#JamesRiverRundown #DaveTheKayaker #James River Rundown
Konrad and I got a late start out of town on Friday, June 10, headed to James River State Park. We were hoping for a 3:30pm departure, but it was closer to 6pm.
We rolled into our cabin slightly before 8pm to find ourselves 2 doors away from Dave S. and his family and in between us was the cabin where several of the James River Riverkeepers were staying.
The State Park had become a village of paddlers that night.
The setting was beautiful and I managed to snap a few photos of the lovely sunset before we unpacked and headed on to the boat ramp to check out the situation.
Sunset on the porch of the cabin the night before the race
I had packed most all of my gear into a plastic storage bin during the week so I would have everything in place and ready to go come race day. Steadily I started unpacking my gear and soon it was strewn over the furniture in the cabin; the kitchen table, the coffee table, one of the sofas in the living room, and the table on the cabin deck. And it wasn’t even really all that much stuff. It just spread easily.
I then started to prepare my boat for the next day’s race.
First I placed two CamelBak water bladders into the rear hatch of my kayak. I had installed two sections of Vinyl tubing from the rear hatch, through the bulkhead, and into the cockpit area during the week, so now I simply pulled the drinking valves off the CamelBak water bladder hoses, installed them on the cockpit end of the Vinyl tubing, and then connected the ends of the CamelBak hoses to my the stern ends of the tubing using plumbing connectors.
This hydration system would allow me to have two full bladders of water in the rear hatch of my kayak and have them plumbed all the way to the cockpit where I could drink from them quickly and easily without having to reach for anything, which would save time and effort during the race. Placing the bladders as far back in the stern hatch as they would go would also help distribute the weight in the kayak to make it float and handle better.
Next I attached the lights onto my boat to be legal for night paddling. A white RoadID all-weather, waterproof bicycle light on the stern and then red and green ones on the port and starboard bow along with a waterproof diving flashlight that I could easily reach to turn on when night fell.
With the rigging of the boat complete, I turned my attention to everything I would take with me in the boat and what I would supply with Konrad, as he had volunteered to crew for me and meet me at boat ramps along the way.
Mandatory to carry onboard was a small first aid kit, 1 gallon of water, mobile phone with emergency number programmed in, and a spare paddle. I also threw in some duct tape just in case. I took my carbon fiber Fenn III wing paddle as a backup paddle and soon realized I paid more for my backup paddle than I paid for my boat. And my main paddle was another 100% carbon fiber wing paddle made to my own specifications. My paddles were light but everything else—including the boat—was heavy.
I had three pre-prepared zipper lock bags of food ready to go. One would start with me in the boat and the two others were to be carried by Konrad in a cooler and given to me at the two checkpoints along the way if I needed them. Konrad and I had arranged for him to meet me at Scottsville and Cartersville, approximately 1/3 and 2/3 of the way into the race, to replenish my water & electrolytes and hand me my food bags if I needed them.
All three bags had identical contents: raw almonds, beef jerky, one Epic bar, and a MusclePharm Combat Crunch bar. This last item was to be a decadent treat to myself for reaching milestones along the race. Being a baked protein bar with 20grams of protein and 5g of sugar each, I found these bars to be some of the “cleanest” protein bars on the market even though I avoid almost all sugars and grains as I adhere ~95% to an NSNG lifestyle (NSNG=no sugars, no grains.) My personal trainer, Vinnie Tortorich, taught me this healthy way of living and it works especially well for endurance sports. The almonds and beef jerky were to be my main fuel source. Protein and good fat.
I had experimented with Combat Crunch and Epic bars for a few weeks leading up to the race to make sure they didn’t upset my stomach. The Epic bars contain 6 or less grams of sugar each. Again, I do not normally eat anything with sugar, but I had experimented with these so I knew they would provide me plenty of protein and a bit of a glycogen replenishment without throwing my stomach out of whack. When paddling more than 12 hours on a hot day, the relatively small amount of sugar did not concern me. Plus my plan was to space each of these bars out by at least two hours of constant paddling. I would try to save these and reward myself with a Combat Crunch bar each at Scottsville and Cartersville and consume the Epic bars only when and if I needed them.
I also carried a 28-ounce water squeeze bottle with me in the cockpit with a dissolved Nuun electrolyte tablet containing zero sugar. My plan was to drink mostly water through my hydration system but sip on the electrolyte solution in the squeeze bottle sporadically.
I live my life in a fat-adapted state most of the time and the week leading up to the race I clamped down on the diet even more and restricted carbohydrates to put myself into a state of dietary ketosis. This was exactly the physiological state I wanted to be in for the race. My body got into ketosis on Wednesday before the race. I could literally taste it without the need for any fancy blood monitors or ketone test strips. I know the taste and I recognize it immediately.
I’m never more than two or three days away from being able to get into dietary ketosis. This is a state where the body stops using glycogen (from sugars) for fuel and creates ketone bodies and metabolizes fat (either ingested or stored) for energy. In my experience, this is a much better fuel source for long paddling trips or long bike rides as it removes the need for constant fueling with sugars and greatly reduces the odds of bonking. Further, I believe that sugars and grains have many other detrimental effects on the body, especially insulin spikes and resultant fat storage.
But that’s just me and I’m not a doctor.
After checking out the boats already dropped off and waiting at the starting line boat ramp, including a couple of Epic V7 surf skis and a Stellar surf ski, I knew there was serious competition in town and resigned myself to the fact that I would not be one of the lead paddlers the next day. With those boats already there at the starting line the night before, who knew what additional fast boats would show up in the morning?
Boats at the starting line
We headed back to the cabin, played our guitars for a short while, and then off to bed I went.
I did not sleep very well that night. Too much excitement and anticipation for my first 100-mile paddling experience.
Race morning came and I was up at 5am. Just like most mornings, I went straight to the coffee maker to make myself a cup of black coffee. Then I prepared bacon and eggs and my pre-race meal was three eggs and three strips of bacon. A tried and proven endurance meal for me.
I then performed final preparations at the boat ramp and launched slightly before 7am for the 7 o’clock start at James River State Park.
Launching from the boat ramp at James River State Park before the start of the 100-mile raceKonrad helping me while Paddling Buddy Dave and I launch
My strategy was to start off moderately slow and then work up to a moderately fast pace that I could maintain over many hours. My only goal was to complete the race in my Prijon Beluga kayak, a fast, short plastic kayak but a joke when compared to lightweight composite materials and/or surf skis designed for speed. I was there simply to complete my first 100-miler and I was in the Elite division which meant I was going to paddle through the night without stopping to camp or sleep so I bought a boat that was nice and stable yet still somewhat fast.
Some other guy enjoying his Prijon Beluga kayak
I bought this boat used just a few weeks prior and it did not take long to become comfortable with it as it is much more stable than my other racing boats. The Beluga is somewhat fast, but very comfortable and forgiving. I hoped that I would have enough comfort to complete the whole race but also enough speed so I would not have to paddle all through the night in a slug. I also bought the boat because I did not want to burn the energy it would take to balance a tippy, racing boat for 100 miles nor did I think my back could handle the upright, rigid posture it takes to keep a skinny boat upright for so long. I also didn’t want to beat up an expensive boat on rocks.
If surf skis are Lamborghinis (generally 18-23′ long and 17-18″ wide,) ocean kayaks are muscle cars (17-19′ long and 20-24″ wide,) and recreational kayaks are full-sized, heavy-duty pickup trucks (9-16′ long and 24″ wide or wider,) then the Prijon Beluga I was paddling was a Dodge Dart at 14’3″ long and 23.6″ wide. Small, not terribly fast, but somewhat sporty and comfortable.
The start of the 100-mile race
The race began and two racers on surf skis, my training partner Dave S. (Epic V7) and Mike M. (Stellar SR surf ski,) jumped out to a fast start and they soon put distance between them and the rest of the racers.
Trying to separate myself from the main pack very early in the race
In fact, all of the other boats were ahead of me at the start as I hung back a bit as an intentional reminder to myself that this was a marathon, not a sprint. I wanted to embed thought that in my mind so I wouldn’t paddle too fast too soon and not make the entire distance. I was forcing myself to deal with a new paradigm for me: conserve energy for the long haul, don’t make this an all-out sprint. At the distances I’d paddled before, the thought was always all-out speed with only a few strategic periods of marathon pace to catch my breath.
This race was very different.
So I started out at the rear of the pack.
I soon passed most of the boats immediately in front of me and then found myself paddling with Joe F. and Rod P. for most of the first 14 miles. These are great guys. Rod, a veteran of canoe adventure racing in his custom, 8-layer Kevlar racing canoe, and Joe, a 70-year-old relative newbie to kayak racing who was paddling his Epic V7 surf ski.
Joe, me, and Rod leading the main pack, well behind the two leaders who
jumped out to an early, big lead.
Joe and Rod got out in front of me a bit somewhere around mile 11 and created some distance between us and I made the decision to catch up to them, so I pushed hard a little bit earlier in the race than I originally wanted to. I caught up with them and we chatted for a while and had pleasant conversation as we paddled a couple miles together.
I remember calling out mile #13.1 to them since I was the only one with a GPS and mile 13.1 was significant because it marked a half-marathon length.
By mile 15 I had pulled out in front of them and created some distance between us. They slowly faded out of sight behind me and I was not to see them again on the river that day, but at the time I did not know that. They were both strong paddlers and I fully expected to see them both again.
So then I knew I was in third place and I kept looking over my shoulder to see if Rod and Joe were catching up but I could not see them. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be wild if I actually placed in the top three paddlers?!”
An arrogant, crazy thought so early in the race I quickly told myself.
I paddled by myself with no other racers in sight for most of the rest of the day.
The lingering thought in my head for many, many miles was, “Could I actually steal a top three placing in this race?”
I figured by this point in the race the boats separated themselves according to universal boat design and construction laws and resulting pecking order, now it was up to the paddlers to determine the outcome. Who was in the best physical condition? Who had the best strategy? Who had the best land support? Who had the mental toughness to prevail?
Although I was only expecting to see Konrad at the Scottsville and Cartersville check points, he managed to be at just about every boat ramp along the way to keep tabs on me and see if I needed water or food. For this level of support I will be eternally grateful.
The first time I spotted him was well before checkpoint #1 and I felt as though I had an angel watching over me.
I now can’t help but think about how boring a day that must have been for Konrad. Driving to a boat ramp to wait hours for me just to drive to the next one and do it again. Rinse and repeat.
Several times I just paddled close to shore and chatted with him for a minute as I paddled by and told him what my average speed was and that I wasn’t going to stop and that I didn’t need anything.
I knew I had the best land support crewing for me, so all the other variables…physical conditioning, strategy, and mental toughness…fell solely on me.
It was a very hot day in the middle 90-degrees F. Late morning, I started dunking my bandana in the river to soak it and then placed it on my head under my hat to try to keep cool and cover my ears and the back of my neck to protect against the sun. I think I had to repeat the process every 20 minutes or so because I was generating so much heat and the sun was so hot the bandana dried quickly. This went on for hours. This little bandana dance, however, kept me cool and prevented sunburn.
It wasn’t fashionable, but the wet bandana method was effective
Other strategies implemented throughout the duration of the race varied:
- My wife gave me a sun stick which I kept in my PDF pocket and applied it to my nose, ears, shoulders, arms, cheeks, and neck several times. Think of a sun stick as a glue stick made out of sunscreen. It allowed me to protect against the sun without making my hands slippery when I applied it.
- Although I knew my hands were blistering, I never removed my paddling gloves to inspect the damage. I didn’t want to know and I didn’t want to dwell on blisters. I also didn’t want to waste time struggling to put wet gloves back on.
- When I started feeling fatigue and knew my cadence was slowing and paddle angle dropping, I concentrated on ensuring I used a higher paddling angle and focused on torso rotation to get the maximum efficiency out of each and every stroke.
- At numerous points, when the water sped up I slowed down and when the water slowed down, I sped up.
- At other points when the water sped up I put out near-maximum effort just to switch things up and at least feel like I was created more distance between me and the next person behind me even if I wasn’t. I had no way of knowing.
- I constantly did math problems in my head, looking at my GPS readings and calculating how long it would take me to get to the next boat ramp and how long it would take to complete the race.
- I also skirted the shore line during the mid-day hours as much as I could to try to find some shade to stay out of the heat regardless of where the best channel on the river was.
I know my body and when I get overheated, my brain doesn’t work very well and I become irritable. It is as if heat shuts down some of my brain cells so I’m only functioning with half my computing power.
So I slowed down a bit during the heat of mid-day to stay a little bit cooler and conserve some brain power for later. I also figured if there is such a thing as mental toughness then it must come from the brain and that must be preserved for the late stages of the race. Brilliant reasoning, don’t you think?
At one point this “seek the shade” strategy paid unexpected dividends.
I was paddling under some trees on the right side of the river and not too far ahead I spotted an American Bald Eagle on a protruding tree branch. I slowed my paddling and then just glided toward the majestic bird to see how close I could get. I ended up closer than I had ever been to an eagle in the wild and was able to capture the moment on my action cam. That incident refreshed me and got my juices going again.
I stopped at the Scottsville checkpoint and got out of the boat to stretch my legs and refill my water as planned. Konrad helped fill my water bladders and squeeze bottle but I did not need any more food so I did not grab one of the food baggies I had pre-prepared. I had munched on some almonds and beef jerky but didn’t touch either of the protein bars. I was back in the boat and paddling again within two or three minutes of landing. Shortly thereafter I rewarded myself with one of the Combat Crunch bars. It was like a party in my mouth. River decadence.
Me, Rod and Joe at Check point #1, Scottsville
The thought of a 3rd place finish kept me highly motivated for most of the race, but as I pulled into the second mandatory checkpoint at Cartersville (mile #62,) I noticed #2 paddler, Mike, on shore in a lawn chair taking a break. At first I thought he was a hallucination until he started talking to me.
He mentioned that he was very tired and fatigued both from the heat and from balancing his new surf ski for so many miles and that he now was thinking that my plan of choosing a slower but more comfortable and stable boat might have been a good idea. He also mentioned that he might write an article about the trade-off between speed and stability when it comes to kayaks and surf skis. I commiserated with him that you truly can’t have it all in one boat and that I was hoping to be the proverbial tortoise in this race.
It was also at that moment I realized that at least one person reads this blog because that was the only way he could have known my pre-race strategy and the rationale behind my boat selection. This blog now has a documented audience of one.
I felt terrible for Mike because he had paddled such a strong race but did not look like he was in good shape. I left the boat ramp within a minute or two while Mike stayed on shore trying to recover.
I kept looking for Mike over my shoulder from that point on, fully expecting him to pass me once he was rested and back on the water. I was just hoping that others would not catch up and pass me also. I was growing tired and was not able to keep up a solid, fast pace.
I found out after the race that Mike suffered heat stroke and DNF’ed at mile 93. Heartbreaking.
The day got dark and I paddled into the night.
I was thankful for my stable boat as I dealt with some riffles and small rapids in the darkness.
The sound of rapids up ahead in the darkness is quite intimidating, but I knew the river and was at one with my boat at this point so my mind was mostly at ease.
There was some kind of bug hatch on the river that night—I think Stoneflies—and they seemed attracted to the green light on the right side of my bow and they flew up and hit me in the face repeatedly as they swarmed the light. Every time I took a stroke on the left side, I could hear my right paddle blade striking these bugs in mid-air. The first time a fish jumped to eat one, the fish hit the side of my boat which both startled me and brought me back to full attention, a state I hadn’t been in for at least an hour or two. The water got wide and slow and I just kept paddling until I got to the finish line at midnight.
The last two miles felt like they……..consumed……..eternity.
When I crossed the finish line I had covered the 100 miles in 16 hours and 52 minutes. A very respectable time, I thought, although I was shocked to learn it was midnight. For some reason, I thought it was somewhere between 10:30 and 11pm, but that was only a guess since I could not see my GPS screen in the darkness so I couldn’t do any more math after nightfall.
Not looking the greatest as I got to the finish line at midnight
Konrad was waiting for me at the finish line and so was my friend and training partner, Paddling Buddy Dave, who had won the race in record time. I thought he would have been in bed for an hour or two by then, but he and his wife stayed at the boat ramp waiting for me to finish. More good friends, I thought.
Paddling Buddy Dave
When I was informed that nobody got ahead of me and that I was the #2 finisher, I was so excited to take second place, but I was even more excited that my training partner and I finished #1 and #2 in this 100-mile race.
My time was 30 minutes faster than last year’s solo winner.
These things tend to get very competitive over time.
Me and Paddling Buddy Dave at the end of a long race
It should be noted that after the race, I washed off as best I could using an outdoor hose and then an indoor sink and then crawled into the back of my truck to sleep for a few hours. When I woke up way too early the next morning, I drove the the nearest restaurant I could find open that early and ate bacon and eggs with black coffee and plenty of water. That was it. No food binge, no “refeeding,” nothing out of the usual. Just a regular breakfast and I was on track with my nutrition. Eating #NSNG and being fat adapted is actually quite remarkable.
With some more rest, time, and reflection…and some thought about a new boat…I’ll make a decision at some point as to whether to come back to the James River Rundown next year and maybe even take it up to the next level and paddle the 140.
If you’ve got a good, fast kayak (preferably used) that can survive some rocks in a downriver marathon, then I’m all ears. Contact me. I’m especially interested in a used SRS Laser, Stellar SR, WSBS TRex or Marauder, Vajda Hawx 46 or new Pyranha Octane 175 or similar.
There. Now you know my wish list. Sponsorships welcomed.
My race video from the James River Rundown 2016. I’m in the red kayak toward the back of the pack across the starting line telling myself, “marathon, not a sprint!”
Other paddlers finishing Sunday morning
#PaddlingBuddyDave and I on our last training run prior to the #JamesRiverRundown.