the first time in ten years, every last one of those corny aphorisms was completely fitting. Each time I had to make a tiny twitch of an adjustment in my shoulders or back to keep the boat balanced, I’d tell myself that these tiny efforts were adding up, one by one, to the massive change I desperately needed.
Sometime early in the summer, I’d had enough.
My anxiety levels had been escalating for months and occasionally getting dangerously in the way of my professional life. I was suffering from a weirdly punctual breed of insomnia — from precisely 2:30 AM to 5:30 AM every night, I simply could not sleep. I hated the tired-looking, bloated and pallid thing that stared back at me when I turned to face a mirror. And working as a freelancer for the first time after borderline burning out of the corporate world, I found myself juggling new priorities and responsibilities that sometimes I was not entirely sure I could handle.
The obvious next step was therapy. Maybe even medication. Except that I had one option I hadn’t pursued yet: I, a former varsity college rower and long-distance runner who’d made it through a marathon in four hours just two and a half years prior, was horrendously out of shape. I saw getting back in shape — not just jogging shape, but really damned good shape — as the last option I had left to seize control of my life on my own terms. I made a pact with myself. If it didn’t work by September, then I’d go find a shrink.
I’d come to this conclusion in large part because I thought the first step to figuring out what the hell was wrong with my life was to think back to the time I remembered being the happiest, and figuring out what I’d lost since then. After all, by most accounts, there was no reason for me to be as unhappy and anxious and perpetually on-edge as I was. Freelance consulting, to my surprise, was going incredibly well, and I had more demand for work than I could handle at good, solid pay. I was in a stable relationship. I had supportive friends and family. It was pretty clear that something else was wrong.
Recalling the happiest time in my life turned out to be easy. It was, unequivocally, the summer that I had been 18 years old and in between my freshman and sophomore years of college.
This was, I should say, not exactly a wild-nights-and-sultry-flings teenage summer. I was working two jobs, both at near-minimum wage — weekdays as an administrative intern for an elite rowing training center (“administrative,” in this case, ran the gamut from photocopying fundraising packets to driving a motorboat), evenings and weekends behind an espresso machine. I lived with my parents. My social life over the course of the entire summer amounted to zero dates, zero kisses, and about two beers at somebody’s backyard barbecue. The entirety of my free time was spent working out, typically twice a day and often the first time at six o’clock in the morning, because my college’s rowing coach had told me that if I wanted to even be considered for the top boat that fall I’d have to show up significantly stronger and more focused than I’d been in the spring.
Yet in spite of working long hours at a wage so low that a pair of Forever 21 jeans was considered a splurge, I was the happiest I ever had been and to this day ever have been. I was constantly in motion, perpetually outside, and hardly behind a desk — and most importantly, not only was I at the peak of health and fitness, but I was surrounded by others who were, too.
Ten years later, I knew I needed to get this back.
Mental health professionals use the term “post-competition depression” in reference to athletes, usually elite and professional, who suffer a serious emotional downturn when they retire or otherwise stop competing. Casually, it’s called “the marathon blues.” A widely cited statistic on the internet (allegedly dating back to 2002, but the source material doesn’t appear to be online) says that depression is estimate to affect a full 25% of female athletes compared to 12% of male athletes. Learnings published by the International Olympic Committee about disordered eating and body image in female athletes pointed out that eating and body image problems are more pronounced in athletes than in non-athletes, thanks to a blend of perfectionism, competitiveness, and peak-performance ideals.
To my knowledge, there has been no research (or at least nothing easily discoverable on Google) that blends the two — the emotional result of no longer being in shape, of looking and feeling totally different from what athletes of all stripes have been told is a perfect ideal they’d been on a years-long quest to achieve. But it was easy for me to reach the conclusion that the feeling of being out of shape was having much deeper effects than I would have first imagined.
No matter what was happening to me psychologically, I wasn’t overweight. I’m 5'8", and though I was heavier than I’d ever been in my life, that was still only about 155 pounds and a size 8 — well within the healthy target range for someone my age and height. But for me, I’d reached a point where I weighed enough that my body no longer wanted to work out — particularly when it came to running.
This made it frustrating to attempt to get back in shape, because running had been “my thing” not very long ago at all, and in which I was still actively involved. I was running my usual three or four miles a few times a week yet simply couldn’t improve beyond that. My body felt sluggish from the 15 pounds that hadn’t been there three years before. My knees complained. I’d gotten to the point where I needed two sports bras to avoid major chest pain. I seriously entertained the fact that maybe this was my body telling me that I wasn’t meant to be fit anymore.
And this was terrifying. I knew my body wanted — perhaps even needed — to be fit. Everything I could sense added up to: This is not how my body — or my mind — likes to feel. I remembered the thrill of winning a race, of finishing a marathon, of showing up for work on a Monday after the incredible exhaustion of a 35-mile hiking weekend. But it didn’t seem like it could change anymore.
In mid-July, I received an email from my college rowing team’s alumni listserv. We had an automatic bid for a boat in the alumni category at the Head of the Charles, the biggest rowing event in the U.S. and a race I hadn’t competed in since 2004. I responded in about five minutes saying I’d be able to get to Boston on that weekend in October and I’d happily take a seat in the boat if there was one. There’s my goal. I’m going to do this. This race is going to fix me.
Except it wouldn’t be easy to even be a contender. I could imagine that the 23-year-olds who would likely be part of the boat wouldn’t be too interested in having someone who’d just turned 29 in their midst. I also thought they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me because I’d opted to not row senior year, in part because of a rib and back injury that was proving time-consuming to heal and in part because I speculated that my post-college job options would be impeded if I was competing during the spring of my final year of school. (In retrospect, I have good reason to believe I was right, but that’s a story for another day.)
Yet I wanted a seat in that Charles alumni boat, desperately. I’m still not sure why. Maybe I felt like it was a way to finish what I’d started and then left off, to find closure. Or because when I’d been at my peak in the sport I was, well, happy. Either way, I felt inspired to action in a way that I hadn’t for years when it came to some kind of physical fitness goal. I reinstated my membership at the rowing club I’d been part of in high school and marked my calendar for a week of “training camp” in late August: five mornings on the water in a row at 5:30 AM.
The thing I’d forgotten the most about being in top shape is that progress in fitness, no matter how disciplined you are, is never a purely upward trajectory. There will be setbacks, distractions, and things you don’t anticipate getting in the way. I made it through that week of 5:30 AM rowing practice with only a mild case of sleep deprivation and a handful of blisters on my left hand. I made it through my first 6-mile run in recent memory on a sweltering morning in August. I bought a bicycle. But I was also plagued by a September client project that kept eating up more time at later and later hours, a cold that threatened to destroy all the progress my aerobic capacity had made thus far (I have exercise-induced asthma, so this can be a big concern), and the lingering feeling that even though I was working out I wasn’t seeing any results.
Moving forward turned out to be about counting the small victories and ignoring the setbacks (or, in the event that they were major setbacks, figuring out how to avoid them the next time around). Starting from the bottom, I had to stop, and breathe, and notice the tiny things that normally flash by in a manic New York life: My abs were starting to show again. I was only finding myself awake in the middle of the night a few times a week rather than every night. I looked at stressful work situations and how I’d handled them versus how I would have handled them several months prior, noting how my anxiety levels had started to taper down.
We didn’t race terribly well at the Charles. There were 36 boats in our category. We came in 22nd.
Granted, the eight of us had never rowed together before, and we’d picked our boat lineup (the order we’d sit in the boat) about ten minutes before we launched off the dock onto the river. It didn’t help that our coxswain’s audio system proved to be busted, so those of us near the bow of the boat couldn’t hear her instructions for power strokes, increased or decreased rate, or anything else. We also were an entire crew full of former lightweights, all of whom had had to get on a scale and weigh 130 pounds before every race in college, whereas many of the top boats in the alumni 8s event were stacked with awe-inspiring Olympic contenders who were half a foot taller than we were. Many excuses could be made. It just wasn’t a great day for the eight of us.
I was unfazed. The weekend was one for hugging old teammates and celebrating the sport that had changed so many of our lives. The energy didn’t go away. Two weeks later, I ran a half marathon. It wasn’t my best time at all, but considering a few days prior to it I hadn’t even been sure if I could even get through 10 miles, I was thrilled.
2013 was a big year for me for a lot of hyperbolic and non-hyperbolic reasons. I summited Kilimanjaro; successfully navigated the most precarious professional situation of my life after leaving my full-time job abruptly; visited towering sand dunes in the Namib Desert and elephant watering holes in Botswana; toasted to successful client projects in London, New York, Boston, and San Francisco; dined at a quarter-mile-long picnic table in the middle of a meadow in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains with a gaggle of 800 people who have become incredibly close to my heart; crawled through an abandoned silver mine in Colorado; and rescued an escaped parrot by climbing onto the roof of a couple of very confused French grad students’ home. (Had to add that last one. I sincerely hope it will never happen again. Mostly for the sake of the parrots.)
I’m lucky that I was able to do any of that, and for me, New Year’s Day is a time of thankfulness and self-reflection. But the thing that I value learning most is how much an active lifestyle deserves your utmost respect and reverence. It’s something that scores of people around the world want but think they cannot have, or perhaps they don’t even know it’s what’s missing from their lives. Being able to wake up before the sun rises, ride a bicycle several miles to a dock, and spend two hours dragging an oar through the water in a boat with seven other half-awake people isn’t a chore — it’s a privilege, a humble and sweaty gesture to the things that matter to your life and your well-being.
On December 31st, assuming that taking a month off of working out after my half-marathon (I was on vacation for most of that time, and it wasn’t the kind of vacation where I could be particularly active) meant I had completely regressed to the weight and endurance levels of my pre-fitness kick, I stepped on the bathroom scale. I expected to see something in the neighborhood of 150 to 155 pounds. Nope: 141. Something I’d done had stuck. Some lifestyle change had taken effect — perhaps loading less food onto a plate or making a subconscious effort to spend just a little more time on my feet every day.
I’d been trying, and struggling, to get back to the gym. I had a cold and a sore throat. The insomnia was back, probably because I’d fallen off my workout schedule. But as much as I loathe the idea of placing much faith in a set of numbers on a scale, I was oddly inspired. Perhaps I hadn’t totally fallen off the wagon again. Perhaps I could stop being scared about the possibility of embarrassing myself at the rowing club’s indoor training workouts, which would start up shortly after New Year’s. Perhaps, once again, I simply needed a reminder that the only person who can change your life for the better is you. And that I’d been changing my life. And that I wasn’t finished yet.
For those of you who may be wondering, I headed straight to the gym and hammered out 9,000 meters on the rowing machine.
For those of you who are now turned off by how sanctimonious I clearly am, I’ll have you know that my next stop was the local wine store.
Happy New Year.