With already having crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice along with having set a multitude of world records, Jason Caldwell wanted another challenge, and he didn’t have to look far.
“I live in the San Francisco/Bay area and the Pacific is my backyard, so I had to look west and wonder if I could do the Pacific Ocean as well,” Caldwell said. “It’s not a whole lot of ocean rowers that have done more than one crossing. I had done two and was looking at doing my third to be the first person, along with my teammate Angus Collins to hold world records for the Atlantic and Pacific was a pretty special thing to try and do.”
In June, the endurance athlete and his Latitude 35 team set a new world record for fastest unaided, unassisted row across the Pacific Ocean, rowing from San Francisco to Waikiki Harbor in 30 days, seven hours, and 30 minutes, which shattered the previous time of 39 days, nine hours, and 56 minutes set in 2016.
Throughout the month-long, 2,400-mile trek — know as the Great Pacific Race — the crew of Caldwell, Collins, Jordan Shuttlesworth and Duncan Roy maintained a 24-hour schedule of two hours on/off rowing and rest. The crew was tested physically, mentally, and emotionally, but nothing compared the feeling of crushing their goal together.
Caldwell explains what it takes to be a world record-breaking ocean rower and what you can expect to encounter while doing so.
THE VALUE OF TEAM
Who you surround yourself with as teammates may be most important. Make sure that you’re with the right people and not just the best people. There’s a difference and I learned that the hard way. It’s easy to focus on getting the biggest and strongest guys. You need to have the right people — those are people you trust, and people who will trust you. These are people who are selfless and are more worried about you than they are themselves, knowing that you feel the same about them.
After building the right team, things get a lot easier, but it is an uphill battle if you don’t have the right people with you. A lot of times, you don’t know what a person is capable of or who they really are until you get out there. Once you got the team that you think you need, get out there, be in those positions of stress as much as you can so that you can learn more about yourself and your teammates.
TAKE YOUR TIME WITH TRAINING
Training for this wasn’t easy nor quick. Anyone who consults with me with interest on doing their first ocean crossing, I always say you need to give yourself two years of training physically, mentally, and emotionally as well. There’s no substitution for getting out on the boat you’re going to be rowing on with the team you’ll be rowing with on the ocean. You want to get as many strokes and nights out on water as possible.
Of course, that isn’t always the case because you have teammates all over different parts of the country like myself. When you can’t be on the water with your team on the boat, you’re looking at doing a lot of cross-training. Obviously, a lot of that comes on the rowing machine for me. I’m a rower and I rowed in college. I rowed with an elite rowing team after college, so I have a big rowing background. I have a long, tumultuous history with the rowing machine: When I need to get into good shape, I spend a lot of time on it.
You also don’t want to be one-dimensional. Swimming is a big part of my training because it’s zero impact, and that saves your back and knees. I love to get in the pool and build up that cardio base and also that lean muscle mass. I also like to do trail running and lifting. I’m in the gym building up to get as big and strong as possible. A lot of people who start these ocean runs, they think it’s a license to just eat what you want, put on this artificial weight that’s fat, and that’s not the case. Most people don’t realize the fat gets burned off within the first five days. You get shocked and stressed out, seasick, and all of a sudden, that fat melts off. It’s good to have a little artificial weight, so spend the last couple of weeks before you leave eating whatever you want and putting some healthy fat on. After that, you’re relying on the lean muscle mass as a slow-burning fuel. You have to get that big dry log that just burns all day and all night and that’s what lean muscle mass is. Everyone builds lean muscle mass in different ways. I’m 6’4”, 220 pounds. I like to be in the gym, have big and strong legs, a strong core, and you have to use that back as well.
BEAUTY AND VIOLENCE
The experience really is a juxtaposition between serenity and violence. You leave from the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s a nice sunny day, the excitement is high, and you have all of this adrenaline rushing through you. The first day flies by and you don’t even feel it. It’s not about the first day, though. It’s about the 15th, the 21st and the other days. Going back to my experience, experienced ocean rowers know that you’re truly in a marathon-type setting. Settle in and get used to your new home. You’ve got nights that are nice and calm, then there are nights where whales are breaching next to you, there’s the bioluminescence and you’re looking up at the stars and you can see the Milky Way because the skies are so clear. There are beautiful moments like that — and it can change just like that. There are violent storms, rogue waves smashing into you, soaking you. You can feel dry one minute and it doesn’t take nothing but a wave to hit you, and you’re soaking wet — then you’re freezing and miserable. You can’t dry off because you’re never dry because it’s so humid, so you’re spending the next few days miserable, cold, and trying not to bring all of that moisture in the cabin.
It’s really a tale of two different stories. You have to prepare for the worst because it will happen to you. You will get smashed by waves, get seasick, get stress-fractured ribs, have sores everywhere, be so tired that you’ll be hallucinating. The other side of that is you have to learn to look up as well. My dad would remind me on the satellite phone calls to remember to enjoy what I was doing because, so few people get to do this. I’ve prepared for two years. This isn’t like a baseball, football, or basketball game where you can say we’ll get it next time around. There is no next time because it’s right there.
We broke the world record by nine days. We absolutely shattered it. Without sounding too braggadocios, halfway through the row, we knew we were going to break it. Unless some huge hurricane came, we were so far ahead of the pace, we were certain we were going to break it. We had a decision to make on do we take it down and save ourselves a little bit of pain and turmoil. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you break it in one day or by nine. You still get the world record certificate, still get all the acclaim and glory. Or do you go out and keep the pedal to the medal and go as hard as you can? That’s what our team decided to do. Halfway through, you’re already pretty beat up and it sounds good to hear that you can probably take some time off, not pull as hard and take some extra breaks. We knew this was our one chance to put a number and time out there that maybe no one would ever break or at least it will last for a very long time. We rowed on that last day as hard as we would if we were barely breaking the world record. When we came on the shores of Waikiki harbor, we knew we had left it all out in that water. That’s what I love about the sport and about my teammates.
You’re definitely running at a calorie deficit. I lost almost 30 pounds on this row. You’re not able to put in what you’re burning, and your options are limited. Seventy-five percent of our food was freeze-dried. These are meals that you’re adding hot or room-temperature water to to hydrate the food and its high calories. We also had snack packs with things we put together — like beef jerky, protein and candy bars, dry fruit — things that are fun to look forward to that are sweet and high in calories. Element was a sponsor of ours just adding that salt to the water in a tasty way, so you’re getting more salt in your diet as you’re sweating so much. After that, there’s no secret recipe to what you’re putting in your body because the options are limited, so you’re really focused on making sure you have the right amino acids, vital nutrients and that you have your macros dialed in before you leave so that when you’re out there, you’re ready to go, because it’s all going to go to s*** when you get out there and start eating.
IT’S ALL MENTAL
It’s almost all mental. The physical is very important, but it breaks down, and once that breaks down, you’re left with the mental and emotional components. You know that you’re going to go through highs and lows. There’s going to be moments where you feel like the strongest on the team and you’re having good moments. You can see days ahead and you push yourself. Those are the moments where your teammates, who might be at a down point at the time are going to need you to pull them up and be positive because you know within a few days, you’re going to be the lowest on the emotional scale and you’re going to need your teammates to pull you out of that oblivion. I think that that’s how you deal with the emotional and mental anguish. It’s not for the faint of heart.
I think people think that there’s all this glory and it there is, but I always say glory is enough to get you to the starting point, but it won’t get you through the finish line when you’re halfway through and you don’t think you can row another two hours, let alone another 10 days. It’s that shame of letting your teammates down that really gets you out of that cabin and pulling as hard as you can. That’s where having great teammates — like I’ve been fortunate enough to have on all my crossings — will get you through. You will be more scared to let them down than you will be of the elements. That right there is the key to success to any endurance team sport.
I’m definitely feeling a lot better. I think over the last few weeks, I really have made some improvements. Your body gets pretty devastated after 30 days on a 30-foot boat with three other guys being introduced to nothing but saltwater. You’re sleep deprived, malnourished, dehydrated, and you’re obviously stressed with rowing a minimum of 12 hours day. You have everything from sores all over your body to stress fractured ribs. You’re losing a ton of weight and obviously not being able to shower for over a month. That first shower goes a long way when you get into the hotel and get that fresh water on your body with some soap. From there, you’re dealing with the longer-term issues of health, like massive tendonitis in the joints of your hands from pulling on an oar handle, which is essentially one and a half million strokes to get you across the Pacific Ocean. You can imagine the stress that puts on the tendon on your hands.
I would say the tendons in my hands through my forearms took a long time to heal. I still feel them a little bit, especially when I wake up at night or in the morning and I have to stretch them out. You have issues like sores — I hope this isn’t too much information — but on your ass. You’re seated for 12 hours a day while you’re rowing, and you have saltwater along with you sweating. Those ailments take a little while and they’re humbling for sure because you’re hobbling around and sitting on pads. Right now, most of my skin has healed up and its small things now. I still don’t have some feeling in my fingertips because of nerve damage from all the pulling. Altogether, I’m happy to be home and happy for what we accomplished.
I’m walking fine now. The first few days after you feel like you’re drunk. You can’t walk in a straight line. That passes after a few days and then it’s only when you’re getting out of bed when you feel anything. This was the first week that I started working out again. Rowing is such a singular thing you do. You’re pushing off a sliding seat and you’re pulling with your back. While your back muscles, hips, and core are very strong, you don’t use your calves at all. You’re taking three steps to the seat and three steps back to the cabin and you’re not using your chest at all.
Today, to even do 10 pushups was very difficult. Nothing that you do out on that water is healthy for you; not the sleep that you’re getting and certainly not the motion that you’re rowing. Now, it’s at the part where it’s the long-term recovery and repair comes in. That’s getting back in the gym and building up those muscles that were atrophied and rolling and stretching a lot because I’m like a tight rubber band right now. I turned 39 out on that water and when I was in my 20s, I rolled my eyes at stretching and rolling. Now, I spend more time rolling and stretching than I do with anything else. I’m not what I was at 26, but I’m smarter than I was back then.