Pittsburgh Paddlesport Championships 2019: Lessons and a challenge for you

This race is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society and for the second year in a row I was the top fundraiser come race morning.

Did I say “I?”

I meant “we.”

I split the proceeds from my DIY kayak ergometer plan sales 50/50 for the weeks leading up to the race and that, combined with my entry fee, friends and family sponsoring me for the race, and single-dollar donations via this website, we managed to raise $294 for the American Cancer Society.

I thank you for helping me make this tiny little website a place where we can help make a difference. You guys rock! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!!


Challenge: I challenge everyone who enters this race in the future to make it about raising money for cancer research. We can pay an entry fee to race just about anywhere, but why not reach for something bigger and raise money for a good cause? In fact, you may still make a donation to ACS on my behalf for this year’s race and I encourage you to do so.

My original plan was to head up north for the weekend with both the Stellar SEL and Thunderbolt-X boats and decide on race morning which boat to use based on conditions, but as last week came to a close, I started to think about that second boat and how it would be a hassle and become a liability and generally more trouble than it was worth.

So when I decided to choose just one boat, I chose the Thunderbolt-X.

I figured if the weather was bad and/or the water choppy, I would feel more comfortable in that boat even though I really wanted to use the SEL. I just didn’t want to leave the “other” boat on the top of my truck in a major city. Plus I have a boat cover for the Thunderbolt-X which is not a small thing when transporting a boat at highway speeds for 11 or 12 hours over the course of the weekend.

Additionally, the Thunderbolt-X is color-appropriate for Pittsburgh: black and gold.


The Thunderbolt-X all ready to race

Lesson #1: If you have to choose between two boats for a race, choose the one with which you are most familiar and comfortable. It is better to err on the side of caution. You can always go back next year with a different boat.

This race allowed me to head back to my original home town of Pittsburgh, PA after work on Friday and the 5-1/2 hour drive to “Da Burgh” was delightfully uneventful as I looked forward to spending a weekend with my parents. We had a great weekend visiting and getting caught-up with each other.

After eating out together for my pre-race dinner Saturday night (my dinner consisted of beef brisket, sausage, chicken and broccoli for just the right combination of fat and protein,) we started driving around my old hometown to compare notes as to what has changed and reminisce a bit.

I won’t share all the details, but part of that included a trip to Penn State, New Kensington, where I had attended my first 2 two years of college while still living at home now some 30 years ago. My parents told me they’ve never seen the campus so there was only one thing to do and that was to drive there together.

Once we got there we discovered there is a Nittany Lion statue, just like the one on the main campus in State College. We posed for pictures and I decided to take her for a test paddle.


Dad and mom pose with the Nittany Lion


Boat review; Penn State Nittany Lion statue: She has rock-solid stability with virtually no rocker. She is fast and fierce, but becomes an anchor on the flats and in the shallows. And in all other water, too, for that matter.

On the morning of the race, I grabbed what has become my preferred pre-race meal: A double side order of eggs and bacon from Burger King with a large cup of black coffee along with plenty of water.

Shortly after I arrived at the boat ramp for the race right across the street from Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, I sat down on a wall in a shady spot next to these two ladies who planned to race a recreation, plastic, tandem kayak.



Seeking some pre-race shade and meeting two fun women

They are now my two favorite paddlers.

This was their first race and they were understandably nervous, especially when they saw so many surfskis staged at the boat ramp. They were a bit apprehensive so I tried to talk with them and give them some assurances and answer their questions.

I explained to them they were not competing with the racing skis, rather they were competing with other tandem females in recreational, plastic kayaks and that races usually have categories defined such that you are only competing against people in similar boats. I further explained that they were the only women there so far in a tandem, plastic kayak so the odds were good they were in 1st place already if they simply finished the race.

They told me they used coaches to prepare for the race and their support crew all had matching shirts so I assumed they were actually fairly serious and had a sponsor. Probably a financial institution, professional firm or accounting practice I figured.

After the race I finally broke down and asked them what their team shirts stood for.

They explained to me their shirts were printed to mean: “Not To Be…Dead Friggin’ Last.”

LOL! These ladies are twisted just like me. No wonder it was instant love.

Lesson #2: When you attend events, don’t assume everyone there is a competitive paddler. Reach out to people in recreational boats and get to know them. Encourage them.

We should all be ambassadors for the sport and reach out and encourage anyone who is relatively new to the sport.

That was one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place, but I understand how newbies can see intermediate and advanced paddlers as an intimidating club or clique with fancy gear and equipment. Especially when we group together at events and talk about the geeky, techy boat stuff or re-live the glory of past races.

Paddling, at its essence, is all about having fun and that can and should be attained at any and every level.

Let’s share the love of our sport and take the time to get to know new faces and encourage those who might just be starting their journey. We all know those people paddling the plastic rec boats are working really hard!

The race itself was wonderful and the weather was picture perfect. There were plenty of top-notch boats and competitors there, but this race is also definitely beginner friendly.

Last year I started near the back of the pack to capture as many people on video as possible.

This year I wanted to get a good start with the front of the pack so that’s what I did.

Aside from two or three super-humans who jumped out early to a huge lead, I was very happy to hang onto the back of the main, lead pack of mere mortals for the two laps around this course. That’s something I’ve not accomplished before in a race like this. I generally run toward the front of “everyone else” but well behind the lead pack.

Screenshot_20190805-122143_Mi Fit

Although my GPS tracks show 5.54 miles, my other GPS that removed the pre-race warming up showed 4.82 miles, as opposed to the advertised 6 miles

My time was 45:45 which was an improvement of more than 7 minutes over last year. It is not entirely possible to compare this year’s time with last year’s because the conditions were much more windy and choppy last year and I think the course was a bit shorter this year, but I know I improved significantly as a paddler since last year.

One way to validate that view was that I was able to run with the main pack this year and the two paddlers who were immediately in front of me and behind me last year (we were all within 15 seconds of each other last year) finished significantly further behind me this year.

Lesson #3: If you train in a faster, skinnier, less stable boat those improvements in your skill and technique will make you faster in other boats, too.

I did all of my training for the past two months in my SEL. It forced me to improve. As a result, I am now also faster in my Thunderbolt-X.

A corollary to Lesson #3 is…

Lesson #4: A great way to improve as a paddler is to get a faster, skinnier boat and force yourself to master it.

So once again this race was a pleasure to race in and support. I hope to return again next year and I hope to see more fresh faces along with the familiar ones.

Performance Kayak, Inc. (Hansel and Kim Lucas and Hansel III) and ACS DetermiNation (Emma Craven and her crew) did a great job organizing the event.

I was very pleased with my performance (1st place but only paddler in my division, 6th place overall) and still get a thrill paddling what is now considered an old-school, decked kayak that can still run with many skis.

And the NTB…DFL ladies?

They paddled a great race and turned in a great time. Seeing their smiles and team hugs at the finish line made my day complete.

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Until next time, happy paddling!


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