CHAOS in literature: "our" chapter in a forthcoming book

CHAOS Rowing made it into the forthcoming book "Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry" by our charter member Reid Wilson. The book will be available in. May, 2016 from HCI Books.


How to Talk Like a First Responder

It’s a cold Saturday morning and we are coming toward the end of our workout, so we are about to practice two 3000-meter races. I’m sitting in the three-seat of the Australia, our beautiful new quadruple skull, a narrow, sleek, and fast racing boat with four rowers, each with two oars. We are racing against an identical boat. We are evenly matched in strength and skill, and in the first race we finish within half a boat length of each other. We spin the boats and get ready for the second race. We are the crew of CHAOS Rowing; our ages range from about thirty years on up to me, the elder, in my early sixties. All of us love to row and are always happy to be on the water.

But when we are racing, it’s all business. There’s no such thing as “perfect” in this sport, but we all strive in that direction. And today in each boat, it is four rowing as one, every action the same. Our objective is to move the boat as far as possible with each stroke in the most efficient manner. The rowing stroke is a constant movement, applying power with the whole body and then recovering. A full stroke begins as we are coiled forward in the sliding seats, with knees bent and arms outstretched. We raise our hands slightly, dropping the blade vertically into the water. At the beginning of the drive, all the work is done by the legs as they push back against the foot stretchers, pulling the blades forward and moving the boat in the water. Now our upper bodies begin to uncoil, then the arms begin their work, pulling the handles toward our chests, drawing the oar blades through the water. By the end of the stroke, we are leaning back about 10 degrees, and the abdominal muscles are fully engaged. Now the drive is over and we release the pressure on the handle and push it down slightly, releasing the oar from the water. Next, we push our arms forward to a full extension. The body follows the hands and the sliding seat moves forward until the knees are bent and we are ready for the next catch. When we take thirty strokes a minute, we do all of that in two seconds. Over and over and over.

Rowing is physically and rhythmically intense, in a very precise way. And when all the rowers and the boat can row as one, it’s a thrilling experience. I still remember a brief thirty seconds of a row seven months ago in which I was in an all-out peak experience: totally present in this forceful and challenging physical action and at the same time observing what is going on while simultaneously absolutely exhilarated. Thirty seconds isn’t very long, but I’ll remember those moments forever. And I plan to have many more of them.

All our continued work on technique comes down to cross the finish line ahead of all other boats. The second race begins. We row steady and clean. At about 500 meters, our bowman yells out a new command. “Up two, in two.” (Increase the stroke rate per minute by two strokes after the next two strokes.) Then shouting enough to be heard over the sounds of two boats and sixteen oars, “One!” Another stroke. “Two!” We’re rowing at twenty-six strokes per minute, and we are focusing our minds and bodies on the efficiency and power needed to propel our boat into the lead. From behind us we hear Richard’s voice again from the bow seat. “In two, power-ten.” (After these two strokes, exert all the power you can muster into driving your legs back, and the boat forward in these next ten strokes.) “One . . . two! Give me legs!” Rapid. Intense. Power. All as one. I now make an audible “huh” at the end of each exhale, a sound that shows up on its own as I engage the oar with full exertion.

And then . . .

I can’t breathe! My force has exceeded my lung capacity, and now I am in a panic state.

It’s 35 degrees, and both my shirts are zipped up to cover my neck. What was outside of my awareness only moments before is now quite clear: these zippered shirts are also restricting my airway as my muscles are now demanding more oxygen. But there’s nothing I can do about that. Each of my hands must remain wrapped around the handle of its own nine-and-a-half-foot oar.

I’m freaked. We’re rowing at a furious intensity, and my inner dialogue is a terse yet mentally loud two-way altercation that sounds like this: “I can’t go on. I’ve got to call ‘way enough.’” (That’s a command that signals all rowers to immediately stop rowing in mid-stroke.)

Followed by an opposing voice: “Keep going. Keep going.”

But at this moment, I’m afraid that if I continue rowing . . . Well, I don’t quite know what will happen, but it will be something like I will blackout and just fall forward in my seat. I’m screaming in my head, “Now. Say it now. ‘Way enough’ now. Before it’s too late!”

But, geez, I really don’t want to do that. No one has ever, in any boat I’ve been in or around, called “way enough” because they couldn’t catch their breath. I don’t want to be the first. I’d be so embarrassed. More important, I don’t want to disappoint my fellow rowers. We have committed ourselves as a boat to win this race. Our job is to win this race. Just like the four in the other boat are committed to winning. We row as though this is the biggest race of our lives. That’s just how you do it.


One does not stop a boat mid-race because of some discomfort. I don’t want to be the one that spoils this. But I might have to be.

One voice: “Keep going. Keep going.” The other voice: “I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to stop NOW. I can’t do this. I’m in trouble. I can’t breathe! I can’t go on!”

I hear the bowman call out, “Thirty more strokes!” I’m phoning it in now. I give zero power to my legs, because any more exertion will put me further into an anaerobic state. I’m contributing nothing to our effort now except doing my best to maintain proper form. I’m solely trying to move my legs, my back, and my arms in sync with the other three in the boat. “Twenty more strokes!” the bowman calls.

I can’t go on. I can’t breathe. I have to stop.

Keep going.

“Ten more strokes!” I’m silently counting each stroke. Talking to myself, “I can take nine more strokes . . . Eight more strokes . . . It’s five more seconds . . . I can get there . . .”

We just edge out the other boat as the race ends. Now we shift to paddle mode, slowing the stroke rate and taking the pressure off our legs. Now that it’s over, I’m happy that my executive voice won the day, because I did get through it, and I didn’t let down the others in my boat, and I didn’t have to sheepishly admit that I’m not as aerobically fit as I would like to be.

Here’s the irony. Despite my sense that I was losing control, our boat set the club record for the fastest 3000-meter row. Then another boat broke our record the next morning. What fun!

This story illustrates what any of us goes through when we’re really afraid. We are totally alert to our present experience and simultaneously predicting a dreadful future. I had struggled because moment-by-moment I wasn’t sure if I could make it. I wasn’t even sure that promoting the “keep going” message was the smart decision. If I had passed out, it would have been the wrong decision. Yes, I was part of a competition. But the biggest competition was the battle inside my mind.

As I’m sure you already know, negative self-talk can paralyze any of us. That’s what you and I need to work on: how to win those internal battles.


Let’s take a step back and study this territory of self-talk. It will be one of your strongest assets, so we need to know how best to take advantage of it.

We tend to talk to ourselves throughout the day. Ninety-six percent of adults report some kind of inner dialogue.2 (Really? You thought you were the only one?) One-quarter of all our waking hours include some form of self-talk.3 Perhaps we are not all masters of mindfulness, but neither do we move through the day mindlessly. Setting the alarm clock, packing the gym bag, designing new marketing materials, caretaking a toddler—most of our calls-to-action are directed by a message that is at least one level higher in abstraction. “Seize the day.” “If I stay in shape, I’ll remain healthier.” “Our numbers are slumping, and I need to take some action.” “Better childproof this room!”

Some people approach everyday life with a mantra that is a manifestation of their larger frame of reference. Even a simple phrase can dictate how you respond in any given moment or situation. For some, Let go and let God—from 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you”—is a conviction they can relate to and obey. For others, the Golden Rule is the message they carry with them always: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

2 A Winsler et al, “Maternal beliefs concerning young children’s private speech,” Infant and Child

Development, 15 (2006): 403–420. 3 C. L. Heavey and R. T. Hurlburt, “The phenomena of inner experience,” Consciousness and Cognition, 17 (2008): 798–810.