Maybe I Haven’t Entirely Missed the (Row) Boat

Rowing was virtually foreign to me until I joined Orangetheory Fitness (OTF) in December of 2018. I may have hopped on a rower at a big box gym a time or two, and I know I used a rower at a free Cross Fit class I took once upon a time, but in those instances, I had no idea what I was doing. In my initial classes at OTF, we were shown how to use the rower and got corrections over time. I was delighted to find that I didn’t suck at rowing. However, it wasn’t until I signed up for Row-20 this past month that I really nailed my rowing form and improved my performance exponentially.

But let me jump back a bit.*

(*Want to get to get directly to my reflection on the Row-20 experience? Click here.)

Slow Starts

I’ve always been a bit of a slower starter, or a late bloomer, whichever you prefer. When I was a toddler, I clung to my mom at parties and only warmed up just before it was time to leave. In both high school and college, I didn’t really get into the swing of things until my sophomore year. I wasn’t lucky enough to know exactly what I wanted to do with my life at a young age. My path has never been clear. And at 34-years-old, I still feel like I’m trying to figure out where I belong and what I should be doing (work-wise, purpose-wise, etc.).

Unfortunately, being a slower starter means some doors in life are no longer open to me. Granted, many of those doors I never would have passed through regardless, but sometimes those closed doors leave me wondering, “What if?” What if I’d stuck with ballet past the age of six? What if I’d really leaned into playing the clarinet and made music my life? What if I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone and done lots of internships to try on more careers? What if I’d purposely focused on dating when I was younger, before dating apps made finding love feel impossible? (For real, the dating scene is complete hellscape, especially once you hit your 30s. Younger folks, take note.)

I could go on, but you’re probably starting to wonder what any of this has to do with rowing. So let’s get into how I found Row-20 and an open door.

Getting My Row On

As previously mentioned, I was pretty jazzed to find out that I was decent at rowing. While other OTF classmates seemed to lament getting on the rower, I was psyched about it. I had the stamina, I had the strength, and I didn’t dread it like I do the treadmill. When I choose a station to start on at OTF, I set my workout up so that I can end on the rower. Running is my vegetables, rowing is my dessert. (And the floor is always enjoyable. My arms are currently coming into their own thanks to lifting heavier on the floor and I’m not mad about it. See exhibit A below.)

Exhibit A

Early in 2020 I was going strong with OTF and my weight loss goals, and I felt like things were really looking up in general. But then, of course, the pandemic hit. My studio shut down. I did the OTF home workouts and I ran my way through April until I had a little breakdown the end of the month and burned myself out. I desperately missed the rower. A past stint with a treadmill made me little gun shy of dropping thousands on a rower, but I couldn’t completely resist the call. As a compromise, I put in an order to rent the least expensive model WaterRower offers.

A1 Studio rower, the basic bitch of WaterRowers.

The screen isn’t anything to write home about, but it looks nice in my apartment and fits my budget. And that lovely whooshing sound of the water can’t be beat. Maybe someday I’ll splurge for one of the fancy rowers that comes with a subscription, but for now, my basic model gets the job done.

When it first arrived in early May, I enthusiastically jumped back on the saddle, but my workouts were a bit aimless. I’d row 2k meters, take breaks in between to lift weights or use minibands, and then get back on and do another 2k. It was fun, but once my OTF studio reopened at the end of June, I wasn’t making the most of the rower. But I couldn’t just let it collect dust. This wouldn’t turn into another treadmill folly.

Enter, Row-20.

The Row-20 Experience

Row-20 is 20 days of 20 minute rowing workouts run by Austin Hendrickson of Training Tall. If you’re an OTFer, a rower, or just into fitness in general, I highly recommend following him on social media via Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube. Take your pick! I’m a big Insta user and turn to his video posts before every OTF class to get tips on a specific exercise that will feature in that day’s class.

At the end of September, I was coming off a stellar row at the OTF Dri-Tri and saw posts about the upcoming October Row-20 on Insta. That chance to take my rowing to the next level and get coached my someone whose training tips had been helping me for the last several months was something I couldn’t pass up. And I’m so glad I didn’t.

Row-20 is for rowers of all experience levels, fitness levels and ages. The workouts are done live each morning (7 a.m. Pacific) via a private Facebook group. If you can’t make the live workout, you can always catch the recording and complete it later. The focus of the workouts varies, so you’ll definitely never get bored. I found that the 20 minutes would fly by and I never once wondered when the workout would end.

After the daily workout, members of the group share results and reflections in the Facebook group. These are helpful to look back on to quantify the improvements you make in just 20 days. My October group was really active and supportive of each other, which gave the program as nice community feel. A real highlight for me was sticking around for the live workout to stretch and chat with Austin and other members of the group. Connection during these times is truly invaluable. I live alone and have been working at home since March, and this program, on top of making my rowing better, helped put me in a better mindset to take on the workday. (Ironically, though, working from home is what allowed me to join a majority of the workouts live. Life is funny like that.)

In addition to the connection and community benefits, the form reviews are everything. I sent in two recordings for Austin to review, but form reviews are unlimited during the 20-day program. Rowing is more technical than I ever realized, which is great because it means you can work on each piece of your stroke to improve quickly! In my first review, he gave me corrections I could make and practice immediately, and in my second I got the reassurance that I implemented the changes correctly and my form was on point. Austin exudes this infectious enthusiasm that leaves you feeling genuinely good about yourself beyond the progress you’ve made. My form improved, my rowing improved, and now I’m really killing those row blocks OTF. I can’t wait for the 2k meter benchmark the next time it rolls around—I’m confident I can reach that sub-7 minute row I’ve been dreaming of.

The first day of the program starts with a 20 minute row at 22 strokes per minute. And, you guessed it, the last day of the program is a repeat of day 1. On day 1, I held a 2:12 split, racking up 4,531 meters. (Your split time is essentially the projection of how long it will take you to row 500 meters based on the power you’re exerting.) On day 12, I held a 2:04 split for most of the row, increasing to 2:01 and then 1:58 as we neared the end. I hit 4,833 meters. While I wanted to hit 5k, I was really happy with the row and my overall progress. Half of the challenge is knowing when and how to push yourself so that you don’t crash and burn. That’s yet another area I where I feel I’ve improved.

Each month’s Row-20 starts on the first Monday of the new month. For more information on program, and to check out feedback from other participants, click here.

Open Doors

During one of the post-workout chats I mentioned, we got into a discussion about how rowing is something you can work on for years and decades to come. We chatted about how, with some sports, you have to start as a kid to have any chance of being great, but that doesn’t apply to rowing. This got me thinking about the fact that I gravitate toward activities that don’t have age limits and other closed doors, especially in the last five years or so.

Running (even though it’s not a primary focus for me of late) appealed initially because the people dominating the sport aren’t teenagers. Writing attracted me because many first-time authors don’t publish until later in life. Both of these activities don’t shut you out based on age or ability. Sure, natural talent can help, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. You can get better at both with dedication and practice. Rowing falls right in line here. It also doesn’t hurt that rowing is low impact and a bomb calorie burner.

Wrapping this up, I can’t wait to see where rowing takes me next. I’m looking into rowing clubs here in Chicago to join in spring 2021 (COVID-pending, of course). What new challenges will I face by getting on the water? How will I get better? I can’t wait to find out, because fortunately, when it comes to this sport, I haven’t entirely missed the boat.

The Mind, Body, Writing Connection

And just like that, it’s the middle of January and a whole month and a half has raced by since I last posted. Shame. Shame. Shame.

It’s hard to remember December at this point, but if I recall correctly, I spent much of the month feeling pretty low. Admittedly, that’s been pretty par for the course in my world. But with the extra chaos December brings, I wasn’t writing nearly as much as I would have liked, the break room at work was a minefield of Christmas treats, and my anxiety was through the roof. By the time January rolled around, I was so happy to say goodbye to the holidays that I welcomed back the normal work week with open arms.

Since 2019 has started, I’ve come to the realization that I thrive on structure. And I’ve been very careful about keeping myself to a consistent schedule, setting goals that I chip away at each week, and taking steps to reduce my anxiety. I write every day and I set word count goals. I’m vigilant about picking up and always doing the dishes right away, because that just makes me feel better in my space. I ruthlessly unfollow anyone who constantly posts political stuff on social media (especially stuff I don’t agree with — sorry, not sorry) because Facebook was making me feel even more like garbage than usual. I very recently started tracking my food. And most importantly, I’ve riding high off of the incredible mental health benefits I’ve been getting from Orangetheory Fitness (OTF).

Even though December felt like a dark slog, there was a little pinprick of orange light that came into my life. Orangetheory Fitness Wauwatosa officially opened at the beginning of December. A high school friend raved to me about OTF in the past, and I was starting to think about checking it out at the beginning of November. And as we all know, as soon as we have a thought about spending money on something, a Facebook ad will appear that speaks to that product. I guess social media can be good for something. In my case, an ad for a new OTF studio near my apartment popped up in my feed. I completed an interest form out of curiosity. Props to the team over there, because I got a call, text, and email within a day and in no time I found myself at the studio joining as a Founding Member at the Elite level, paying for 8 classes a month. This was all during the first week of November.

Cut to my first VIP class that first weekend of December. As I was squeezing myself back into my workout clothes, I questioned my choice. What was I doing? Was I going to be able to handle the workout? Was I going to look ridiculous? Was I going to hate it? As someone who used to run marathons, albeit slowly, starting a new workout regimen is a painful reminder of how far I’ve fallen after I burned out on running. Since I moved back to Milwaukee in June 2013, I’ve gained 75 pounds and for the life of me I can’t seem to get that weight to budge. Simply put, it sucks feeling and looking terrible all the time. With all of this in my head, I rolled up to the new studio and had my first workout.

After my first couple of VIP classes, I was feeling pretty good. I ended up bumping my membership to the Premier level for unlimited classes while the studio was still offering reduced prices prior to the grand opening. At first, I was a little weary about going for the unlimited package. I’ve done that before with yoga and other memberships and ended up wasting money by not making the most of it. The pressure to attend would literally stress me out so much that I wouldn’t go. Stupid? Yes. But that’s how it went.

December pressed on. I think I was going to about three classes a week for most of the month. My friend asked if I was obsessed yet at some point in the last couple of weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve. I said that I was enjoying it, but that most of the time I didn’t want to go, but since I always felt better after, I had enough motivation to stick with it.

On New Year’s Day, after getting home from a lovely time with good friends in Indiana, I had a little meltdown about finances. Oh hi, anxiety! I started looking for things that I could drop to help with my budget. My first OTF workout of the year was the very next day. As I was driving to the studio, I questioned whether bumping up to Premier was the right choice. If I dropped back down to Elite, I’d be saving $50 a month. I made a bargain with myself that I’d wait until February and then cut back.

When I left class that night, I felt so much better. The tears and heart palpitations of the previous night felt far away. I went to classes on Saturday and Sunday the following weekend. And just like that, I was completely hooked. I was able to tell my friend, “Yes, I’m obsessed!” I owe her so much for being a cheerleader for OTF and for me. It did take a month to get there, but the first week of January made me a believer. The coaches are awesome and make you feel like you matter. I finally started getting out of my head and push myself every class. I actually look forward to going, and the hour goes by too fast! I always want to stay and keep burning those calories. I have NEVER been able to say that about any class or workout I have ever done in my life.


My highest calorie burn to date. I look to beat this every class. You can read about heart rate zones here.

Looking forward, I have no plans to drop Premier for the foreseeable future. Being a member at OTF has already been worth every penny for the mental health benefits alone. I have no doubt the weight loss and fitness level improvements will come (I’m already getting a little faster on the treadmill), but it did take five and a half years to sink to a new low in this body, so it’s going to take some time to claw my way back. I’m not going to give up.

So … what does all of this have to do with writing? Well, to put it bluntly, now that I don’t feel like shit all the time, I’m excited to sit down and write after a workout (and after a shower and a meal). I have more energy. I feel more optimistic about my works in progress (WIPs). I’m still struggling to resist the urge to go back and edit, rather than writing forward, but I’m working hard to get myself to a completed first draft. I’m aiming for March 30 with my latest WIP.

The Write Touch Conference starts on April 5th and I have a lot to do before then. I owe a query letter and the first five pages of my WIP for the critique with an agent that I paid for. I have another entry for the Fab Five contest to polish up. And I have lots of reading to do in the meantime. Good thing I’m in a better place mentally and physically to handle it all.

Now I just have to work on getting enough sleep…. 🙂