With just 2k remaining in her American record-setting marathon, Christine Wirth got one final wind to finish strong and confident.
In the excitement of World Rowing Indoor Championship 2k events and the swarm of international athletes, it would have been easy for you to miss the petite woman on erg #9. As rowers, coaches, and spectators came and went from the T.C. Williams High School gym Sunday morning, she persisted. For three hours, 23 minutes, and 2.9 seconds. With that, she set a new American record on the Concept2 indoor rower in the lightweight women 19-29 marathon (42,195m), beating the previous record by more than four minutes.
Christine (Tini) Wirth learned to row in 2014, when she was 24. At 5’4″ you would have easily confused her for a coxswain, but she dedicated herself to being a technically proficient sweep rower who could be effective on port or starboard, and boasted an impressive strength-to-weight ratio. The following season she earned a seat in DC Strokes club womens 8 at Head of the Charles.
Since then, Wirth has won medals throughout the MidAtlantic region and at USRowing Masters Nationals, both as a rower, and as a coxswain – a role she has approached studiously and has excelled in. So I wondered just what drove her to train for the marathon at Erg Sprints | World Rowing Indoor Championships:
You’ve been incredibly driven to be a successful rower. What’s behind that? I’ve always been a pretty competitive person, sometimes to my own detriment. I used to hate to try new things, especially if I wasn’t initially good at them. Going into Learn to Row, I told myself that I wasn’t just going to quit because I was bad at it. Once I started in the DC Strokes novice program, I found different things to motivate me. Initially, my goal was just to not come in last in our 3 x 1k erg tests! By our third erg test, I had almost tied the score of a 5’8.5″ rower and it became apparent to me that I had found a sport where hard work could be a huge equalizer. The more work I put in, the better the results I saw were and it’s incredibly satisfying to not just beat other people, but to beat the old you over and over again.
Early on, you started paying attention to the Concept2 logbook and using it as motivation. What was the first distance you found yourself atop the leaderboard for your lightweight age group?
The Concept2 logbook is a fantastic tool, especially for smaller rowers. I first started paying attention to it during my first winter season. After my second ever 2k erg test, my coach approached me (still on the erg because my legs refused to move anymore) and said, “you need to go online and compare your scores to other lightweights, because that’s actually really impressive.”
Being on a team which has a majority of male rowers and being one of only a few lightweight women made it really hard to have any idea how I compared to people in my weight class. The logbook gave me an idea of how I stacked up.
The first distance where I found myself near the top of the leaderboard was the 30 minute event for distance. One of our erg homework pieces was 1 minute on at our erg test split, 4 minutes off at that split plus 18 seconds for 30 minutes. I cleared that in a big way and think I was ranked 3rd in my age group for that season.
When/why did you decided to get into the top 10 for all the distances in your lightweight age group. When did you accomplish your goal?
I decided going into the 2017 Erg Sprints that I’d like to try a half marathon. I’d done a century bike ride in college, run a few half marathons, rowed Wye Island Regatta (13.1 mi) a couple times, and watched my coach (a lightweight woman) train for the half marathon at Erg Sprints the year before, so it seemed like something I wanted to try. Over the course of training for the half marathon, I noticed that my scores were pretty competitive and set a personal goal to be ranked in the top 10 for my weight/age for all the distances between 1,000 and 21,097 meters (with the exception of the 2k, though that may be a goal for another year). After completing the half at Erg Sprints, I had met my goal (for a few weeks at least, I think I was knocked out of the top 10 in a couple events later that season).
What motivated you to train for the erg marathon at Erg Sprints | WRIC?
In general, the 5 second rule (that each time you double a distance, you can add 5 seconds to your split to estimate your new speed) has worked for me. The listed American record for a full marathon for a lightweight in the 19-29 age range was 3:27:40.8, which would equate to a 2:27.6 split. I completed the half marathon in 2017 at a 2:22.0 split. I saw that record was within reach and I knew I had to give it a try.
What did your training entail?
I borrowed a Hal Higdon novice (running) marathon training program with a few of my own tweaks. I turned one of the shorter days into an interval workout. I also tried to do one light workout fasted once per week. I read somewhere that occasional fasted workouts are good for endurance athletes because they teach your body to burn fat when your muscle glycogen is low. It seemed a little bro-sciency to me, but I never bonked, so maybe it helped? I also tried to incorporate strength training once a week.
You mentioned that around 20k into long training pieces, you’ve gone deep into a mental black hole. How do you push through for another 22k?
I think in addition to preparing you physically, the lead up training for a marathon prepares you mentally. I’m a big believer that unless you’re injured, you need to finish every workout, even if you have to paddle to the end of it. Every time your brain tells you you can’t do something and you prove it wrong, it becomes that much harder to give up the next time. One of my favorite mantras when pieces get hard is, “today is not the day you learn how to quit.”
Beyond that, maintaining confidence, length, and rhythm in the pain cave is critical for me. Eventually, a second wind is going to hit, or a song I love is going to come on (“Try Everything” by Shakira from Zootopia was my theme song for this row and came on with 18k to go) you just have to turn off the negative thoughts until that happens. If you start telling yourself it hurts too much, or you went out to fast, or you’re tired, or you just don’t have it, you’re going to be right.
What was your experience like this year at Erg Sprints | WRIC?
Competing at Erg Sprints is always a great experience. Being a competitive person, I always have my best performances at Erg Sprints (my goal pace for my marathon was 2:27 and I pulled 2:24.3!) Unlike last year, the marathon ergs were near the front of the gym this year, so there were a lot of people coming by to cheer (which was super helpful for staying out of the pain cave!) and the marathon ergs were wired together so we knew how our competition was doing. With all the events going on around us (and records being set) it was easy to stay excited and motivated. All of the volunteers were so sweet, which was great because after the marathon my comprehension skills were lacking!
Last time the author saw Wirth, she had peeled herself off the race floor and was enjoying beer and garlic fries.
Photo credit: Christina Dragon, DC Strokes Rowing Club