University of Vermont

155 Miles Later: Med Student Sets Records for Indoor Rowing

Certificates Granted in 2011 and 2013

At about 12:30 p.m. on January 5, 2013, second-year medical student Cornelia Willis started rowing on the machine in her apartment. She didn’t stop until 1 p.m. on January 6, breaking the world record for the longest continual row for her age group.  She also broke the record for distance traveled in 24 hours as tracked by Concept 2, the manufacturer of her machine and a standard-setter in the industry.  Her roommate, Jenna Arruda, kept a close watch, providing a steady supply of granola bars, dried fruit, even grilled salmon.

“I have an awesome roommate,” Willis said. “Without her I would not have existed the next day.”

The numbers are awe-inspiring: Willis burned over 12,000 calories. Her hands alone – pulling the “oars” on the rowing machine more than 30,000 times– travelled over 17 miles. In the end, she rowed 250,013 meters, or 155.35 miles, in 24 hours 31 minutes and 12 seconds.

And this isn’t the first world record Willis has set on a Concept 2 erg. In May of 2011, she logged the fastest time for the 100,000 meter distance. The Vermont-based company tracks records set on their machines through a combination of self-reporting – in January Willis took a photo every hour and her roommate served as witness – and tracking the ergometer attached to each machine. Concept 2 verifies records by pulling the data for a specific date and time.

When Willis isn’t on the rowing machine, she’s on the water with the best women rowers from across the country. Last year she was a member of the U.S. National Team and will be trying out again. Her sights are set on the World Championships in South Korea in September, where she hopes to once again represent the U.S. in the lightweight women’s quad.  She trains twice daily as much as possible – usually in her apartment - and when the weather is good heads to the Lamoille River in Milton. Willis recently returned from a race in Australia with her club team, and will be competing in Switzerland in July.

Willis first came to rowing as a first-year undergrad at the University of Buffalo, mostly as an outlet for stress. Now as a med student, the sport serves a similar purpose, keeping her grounded and helping her to balance the demands of med school with life outside of academics.

“I wanted to know that I could be in med school and still be who I am,” she said. “I like it because it’s my time.”

The idea to go for the record came on a long drive from Florida to Vermont. She thought – “if I can sit in a car for this long I can row for this long.” Although she didn’t tell many people about her quest for the record, her roommate spread the word as Willis got closer to breaking it.

Regarding the first few moments after 24 hours of rowing she said: “It was weird standing up, but I was surprisingly not tired,” adding: “And I still had to do homework.” Willis was in class on Monday, and back to training by Tuesday.

“My next record will be to become the first medical doctor in my family,” she said.

Willis asks those interested in supporting her to donate to either the UVM College of Medicine Sandy Hook fund or Touch Uganda, a volunteer-based organization that supports a community hospital in Bwindi, Uganda. Touch Uganda is run and supported by Vermonters, including many physicians from UVM and Fletcher Allen. They would especially appreciate donations to their next "Surgical Camp."