Rowing Back to Life

When I was in my late twenties, I became a card-carrying resident of the city of Boston. I had acquired some real furniture by then, and inevitably, the day arrived when, if I wanted it moved, I could no longer rely on simply renting a U-Haul truck and pressing my friends into service. It became too complicated to schlepp sofas and queen-sized mattresses up the narrow staircases of those old triple-deckers for which Boston is famous. So, I hired some Gentle Giants. Yes, that was really what they called themselves, and they are still around.

Gentle Giant Movers was started by a dude named Larry O’Toole, who was, among other things, a varsity rower on one of the several university crew teams that muscled their way down the Charles River. I think he rowed for Boston University, but it could have been Northeastern. He advertised in the Boston Phoenix, which was the ‘cool’ alternative newspaper at the time, and as he quickly gained fans and made some money, he ran a few radio ads on the local rock music stations. When I first called Larry, I naturally asked him about the name, and he explained that his moving crew was comprised of college guys he rowed with and against from the area crew teams. “You’ll understand better when they show up.”

He was right. Also, he was a genius. You could not pick movers from a better bunch than the tall, lean, pleasant, courteous, and incredibly strong athletes who happened to row the river. They exceeded their advance billing. Their rowers’ legs allowed them to practically trot up flights of stairs no matter what they were hauling. Their rowers’ shoulders and backs allowed them to carry fully-loaded two-drawer file cabinets like they were shoe boxes. They didn’t drop or bump things. They were very impressive and their services were affordable. Gentle Giants indeed! Not surprisingly, they are also still in business, still hiring college athletes, and are a national company now.

Around the same time, a new health club opened near my apartment. It was a friendly, comfortable place, set up in an old Boston building that had once been used as a local cultural club. The owner/manager was a really sweet guy and a body-builder who, amazingly, was committed to making the club a place that was not dominated by muscle-bound, male steroid-heads, but one that would feel safe and comfortable for women, too. He succeeded. As luck would have it, a few other enterprising rowers in Vermont had started a company that made competition and Olympic-class oars for crew teams. They had also just started making and selling a new kind of ergometer made especially for rowers, and my new health club had a couple. Well, heck, no one needed to convince me that rowing was an incredible way to get fit. Thus did I first warm my butt — and every other part of my body — on a Concept2 Rower. It soon became my favorite cardio exercise.

I ended up using a Concept2 Rower as part of my fitness regimen for well over a decade. When I moved to Rhode Island to go to grad school (once again employing the Gentle Giants!), the university had them in their student gym. But once I graduated, the only local health club that had one was too expensive and too crowded, especially for a newly-hatched physical therapist with student loans to pay off. The clubs I could afford had rowers — usually one that was relegated to a forgotten corner — but they weren’t Concept2’s. I made do, but it was like driving a Volkswagon Beetle after years of driving a Mercedes.

Then came my current decade of healthus-interruptus. I started off the decade by having back surgery to remove a herniated lumbar disk (long story for another time). The surgery was completely successful, but regaining my former strength and flexibility was a long, arduous process. Then came menopause, with all its lovely, attendant complications, like insomnia, hot flashes, night sweats and exhaustion. And just as I was getting the hang of my new internal thermostat, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And we all know what happened after that.

The ‘Gift’ that keeps on giving.

Four years later, I find that I have written countless posts about the long and late-term side effects of cancer treatment. I’ve charted my slow crawl out of the cancer-related fatigue ditch; the sometimes scary and occasionally comical and always frustrating brain-slush; my post-radiation respiratory adventures; and the painful soft-tissue fibrosis in my chest and shoulder girdle that I struggle with daily. My first two years post-treatment were a virtual write-off as far as fitness was concerned. The neurostimulants I took only managed to help me keep my job. Last year, I started to have a little more energy, but I still paid for the few extracurricular activities I managed to engage in with days of body-slamming fatigue.

This year, I finally began to have a few odd moments when I felt sort of, well, normal. Encouraged, I started walking. I used my Theraband faithfully to loosen up my chronically-tight arm and shoulder. I bought a hula hoop and a jump rope, and used them from time to time to shake things up a little. Just by being vertical more often, I was finally able to lose nearly all of the weight I had put on post-treatment. At last, my ‘volume’ by weight was almost back to what it used to be, but the ‘texture,’ shall we say, still had a high proportion of flab.

Walking is great, but limited by such vicissitudes as Hurricane Sandy. Treadmills are okay, but they did nothing for my poor shoulder. The hula hoop and the jump rope have been fun, but when the weather is bad, I just don’t have enough room or high enough ceilings inside my house to use them. Plus, my concentration is still not stellar. I’ve spent almost as much energy this year trying to think up ways to get a good, simple, weather-proof work-out as I’ve spent working out. I needed to come up with Something Else.

A much better gift.

And then I recalled, with great fondness, the smooth, meditative, deceptively easy, yet whole-body exertions of rowing on a Concept2. I confess I’d thought many times over the past decade of buying one of my own. But they ain’t cheap, and cancer put a serious dent in my bank account, so I set the whole idea aside. Until a few weeks ago. And I began to think, while I’m not having to replace the roof or the oil burner or some major appliance, and my car is working, and I can afford my refinanced mortgage, now might be a good time to give myself a real gift, one that would help me give myself back to myself.

Last Wednesday, my brandy new Concept2 Model D rower arrived. Eight screws and twenty minutes later, it was ready for use. I have just enough room on the floor, under the double doorway between my kitchen and livingroom, to use this two-feet wide, three-feet tall, eight-feet long vehicle-to-future-fitness, and when I’m not using it, it easily separates into two pieces that I can stand on end and wheel into a corner.

Rowing is not for everyone, I readily admit. In the first place, you have to get the hang of it. I was very fortunate that from the beginning of my long acquaintance with a Concept2, I had the right body type and biomechanics for it. I managed very quickly to master the smooth, continuous leg/back/arms drive and arms/back/legs recovery that comprise a proper stroke. For the novice — and especially for those who’ve tried it and didn’t get the hang of it — there is ample help and advice on the Concept2 website, including videos, that cover how to row and how to train safely. A few more caveats are needed for us cancer patients, and I plan to write a more PT-ish post about them soon. But for me, as soon as I sat down and began to pull, my muscle memory kicked in and I was off to my first thousand meters, with a nice, smooth force curve showing up on the monitor.

All the things I loved about using this machine came right back. In the first place, I can sit down. In the second place, it responds to me, adjusting itself instantly to how much effort I’m up to, and not the other way around. You rule the machine, it doesn’t rule you. And perhaps most importantly, I don’t have to use my brain. I can listen to the news or play some tunes and just do it. Like yoga, you breathe with your position — inhaling as you release the stroke, exhaling as you perform the next one — so even as you start to break a sweat, you are relaxed. It’s meditative, zen, and I can pretend I’m rowing down the Seine if I want to. And afterward, with all my muscles fully warmed, I can stretch my fatigued, fibrotic tissue toward something like my normal, pre-cancer flexibility.

So far, I’ve managed to row a little over 10,000 meters, logging them all into the online Concept2 logbook. Once I row another 990,000 meters, they’ll give me a teeshirt. And I will be getting that shirt. It might take me a year or two, but I know that when I get that million-meter teeshirt, I’ll have gotten much more than just something to wear. For now, I am just relieved and happy that I made the right decision. Like reconnecting with an old, accommodating friend, I look forward to spending time with my rower as often as I can. It may not look very friendly to anyone else — and it may in fact look more like an implement of torture to a lot of folks. But to me, it looks like hope.

December 7, 2012: A little update. I emailed the link for this post to Concept2, and they responded by Tweeting it today. They also informed me that they are sending me a gift to help keep me motivated. Thank you, Concept2! You can find them on Facebook at Concept2 Rowing and on Twitter at Concept2.

This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Wednesday, December 05, 2012 at 03:12 pm, filed under Health & Healthcare, Pain & Neuropathy, Survivorship and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

18 Responses to “Rowing Back to Life”

  1. Kathi, A soothing, beautiful story! The Concept 2 is sculpture~ pure, sleek, and functional. Thank you, as always, for sharing your remarkable insight, compassion, humor, and heart. Congratulations on stepping forward,and good luck in a fresh dimension of physical fitness, zen, and reawakening the spirit of happiness!
    (Seriously considering purchasing a Concept 2. If I do, I will mention your name… you could sell these as a side-line, lol… I’ve been searching for a credible, sensible, spine-friendly form of exercise, for years. After reading your testimonial, I’m sold!)

  2. Indi, I would recommend that you find a health club that has one, check out the Concept2 website link to see how to use it, get a guest pass to that health club & test it out a few times. Gently & briefly. It can be great for your back — or it could make things worse. It’s a big investment to make unless you know you can use it safely & enjoyably. I’ll say a lot more about all this in my next post. xoxo

  3. dear kathi,

    i can hear the joy, relief, and happiness in your “voice”. you are one helluva writer, and i was tickled to see you had posted. how wonderful you were able to give yourself that wonderful gift! memories of larry o’toole and his gentle giants, with their skill, grace, and strength must course through your mind when you celebrate how far you have come, row, row, rowin’ happily along.

    and i know you WILL get that tee-shirt!


    karen, TC

  4. Thank you, Karen. What a lovely comment. Believe me, I’ve paid a lot more attention since Larry and his crew to both men and women rowers and how fit they are. Good role models.

  5. Lovely post – I like that you gifted yourself with something that would gift you in return. I’ve not quite found my exercise niche. . . except for walking. I really love walking. 🙂 Oh, and canoeing – but that’s more of a seasonal thing – however, it still involved rowing!

  6. Well, Catherine, rowing is just canoeing done backwards!! When I had a roomie with a canoe, we used to do that, too! I could paddle, but steering I wasn’t so good at! LOL

  7. What a great story! I love that you bought yourself such an awesome gift, and I can’t wait to see your picture wearing the million-meter t-shirt!

  8. Love this! I rowed with a club in Alexandria, VA for four seasons (after my older son rowed in high school) — but that was pre-Breast Cancer (surgery, chemo, rads, a year of Herceptin, and now Tamoxifen). Now, 2-1/2 years post-Dx, I keep thinking I should dust off the Concept2 erg in our basement and add it to my fitness regimen. You have inspired and convinced me to do so! Keep posting all your great stuff.

  9. Judy, we could work our way to our million meter teeshirts together!

  10. Kathi,
    How wonderful.
    I wish I could do it… I love it. But without latissimus muscles, row-row-rowing is but a dream.
    Keep up the great work!!

  11. G, did they take the whole lats or just part of them? Since you can swim, you might be able to row. Hmm…have to put my PT hat on.

  12. So, a few weeks before I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was looking through our local weekly “alternative” paper at the activities listings. I saw a notice about our local cancer support agency sponsoring free rowing classes for people who have/had breast cancer and thought – oh, and be careful what you think! – wow, those people with cancer can row for free! It took a couple of years until I saw that they were offering it again – a couple of years after my diagnosis. So, I figured I’d better jump on it. Loved every minute of it and started using the Concept2 at the gym. Couldn’t continue rowing on the water due to time/schedule and current work-out places don’t have one. I do have Concept2 lust. Some day, perhaps. I think it might fit in an already crowded room in the house. Maybe even get back on the river next year.

  13. Hi Kathi,
    Great post. I’m so impressed with your rowing endeavors. Your story reminds me of when I had a Nordic Trac machine. Have you heard of those? It was tricky to say the least to stay standing while “skiing”, but then I’m more than a bit of a klutz. Needless to say, did not keep it. We also owned a stationary bike for years. Finally we bought a treadmill about ten years ago and it’s still in good working order. Wish I could say the same about myself… Ha!

    Keep on rowing! xoxo

  14. Geat story, Julie! Once I get myself into a little better shape, I may get inspired to investigate starting a rowing group for cancer survivors…

    Nancy, I could never quite get the hang of those Nordic Trac machines either! It was easier doing cross-country skiing on actual snow!! LOL

  15. Kathi,

    I LOVE this story. Yes, we do seem to be on the same page, don’t we? I love that this rowing machine is helping you build muscle and confidence. Good for you for finding the right rowing machine and the right exercise for your body and circumstance! I am rooting for you, and I have every confidence that you will be wearing that t-shirt!

  16. 😀

  17. Hi Kathi,

    I tried to leave a comment earlier, but I don’t think it “took.” Anyway, I’m soooo proud of you and your rowing endeavors. That is awesome that you decided to row on this machine, and you are making progress toward that tee shirt. Exercise is awesome, as you know, and finding the right exercise that works for you is so important. As far as those Gentle Giants, I’m hoping they have a Chicago location. Will look them up.

  18. Kathi, i met my DH on the rowing team in college but we sold our Concept 2 years ago, long before breast cancer. After reading your delightful post this Sunday morning, memories of the rowing experience are flooding back and I think I will introduce myself to the gym’s Concept 2s this week. Thanks for a lovely post. Beth

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