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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Holder

Into the Well

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

I’m waiting, in the early morning, in a room at once nondescript and exotic. Beige carpet, white walls, no windows. Lined up, calmly awaiting us, are the sharp, militant lines of the black-and-grey rowing machines, ergometers, or “ergs,” for those in the know.

The sun hasn’t risen yet, but my body is being forced awake by the aggressive fluorescent lighting overhead. I feel ill in the earliness and the unknowingness, waiting to be tested on these machines. The crackers I ate on the chilly, dark walk to the gym aren’t sitting well in my stomach. My coach has said it’s an all-out effort.

My new teammates and I will traverse 2000 meters of imaginary water together, but not together, each at her own pace, on her own machine. The battle will be invisible but the consequences real. It’s one of many ways we will be tested, one of the many ways we will be both bonded through suffering and divided by speed.

Tension has filled the room, taking all the space not already filled with the ergs and the bodies of my new teammates, hunched over them. Toward the front of the room, I’m sitting on the narrow black seat that slides back and forth along the erg’s slim metal rail. My feet are strapped onto a black plastic and metal plate. I could unstrap them, in theory, or my very nervous brain could, or my shaking muscles that have no idea what’s coming could. But the deepest part of me wants to be trapped. I’ve committed; no amount of fear can undo those straps. I want to be tested and found deserving.

In front of my feet and hands is a flywheel, presently still, encased in a plastic-and-metal cage that will do its best to mimic the resistance a rower would feel on the water as she takes a stroke. The handle is attached to a bicycle chain that pulls the flywheel, each turn a stroke getting us closer to the whole thing being over.

Above my feet, perched on a stand at eye level, is the small gray screen that will contain my fate, and I’m unimpressed with its looks: it’s like a drug store calculator, blocky LED numbers for Distance Remaining (2000m), Stroke Rate (0s/m), and Split (0:00/500m). When the Distance Remaining is 0m, I will be done. If I can keep my split time low, I will have gone fast. Who the fuck knows what to do with Stroke Rate?

There’s a moment before an erg test begins, where there is both eerie quietness and one or two frantic, last-minute adjustments happening all at once. When the final fits have stilled, our coxswain takes the lead.

“Attention…,” she barks, and pauses for us to give it. And with a roar, “Row!”

I press my feet against the footplate and jam my legs and body back together, trying to unite this whole human unit around power. My legs push, my body swings open, my arms draw the handle to my chest. My hands lead my arms away from my body, arms lead my body over my hips, and finally, my knees come up to draw my seat against my heels. I come back into that compressed ball where I began, ready to take another stroke.

My body dumps chemicals into my blood in response to the first shock, and I feel loose-limbed, hot and cold in alternating sequence, fast and excited. It’s out of control from the start. All out. As fast as I can, the meters spinning down from 2000m to 1800m in a painless blur. This isn’t so bad, my brain foolishly cackles.

But pain always comes for you in rowing. As my body pries open against my legs, my lungs don’t seem to, the dry air making them feel as if they can’t inflate all the way. 1600 meters to go. Not even a quarter of the way. Fuck.

Each stroke feels like someone is driving knives into my thighs and leaving them there. Is it supposed to hurt this much? 1300 meters to go. What percentage is 1300 out of 2000? My brain, desperately trying to find a way to help, performing calculations to distract me from the pain. It can’t make sense of this experience, but it does know that I need to not feel it. Math is very distracting.

My split starts to come up, meaning I am slowing down as my body fatigues. I realize then what every first-time rower realizes during that first test: it would help if I knew what pace to hold to go steadily through the imaginary distance, rather than going as hard as I could and then getting slower. Later in my career, greater fitness and strength will combine with mental tactics born from experience to execute this better, but this is how that experience is earned.

The only way to know is to do.

The searing pain of lactic acid creeps through my body, muscle group by muscle group, claiming each territory as her own. Everything hurt. Things I didn’t even know could hurt hurt. The arches of my feet have lactic acid in them.

1100 meters to go. People are yelling at me, but I can’t process what they are saying through the haze of pain. They’re yelling at me to sit up, or to push more, and I don’t really know what they mean. I’m pushing as hard as I can. The more they yell, the more my brain is like a deranged professor running around a library, pulling books off of shelves, turning over tables, and shredding paper in an effort to understand what is going on. Will you just shut up? SHUT. UP.

My final erg test in 2006. Photo credit Igor Belakovskiy.

I know now that scene because it is universal to erg tests. I am flailing back and forth on the little black seat, sliding frantically on the metal rail, and the voices are flinging themselves at me from faces twisted by excitement that read like rage. My eyes are fixed on that little fucking box, that cheap-ass calculator screen, the whole of my existence in this moment. Later, I’ll see photographs of myself during an erg test. The look in my eyes is neither determination nor resolve, but the fevered terror of someone running from her own death. In the moment, though, from the inside, the focus is somewhere deeper: screaming from the bottom, the inside of a dry well, unseen by anyone looking. The outside is just pain.

But this is test #1 of many to come. I do then what I would do for years after and millions of strokes to come: I stare at my split, and if it comes up, I work with every fiber of muscle, every gram of bone, every sinew, every breath, to push it down again. I dig back into the well of my body, and when it feels like it is dry, I simply go deeper. I pull something out I don't know exists. My body seems to like pain, or tolerate it.

Or maybe, it simply knows what to do with it, because it is familiar.

I feel the edges of my body, how each part works together to create power. I feel how I could spin my will through muscles into effort, how to organize myself into speed. It remains one of my favorite feelings, to collect my whole body behind a goal.

700 meters to go. I realize dimly, through the screaming and my own gasping and sweating, that there are more people around me than when I started. I am either doing something very wrong or very right. Either way, the energy of their encouragement and effort fuels me, and I keep finding more to give.

500 meters to go. The screaming comes closer. Mouths are inches from my ears as I race back and forth.

200 meters to go. How many 200s are in 2000? The pain cave I’m in is so deep now, I can hardly hear the screaming anymore. The numbers tick down with each press of my legs and each swing of my body.

With the Distance Remaining finally on zero, I collapse between my knees, chest heaving, trying to recover. I release my feet from the straps, and fall onto the floor beside the erg.

I get up, with help, and realize as I look into the faces around me and groggily process what they are saying that I have the fastest time of the day, faster than the seniors who’d been rowing longer, or the girls who had rowed in high school and won championships, faster than the captain, faster than them all. The recognition floods my body with a big, warm heat, a brand-new feeling. The depletion of energy and residual aching, the post-erg hacking cough and razor-sore throat all recede into the background as I relish that praise and admiration.

There is a little girl inside me, the one who’d stood awkwardly in gym classes, on grade-school blacktops and fields, who was deeply ashamed of her inability to be physically capable, who is having a moment of both appreciation and disbelief. No one had thought to include me, or pay attention to me, and here I am, all of a sudden, someone to watch out for, someone you wanted. Finally.

In the noise of the aftermath, there is palpable relief in the room. The chatter was celebratory as my teammates rehashed how it had all gone. The painful part is over (till next time). Everyone can relax, can laugh, can cry if they choose. Maybe it wasn’t their day. But it was mine, the first of many days where I would feel like I was finally doing the thing my body knew intrinsically how to do: all-out. The right thing for me.

I layer sweatpants over sweat-soaked spandex and a drenched t-shirt, the uniform of rowers everywhere. I gather up my water bottle and follow my teammates, newly bonded by the intensity of struggle. We leave the drab room that for a moment was holier than it seemed on the surface, thanks to the thresholds crossed by those who temporarily inhabited its space.

The sun has risen outside that room without our witness, and the darkness has been replaced by brilliant morning sunshine. A darkness inside us has been embraced and explored. It is a place we return to again and again, a place where we will slowly learn to live with an uncomfortable tolerance. We push open glass doors and pour out of that brick building into the beginning of a fall day, our happy chatter carrying us toward breakfast, classes, other possibilities.

As sore legs ease me forward, the day doesn’t matter, the chatter doesn’t matter. None of the rest of that day would be as important to me as much as what happened in that liminal space, that drab room, and that new place inside me I found. The woman who heads out into the morning sunshine is finally in the body that feels like a true expression of herself: shoulders broader, back stronger, legs like pistons, ready to go again.

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