My phone’s alarm goes off at 4:20; I’ve deliberately put it on my desk so that I actually have to get out of bed to turn it off. The time goes by quickly as I get dressed, make a minimal breakfast, and pack for class for right after when I’ll get back to campus at 8:45.
At 5:02 I leave the house wearing a team hoodie, an ear band, and a pair of crimson waterproof sweatpants that one of my friends on the women’s team stole for me. My backpack is a cherished gifting suite item from the 2012 PAC-12 Rowing Championships in Sacramento, where my novice 8+ beat the Stanford men’s novice 8+. In one side pocket rests a blue Powerade bottle issued to funded athletes that I stole from one of the football players after he left it in a classroom while I was taking summer classes. The other side has a variety of Clif bars that I took from our food tent at last weekend’s regatta.
The walk to the first van pickup to the river is a short and downhill one from my house. I spend the majority of it staring at the stars in the pitch-dark sky overhead, occasionally looking forward to make sure I don’t run into something. This small college town is still fast asleep, and the only noise that I can discern is the light breeze gently reminding me that it’s 40 degrees out. It’ll get down to about 30 before we stop our water training, and into the single-digit and negative temperatures in January and February.
I get to the pickup lot with a few minutes to spare, and get into the shotgun seat of one of the vans. The driver is our commodore. One of our fastest rowers, a well-connected finance major heading straight into a high-powered career in consulting, just like his father. He’s a girl magnet, but he’s in a serious relationship. He’s been one of my roommates since last year, but his presence still intimidates me. I don’t attempt conversation.
The drive down to the river takes just over a half hour. We regularly have close run-ins with deer along the descending hills, and as one walks into the road in front of us and then turns back to sprint away from us, I mutter “Run away, Bambi.”
At the boathouse, our 5 or so vans pull in and everyone sleepily stumbles out. Our head coach unlocks the door, and we roll out the pairs rack. It’s still black out, enough that the other side of the river can’t be seen, so we turn on a set of blindingly-bright floodlights that illuminate the docks and the distant cliffs across the landscape. After running oars down to the docks, we warm up with a mile run, back stretches, and 50 jumping jacks; the same thing every day, while coach runs through the day with the coxswains.
I take off my layers and scan the blackboard by the door to see what I’m hoping for: the V8 lineup, with me in bow. I hand off my water bottle to our coxswain, Hayden, and thank him for taking it before getting hands-on on our nicest shell, a crimson 2014 Hudson Super Predator eight. We walk it down to the dock, and roll it in on the Hayden’s command. Everyone hustles to undo oarlocks and seat bungies, put oars in and call their seat number. Hayden returns my bottle, and I squeeze it into the central gap in the foot plate. One foot in … and down. It’s not as glamorous, but sitting down and strapping my feet into the Nike Bat Logic shoes always gives me a feeling that I imagine to be not dissimilar from that enjoyed by jet pilots as they buckle their harnesses in and clear for takeoff. Lean away; walk it down. Heading away from the dock, I avoid looking at the floodlights.
Hayden calls for us to check our foot stretchers, spacers, and finish positions. My favorite thing about this shell is that only we row it; my adjustments are already exact. I glance to make sure that nothing’s changed before calling my seat number. With a few minutes to go until 6am, practice starts with a series of drills. A 2V8 and two novice eights are out with us, and we start a few minutes late in order to not get too far ahead. A half-hour goes by quickly and I start to wake up as the strokes get dialed into consistent sync. We stop to spin the boat before doing steady-state to the other side of the river, towards the Lower Granite Dam.
With a good boat set and speed, air is forced below the shell as it glides through the water. It bubbles up and pops along the hull, creating a sound like a creek. It’s the only thing I listen to besides the repeated feathering lock of our oars, followed by the drive and slide. I fall into something of a trance after twenty or so minutes. When we finally reach the dam, we spin again to start the day’s pieces: several sets of 2 minutes on, one minute off, with some room for the coxswains to practice the wide turn that they’ll have to hook at this weekend’s race at Head of the Lake in Seattle.
With varying water and wind conditions, our lineup handles it well, racing at around 30 strokes a minute for each piece. The other boats are given generous head starts on us, and each time we walk back into the lead. Being the most powerful boat on the river has a compounding motivational effect for me. Hayden’s coxing becomes more aggressive, and I start feeling my lungs operating closer towards their VO2 max. After the first few pieces, my half of the boat has taken off all of our layers except spandex shorts. Visible steam rises from the bodies in the boat after each piece. It’s painful work, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sometime after 7:00 the sun breaches the hills and lights up the entire valley around us with a beautiful, rugged gold tone. I couldn’t ask for a more incredible place to be as I push myself to be worthy of my seat in the V8. As the other boats begin heading over to the boathouse, we did an extra piece to give Hayden another opportunity to practice the turn. Our coach followed us after, studying each rower and critiquing technique discrepancies. An extra novice coxswain sat in the launch with him, watching us.
The row back to the break water was ideal; excellent ratio at 18 strokes a minute, with a consistent, sharp set. One square, one catch, one finish. Good head angles. Around ten minutes later, we finished and gunnelled the oars to let the boat glide on its own, perfectly balanced. We glided for about a half a minute before slapping the oars back into the water in unison.
Perhaps the best part of my morning was looking over at that moment and seeing the novice coxswain smiling. It was the same look that I had when I visited to watch practice here in March three years ago, when I watched the V8 and instantly fell in love with the sport. I fantasized right then and there about being a part of this boat, and seeing that admiration reflected back hit me with a sense of actualization.
We docked, and I pulled my oar in with the other starboards as I stepped out of the boat.
This is worthwhile.