Beth Geismar and Torsten Heycke are training for a race that will require them to pull the oars of a scull more than 17,000 times over the course of two days next weekend.
This Ashland couple belong to a subculture of endurance athletes who focus their training on the nation's longest rowing race, the 115-mile, two-day, five-stage Corvallis to Portland Row on the Willamette River on June 4 and 5.
"I try to get in a four-hour row once a week plus a lot of shorter 2-plus hour rows on the other days," says Heycke, who trains in nearby Emigrant Lake.
On windy days, the couple will cross-train by bicycling, running or cross-country skiing to achieve their target 12 to 15 weekly training hours. Cross-training is not something either of them feels compelled to do frequently because of the all-encompassing physical demands of rowing.
"It's really an all-body sport, but legs are the primary movers in rowing," Heycke explains. "Your upper body is important, but your legs provide most of the drive."
The legs must be strong, adds Geismar, "Because you're pushing off with your legs on a sliding seat. Rowing is 40 percent legs, 40 percent back and 20 percent arms."
Over the course of rowing 115 miles, Geismar feels the pain most in her shoulders, especially when she turns her head to fine-tune her steering — there's no coxswain to direct her as the river currents buffet her scull back and forth.
Heycke feels the pain in his thighs, butt and wrists. He had to call it quits after day one of his first attempt at the Corvallis to Portland Row in 2007 because his wrists were so swollen he couldn't feather the oars.
During the first day of the race, each boat completes three stages of 35, 25 and 25 miles. Between each stage is a mandatory break of exactly one hour, during which the competitors eat whatever they can keep down.
On the second day, racers row 19 miles to the Willamette Falls Locks. After a trip through the locks, they "sprint" the final 11 miles to the finish. The winners typically take just over 10 hours to complete the race.
When they first met in 1984, Geismar was a competitive rower, Heycke a competitive cross-country skier.
"Although he was initially reluctant to try rowing," Geismar recalls, "he was a natural and soon won many races."
"I like the training we do because we drive to the lake or races, or distant rows together, but we compete separately," says Geismar.
"We understand each other's aches and pains but also the subtle joys of being out on the lake," adds Heycke. "There's the exercise aspect — we both understand our needs to train — but there's also the need to just be outside."
Now in their early 50s, with daughters in high school and college, the couple have extra time to train for longer races. Rowing has taken them far afield, from the Head of the Charles regatta in Cambridge, Mass., to battling ocean tides in San Francisco Bay. Along the way, Geismar won a gold and bronze medal in the 2002 World Masters Games in Australia. Heycke has completed the Corvallis to Portland Row once and Geismar has finished it twice.
"I've changed a lot over 35 years (of rowing), from how much time I need to spend earning a living to how much time I have to row, raising kids and still try to row and race," says Geismar. "What I like is that I've been able to adapt the rowing as different parts of my life have kicked in."
"Working out every day is really important to me, to feel good both mentally and physically, and I like pushing myself. I think of it as a mental-health workout."
Rowing has become a big part of Heycke's training because Emigrant Lake is so close to their Ashland home.
"It's hard to justify driving three hours round-trip every day to Shasta to get consistent cross-country skiing conditions," says Heycke. "I resolved a long time ago to train locally."
Heycke figures he's competed in more than a dozen sports, coached several, and is the race director of the Mount Ashland Hill Climb. Along the way, he's discovered something about his relationship with competition. This may be relevant as he looks ahead to next week, when the flow on the Willamette River may be high enough to force the cancellation of this year's race.
"Part of the appeal of long-distance racing is doing the long-distance training," says Heycke. "The training is part of the goal itself."
For more information on the Corvallis to Portland Row, see www.newworldrowing.org/cpr/index.htm
Read Torsten Heycke's blog, "Scullduggery," at http://scullduggery.blogspot.com/2011/05/corvallis-to-portland-row-cpr-part-1.html
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.