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The indoor rowing championships take all you've got

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.

Over the past six years, CRASH-B Sprints have expanded into eight individual events, plus a team relay race. This February, at the MIT gymnasium in Cambridge, Mass., 619 male and female competitors sweated and gasped through the morning heats on 50 brand-new ergometers. The six fastest times made the afternoon finals, which are conducted with all the pomp and formality of a traditional rowing event. Since no one is actually going anywhere, computer software translates the ergometer data into an animated video display that mimics a six-lane boat race. "One advantage of indoor rowing," said a spectator, "is that without moving an inch, you can watch the whole race from start to finish."

Andy Sudduth, the 25-year-old U.S. sculler who is aiming for a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics, won the 1987 men's open competition in a time of 7:38.8, while Barb Kirch, of Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club, set a women's record with her winning mark of 8:43.6. Sudduth's fine performance was still well behind the world record of 7:35.2, achieved in 1986 by Ridgely Johnson, the 6'9", 230-pound Boston oarsman who has won three times in the six-year history of the event. (Johnson did not compete this year.) Size and strength count heavily in ergometer races, since the subtleties of rowing on water—balancing the boat, finesse with the oars—are not factors. Furthermore, the machines impose no penalty for weight; in real boats a rower's own bulk adds to the load being moved. Thus Concept II's forthcoming computerized ranking of 2,000 ergometer rowers will favor tall, muscular athletes. Some smaller, put-upon rowers at the sprints fought back with T-shirts reading, PUT AN ERG ON THE WATER AND IT SINKS.

But the psychological demands of ergometer racing weed out competitors even more effectively than size. The most stringent requirement is an ability to perform at a high level despite continuous, excruciating pain. "It's deceptive, because the first two or three minutes feel easy," says John Everett, winner of the 1987 men's over-30 event, "but you know that the moment of truth is coming." And the machine's electronic monitor, which gives instant feedback on each stroke, allows the athlete no room for self-delusion: If you begin losing speed or power, you know about it immediately.

Despite its rigors, the sport has a bright future. "Indoor rowing is about the only kind I do anymore," says Dan Bakinowski, president of the U.S. Rowing Association. "With a wife, a small child, a law practice, and the USRA presidency, I barely have an hour to travel to the boathouse and back, let alone go out for a row while I'm there. But in an hour I can get a good workout on my ergometer at home."

So, in a way, indoor rowing makes eminently good sense. But CRASH-B Sprints will always appear to be, in some basic way, a demented competition. "This is such a crazy event," said Jim Elting, a 47-year-old veteran rower from Oneonta, N.Y., who traveled to Boston for the men's over-40 race. "Compared to this, arm wrestling is an intelligent, sensible activity. For us older guys, our oxygen debt and early Alzheimer's disease are having a race."

Insane or not, every year more masochists turn up for CRASH-B. "In the year 2000," predicts Princeton rowing coach Larry Gluckman, with only slight irony, "people will be saying, 'Remember when they used to row on water?' "



The CRASH-B Sprints last only a few minutes, but they numb muscles and burn lungs.



Women are just as welcome as men to test themselves on the Concept II ergometer.

Craig Lambert is a Boston writer who does both indoor and outdoor rowing.