The second 500m

womens rowing pair
Olympic rowers – Women’s pair, as they finish a stroke.

I rowed crew my freshman year of college. In the fall, the races were longer distances and a waterfall start, so you rowed your own race and just listened to the coxswain, who did the thinking for you. In the spring, races were a 2000m sprint, and they were raced head to head. Mentally, you could break up these races into four 500m stretches. The first 500m was to get going – quarter, quarter, half, full – shorter strokes to get started. This burst of energy and intense concentration would carry you 500m before you realized it. In the second 500m, you needed to calm the adrenaline surge, settle into a pace, ease the anaerobic burn in your quads, and pull together. By the third 500m, you have a rhythm and are ready to really pull, and the last 500m is everything you’ve got to propel the boat as fast as you can. Then it’s over.

It’s the second 500m that was always the hardest for me. The adrenaline surge of the start had peaked and my mind would be jumping all over the place. My quads would burn and I’d want to quit. I remember struggling to manage my breath, which was coming shallow and fast from the jump start.

The highlight of rowing that year was winning the pair race at the SIRAs regatta. In a pair, there is are just two rowers, no coxswain. I was in front as stroke seat with my pair mate behind me. In the second 500m of that race, I had to set and settle into a stroke rhythm that wasn’t so fast we’d burn out but also not so slow we’d lose. There was no coxswain to listen to and offload the thinking, and I remember the responsibility that I felt as the stroke seat. It was up to me to calm my body and mind into a sustainable rhythm for myself and my partner.

The start to my fourth semester of graduate school feels akin to the second 500m. With three semesters behind me and the birth of our second child this fall, the first 500m jump start is behind me, and the adrenaline carried me through the end of last semester. Now I face settling into a sustainable rhythm that balances and focuses my efforts into my responsibilities as a parent and as a student.

I imagine a coxswain calling, hearing what she says as she feels the unsteady rocking of the boat. “Catch – Send!” This drops our oars into the water together for maximum efficiency, drawing the stroke through to the fullest. “Catch – Send!” This narrows our minds onto the task at hand, getting the last bit of pull off the oar. “Catch – Send!” This settles us into a rhythm to carry us on, because there is still a lot of race left to go. “Catch – Send!”

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