Yesterday was the most physically challenging day my body has had to endure since the Great Post-Graduation Party Hangover of 1995. For the last 6 weeks I trained hard to try and prepare my body for the 26.5 mile stand up paddleboard race around the island of Manhattan. I left Chicago to live in Oxford for easy access to the water, to get off the booze, and mooch healthy food off my mom. I also got back to church. I decided to do Chariots of Fire training and take Sundays off as a day of rest and did zero paddling, not even little fun paddles with friends. Much of this time was spent in solitude as I was working on getting focused for an endurance event, something I had never done before. Things seemed to be going well and I could feel the positive effects on my body and my mind as my research into endurance training brought about some positive results. The confidence grew. My goal was not only to finish but I wanted to finish in the top 10. I wanted it bad. Five miles into the race I knew that goal was beyond my grasp; however, I didn't slow down. Twenty-two miles into the race my goal was to just make it to the finish line...
I didn't start well. I am always too nice and too conservative at the start of races because I don't want to be the reason why someone gets dumped overboard. Being way conservative at the start of this race put me so far behind that I was unable to catch up to some folks that I wanted to keep pace with for the first leg of the race. At the second buoy turn I got behind one kid who just stopped and watched the goings on. I was caught on the outside and held at a standstill until I found out which way this kid went because all the momentum was on the inside. This took quite a few seconds and I lost all momentum. Bad idea on my part. I should have nosed my way right in the mix and tried to keep pace with some of the stronger paddlers.
The Hudson River was brutal with all the churning water for the first 8 or so miles. However, due to the flood tide my pace was awesome. I completed the first 8 miles in around 1:25, well ahead of my usual race pace. At 12.5 miles I was just under 2 hours in and I thought back to Danny Ching's pace that won the Carolina Cup as he won that 12.5 mile race in 2:05. So I thought to myself...how in the hell does one man paddle that fast without 2 knots of current and an 8 knot breeze behind him. All the while I am watching a large part of the field paddling far ahead of me. The Hudson River stage of the race was very exciting but it was also very humbling.
As we entered the Harlem River I made the dumbest decision of the race. I did not stop and eat the power bar in my back pocket. Other people had stopped to re-fuel their bodies and hydrate so I decided this would be a good time to try and pass some people. I did not realize what a costly mistake this would be for about 6 miles.
Let me state right now that I HATE the Harlem River. We had the wind and the current against us the whole way. When my body started telling me that it desperately needed nourishment and water I was in no position to stop and make the adjustments because every time I did I would immediately start to go backwards. Sixteen miles into the race and feeling the pain I DID NOT want to go backwards at all.
At this point in the race I also grew very sick of listening to music. My playlist that I had prepared for the race might be one of the worst compilations in mix-tape history. I focused on the Bible verse I had taped on my board to help get me through the tough times and this was a very tough time. I could feel my body weakening so I was grabbing at the bag of dried figs in my pocket and losing all forward momentum. The figs were helping but the damage was done and my performance was weakening a great deal.
On the Harlem River I watched some inspiring paddling. Two paddlers went by me making the current and wind on the nose seem like it was nothing to them. Their focus, strength, and stamina was amazing to watch until they went so far ahead that they disappeared into the urban horizon and reached the max-flood current of the East River at Hell's Gate well before me.
I knew the max-flood current at Hell's Gate began around 1:05 pm and I assumed that I would be there in plenty of time. I was still on the Harlem River and started feeling anxious that I would have to deal with the turning current on the East River unless I started accelerating. My pace did pick up on the southern end of the Harlem River.
When I saw the rapids boiling off Randall's Island I got excited. There was the current I needed to take me to the finish line. The East River and the infamous Hell's Gate.
As I started to push myself to catch the current I started to feel cramping in my left side. The pain got so bad that I could only paddle on my right side and that is not a good thing in Class 3 rapids. I had to break down and eat. I bypassed the protein/meal bar and broke into my plastic baggie of the little energy drops made by Power Bar. I shoved these into my mouth as fast as I could. The pain from the cramping got to the point where I became very scared about finishing the race. I started falling off my board at every little ripple. Pulling myself back on the board did not help the cramping. I rested on my knees for a few minutes and tried to maintain a heading down river. This also proved to be very difficult due to the pain on my left side. The fingers on my left hand started to form into a claw which did not want to unravel. On my knees I had to paddle holding the shaft between my two middle fingers. Trying to maintain speed, balance, and a proper course heading using this technique is not recommended.
Twenty-three point six miles in I realized I only had three miles to go! However, the Williamsburg Bridge looked like it was ten miles away. I begged and pleaded with the Man Upstairs to please let me finish the race. I popped some more Power Bar energy drop things, drank some water, and cooled off the East River another time or two and started to focus on breathing. I passed another Elite paddler who had just passed me when I was cramping. (I hate to say it but that felt really good.) The final two buoys at the finish line grew larger and larger and then I made that last turn toward the beach. I took off my leash and jogged across the finish line after one of the most grueling experiences my body and my mind has ever had to overcome, but I wasn't ready to celebrate anything yet. I had some of my own issues thumping around inside my heart and my head that I needed to deal with.
When the race was over I was mad as hell. I was mad at some of the foolish decisions I made during the race. I was angry with God for not providing me with the strength to pass the 27 people who finished ahead of me. I was mad at the waiter who told me I was in the wrong place to get food after the race and I was mad that I was covered in remnants from the East River. Then a thought struck me. This race was about more than individual results. This race was about doing something extreme to raise money for people affected by autism. When I realized what a little bitch I sounded like in my own head things started to change. My raising awareness through participating in this event brought in donations well over $2000.00 (thanks to an anonymous $500.00 donation!) and that is going to help ease the burden that some people have to bear day in and day out. I had 5 hours and 26 minutes of trial and tribulation over the course of one day. What business do I have to be upset about anything dealing with a paddle board race? As soon as I took a cold shower and rinsed all the dumb-ass negativity I had created within my soul I started to feel great about being involved with the SEA Paddle NYC event. This race was a beautiful thing and I am glad I did it. And damn, that Dos Equis amber tasted great!
Much love and respect to all the people who participated. This is not an easy undertaking. Rob Rojas is a beast for winning this SUP race two years in a row. That is just an amazing example of power, skill, and endurance. When is he teaching a clinic in the future!!??
Not reaching my goal was not a defeat but an experience, a lesson to learn from to put to good use for the future. How I respond to not getting my way might have been the lesson God wanted me to learn. When one door closes another opens. I prayed boldly but also had apprehension about getting in over my head with this 26.5 miles of paddling. You can't waver and get the results you hope for.
So...what did I really learn? I am already plotting out how to train for next year. Here are a few highlights that stick out in my mind:
I know I don't need to go away from Gracie and the mongrels for such a long time (unless she is being a big pain the ass during the time leading up to the race). I can have a damn beer if I want to during training. Not eating dairy does help my lung efficiency. Going to church is a good thing year round, not just the Sundays leading up to a race. Paddling with people is much more fun than paddling by yourself. Molokai 2 Oahu is less than a year away. Testing yourself helps you to grow. Other people need your time and help and you should make time and use resources to give it to them.
One last note that I took away from the SEA Paddle NYC even and that is: I have the constitution of a machine because I can let some of the East River get by my lips (and it does taste awful) and the next day be able to walk by a bathroom without even a glance and I do not glow at night...so far.