The bet was a cruel one. The guy with the slower time had to go outside in sub-freezing weather, break through the ice on the Charles River and stay in the water for 10 seconds. "But even that seemed painless," said the unlucky loser, "after rowing in the CRASH-B Sprints."
Some think the CRASH-B Sprints, a.k.a. the World Indoor Rowing Championships, might be the most rigorous test of athletic fitness yet devised. "It's the toughest thing going," says Dick Cashin, a U.S. Olympic rower in 1976 and 1980. "I'd like to see guys like Eric Dickerson or Larry Bird get on the ergometer and see how they do." Those two weren't present for this year's CRASH-B, but the eight to nine brutal minutes on the Concept II ergometer—an advanced type of rowing machine—did give some very big, very strong men numbed muscles and seared lungs.
"What makes it so hard is that you have to really burn and stay there for eight minutes," says Cashin. "It's like sprinting for two miles." And worse yet, since this is rowing, not running, the back and shoulder muscles are sprinting, too. Physiologically, the competitors are pushing themselves right at their anaerobic thresholds with every stroke. Abby Peck, a U.S. Olympic rower in 1984, describes the experience: "After a few minutes, you think, My legs hurt, my back hurts, my arms hurt, my butt hurts, my lungs really, really hurt, and my numbers are still falling off."
Those crucial digits appear on the Concept II's electronic performance monitor, which precisely measures the acceleration and deceleration of a flywheel propelled by the rower's strokes. Using these data, the device can convert the rower's effort into an equivalent distance "rowed" in meters, enabling athletes to stage ergometer races over fixed distances. The CRASH-B Sprints are 2,500 meters, electronically timed to 10ths of a second. That's 500 meters longer than the Olympic rowing course, and the extra minutes of effort provide a blistering test of endurance.
The machine itself resembles a stationary bicycle that is rowed rather than pedaled. Its flywheel blades create wind resistance that simulates the drag of water against the hull of a boat, making an ergometer workout feel like rowing outdoors. Virtually all of the 1,000 club, school and college rowing programs in the U.S. use the Concept II for winter and dry-land training, and several professional sports teams—including the Cincinnati Reds, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers—also train on the "ergs."
Rowing machines have become commonplace in health clubs, schools and YM/YWCAs as amateur athletes and fitness jocks continue their search for a calorie-burning workout with little risk of injury. The National Sporting Goods Association says the $245 million rowing-machine market accounted for 1.8 million sales in 1985, ranging from some inexpensive piston-type devices to Bally's $2,800 Liferower, which includes a video monitor with animated graphics. The Concept II ergometer, which is only available through the factory and retails for $650, has only a small share of this market, but it's the one machine that elite rowers swear by and the only one that inspires organized regattas.
There are now eight recognized ergometer races each winter in cities across the country. Two winners from each of these regional rowing-machine meets fly to Boston in mid-February to compete in the CRASH-B Sprints, which are not only the World Indoor Rowing Championships but also the oldest and biggest ergometer regatta. CRASH-B is, as its organizers like to say, "the Wimbledon of indoor rowing."
Its Boston-based sponsors are a ragtag, tongue-in-cheek association of former greats in the rowing world known as CRASH-B, or the Charles River All-Star Has-Beens. Formerly the Charles River Association of Sculling Has-Beens, the group changed its name upon lowering the membership standards "to include rowers who had not managed to handle two oars simultaneously."
While CRASH-B's roster includes many former Olympians and nationally ranked scullers, it maintains a light-hearted altitude toward the grueling competition it puts on. "A principle of the World Indoor Rowing Championships," says CRASH-B's commodore, Christopher (Tiff) Wood, "is that it should never be taken too seriously."
That precept was tested a couple of years after the first CRASH-B Sprints back in 1982, when 85 entrants competed on borrowed ergometers in Harvard's Newell Boat House. In 1984 FISA, the international governing body for rowing, expressed concern that a World Rowing Championship of any sort should fall under its jurisdiction. CRASH-B responded with a polite letter offering FISA temporary permission to hold the World Outdoor Rowing Championships—subject to review. There was no further correspondence on the subject.