The Colorado River 100 ultra-marathon canoe race is a 100-mile, non-stop event starting in Bastrop, Texas and finishing in Columbus, Texas. Not only is this race renowned for it’s gratuitous distance and intense competition, but for the 2011 race, the river levels, heat, water weed, and wind was shaping up to be one of the most challenging races to date. With only three prominent points to re-supply hydration and nutrition, the need for a solid plan, carried out by a fast, efficient crew was critical. One sub-par pit stop in the 100+ degree heat could spell disaster to a winning performance, and could even jeopardize reaching the finish line. However, I was in the able hands of legendary veteran paddler Peter Derrick of Houston, Texas. With his illustrious career in ultra marathon paddling, I was confident that I could rely on him for the support I needed.
This year, I was racing in the USCA C-1 class. This class involves going solo in a boat with no rudder and only using single bladed paddles. It is regarded as the most difficult class in all forms of boat racing: especially long-distance river racing. My competition this year was one of the best C-1 paddlers in the lower United States, Jonathan Yonley. With a much stronger build, a faster boat, and more access to training, it was going to be an uphill fight to the finish.
In the crisp air of an early September morning, the competitive solo field of the ultra-marathon canoe race shot to life. Within seconds the water was churned into a foamy life, and within minutes, the field was starting to take shape. I was riding comfortably in fourth position with Jonathan steadily dropping back. But before I could celebrate, I quickly realized that my water had completely siphoned out into the bottom of the boat not half an hour into this initial three-hour section. With the Texas temperatures continuing to rise as the morning faded, I knew I had to tone down a bit to keep my body safe. A heat stroke this early in the race (of which there were several this year), would mean an end to my hopes of first place, and possibly result in long-term damage. So the balancing act began: trying to be judicious, whilst fending off the competition.
After more than two hours of inching towards the critical dehydration/overheating line, I rounded the bend to the first checkpoint, Smithville. With Peter Derrick waiting in the river with water and supplies, we made the pit stop in record time, and I was off with new, hydrated vigor. By this time, the faster, two-person competitor boats, which started 10 minutes after the solo field, were starting to overtake. As a result of this staggered start, there is a huge amount of strategic thinking that goes into taking advantage of the passing tandems by riding their wakes. Like drafting in cycling or Formula 1, if done successfully, one can achieve huge efficiency and speed gains. So with this new task at hand, I was off towards the second checkpoint: La Grange, another 5 hours down the river.
With there only being one place to refuel in this section, this was an excellent section to try and hold off my competition, especially Jonathan, whilst recovering for the final push. And with a serenade of joyous hunters celebrating the newly opened dove season, I completed this 35-mile section in good time, and was confident and ready for the final section. However, the mood quickly changed when I realized that Jonathan had decreased his previous time gap from 12 minutes to 3, and was now in sight on the straight a-ways. With new strength I quickly got my water from Peter Derrick and tore off down the river. This last section was a monstrous, uninterrupted 36-mile haul from La Grange to the finish line in Columbus, made complete with confusing currents, invisible sand bars, and the falling darkness of a hill country night. In the midst of this bleak final section, I started making my move. As my pace quickened, and my fatigue grew, I buckled up for a wild night.
With every stroke my confidence of winning grew. I was quietly sailing through darkness with just the moon to illuminate the obstacles. Everything was looking like I had managed to secure my win until I saw an ominous light approaching on my left side. Jonathan managed an incredible move and had caught up a mere hour and a half from the finish. At this point, the intensity picked up dramatically until we were tearing down the course. Fueled by the desire for the win, we rounded the bend and saw the ten-minute bridge. Upon seeing this landmark, he made his final move and surged ahead. Playing with a bit more strategy and caution I held him, but decided not to go on the attack just yet. I thought to myself that his move was too soon, and he would not be able to hold that monster pace all the way to the line. And then, just as I expected, his pace started to fade, prompting me to make my final attack. I had been saving the last 15 hours for this very moment. I started flying down this last bit of river, dealing a crushing blow about 7 minutes from the finish. With every muscle screaming, and every stroke harder than the last, I finally saw the lights of the finish line and went for it. Sprinting for all I was worth, I managed to cross the finish line an entire minute in front of one of the best paddlers in the entire state, securing my class victory in one of the longest, non-stop canoe races in the country.
Because this year’s race managed to combine high intensity athletic exertion, the heat of a Texas summer during a drought, and more than ten hours of cloudless sun, there was huge potential for one to overheat. In fact, dehydration, sunstroke, and a number of other heat related issues caused many racers to drop out before the finish. As a result, trying to keep cool was at the top of everyone’s priority list. As always, one of my main weapons against the heat was my Headsweats Race hat, and it performed exceptionally. It, unlike many other hats I have tried, gave me complete, comfortable coverage, in a smart, lightweight design. If I am completely honest, there is absolutely no way that I could have performed as well as I did without my Headsweats Race hat. In fact, it might very well have been the difference between first place and first loser.