Skip to main content

CRASH-B's: The high and the hell of indoor rowing

Margaret (Maggie) Freed knows how to make eight minutes feel like an eternity. The 22-year-old Virginia native will jump aboard a Concept2 Model D ergonomic rowing machine alongside a slew of other competitors at the CRASH-B Sprints in Boston and crank out 2,000 meters.

“When a race starts, an invincible feeling sets in, like you could keep on this pace forever,” says Freed, captain of the women’s crew team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. “Those first 20 strokes of a race are incredible. Your adrenaline is pumping, your muscles are fresh, and you’re unstoppable.

“Then suddenly, there’s a point when the pain starts to creep in. You suddenly begin to doubt yourself. ‘Why am I doing this? I can’t keep this pace up. I still have how many meters left?’ This doubt is dangerous.”

Oxygen debt arrives long before the finish line. When the oxygen goes, rowers need to find a substitute to keep delirium at bay.

“Everyone looks for determination from different sources of inspiration—teammates, personal goals, beating the person next to you,” says Freed, who clocked a time of 7:44 last year. “Eventually, you reach the final sprint of the race. There aren’t many clear memories of this last section of a race. At this point you’re simply trying to survive. Your legs are pushing beyond their limits, every inch of you hurts, breathing is nearly impossible, tunnel vision sets in.

Cold Sweat: What it's like to run 430 miles in the Yukon Arctic Ultra

​“But you just keep going,” she says, flashing a broad smile. “You keep pushing.”

The 35th annual CRASH-B Sprints are set for Sunday, March 1, at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. The facility is named after the Golden Greek, BU's star-crossed All-America Harry Agganis. But participants are likely to relate more to the Greek god Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, according to Greek mythology, was condemned to constantly push a giant boulder uphill, only to have it roll back on him. CRASH-B competitors must face the reality that no matter how hard they pull, no matter how much effort they expend, they’re going nowhere. But they’ll have plenty of company. According to race organizers, there won’t be any shortage of budding masochists on hand, ranging in age from 12 to 96.

“In 2015, there will be well over 2,000 competitors, along with coaches, family, friends, and other spectators, which really cranks up the volume in the arena during races,” says Buffalo native Pete Morelli, a CRASH-B board member and former member of U.S. national rowing teams (2006 and 2010). “It’s one of the few opportunities in sport where recreational athletes can enter the same competition and race against Olympic champions at arm’s length.”

The annual event also underscores the broad appeal of rowing.


​“CRASH-B gives the opportunity to see the depth of the sport,” says Freed. “Athletes flock to CRASH-B's from incredible range of backgrounds—rowers from around the world, people who have never even been in a boat, collegiate and high school athletes, adaptive rowers. The list just keeps going.”

CRASH-B is an acronym for the Charles River All-Star Has-Beens. This irreverent collection of outdoor rowers, many of them members of the 1976-80 Olympic and national teams, launched these competitions 35 years ago.

“It started small, as a way for 1980 U.S. Olympic rowers to have some fun in the winter at Harvard’s Newell Boathouse after the Moscow Olympics were boycotted,” says Geoffrey Knauth, 54, of Pennsylvania. “Remember, these athletes had trained very hard for four years and suddenly had no place to go, though most stayed for the next Olympics in 1984.

“At the same time, the Dreissigacker brothers [Peter and Dick], who had competed in the 1976 Olympics, had just invented the ergometer,” said Knauth, a CRASH-B board member. “That’s how it all started, as a way to blow off steam, shake off bad luck, and have some fun.”

Behind the Body: Sage Kotsenburg talks workouts—and In-N-Out Burger

​Those early races featured Concept2’s innovative Model A rowing ergometers, designed by the Dreissigackers, featuring a bicycle wheel, wooden handle, and an odometer. Today, the erg of choice is the high-tech Concept2 Model D.

The event has also evolved, relocating several times before settling in at BU’s Agganis Arena. Age-group winners are presented medals and a trophy hammer, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Tiff Wood, the original CRASH-B commodore.

“That was Tiff’s nickname,” says Linda Muri, a CRASH-B board member. “In rowing, a ‘hammer’ is someone who is really strong, and rows really hard, but not always with the best technique.”

That’s an apt description of many CRASH-B newcomers.

“The worst thing to do is to fly and die, whether on the water, or on the erg,” says Knauth. “You have to know the proper pace for your body and training level, so that you can finish strong. If you can do that, you’ll feel good about your performance. If you go out too fast and later slow down, you will be miserable.”

There are two distinct camps at the CRASH-B Sprints. Some contestants row indoors almost exclusively. The majority of contestants, however, prefer to row outdoors, which requires rhythm and power, as well as equilibrium to keep the skull stable in the water. Conversely, indoor rowing focuses on brute force and endurance.

“In a rowing shell, you have to keep the boat balanced, responding to nature, and to your own and your teammates’ movements,” says Knauth. “The Concept2 ergometer is a fine training device. It keeps us from getting weak in the winter. It helps coaches quantify our strength. But there’s a well know aphorism: ‘Ergs don’t float.’”

“When I was younger, I rowed with a team,” says 47-year-old Natasha Strom of Massachusetts, who took up rowing as a graduate student at Oxford University. “On the rowing machine, we were competitive with each other but we also pushed each other to compete as a team. Now, I row indoors with a great, diverse group of people who all come together to work out.”

The two disciplines are so different, in fact, that only a single rower has been able to reach the pinnacle of both.

The story behind Marshawn Lynch’s unique high-altitude training mask

​“In 2000, New Zealand’s Rob Waddell became the first and only person to win both the CRASH-B Sprints and Olympic Gold rowing the single,” says Knauth. “This is remarkable because the erg rewards strength and size, but not balance, and the single rewards that person who is best able to translate strength into the smoothest motion that both propels the boat the fastest during the drive, and slows the boat the least during each stroke’s recovery phase.

“Waddell was not the biggest rower on the erg, but he was the erg world champion. He was exceptionally smooth and consistent on the erg, and on the water as well.”

The Sprints are an exercise in over-exertion, and often sheer despair. Watching rowers stumbling away from their machines after a race is reminiscent of an episode of The Walking Dead. Eyes look hollow, and their skin takes on a ghostly pallor. Rowers retching in the bathroom—or in trash cans if they’re not quick enough—is a common sight.

“When rowing on the water, you have a wonderful feeling of gliding gracefully over the water, and this is absent from indoor rowing, so it’s not as enjoyable,” says 32-year-old Drew Bennett, a former member of the Cornell crew team and now coach for RowBoston. “I’ve done CRASH-B’s a few times. It’s an unpleasant experience every time, and I always swear I’ll never do it again! It’s hard to describe the experience—it’s very intense and nerve-racking.”

With more than 2,000 competitors, representing more than two-dozen countries, the event confirms that misery truly does love company.

“This is a sport where everyone respects what everyone else does,” says former age-group champ Anna Bailey of Great Britain. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a world champion, or a first-timer. The effort is the same. And the pain is the same.”