Olympian Esther Lofgren (foreground) and RowSource founder Rachel Freedman, take on the erg half marathon at the 2015 MidAltantic Erg Sprints
Credit: Patrick Ashley

I sat down on a brand new Concept2 Model D erg at the MidAtlantic Erg Sprints, my mind a gnarly knot of emotions: confidence, excitement, apprehension, humility, awe.

Months earlier I had decided to forego plans to row the masters (30-39) womens 30-minute event, and instead started training for an even bigger challenge – the open womens half marathon (21,098m). I planned an eight-week training schedule (in hindsight, 12 weeks of prep would have been better) and worked through the physical and mental challenges of a variety of work loads: 5k and 10k pieces done for time that I used as baselines for other training work; 12, 15, and 20k steady state pieces; and high intensity interval work to promote speed.

For a variety of reasons, I chose to do all of my training rows at a friend’s Crossfit studio, on very well-worn Concept2 Model C ergs. Lots of people will gripe about old equipment, but I made adjustments to the damper settings as needed (taking it down to a 1.5/2 instead of a 3.5/4 on a newer model) and found the sweet spot that worked for me. I think more air passes through the fan cases on the Model C, creating a bigger breeze with every stroke, definitely a plus for body temperature regulation. The studio was small, warm, and humid – great for winter training.

MidAtlantic Erg Sprints, hosted by TC Williams High School in Alexandria, VA, holds the title of largest indoor rowing event for juniors in the United States. What makes it truly amazing, is that it draws more than 2,000 participants from over 100 clubs, with a huge variety of events ranging from parent/child 500m dash to open age marathons. And although 70% of participants are student athletes, you’ll find top tier masters rowers, experienced veteran rowers, and even national team rowers and Olympic medalists cranking out meters in search of a PR, or better yet, world records.

I didn’t have to look hard to find Esther Lofgren, 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist in the womens eight; 10-time USA National Team rower and four-time World Champion. She was a late entry into the open womens half marathon at Erg Sprints … and she was sitting on the erg next to me.

So there’s Esther – 6’2″, 29 years old, 16 years of rowing experience, eight years on the national team, training for the 2016 Olympics. She had been kind enough to chat with me via email in the days leading up to the event, modestly admitting that she hadn’t been training for this distance, and asking for input on hydration and nutrition. When I wandered up to my erg she was all business, saying hello and quickly excusing herself so she could get to work.

And there I was – 5’2″, 37 years old, 15 years of rowing exclusively at the club and masters level. A few trips to USRowing Masters Nationals; five trips down the Charles as a coxswain.

The new Model D was smooth and easy for the first 6k, and I saw splits a couple of seconds lower than I was anticipating. “Be careful!” I told myself. “Don’t burn out.” I was aiming for a less-than-mind-blowing 2:30 split and was able to hold that average until about 12k into the piece. I couldn’t help but glance to my right and sneak a peak at Esther’s monitor – 1:52. Whoa!

And suddenly all of the moisture seemed to get sucked out of the gym. My lips were so dry they were sticking to my teeth. Cotton mouth was setting in much faster than I had dealt with in the small, warm Crossfit gym during training. My hydration strategy had to change – instead of a final drink of HEED with 6k to go, the bottle hit my lips each of the last 6k.

And then the brain relents.

My monitor tells me I have 5k to go. Next to me, Esther wails on her last few strokes. She blasts past the world record, finishing the womens half marathon in 1:20:12.2, at a 1:54.0 split and 25spm average. Three minutes faster than the previous record set in 2003.

What have I gotten myself into? Why?! Shut up, brain! Go legs!

With slightly bruised ego, I finished up at 1:47:28.8, 2:32.8 split and 19spm average. A few minutes behind my goal, and nearly three seconds off my training splits average. If only I wasn’t a rower trapped in a coxswains body… But I finished. I learned some lessons, and am already looking forward to the half marathon next year.

Maybe Esther will be my erg buddy again.


Two days after the event, Esther emailed me with some reflections on her World Record half marathon:

“Next time, I would probably try to rate 2 beats higher (I averaged 24) and start out at the same pace or maybe a split faster and try to hold it as I had a small fade in the last 4K or so before the sprint. With heart rates at 90%+ of max for 80 minutes it was good to have goals for small increments and to monitor where I was both HR-wise and split-wise throughout the piece – there’s not much besides mental toughness to make that easier!

With better hydration and electrolytes I think I could have kept it to just one big drink around 40 minutes in (before I felt like I needed it) to optimize performance and speed during the piece, but I agree, it was very, very dry in the room. I also forgot to take a Gu packet just before the erg, which meant that the last 20 minutes of the piece were probably even more challenging.”