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Former National Team Athlete Finds Closure on Ultra-Row

BY LUKE REYNOLDS
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER, PROVIDED BY ERIK FRID

Four-time U.S. National Team member Erik Frid recently completed a 318-mile row along the Erie Canal as a way to find closure upon retiring from the sport. Frid’s row consisted of eight-days of rowing, camping, portages, and locks. Rowing News talked with Frid to find out more about his row and why he challenged himself to such a journey.  

Q: What inspired you to undertake this challenge?

A: It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Obviously, training to qualify for the Olympics during the year, and then that got delayed for a year. And, for a variety of reasons, I’m not going to continue rowing after this year so I wanted something to kind of end things on a positive note.

I’ve always thought of doing a canal row as something to end my career on. Even if trials didn’t go well I was considering it. I got the idea for it from college. I went to Ithaca College and my senior year we did a 60km row on the canal through Rochester and it was just a lot of fun. I just feel like it’s unique for rowing to have a body of water where you can go from point A to point B over several days and the water — for the most part — is safe enough and you don’t have to worry about having to run up on rocks or anything. I’ve always had an adventurous spirit to go out and do stuff like that. I’m a big history buff so the Erie Canal is definitely a historical body of water and it just felt like the right thing. Definitely challenging enough to be somewhat rewarding at the end.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the logistics of it all. You were by yourself the majority of the time, what was like that? 

A: My plan was to do the whole thing unassisted and camp every night. I abandoned the camping thing after about three nights of camping and started staying in hotels. Then my fiance came Thursday and took my stuff for Friday and Saturday which made a huge difference. I was lucky enough to have a Fluid Max single, which accommodates 243 lbs (according to the label) and since the winter when we were training I lost a lot of weight so I had a good amount to work with in terms of the boat class. So I probably had like 30lbs give or take to put gear in. I bought a waterproof bag from Amazon so I was able to put a bag in front of my feet and behind me. My fiance and I have done a lot of backpacking this summer which was great because we accumulated a lot of gear which transferred over to the row so in terms of gear it was pretty straightforward. My biggest worry was just fitting it all in. 

I definitely underestimated how much the deadweight would affect the speed. I mean singles are already somewhat heavy boats in terms of the pickup so having an extra 30-40lbs depending on how much water was in the boat definitely was killer. I don’t think I would do it unassisted again.

Q: As far day-to-day camping when did you row? Did you just pull over to the shore and pitch a tent?

A: The state of New York and the Canal Heritage Way definitely encourages people to kayak and recreate on the lake and canal, besides pleasure boaters, there isn’t really much traffic through there so they definitely like people to get their money’s worth with kayaks. They have a guidebook that kind of breaks down different parks along the way, camping sites, and points of interest. So using those materials was really helpful. I mapped out different areas where I could camp so the first night I just camped on the side of the canal – it’s pretty grassy there. And I definitely had a certain amount of meters I wanted to hit but honestly, it just got to the point — especially on the first day — where I took too long of a break so it was like 9:00p and I thought ‘I should probably stop.’ I definitely underestimated how long it would take especially when you’re going 2:50-3:00 splits. 

Most days I would start rowing around 8 AM and then stop around 8 PM with an hour or two break in the middle. I kind of realized that if you’re not rowing — very slowly — you’re wasting your time. You’re not going to crush 35km or 40km and then hang out for a couple of hours and then crush another 40km at the end of the day. You just have to take it slow and steady.

The most worrisome logistical thing was definitely ‘am I going to find a place to launch?’ and then ‘am I going to find a place to dock.’ Most of the time I could just go up on the rocks and wet launch but you know kayak docks are too high to launch from. I think it’s great that all of these communities are putting in these docks, but they’re definitely not all inclusive docks. Finding an accessible place to dock was not easy.

Q: Did you know there would be safe places to dock and launch from? Or did you just wing it?

A: I mean, honestly, the rocky shores were the best so you wouldn’t get muddy. 

Q: Were you worried about puncturing the hull?

A:
No, more just worried about scratching it. Overall, the boat looks pretty good. I mean I would definitely not suggest this to anyone who is not extremely proficient in a single. The rocks were the best unless I wasn’t wearing sandals. In that case, it was pretty easy to cut up my feet. When you get around Syracuse you start getting Zebra mussels and I definitely sliced my foot pretty bad on one of those. 

The third night I was planning on camping somewhere and then I realized that I needed to do more meters that day because the next day was just going to be too much. I was in the Montezuma Swamp and it was very muddy and there were just not a lot of great places to stop. Plus, I was in somewhat of a residential area so I was like ‘oh I can’t just camp anywhere.’ So I went on Google Maps on my phone in my boat and found a field and was like ‘okay hopefully this is a good place to stop.’ And it was okay, it was pretty muddy, and another invasive species, the water chestnut, is very thorny and I stepped on one of those in the muck. Then there was a 10ft embankment so I had to de-rig my boat. A great feature of the Fluidesign is how easy it is to de-rig so I didn’t need a sling, I’d just put my boat down in the grass. But I had to get the boat up the 10ft embankment and stagger up the embankment and pull it up. It was a real testament to Fluids. 

Q: Tell me a little more about the safety aspect of things. You mentioned you cut your foot a few times. Were you worried at all during the row? 

A: I never felt too worried. I mean the canal overall is pretty narrow and unless I were to pass out I wasn’t really worried about flipping. I think I would’ve been able to stay with my shell and wade it to shore. There were a few days where there were a few boaters around. The only dangerous part is Lake Oneida which is about 20 miles long and pretty wide. You can’t see the other side from where you start so I definitely planned the whole trip to get up early, get on the water, and take advantage of the three-hours of good water that you’ll get on it. 

It’s a western prevailing wind so I started on the west side going east but that morning I woke up and it was an eastern wind, so a headwind. So I was launching that morning and a guy, Gary, who helped others in similar situations on Oneida was there and I said ‘Welp, we’ll just see!’ 

It was windy and there were pretty light rollers and then the wind picked up and there were white caps and my boat was swamped after about a minute of rowing so I had to take it in after about 1km. Luckily, Gary was able to cartop my boat around the lake. 

So, I say I did 318 miles but I actually set out to do 338 but Lake Oneida was hit or miss so I just had to adjust. 

Aside from that, I had a stand-up paddleboard type life vest that has a CO2 cartridge in it or you can blow it up manually, and I had to wear that when I was in the locks. Overall though, I never felt unsafe. Aside from the first day where I might’ve gotten some minor dehydration and heat exhaustion it wasn’t too bad.

Q: How much water were you carrying? Did you have a hydration pack? 

A: Well, I was kind of dumb. I started out with two water bottles and then I was just going to use a Sawyer water filter but I quickly realized that it was still murky after filtering it. And those things are really only made for like mountain springs so I just started getting bottles of water and distributing them throughout the boat. Finding water was definitely a bit stressful. When I would stop I would just hope there was a water spigot. I found that sometimes they would be closed due to Covid so that would mean I’d have to walk a mile or so to the gas station. 

Q: When you stopped or pulled over for the night did you check-in with someone? 

A: Other than texting my girlfriend and parents that was pretty much it. Friday, when my family showed up, my fiance was there and then the same for the half-day I did on Saturday, it was a luxury. Not carrying stuff, having someone bring you lunch, seeing a friendly face. 

Q: What was it like transitioning from camping to staying in hotels. Did you ever think about just quitting the row altogether? 

A: Only the first or second day. It’s kind of like the first time you’re away from home where you just want your mom or your girlfriend or something like that. It was like ‘you know I could definitely always ask someone to do the eight-hour drive or whatever to come to pick me up.’  But honestly, it was probably the fact that I wasn’t going to make someone drive all the way to pick me up. At the very least, I’ll just lower my ambitions and make it three-quarters of the way or something. I also had a day built in so I could at least row into the Sunday at the end, but I didn’t have to do that thankfully. 

Q: Did you feel like you were ready physically?

A: I probably should’ve done more training, to be honest.

I would say my training was pretty laughable. I was definitely tapping into all the work I was doing in the winter and all the work of years and years of training before that. I was probably rowing about four times per week in the months leading up to it. I was working out pretty much every day just doing cardio. I probably would have faired better if I had done some training plan but that was also part of the fun of it — part of the misery.

The hardest things were just mentally getting through it. The first day or two I got like 15 or 20 blisters on my hand. So I ended up buying gloves at a gas station the third day. I have never rowed with gloves before but it was like, ‘I have to do this.’ You can only go as hard as your hands can take it and then my legs never really hurt because I was going slow enough. Your legs can go forever. It was really just my butt hurt and my back hurt pretty bad which was another benefit of going into the hotel. Just being on a mattress is worth it for your back. 

Q: You said you’re retiring from rowing. What are your plans for the future?

A: I was definitely planning on being done this year and then the pandemic started. I wanted to finish out the quadrennial. It’s kind of a sensible time to stop. 

Once the pandemic happened we had to postpone our wedding, and that wasn’t really a factor anymore but it’s just sort of tough doing the training lifestyle and just feeling like you’re putting your life on hold. My fiance and I really wanted to move to the west coast so I don’t know, it just felt like I was putting things off personally and professionally. 

If the pandemic shows you anything it’s really that you can’t mortgage your future and your personal life and, in a lot of ways, your happiness because can’t just wait for that stuff. It would’ve been great to have the Olympics, and hopefully qualify and go but sometimes you kind of realize when the finish line is extended further you have to ask ‘is this the best thing for me?’ 

I definitely knew this was the right decision but I wasn’t settled or hadn’t really emotionally processed it all and this row kind of made me feel like it was absolutely the right decision.

Lucas WILHELM and Erik FRID at the 2017 World Cup III.

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