Attention. Go!

By Angie Houtz – March 27, 2014
Photo courtesy of Angie Houtz

Last July when I heard the words, "it's cancer" I knew that life as I was living it was going to go on a hiatus and only if I was seriously lucky, would I regain my version of 'normalcy.' I tried to remain steady with my rowing workouts because I knew there would be some mandatory down time, but I truly didn't think it would be as long as it turned out to be.

I'm certain I am not the only cancer patient who felt the ground slipping away as the doctor visits morphed from day to day to week after week and somewhere in this, there were times where I found solid footing and even had some sort of leadership role in what was happening and when. But even in my good moments, there were many sleepless nights, worries on the what if's (I honestly don't think one needs breast cancer to worry about the what ifs but it is a magnifier), and I realized as the process wore on, how scared I was that I wouldn't get to go back to the boat and rowing.

Many of us have a hobby or activity that gives us found purpose and the endorphin rush of doing something that others view as hard, difficult, or just not at all appealing. Honestly, I am somewhat this way with running – even though I know it gives me stronger legs, better lungs, and helps promote my body's use of oxygen, it isn't something I wake up and am excited to go do; I do it begrudgingly. I row because I love it. Rowing has given me an outlet not to mention a purpose for my Swedish-blessed thighs (you ladies know what I am talking about). 

Honestly, I hadn't focused on rowing because I hadn't received the OK to go back to it. For those who don't know the physics of rowing (no worries, the test at the end is rather simple), it incorporates all of your muscle groups as you work your way through the concept of the stroke and the process of the recovery. I know I may sound knowledgeable but trust me, if my rowing coach is reading this, I am certain he is shaking his head knowing I'm trying to explain something he's been trying to get me to understand for years.

When I did get the permission to row, my doubts started building, but I knew if I didn't go out there, I wasn't going to ever find out if things were going to feel the same, work like they used to, or if the pull of the stroke would be too much. My first row was in mid-January and I went a whopping mile or so down the river. I am used to doing anywhere from six to eight miles in an outing but I was exhausted after this short row – mostly I think it was due to relief; while it felt a little different in my pectoral areas, my upper body worked to pull through the water while my jelly legs finally got more than a three-mile walking workout.

I decided that I needed to work on my leg strength before I should spend more time on the water so I began a slow rebuilding process on the indoor rowing machine called an Ergometer (or Erg for short; I call it the 'Urgh!') so that I could measure my progress and last longer on my rows. One morning as I was working out in the erg room at Austin Rowing Club, a wonderful friend and her husband approached me to ask if I would consider joining their boat for an upcoming race in Austin. Each March, Lady Bird Lake is home to the Heart of Texas Rowing Regatta – a spring sprint with six buoyed lanes down a 1,000 meter course just east of I-35 at Festival Beach. They know I am as competitive as they come and with another one of our friends, we would enter as a mixed quad (two women, two men) and they promised that we could just go down the course – winning wasn't in the plans and I was assured that our rating (I’ll explain this in just a moment) would be only what we could handle. Simply put – they lied.

In rowing there is a cadence or stroke rate. The idea is get as far in distance as you can with each catch, or stroke, of the oars. Faster is good if you are efficient, but if you aren't, this concept can actually be bad and in my case, I certainly wasn't at a physical place to go fast with my rating but when you are rowing with someone else, and in this case, three someone else’s, it helps to row together. As a crew, we had discussed "taking it easy" and just focusing on finishing the race in general but once the official said, "Attention. GO,” we were off at a crazy, 'Angie's in the boat so put everything we've got into it' pace. I am guilty of staying in the swing of things with them, but I'm fairly certain I was the only one wondering if, at this speed, a shift of my muscles could happen to suddenly give me a uniboob or a blob under each arm instead of these Barbie mounds in the middle.

Halfway through the race, I had flashbacks of where I was physically such a short time ago and all that has happened. My tears streamed silently as I pulled and used my legs to help move the boat along and down the course. I found myself returning to a place of "normal" as I began counting my strokes as we streamed by each buoy. When I heard the horn, which signified that our boat had crossed the finish line, I fell completely apart. My tears were a mix of thankfulness, sorrow, and relief – I had raced and along with my cherished friends, had faced my fear and come back full circle. Better yet, both Barbie mounds had stayed in the middle.

There are many dates in this journey that hold significance to me: July 15 (It’s Cancer!), Aug. 13 (Take Off day!!), Nov. 15 (Jelly Boobs), Jan. 11 (my first row back) and March 1 – a day filled with my own self-imposed fears, doubts, and the biggest blessing since the hug of my son almost seven months earlier. It was my return to the rowing I crave – competitive but filled with friendship, laughter, and support.

To celebrate, we cheered our finish with some fabulous chilled champagne – a bottle for each boob – and my third place medal (I think I might paint this one pink!) hangs proudly from my bathroom mirror – the first and last thing I see each day. I'm not back where I was, and I'm not going to worry if I'll ever be there again. That girl had cancer and this new one I’ve become has a glorious future.

I’ve come a very long way since last July and I know I still have a long way to go. Happily, Lady Bird Lake has more than eight miles of continuous water for me to go and do just that. My rate will be faster on some days and more even on others; but if you read the deeper meaning scattered throughout this entry, then you already know my conclusion: it's not how fast we go – it's all about the distance.


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