February 12, 2004

I Can Breathe Deeper Than You

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Several thoughts run through your head as you stand in front of a mirror, preparing to shave your chest. You are filled with questions: Is it like my face? Do I get it wet first? Should I shave with the grain? Is there even a grain? I promised myself I would never do this. Oh God, it’s bleeding. Yikes. This is going to itch like a sonofabitch tomorrow.

I had never imagined I’d find myself in such a situation, Barbasol foaming on my breast, razor in hand. If you know me, you know that I am very proud of my generous body hair (or, as I like to call it, my pelt) and would never dream of shaving it off under any circumstances. Certainly not while wearing spandex at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning on the 2nd floor of Martha VanRanssaelear hall.

And yet, there I was, committing grand acts of bodily deforestation in the name of science. Head crew coach Dan Roock had volunteered our team’s services to Tom Brownlie ’98, a nutritional science Ph.D. student in the hours he’s not busy coaching the women’s tennis team. Tom needed some willing guinea pigs for a physiological study on the effects of diet and athletic performance; he’s also testing the lightweight rowers, hypothesizing that the weight loss they endure to prepare for their season will have adverse effects (i.e. eating disorders are bad!). The test itself would consist of rowing an ergometer (an indoor rowing machine) at increasingly higher intensities until the body reaches its VO2 max, the highest volume of oxygen the cardiovascular system can process per minute.

Revving the heart to full tilt and dousing every muscle fiber in the body with lactic acid at 9 a.m. for no good reason? Sounds like rowers to me; that’s just our game. Hell yes, sign us up coach; this is what we do.

I began shaving patches over my heart and each of my lungs to make room for the electrodes that would measure my heart rate during the test. To hack out just three little smooth spaces on my body took nearly fifteen minutes, on account of the vintage 1973 Bic safety razor Tom gave me to use, coupled with my having to clean a huge mass of hair out of it every five strokes or so. California pretty boys (Male models, perhaps?) must get up really early in the morning.

After I walked out of the bathroom looking like an old dog with the mange, I proceeded to fill out a questionnaire relating to the study. I had just given Tom a record of everything I’d eaten in the past three days, and the questions were along the same lines:

“Do you look forward to eating?”

I circled the response, “Exactly like me.”

“Does eating give you great pleasure?”

Exactly like me.

“Do you have trouble opening up emotionally to others?”



The questions answered, it was time to test my body composition. In other words, Tom was going to measure the amount of fat hanging off my bones. I’m a bit burly for a rower, and I’ve never looked forward to the days of the year when the coaches pinch our skin with calipers and run current through our bodies to get a fat percentage. My number is always really high and depressing (like 21 percent or so), mostly because the equations used to derive it assume that a 6-1 male weighing 220 pounds is obese, but the number sticks with me and pisses me off nonetheless.

Today, however, I was optimistic. Instead of the biased results of average-based tests like skinfold calipers or bio-impedance, Tom was going to measure my actual density, thereby producing the most accurate composition percentage possible short of cutting me open. This meant a session in the Bod Pod.

Do you remember Mork & Mindy, the 70s sitcom where Robin Williams played an alien who came to earth to learn about humanity? He landed in Boulder, CO (a natural choice) and became roommates with Mindy, the spunky brunette who tried to help Mork assimilate himself into society. Hilarity ensued (really).

Anyway, the opening credits always showed Mork leaving his homeworld in a small ship shaped like an egg, which looked startlingly similar to the contraption presently in front of me. The outward appearance of the Bod Pod makes you laugh uncontrollably, because you know you’re about to do something — namely, sit in a giant egg wearing spandex and a swim cap — that looks absolutely ridiculous. But the thing worked; it measured my body’s volume and density, and spit a back percentage body fat much lower (and, hopefully, more accurate) than any other test I’d taken — 6.6 percent. As Mork would say, “Nanu, nanu.”

I devoured the information from the Pod. 6.6 percent body fat means, at 220 pounds, I have 14.2 pounds of excess fat. 3500 calories equal one pound, so that’s 47,900 extra calories just sitting there waiting to be used. Nanu, nanu, indeed.

Rowers are obsessed with numbers. Almost everything in our sport can be quantified, calculated, and recorded on our coach’s legal pad and, sometimes, etched onto our very souls like scarlet letters. How much do you weigh? How tall are you? What is your wingspan? There are numbers, average splits and times, associated with every stroke we take on the ergs. How fast can you row 500 meters? 1000 meters? 2000 meters (a full race)? 10000 meters? How many meters can you row in three minutes? In three minutes at only 24 strokes per minute? In three minutes at an open cadence after being exhausted by five previous three minute pieces? How fast can you row flanked by Princeton and Harvard in the last 500 meters of the grand final of the IRA national championships?

Rowers are known by their erg scores, and cannot hide from the reality that they bring. There is no way to fake a sub-6:00 2k. Sometimes, you can guess fastball or disappear on the soccer and football fields, and maybe say it wasn’t your mark that scored or your blocking assignment that sacked the QB. But there is no room for such talk in rowing; you simply cannot hide from the numbers. You are either fast or slow, and the absence of excuses forces you to turn inward to find the reasons for success or failure. Few athletes take more ownership in the outcome than do rowers.


Time for a new number in my life — VO2 max. This was a measurement wholly unfamiliar to my teammates and me, although we had a rough idea of its significance. Essentially, it’s a measure of efficiency for your athletic engine. There is a point of physical exertion at which the body cannot absorb any higher a volume of oxygen per minute per unit of body weight, rushing the precious O2 molecules to the screaming muscle cells. The higher your VO2 max, the harder, faster, and longer you can row (or run, or cycle, etc).

Lance Armstrong, arguably the greatest endurance athlete in the world, has a VO2 max of 83.8 ml/kg/min. Think about that for a second. Every minute, his Tour de France-winning body can consume and process more than eight Nalgene bottles worth of oxygen. Get your friends together and line up eight Nalgene bottles. That’s a lot of 02, especially considering that an average male athlete (athlete!) can only use three and half of those bottles.

I sat down on the familiar seat of the erg and attached the electrodes to the bald spots on my chest, which were beginning to itch uncontrollably. Next to me, a computer sat on a table, connected to what looked like a surgical SCUBA device — two cylindrical gas tanks with a myriad of clear hoses and nozzles, attached to a mouthpiece in a plastic head harness. It was lab-rat time.

Tom hooked the harness around my head as if he was getting ready to saddle a horse. I sure felt like a thoroughbred; I like erg tests and was especially keyed
up for this one, even though it was early in the morning. After four years of lining up against the finest oarsmen in the United States, including a few Olympians, I have learned to feel the moment when the adrenaline injects into my bloodstream. It is a high unparalleled in the world.

I had heard from my teammates that the mouthpiece would be a problem, that it would constrict my breathing and make my mouth dry. I closed my mouth around the rubber, fitting it behind my lips and under my teeth like a snorkel, and was instantly brought back to my childhood spent searching for sharks in the kettle pond region of Massachusetts. No problem. Tom clipped my nose shut and started me on my warm-up.


The test was broken into two-minute intervals and would continue for as long as it had to. That is, it would last as long as I did. Tom set the erg monitor to display the watts I produced with each stroke and explained that I would start the test rowing at 250 watts, a firm but easy pressure. I was to increase the wattage by 50 every two minutes until I could go no faster or ceased to hold the pace. Pretty straightforward, but the hard things in life usually are.

Tom gave me the nod that meant “Go.” I heard the start commands in my head.

Cornell, ready? 5…4…3…2…1…Are you ready? Go!

My first stroke was a blistering 393 watts. Tom told me to slow down. I got into a pace and passed the time trying to keep the wattage at exactly 250. I was hardly breathing. I knew the real race wouldn’t begin for a few more minutes.

Two-minute mark. Raise the wattage to 300. No problem. Legs, body, arms. Legs, body, arms.

Get used to the harness. It’s not there. Breathe, keep it light and quick.

Four minutes down, the watts are 350. I was getting impatient; I wanted to go faster.

Now we’re starting to move. I can feel it. Letsgoletsgoletsgo…Six minutes in! 400 watts, and a good rhythm.

My legs and lungs were burning. This was normal, and I ignored it. I knew that a lot of the previous lab rats had cashed out before ten minutes. I wanted to make it.

Get ready for 450, gotta hit that. Long arms, connect, connect. Hard to breathe; —-ing snorkel. More power on the legs. Spend it all for these two minutes. On THIS one!

After eight minutes, I was holding 450 watts as if my life depended on it. You could have set a watch by the swing of my back — 32 strokes a minute, as constant as the north star. But the effort was taking its toll. Why the hell did I shave my chest for those freaking electrodes? Tom could have taken my pulse from the other side of the room. The muscles in my legs were trying to squeeze my femurs into dust. All I could see was “450.”

“Okay, now bring it up to 475!” said Tom.

Are you kidding me?

Someone had smothered me in gasoline and lit a match. I flailed at the machine for the next 15 seconds or so, bringing the rate up, shortening the slide, doing anything to try and hold 475 watts. My mind was engaged, but mercifully, my body had different ideas.

“Okay, that’s it,” said Tom. It was clear that my lungs weren’t going to use any more oxygen than they already had.

Get this freaking plastic thing off my head so I can lie down.


After I drank some water and took a long cold shower, Tom gave me my new number — 57.9ml/kg/min. Two Nalgene bottles more than a hockey player, but three less than Lance. Not bad for a typical Tuesday morning.

I took off my coat and walked outside into the winter wind, still sweating from my elevated heart rate. Hum Ec girls shot me strange looks and turned to avoid the steam spewing out of my body. I briefly considered jumping in Beebe Lake, but didn’t because I couldn’t stop itching my chest.

I’ll see Tom again after spring break to do this all over again. Hopefully, the new number will be even better. 475 watts? 83.8ml/kg/min? Gold medal at the national championships? No problem.

Archived article by Per Ostman