Rivanna River Race 2010

So the second Saturday of May (May 8) 2010 rolled around and I was ready to compete with the best of them on my home river.

I am an allergy sufferer and when I showed up to the starting line that morning I found a field of freshly mowed grass and weeds.

Hmm.

As I went through my pre-race preparations I was having a hard time breathing so I started popping Loratadine and Diphenhydramine to restore my breathing.  It worked a little bit but not much.

This was another low water day, just like the week before on the Tye River, so I knew the river would be a little bony.  I lined up at the starting line and again, gave it my all my with Werner Corryvrecken paddle and Looksha IV ocean kayak.

The starting horn blew and I jumped out to an early lead but I shortly thereafter bottomed out on the first set of shallow rapids where I noticed that I seemed to stay stuck there longer than the composite kayaks just ahead of me. They seemed to skim off the rocks with greater ease as their paddlers arm-pushed their way through the rapids.

My arm pushing off the river bottom seemed less efficient.

I paddled my hardest and was suffering a major allergy episode and had a very hard time catching my breath.  At one point I spoke out loudly to myself, “this is pointless.”

I realized I had no chance of winning the race and at that point settled into the fastest pace I could comfortably maintain.  I was having a hard time breathing and my throat was so dry that I was almost constantly sipping my 50/50 mixture of water and Gatorade.

As I neared the end of the race, I saw Konrad’s Speeder ahead of me.  He had loaned it to another paddler and I was starting to hate the sight of that boat ahead of me after two weeks being behind it.

I started closing distance between me and the Speeder as I noticed that paddler was starting to show signs of fatigue.

I then made this race all about catching up to The Speeder.

I pushed as hard as I could and continued to close the gap but just couldn’t catch up…that is, until the very end of the race.

Jeff C. in The Speeder got caught up on a rock in the very last rapid before the finish line and I tried to take advantage by paddling as hard as I could but as much as I tried, I fell just short of catching him and passing him at the end of the race.

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I finished tied for 6th place overall, last in my division of “fast” kayaks, and slower than some boats that on paper should have been slower than me.

Again, I made mental notes of how the fastest boats made of fiberglass and some secret, “Carbonlite,” by Eddyline kayaks, seemed to skim off the rocks easily as my plastic, ocean kayak seemed to “stick” to rocks.

I got off the river determined to figure out what it would take to win next time.

I started shopping for a new kayak immediately.

Photo presentations of 2010 Rivanna River Race

My video from the race.

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2010, The year I started to take things seriously

So Spring 2010 rolled around and I had, what I thought at the time, was a very fast boat and I had been paddling a lot to get in shape.  Full of overconfidence and cockiness, I went back to the Nelson Downriver Race on the Tye River the first Saturday In May, 2010 to cruise down the river at blazing speed and take top honors.  Right?

Oh, ignorance is indeed bliss.

As luck would have it, rain was sparse that Spring and the river level was very low so the race organizers moved the race to a lower section of the Tye River, starting about two miles above the confluence with the James River and then the race would continue down the James to Wingina, VA.  What I did not realize yet at that time was that this meant this was going to be largely a flatwater race.

I paddled as hard as I could and was disappointed with a second-place finish in my category of K1, Male Downriver.  Although I was less than two minutes behind the first place paddler in my division, I was not happy and even more humbled by the times of the top, overall paddlers.

Me pushing hard for a respectable, but disappointing finish.

I was more than 6 minutes slower than the top paddlers and my tiny little brain had a hard time processing this.

Once again I looked at boat design and construction at the finish line and noted that while my boat was one of the longest ones in the race, it was made of plastic and was heavier than some of the top finishers.  The winning boat was a couple feet shorter but made of fiberglass and another was shorter, a Pyranha Speeder, and made of plastic, but of a sleeker, more racing-oriented design.  Yep, that was my buddy Konrad in that Speeder and he took second place overall, 4 minutes behind the overall winner.  I also noticed that both of them were using something called a wing paddle.  I did not know what that was other than the fact that these paddles “scooped” water.

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Konrad in his Speeder with wing paddle.

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Tom with his wing paddle and odd boat made out of fiberglass and of weird design.

My brain worked on this as I prepared for the real race that I wanted to win  the following weekend, The Rivanna River Race in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA.

This was also the first year I started putting cameras on my boat so I can happily share this Tye River/Nelson Downriver Race experience with you all these years later.

 

Wye Island Regatta race and my first ocean kayak

As the weeks and months passed after my first solo kayak race on the Tye River, I realized that I needed a faster boat if I was going to truly compete with some of the top, local paddlers.  I began my search for a fast ocean kayak.

 

It did not take long for a used Necky Looksha IV to show up on Craigslist and it seemed to fit the bill.  A skinny (at least I though so at the time at 22.5″ wide), fast ocean kayak was just the ticket I needed!  I paid the man his money and was driving home with a real 17′ long ocean kayak.  Nothing could stop me now!

Once again, kayaking buddy Konrad told me about yet another race.  This one was the Wye Island Regatta up in Maryland.  It is primarily a rowing event but it also has a kayak race component to it.  It was to be a roughly 12-mile race around Wye Island in the Chesapeake Bay.  I, of course, said yes, and then realized that maybe some training would be a good idea since that would be the longest race I had ever attempted.

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So I hit the local reservoir and paddled as fast as I could as much as I could.  I was in awe of how fast this boat was and how much better it glided with the same paddling effort.  At some point I realized the type of paddle I used probably had some impact so I went out and bought myself the paddle with the largest blade surface I could find since I figured that would grab the most water.  So with a brand new Werner Corryvrecken paddle, I trained and prepared for my first flat water race.

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Race day came and I was excited.  I was confident that I was unstoppable.

I came in second in a field of three in my specific category that day, less than 3 minutes behind the top place finisher.   I felt good about that but again, I started paying more attention to the types of boats that other people used.  My boat measured in at just under 17′ long so I raced in the recreational single category. As I walked around the launch area prior to and after the race, I saw all types of boats.  Many of them were longer and skinnier than mine and some were made out of what I thought were weird materials.  Fiberglass. Kevlar.  Even carbon fiber.  Who were these people and why did they own such exotic boats?

Konrad did well that day in the Fast Touring Single category.  He took second in his category but his time was a full 10 minutes faster than mine.  This was a race on flat water so reading a river and avoiding obstacles had no impact on time.  This was a flat out speed race and, clearly, maybe there was more to this boat design/construction thing than I thought.  I thought I’d be the fastest thing on water and the times posted in the top kayak category, Racing Singles, were some 30 minutes faster than my time.

wyeisland2010Konrad & I paddling back in after the race

Once again, I took mental notes but still figured that the best paddler always wins regardless of boat type–as long as one paddled with a boat very similar to others.

I was never more right and more naive at the same time.

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My first solo kayak race

My first solo kayak race was actually not on my local river.  Paddling buddy Konrad told me about another race on the Tye River in Nelson County, VA which is about an hour away and I went with him the first Saturday in May, 2009 not knowing what to expect.

I paddled my Old Towne Loon kayak and I felt an old mix of excitement and nervousness at the starting line.  (Since this race I’ve seen true paddlers actually throw up just before a race due to nerves, and I suspect that even recreational paddlers who do not intend to compete whatsoever feel a little twinge of nerves when they line up at a starting line.)  I had that same feeling in my stomach and I really had no idea why.  Sure, I was there to race, but I wasn’t really a serious racer with any hope of actually posting a good time.

The Tye River is a beautiful river and the race section is mostly isolated from civilization except for a few homes, farms and camps.  It has the feel of a true mountain stream with several sets of challenging Class II-III rapids.  Nothing life-threatening for a novice, but just enough to have to take it seriously and make good decisions.

I paddled as fast as I could that day and tried to read the river and pick the best lines and felt a sense of accomplishment as I crossed the finish line.

I came in second in a class of 2 so I walked away with a somewhat meaningless medal, but when I looked at the top times in the overall race across categories, I had actually posted a respectable time which surprised me.

Unfortunately, my time was about 15 minutes faster than Konrad’s and I didn’t feel so good knowing I had posted a better time than the guy who introduced me to the race.  He was gracious, though, and very encouraging.

It was this race where I started to notice a few things.  #1, the older paddlers actually seemed to do better than the young bucks and, #2 the winners seemed to have long, ocean kayaks.  It was just an observation at this point, but I was slowly starting to figure a few things out.

NelsonDR2009Nelson Downriver Race, Tye River, Virginia 2009

2007, My very first kayak race

My first kayak race was in the Spring of 2007 on our local river, The Rivanna.  I was paddling with my paddling buddy, Konrad, one day when he asked me if I was going to paddle in the upcoming local race.  I had no idea what he was talking about and he explained that this was to be Year #2 for a local, 6.2-mile river race.  I laughed because I thought he was joking.

After a little more conversation I realized Konrad was serious.

As race day approached, I found out there was a parent-child division so I decided I was take our oldest son with me.  He had already been out with me several times in our Loon 138 kayak and he enjoyed it.  With its extra large cockpit, I was able to seat him in front of me on a block of minicell foam and still have plenty of room.

I knew nothing about kayak racing, mind you.

When the race started, I paddled like crazy at first but then decided to just paddle moderately hard but steady for the rest of the race.  I figured that even if I wasn’t the best paddler that if I kept paddling without ever stopping that probably gave me an advantage.  This is a concept I still apply to this day.

Well, Josh and I won the parent-child race that day which came with a nice trophy and $50.

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The following year I took our daughter for the same race and won it with her, too.  So you can only image the pressure the third year I raced it with our youngest son.  His older bother and sister each had a trophy so if I didn’t get one for him it would be a huge disappointment and we would probably have to try again next year.  Besides, I was ready to race in the men’s solo division by this point and I didn’t like the idea of delaying that by at least another year.

Fortunately I won with Ben that year so I was three for three in three years in the parent-child division.

I was hooked.  I was also ready to compete solo next year.

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My most recent race, James River Rundown 2015

June 28, 2015 was my most recent race and it was also the longest race I’ve ever attempted.  The James River Rundown in Central Virginia was in its second year this past summer and in addition to a repeat of the inaugural 100-mile race begun in 2014, they added a 20-mile and a 40-mile race this year.

Since I had not trained for or ever attempted a 100-mile race before, I thought it more sensible to enter one of the shorter races to see how it would go.  Since I’ve raced half marathons before and the 20-miler was not all that much more, I figured the 40-miler would be a good test to see how a longer race is and then size-up the situation to maybe enter the 100-miler next year.  It was long enough to push the limits beyond anything I had attempted before yet short enough that if I couldn’t make a race out of it I could at least paddle it casually and not be stuck on the river for an entire day (or night!)

Boat selection.

Now there is an interesting dilemma.  How do you choose a boat for a section of river you’ve never paddled before?

Lots of time on Google Earth, of course.

After my virtual scouting of the river and reading some of the discussion on the race’s website forum, I decided against taking my 21′ Kevlar marathon racing kayak in favor of a plastic racing/training boat that would provide a good combination of speed, stability and durability in the chance of confrontations with rocks.  The Cobra Viper kayak was the selected boat.

The morning was beautiful and the paddling was great.  The river was at a high level due to rain the day before and the 7am start at Cartersville, VA allowed me to paddle in the shade from shoreline trees for the first couple hours to avoid heat and direct sunlight.  Paddling in the heat of sunshine saps energy quickly and can also pose physical dangers when pushing your physical limits for hours.

I hung back for a few seconds when the starting gun fired and then quickly broke into a brisk paddling cadence.  It was faster than I knew I could sustain, but I thought I might be able to bait a few of the other racers into get off to a quick sprint with me so I could size them up and figure out what my strategy would be for the rest of the race.

It didn’t take more than a quarter mile or so to work my way to the front of the pack and then I had a choice to make.  Settle into a sustainable marathon pace or push it hard for a little while longer to send a message and put everyone on notice.

I decided to put everyone on notice.

Maybe a little demoralization was what they needed to not attempt to catch me.

By mile #3 I could not see anyone behind me so I knew I had put a sizable gap between myself and the rest of the pack.  Now I settled into a sustainable pace not knowing  if it was fast enough to maintain the gap or if I burned too much energy too soon and would hit the wall later in the race.

A little bit about nutrition here, and I will go into in this in much more detail in further posts.

I have been experimenting with various different type of diets (that means what I eat, not restricting calories) for the past couple years and put myself into a state of dietary ketosis prior to the race.  Dietary ketosis is when you switch your body over from burning carbohydrates to burning fats for energy.  Again, much more about this way of eating in future posts, but the nutrition I took with me for this race was beef jerky and almonds along with plenty of water and Nuun tablets.  No sugar. No grains. No goos. No sports drinks.  My body felt like a well-oiled machine for the entire race and I was able to keep up a fairly brisk pace.  I never did hit the wall.

One of the more interesting aspects of this particular race is that at one point, the river splits into several different channels going around several islands.  These islands are long enough that you don’t really know if you chose the fastest route and you don’t know if a different paddler chose a different channel that was faster and he or she got ahead of you.

I emerged from the islands and saw some paddlers ahead of me.  Shoot! At least one or two boats got ahead of me somehow.  The weird thing was, I was able to pick up my pace and close in on these other boats very quickly.  It turns out, they just happened to be recreational paddlers out there that day and were not participating in the race.

Toward the end of the race near Richmond, VA, I spotted one of the safety boaters in a power boat going upstream.  He then circled back and was coming past me from behind.  I yelled out to him and asked if there were close paddlers behind me and he informed me that the nearest competitor was at least two miles behind.  I got a giant smile on my face and knew I just had to stay upright and not do anything stupid for the remaining few miles.

Alas, I glided across the finish line and onto the boat ramp and was informed that I was the first 40-miler in.  Wow!  Success in my first big race.  My lower back was very sore but otherwise I felt fine and actually a bit energized.

Official time: 5 hrs, 2min, 15 minutes ahead of the second place paddler.  My GPS clocked me at 4hrs, 54 min moving time, which did not include a short bio break and an inadvertent landing and disembarkment on the wrong dock before the actual finish line.

100-miler, I’m looking at you next year.

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My support crew met me at the finish line

Watch my race video:

The early beginnings

Summer camp as a kid growing up in the 1970’s provides some of my best memories. The very best memory was at the waterfront where once one proved one’s self competent first in a rowboat, then a canoe, you could then move up to a solo kayak.  Freedom!  I think kayaks are like the guitars of watercraft.  Pianos are OK, brass instruments are kinda cool, but guitars rule the land.  Kinda like the pecking order of rowboats, canoes and kayaks.

Camp Laurel Wood outside of Ligonier, PA laid the early foundation for my love of kayaks and kayaking.

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The quarter mile that woke me up

My youngest son was in elementary school and was one of the fastest runners in his class.  During his PE class, the gym instructor had the boys and girls race and the fastest among them would qualify for a local, charity track competition.

My son, Ben, qualified and couldn’t sit still for days leading up to the track event.  He was so excited!

He talked me into running the Parent-Child relay with him.  Each of us would run one lap around the track and the fastest parent-child team would win.

That’s easy, right?  I mean, I ran track in high school and even though I hadn’t run at anything near full speed in a decade, this would be easy.  One lap. One quarter mile.  I was in relatively good shape and much skinnier than other men in their mid-40’s.  No biggie.

Ready-Set-Go!

I started running and felt good.  1/4 lap, 1/2 lap, then 3/4 lap and I noticed I was running out of steam and slowing down.  Wow, this was going to be more of a challenge than I thought.

I toughed it out and ran through the finish line completely exhausted.  I felt a little twinge in my left knee and then soon had a hard time walking properly.  As I limped my way up into the aluminum bleachers at the high school stadium to sit down and relax, I could not believe the pain I was experiencing in my left leg.

The pain lasted weeks and I tried all types of creams, knee braces, ice, and anything else I could think of.  This silly little one-lap run around a track caused some serious pain that lasted weeks.

It was a wake up call.

Sadly, it wasn’t the only one I needed.