Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The FIBArk Wildwater Race

From Mike Harvey:

As the momentum lifts at the top of Cottonwood rapid you are committed. This is particularly true in a 14’ long composite wildwater race kayak. You are heading downhill in a hurry and if you happen to be racing in the sprint portion of the Wildwater National Championships the goal to stay focused on is clear….don’t eddy out….don’t flip over…don’t stop paddling.


Coming into the 2008 season I needed a new whitewater paddling challenge. Being a Dad had suppressed my desire to run scary creeks and I was feeling a little uninspired to master the newest playboating moves. On March 28th I put my Prijon 89 Wildwater boat in the Arkansas and committed to getting as fit as possible and learning to steer this unwieldy composite Kevlar kayak through whitewater. A wildwater race kayak is a strange looking craft which is made to do one thing really well….go fast down a moving river. All of the other things that are required in whitewater paddling: turning, spinning, coming in and out of eddies, bracing, rolling, running holes, boofing, etc.; are on the list of things a Wildwater boat does not do well. Basically the boat is really tippy, turns really slowly and makes Class III feel every bit as hard as Class V feels in a plastic boat. The boats are about 14feet long and steer by leaning opposite of the direction you want to travel. Wildwater racers use a wing paddle, which has a blade shaped like a big serving spoon. These paddles grab a lot of water but, once again, are basically worthless doing anything other than cranking straight downstream. In june of 2008 I finished my first FIBArk 26 mile race. After I recovered from the race and training in early July I was back at it in my Wildwater boat and the hook was set.

When I learned that Salida would host the Wildwater National Championships in June of 2009 the idea of giving that race a go started to really inspire me. Through the late summer and fall of 2008 paddling Wildwater was starting to feel almost normal to me. In fact jumping in a plastic boat with a regular whitewater paddle was starting to freak me out; “Which way do I lean this thing? Why is this paddle grabbing so little water? Why would I want to eddy out?”

I paddled the Arkansas 4-5 days a week through Thanksgiving; creatively biking, hitching or begging my wife for shuttles. I spent a ton of time stroking downstream all by myself with my waterproof Ipod case keeping me from feeling too lonely. Those months in the fall were all about establishing a base; just putting a lot of miles on my arms, in my wildwater boat.

December hit and winter came with the change in the date. We were finally skiing powder on Monarch Pass, but I had it in my head that I could not afford a layoff this year. So I bought a Paddleone Trainer (paddleone.com). The Paddleone trainer is basically a rowing machine for kayaking and not surprisingly it is not as much fun as actually kayaking.

Gerbil wheel paddling. Not as much fun as real paddling.

With ice on the river and snow on the hills; I kept on paddling. Only now I was sitting in my office, with a t-shirt on visualizing Cottonwood rapid with the constant drone of the wheels on the trainer a poor replacement for the rushing waters of the Arkansas.

As the winter progressed the ice melted and the Banana Belt (Arkansas River Valley) delivered some sunny 50 degree, no wind days. I was on the river for almost every one. My training log showed that my first day back on the river was January 20th. Throughout this time I did a lot of solo days but, I was lucky to be able to train and learn from fellow squad member Evan Ross, former US WIldwater Team paddler Hank Bevington and current US WIldwater Team paddler Jeremy Rodgers.

The National Championships format is based on World Cup Wildwater racing. One day is a Sprint race; typically about 90 second run through whitewater. You complete two runs and your times are combined. Sprinting puts a premium on being able to keep from making mistakes, as a small mistake in a sprint equals a larger relative amount of time. The second race is called a “Classic” and is a race of between 15-20 minutes, roughly 4.5 miles through a mix of flat and whitewater. As the spring progressed I focused a lot of my training on the Classic. Learning to paddle at your max, over 20 minutes is not easy. I started doing intervals; short periods at a very high effort. Then I started linking those intervals so that I would paddle ever longer periods at my max. The whole time I was learning that keeping a Wildwater boat on line at cruising pace and at top speed were two different things all together. There were many humbling moments for sure.

The Nationals Sprint Course would be held in Cottonwood Rapid. Cottonwood is a rapid of some renowned in the Wildwater world. It looms as the final and largest rapid in the 26 mile FIBArk marathon race, the oldest whitewater race in North America. The debate of how to run the rapid is fodder for fairly long and technical (some might even say nerdy) discussions among Wildwater paddlers. For me the Sprint race became an obvious target for a good result. A year into wildwater paddling I was still developing the fitness of other top end paddlers, but after 16 years of paddling, 90+ days a year, I was getting the hang of whitewater in a wildwater boat. I knew that if I could link two good laps in the Sprint I may be able to have a good showing.

Keeping it straight in Cottonwood is the goal during the Sprint Nationals.

As the race approached the Ark came up and down again, constantly changing my approach. Finally I settled on a line in Cottonwood and in the days approaching the Sprint Race I just tried to think positively and visualize a successful race. As it turned out I was able to grease the rapid twice and while neither lap was perfect, I found myself in 1st place in my age group, 19-39, and 4th overall after day one. I could not have been more relived. Very skilled and fit paddlers were catching eddies and spinning out in Cottonwood giving me the only opening I would probably have all FIBArk week.

Friday morning I came into the Classic knowing all I had to do was hang on. Of course I wanted to go as fast as possible, but the Classic course goes from Salida to Bear Creek rapid a course that is made up of 90% easy water and one rapid at the end…a hammer fest. I am still developing the fitness and pain tolerance to hammer 20 minutes without some whitewater to help trip up my competition. I also am learning to keep focused on every “piece” of water which is a requirement of a short race in easy water. The typical internal conversation for me over 20 minutes goes a little something like this: “grab the back of that wave…reach, catch, rotate….what was the name of the one track I heard on Pandora yesterday?...FOCUS!....inside on the next corner…hammer this flat water….man it would be fun to go surfing with Johnny in September…” and so on. I gave a hard effort and finished within 3% of the day’s winner and while I slipped a spot in the overall ranking to 5th, I won my class. I guess I qualified for the US National Team although I am not sure racing in Tasmania in the World Cup is going to happen for this Dad of two with a full time job.

I am not going to feign casual guy, too cool to care, for readers of this blog…I was (and am) stoked! I set a goal and spent a lot of time preparing and thinking about and I am happy to have a result to show for it. Plus I got a belt buckle that says “Champion” on it so I got that going for me the next time I am hanging at the bar with my shirt tucked in.

Bling, Bling.

Sunday’s Marathon was almost an afterthought for me. I put in a lot of miles this year , but I definitely was focused on the shorter distances. I ended up suffering through the race with a better time and better overall effort than my first race in 08. However I lost to Evan Ross by about 40 seconds so I consider the race to be an abject failure (just kidding, I’ll get that young punk next year.).

The 26 mile mass start is one of the coolest experiences I have had paddling a kayak. Total chaos. That is me in the yellow top on the right side of the picture right behind the two guys that are all tangled.

By far the coolest race all FIBArk weekend was my son Miles racing in his first kayak race, the 2 mile novice DR race from Salida to Stockyard Bridge. Miles is 7 years old and has been paddling for three seasons now. We started talking about the race last summer and he was psyched to participate. I just wanted him to have a good experience. I did practice runs and told him all I wanted him to do was paddle the whole way and have fun. Since I was racing in the 26 mile I enlisted my good friend and 3 time Olympic Slalom Paddler Scott Shipley to safety boat with him. On a side note I noticed an interesting generational difference when I told Miles that one of the paddlers I most admired and the best Slalom paddler in our Country’s history would be paddling with him Miles said; “Couldn’t Dane Jackson or Jason Craig paddle with me, Daddy?” Miles gave it a good effort the whole way and wore his medal to school on Monday. I was the typical super proud Dad. It was great to share FIBArk with my son and by far the best moment all weekend was hearing the crowd in Riverside Park cheer for my son as he collected his medal at the awards ceremony.

Miles milking every bit of speed he can out of that Fun 1 in the 2 mile DR race at FIBArk.

Wildwater paddling is without question a somewhat obscure segment of our sport and you can’t log on to coloradokayak.com and order a Wildwater boat. However, what I have rediscovered through Wildwater, and what you might find if you try it, is the joy of tapping into the speed of a river heading downhill and the fitness that comes with that sort of paddling. Boats like the Pryana Speeder are a good commercial option to try out that feeling of gliding through a pool or rocketing off the back of a wavetrain in a kayak. Who knows? You might get hooked and find yourself waking up and thinking about boil lines in Cottonwood rapid too.

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