PDF of Matt Trevithick’s story in Rowing News: Miles From Home
Along with all of my friends, I was quite certain that by choosing to work in the Middle East and Central Asia, I was giving up rowing. Fond memories of rowing on the Connecticut (high school), Charles (college), and Potomac (masters) were at least for a while going to be just that-memories I could look back on while working far from water in a desert or in the mountains.
Of course, we were right in a sense. The only way to keep rowing in my life was to erg. So I resolved to stick to that machine, and over the last 1.6 million meters or so that’s what I’ve done. Erging is erging anywhere in the world, but between work at universi- ties in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve managed to have some moments I probably wouldn’t have experienced back home.
Power outages in Iraq, for example, always seemed to hit at the worst possible times and made rowing any distance an adventure in itself. If the power cut out during the day, the trick was to see if I could suffer through the rest of my daily 10k as the temperature skyrocketed to well over 120 degrees and keep from sliding off the seat. At night, it tested whether or not I could hold my split for the last 750 meters of an all out 2k in total darkness, not quite sure how much farther to row.
In Afghanistan, I’ll never forget watching one of my security guards get on the erg and give it his best, his Russian-made Kalashnikov strapped across his back with other guards yelling encouragement in the cold glow of flood lights and walls topped with razor wire. I also recall, during a particularly peaceful stretch in Kabullast year, walking to a local gym and seeing a Model C in pieces in the corner. After reassembling it under the amused watch of the owner, I took a few strokes and realized it still sort of worked.
Which got me thinking: If that model came out in 1993, and the owner assures you he hasn’t touched it in well over a decade, how did an erg end up in Taliban Afghanistan?
Erging is erging, but in eastern Afghanistan it’s slightly different for two reasons. It’s still just as annoying to rally yourself, but when you erg in a boathouse on the Charles you never worry about the level of “fecal material” in the air, as people here like to put it. It’s the most pervasive rumor in all of Kabul – that a significant part of the omnipresent dust is actually feces, due in large part to the open sewer system that runs along every street in the city. (On the bright side, Kabul is the sunniest capital city in the world.) Add to that an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, deep in the mountains where oxygen seems sparse, and you can’t help but sense that you are slower than ever (maintaining those splits your college coach said you should be able to hold “practically forever” has now become strangely difficult) and, as an added bonus, you just might be opening your lungs to junk off the streets with every stroke you take.
Being restricted to the erg for that long without a boat, oar, or boathouse nearby makes you do anything for the opportunity to row again. Flying back from Iraq to attend my sister’s graduation from college, I made a quick detour on the way to Ithaca, N.Y. When the direct flight from Istanbul landed in the evening at JFK International, I jumped on a midnight bus to DC, arriving near the White House just after 4 a.m.- enough time to walk over to Potomac Boat Club for a row in the eight past the Lincoln and Washington monuments as the sun rose. It may have been the days without sleep, but what a row.
That night I was back on the bus. When my sister and I did meet up, I promptly demanded to go for a row on the inlet of Cayuga Lake. A rower herself, she obliged, and we took out a double. My hands got ripped up, but at least I was still able to pull her around.
Matt Trevithick is the president of the board of directors for the Lake Dukan Rowing Club (www.lakedukanrc.org) and holds a silver medal from the 2008 Head of the Charles. He works at the American University of Afghanistan.