I speak from experience when I say, if you’re ever crazy enough to try a half marathon row, like the one Dave Castro programmed for the fittest athletes in the world at the 2013 CrossFit Games this summer, don’t do what I did.
What did I do?
I sat down with bear hands and a small glass of water next to me that I filled up upstairs as I forgot my water bottle that day. I didn’t eat breakfast prior to beginning, and I wore old, nearly warn, out Lululemon pants.
Four problems soon arose:
1). Finger Blisters. Massive finger blisters.
2). The glass of water soon lacked water, and a vicious thirst crept into my throat and mouth during the last 15 km.
3). Two giant red, raw, strawberries emerged on each of my ass cheeks, the kind of burn and raw skin that lasts days.
4). Hunger. Pure hunger.
Turns out I’m not the only one who made mistakes.
2013 Games athletes Ashleigh Moe and Heather Gillespie recounted their experiences. Although their stories are different from both my own and each other's, the general trend is one of pain and mild regret.
Half Marathon Row at the 2013 CrossFit Games
Moe experienced seriously sweaty hands and couldn’t grip the handle properly. Partway through, someone threw her a towel, which she wrapped around the handle. It helped a lot with her grip, but it came a little too late.
As for hydration, she simply didn’t drink. “I wish I had a camel pack…I’m not the strongest rower, so I was just trying not to be last,” she said. “I was rowing 31 strokes per minute most of the time,” said Moe of her rate that was much higher than the other athletes.
Gillespie has a similar camel pack regret to Moe. And also like Moe, her mentality going into the workout was simply to survive.
Her nutritional preparation included lots of starchy carbs the night before. “I ate my usual regular nightly meal that included lots of protein and tried to get down an unusual amount of sweet potatoes,” Gillespie said.
She was ready to go, but before she could start the half marathon on the first competition day of the Games, she had a swimming event to get through. After the swim, she drank not one, but two post-workout shakes because she felt her body was craving more sugar before the long row. And, she had some more sweet potatoes.
It was time to row, and she was terrified. “I was a bit overwhelmed as it looked like everyone had a plan. A lot of people ended up wearing bike shorts. I wore my bootie shorts and a bra,” she said. “I noticed a lot of people slicking themselves up with what looked like deodorant but was obviously some lube people use in the endurance world,” she added.
Then it began. Gillespie remembers the first 5 kilometers being extremely taxing physically, partly because she entered the competition with sprained SI ligaments, causing her significant back pain. “The extension needed in the row really fired the whole back end up,” said Gillespie, who eventually withdrew from the competition because of her back.
Then, her back went numb, which was ultimately a blessing because it meant the pain went away. “I can honestly say I enjoyed the challenge,” Gillespie said. “Having the monitor to chase people around you made it a “fun” little game and gave me something to focus on. I just tried to stick with tight and sound technique.”
Halfway through the race, Gillespie relaxed and started noticing little details around her. An athlete next to Gillespie had her damper set at a 4. Gillespie’s was at a 6 and felt heavy, so she quickly reached over and pushed it down to a 4. “It made all the difference in the world,” said Gillespie about the slight little change in drag. If she were to do it over again, she would keep her drag at a 4 the entire workout.
At the end of the row, athletes everywhere were icing one body part or another. “I even saw some tears, which is unusual with this group of athletes,” Gillespie remembered.
Gillespie herself was destroyed both mentally and physically. “My recovery was very poor, and I could not even think of attending the athlete dinner that night,” she said.
While Moe wasn’t as destroyed as Gillespie, she says the half marathon row isn’t something she ever wants to do again.
It’s safe to say that a half marathon row isn’t something any Games athlete wants to see again next summer.
But, to a certain degree, an event like a half marathon row is a huge part of the beauty of CrossFit: To push your body through new, usually painful experiences, experiences you would never put yourself through on your own.
Last summer was likely the first time any of the Games athletes completed a 21,097-meter row. They did some things well; they made some mistakes, but most of all they all experienced a remarkable new fitness challenge, a challenge we could see again one day.
As we know, CrossFit is also known for repeating workouts from time to time, be it the worldwide Open competition or the CrossFit Games. So just in case Dave Castro is ever cruel enough to program another half marathon row, stay tuned for part 2 of this series: Insights from former Canadian National Team rower Nathalie Maurer.
Maurer gives game plan and rowing efficiency tips and reveals how to mitigate both the acute and the lingering damage on the body, on the skin, and on the mind.