Clawing back: 4,951 meters in 20 minutes. 49 to go.

June 5, 2021 by Joshua
in Awareness, Fitness, Habits, Stories

I exercise on a five-day rotation between lifting, resting, and cardio so months with 31 days give me an extra rest day to experiment. This time I decided to try to recapture my nearly five-year-old achievement of 5,000 meters in 20 minutes on the rowing machine, which means averaging 2:00/500m for 20 minutes. A well-trained man in his 20s or 30s could do it easily. A serious competitor might not count it as a warm-up. My turning 50 next month makes it a more serious goal, though many men older than me could do it easily. Still, a meaningful achievement.

Concept2 Rower

Before starting, I ate a light breakfast, went to the bathroom (several times, as a function of the fiber in my diet and my nerves), and psychologically prepared as best I could. I knew in a few minutes I would face demons and Resistance I hadn’t in years, though had slightly last month, when, to my surprise, I’d rowed farther in 20 minutes than I ever expected after my third time over 5,000 meters in 20 minutes nearly five years ago. I told myself after my third time I’d achieved the feat enough times to have earned the security of never needing to prove myself again on the rowing machine.

For those who haven’t experienced it, because rowing works so much of the body, nothing gives out first and forces you to give up. With no acute pain, exhaustion, or failure, the sensation becomes oppression. There is at once no locus of the feeling of oppression and everywhere that feeling. It reaches my soul. As I write these words, an hour or two after rowing, the sensation I describe has already passed, overwhelmed by the glorious feeling of exhaustion, of meeting myself devoid of pretense, but I’ve lost direct access to it. Before rowing, I know intellectually that I’m preparing to face something, but, frankly, however many times I’ve faced it, before I do, I don’t know what I’m in for.

The first two or three minutes feel great. I rowed my best 2,000 meters in over a year last month. My form has improved over the years. I’m squatting and deadlifting as much as ever. Still, I know the first few minutes deceive.

I can’t describe how much I want to give up and how oppressive it feels from 4 minutes in to 10 or 12 minutes. Then it gets more painful until 16 or 17 minutes. For the last 3 minutes, I see light at the end of the tunnel but I feel no energy in my legs. The physical exhaustion is less than the emotional and mental exhaustion.

At this point I’ve faced a quarter of an hour of my body sending signals to give up, it’s not that big a deal, I’ll do better next time, this is already enough no need to do more, and so on. It’s so tempting to stop. Enticing. One moment of rest would make all that oppression vanish.

Somehow I respond with motivation to keep going. I search for role models, how I’ll feel if I succeed, how I’ll feel if I don’t, count off ten strokes, think of how when I pass 5,000 once more five years older how great I’ll feel, how many men my age can do more, how I’ve learned from SEALs that my mind says I’m empty when I reach 40 percent reserves, and so on.

Joshua Spodek rowing

The last 2 minutes, somehow I row stronger, still 60 strokes to go, too many to count. It feels like forever but I know I’m close. The sensation becomes closer to pain, emotional pain, than oppression. The oppression is still there, but the pain is greater, more acute. The last minute is still long enough that I can’t push to my limits or I’ll run out before finishing. The last 40 seconds is 20 strokes, few enough to count and I can draw from the bottom of the well, nearly empty. I see the projected number of meters on the readout, which is very hard to change so close to the finish. It says 4,948 meters, nowhere close to 5,000, but I can do better.

The last 10 strokes I’m rowing as fast and hard as at the beginning. Then it felt free, almost like flying, because I can row around 1:50/500m for 2k so 1:56/500m is a breeze, except for knowing of the 19:30 to go. Now I can do it because I know the pain will end soon. I challenge myself to increase that pain, more than overcoming the Resistance so far. I fight to raise that number to 4,949 then 4,950. In the last ten strokes I can’t raise my eyes to see the screen. Looking back now, while writing, I can remember what I couldn’t appreciate in the moment, that I kept my form through to the end. Long, clean strokes, thighs pushing the length of the stroke. Little extraneous motion.

I don’t pretend to be world class. I don’t pretend that I’ve reached my potential overall, which would require more training, but I do believe I’ve nearly reached my potential for this day, for my training so far, within my limits of prioritizing my book and mission of sustainability leadership. I certainly passed my expectations of a year ago. Five years ago, almost to the day, I reached my personal best of 5,016 meters in 20 minutes. I’m pushing 50 now and could easily give in and excuse myself in any number of ways. I may never again pass 5,000 meters in 20 minutes. I didn’t hit it today. Too much of the middle of the race I watched my pace drop to 2:02/500m or even a few strokes to 2:04/500m, unable to answer while retaining the energy and mental fortitude to push hard for the last five minutes. I sensed I could only push to my limit the last two minutes, and even then not as hard as I’d need to make up for the time I was losing.

Still, I pushed hard the last few strokes, losing awareness of my surroundings, just raw and animalistic, ironically finishing a human, intellectual plan to put myself in this state. I’m remember my 20s, when I learned about sports and athletics with one of the most competitive and driven, yet fun and playful groups of guys I’ve known. They introduced me to sense the challenge I could give myself to find my potential. At that age, with the sloth I grew up with, I didn’t find the discipline, dedication, and drive to explore my boundaries and find that potential. I’ve never reached the levels of an Olympic or professional athlete, but I believe I’ve reached to where it was within my horizon. It’s hard to say because distances of one’s potential become warped at that level. The difference between reaching nationals and leading a team than wins nationals dwarfs the distance from zero to reaching nationals. Or so I believe because I only reached nationals.

For about half my life since then I’ve known the ability and path to find my potential, which means to exhaust myself to where absolutely nothing remains. After this morning’s last stroke, I couldn’t lift my head for several breaths to look up to the screen. The exhaustion is glory, though for some time after finishing I can’t sense that glory yet. I’m spent. I can’t think. My breathing is outside of my control. Looking back, I can’t remember what I did after finishing. When did I take my feet out of the straps? When did I put the handlebar back? How long did I take to look up? I don’t know. Those parts of my brain had shut off.

Eventually I looked up. 4,951 meters. At least my last strokes I gave my all. Last month I rowed 4,936 meters. I came too close not to try again. I’ll train more to make the next try easier. More lifting. More steady state rowing. I know I’ll face that Resistance, that oppression, that glory.


I think I got on my feet within a minute of finishing. I learned not to stay seated after finishing, though can’t cite my source, but I try anyway. I could do little for a few minutes. My breathing probably took five minutes or more to return to normal. I was still sweating ten or fifteen minutes later.

Then I went downstairs to pick juneberries—true to their name, newly ripe and in season. I haven’t tasted them in eleven months and they taste like pure sunshine. Walking back upstairs re-exhausted me. I meant to write not a post but only to add a few sentences to my last post, on reaching 4,936 meters but my exhaustion kept me from resisting the indulgence of writing too long.

Now for my morning burpee-based calisthenics to start my day.

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