What a doozy that race was. Every year I say to myself ” I’m never doing that race again”. How quickly you forget the pain and mental anguish you go through to finish that race. As I described it at the awards party “this race is like a candy bar with a rock in it. While you’re eating it, it tastes great. Then you get the rock( Oahu ) and ouch.” Most of this race really is fun and there are ample bumps to keep you moving, but when you get close to Oahu the fun stops and the reality of how hard it really is starts to set in. For some reason Mother Nature decided to put one of her most wicked currents in front of Oahu acting like a night club bouncer protecting the door. Only the hardest core of the paddling elite will be let in for the celebration inside. If you do make it past the muscular current protecting the door, you’re met at the corner of Port Lock Point with your next crushing reality. A wall of wind that will test your mental and physical fortitude to the very core. I have a whole new appreciation for the salmon that swim up stream to get to their instinctual breading grounds. Like the salmon it literally feels as though you are fighting tooth and nail for every foot as you get closer to the finish line. There was a point when a gust hit me and I was giving it everything, which wasn’t much because of how tired I was, and according to my escort boat I wasn’t moving forward. You basically try not to go backwards during the gusts and go like hell when they subside to make as much ground as possible before the next one. You are literally 31.3 of the 32 miles there and you start to wonder if you can make it. It really is one of the most cruel things I do to myself on an annual basis, but as long as you just keep pulling the paddle out of the water and keep reaching it forward you eventually make it. It starts to soothe the pain a little when the rest of your stand up buddies are all describing the same experience.
Misery loves company.
Photo by Daniel Costigan
For me this race had a lot to do with redemption. I had an extremely tough racing season last year with two very big disappointments. First, at last years Naish Maliko race my rudder fell off by the time I got to Hookipa. I probably had a 100yd. lead by that point and thought it was money in the bank. The next thing I know my rudder isn’t reacting to any of my movements so I jump in the water, turn my board over and there’s nothing there. It was like a bad dream, I couldn’t believe it was happening and it took me a good couple seconds to get my mind around it. My first thought was “I’m screwed”, then I thought no, I’m gonna see how many people I can beat without a rudder. Had I actually gone across the finish line at the end I still would have gotten 9th place, but on that day I wasn’t looking for a 9th place finish, I was just trying to salvage some type of moral victory.
Next was last years Molokai to Oahu. I over trained and ended up getting sick. It really was heart breaking because I had put in an absurd amount of training to prepare for that race. I started with a one hour up wind paddle and kept building till I had gotten to the point of doing a five and a half hour up wind paddle. The downwind part only took an hour fifteen. I ended up doing the race anyway but went through a very tough mental experience that I described in detail in the “Inspiration” post.
The night before this year’s race I had the good fortune of having a meal with Jamie Mitchell. Part of the good fortune being that his fiance Joss cooked one of her fantastic pasta dinners, the rest being that we talked about strategy and line stuff. Even though I’ve been across that channel many more times than Jamie, nobody has won as many times as he has so it’s always good to get his take on the line and strategy. He had mentioned that he might go a bit north and as I saw the following day, boy did he ever. Which in the end I think was a factor in my success, because everyone decided to follow him, even the stand up guys. That left a more direct route wide open for me to exploit. Maybe only one or two guys decided to follow me on the A to B tactic, which was great because the whole race I was left alone to race my race and not be distracted by the press boats and the helicopter flying over head. It was just me and my escort boat to run our line.
At about half way my support crew, Loch, his brother Hunter and Nalu, were telling me I had maybe two miles on the rest of the pack, but because I don’t like to look back, I didn’t really believe them and just kept acting like they were right behind me. My cousin Ekolu is such a strong paddler that no lead is big enough to be safe from him, and that’s just what I was thinking almost the whole way. It wasn’t till I got maybe a couple hundred yards from the finish did I actually believe he wasn’t going to catch up. Like I told his mom earlier in the day,” I don’t care which one of us wins, as long as it’s a Kalama”, she agreed and gave me a big smile.
In most of my races that I do or even in training runs I like to create a mantra and then just keep repeating it to myself, in order to help me focus on whatever I feel is important for that day. For this day it was ” every bump matters, use every single bump no matter how small it is”, and ” do whatever it takes to keep the board moving”. Both are very obvious but when you’re fatigued and your wits aren’t as quick as normal, it’s tremendously helpful to already have those stuck in your head like a bad song you can’t stop singing. What they also do is create a point of focus so you don’t wonder off into la-la land, which is really easy to do if you’re by yourself with no competition. Another really important factor is your escort boat. They really can make it or break it for you. I had a great crew in that they were very positive, very supportive and very motivating when I had no competition around me. They kept checking if I needed liquids, which reminds you to hydrate. At one point I started thinking maybe I should back off to conserve energy and as soon as they could see me letting up Loch said ” keep pushing, go for the record!”. Just that little comment totally fired me up again and it was full steam ahead. Most people don’t put much consideration into their escort boats but I’ve learned my lesson, and I can tell you this. If you’re serious, you better start paying attention to who is on the boat because it can make a huge difference. Ali from Australia found out the hard way what a bad boat driver can do to you. The guy bailed on her just before the finish line, she cramped and there was nobody there to help her. Didn’t even get to cross the line. If it were me, in the mental state anyone would be in after that much exertion, I would have snapped. Full postal. But she handled it with tremendous grace and focused on all the positive things she did accomplish. She is much more evolved than I am.
As hard as this race is, and as much as I like to say I’ll never do it again, there is a certain feeling of accomplishment that comes with just doing this crossing. Whether you’re first or two hundred and first it really doesn’t matter–the race is against the channel. You can see the glow on every participants face that says” I did it”. So simple yet so profound. Because behind that glow of exhaustion, is all the miles of preparation, the days of work to buy the airline tickets, the phone calls to organize your escort, organizing your equipment, the anticipation, making sure you have enough to drink, the hours working on your technique, the sacrifice of being away from friends and family and all the hundreds of other details that must be tended to. You earn that glow, it can’t be fabricated. It only comes from the finishing of that monumental task, and finishing position has nothing to do with. Everyone that does it gets the glow whether they want it or not. When you look a fellow paddler in the eye, you see it, and you smile knowing words can never describe what you both share.
I hope to see you out there next year. I think.