Headsweats Athlete Max Feaster just competed in the 51st annual Texas Water Safari. Here’s his recap of the 262-mile, non-stop race. That’s right, 262 miles. Non. Stop.
Interviewed and written by B. Eriksson
There comes a time in every athlete’s career when the only option is to throw down everything you have on the course. It is the point when you realize that everything you have worked for during the past decade has built up to this moment. For Max Feaster, this moment came during the 51st annual Texas Water Safari.
The Safari is a 262-mile, non-stop, through the night, endurance canoe race running from San Marcos to Seadrift, TX. Regarded as the toughest canoe race in the world, the Safari has paddlers negotiate treacherous rapids, logjams, dangerous bugs and reptiles, triple-digit heat, and hallucinations, all at varying stages of sleep deprivation. In addition to the difficulty that is intrinsic to the course, Max was paddling what is regarded as the most challenging racing hull available: the USCA C-1.
The C-1 is a rudderless, 18′ 6″ solo canoe confined to using a single blade paddle. Built for short distance sprints in a straight line, this boat, as Max emphatically proclaims, dislikes wind, waves, aggressive turns, and many other things common in the Safari. When asked, “why on earth would you take a boat like that?” his reasoning takes a turn to the philosophic. For Max, the Safari is much more than a timed race. The Safari is not about getting to the finish line fastest. The Safari is about pushing yourself way past where you think your stamina, endurance, and strength end. The Safari is a precious adventure, and the C-1 is the best boat to fully grasp the intensity and intimacy of that adventure.
On top of these already strenuous factors, Max was pitted against one of the most respected Texas Water Safari racers around: Wade Binion. He was looking for his 18th finish, had excellent training, was in the same type of boat, and was a force to be reckoned with.
Another factor that adds intrigue to the race is that designated team captains follow their paddlers down the course, being the only people who can administer supplies. This year, Max’s team captain was living legend Peter Derrick. Though English-born, Derrick has been racing the Texas Water Safari since 1975, and is one of the most respected and decorated racers in history. Until quite recently, the supply rule has been that team captains are only allowed to give water and ice to the paddler – everything else (food, repair kit, medical, lights, etc.) must be carried from the start by the paddler. Though the Texas Water Safari now allows full nutritional and medical support by the team captain, Max, holding true to his principles, abided by the old rules, and only received water and ice from his team captain.
When asked about race highlights, a cunning smile overtook his face and he began to describe a side of the race hidden from the bank. “The wonderful thing about this race is that there are too many factors to possibly control – so the race is constantly changing and staying fresh” Max said.
“For example, there is a 5 hour section down past Victoria which is notoriously known as ‘hallucination alley’. At about this point, you have been padding for 40ish hours, various body systems are starting to get dangerously close to failure, the hallucinations from sleep dep. are encroaching, and you know there are still 60 miles separating you from the finish. On top of this, the river starts getting eerily twisty and familiar: if you are not on top of your game, you could swear that you have the same right and left turn on infinite repeat. Luckily, I made it through the majority of this section with little-to-no issue, but coming to the final half hour, there was a tight, 180º turn that had simply dried up. I later came to find that the river had burrowed under a logjam/cliff/bank to rejoin itself after the turn, but in the moment, at around 3:00am, sitting on ~42 hours of exhaustive racing, I was lost, frustrated, and speechless. For the last eight years, including the training run I did the week prior on this section, this turn was a none-issue, but tonight, my entire race went ‘mission critical’.
My competition was making up all the time I had put between us, I was trudging around in the swampy, alligator-friendly part of the course, and I could not find any tracks or portage trails from other boats. Finally, after about 30 minutes of backtracking, exploring, and climbing, I reached the ‘FIP’ and decided to portage around the whole turn. Though slower, more strenuous, and far more dangerous, I knew that I could waste hours searching for the correct route if I was not careful. After ~10 minutes of slogging through deep mud and vegetation, I finally reached the rejoined river, and paddled on to the next checkpoint – way behind schedule. When I reached the stop, my team captain, Peter Derrick, told me that my competition had made a huge push, and had reduced my once solid lead of 84 minutes to 15. So with 7 hours left in the race, and a freight train of a competitor bearing down on me, it became clear that taking it to maximum for the remainder of the race was the only feasible solution. Long-story-short, Binion had the same idea, and upped his speed at the same point. Thus, we stayed at crisp 12-15 minutes of separation for the next 30 miles, sprinting our hearts out as our respective team captains egged us on. Now, though effective, sprint dueling at any point in the Safari is a dangerous game, with the only outcome being the complete collapse of one party.
Thus, for one reason or another, I was able to pull through to victory, while Binion lost 30 minutes in the last hour. All in all, it was an amazing finish against an overwhelming competitor – but without getting lost in the middle of the night, it would not have been quite as spectacular. And that is what makes this race wonderful. I planned everything out to the most minuscule detail, trained like there was no tomorrow, and I was still left guessing and stupefied. It is a course that you can never predict or perfect, and an adventure that you can never truly conquer – and that is what keeps me coming back.”
Max won his USCA C-1 class in the Texas Water Safari with a total finishing time of 49:02. He placed 6th overall, out of 115 boats – one of the highest overall placements for this class.
Though Max plans on racing again, he is putting his boat away for the near future as he pursues a career in the Air Force as a fighter pilot. His thoughts on his new path? “Once you race and win the Texas Water Safari C-1, most things tend to seem a bit more manageable.”
Photos courtesy of: P. Rask