About four years ago, Laird and I had concocted a plan to Stand up paddle across all the major channels in Hawaii and ride our bikes across every island, in an effort to help support our friend Don King, who was making a documentary about raising a autistic child. He needed some money to finish the project and Laird and I needed something to occupy our comfortable summer with some type of pain and suffering. It seemed like a great idea at the time of inception but turned out to be way more than I bargained for, but that’s par for the course when you run with a like minded, slightly skewed, well intended, but over zealous type like Laird (meant in the best way possible). In the end, it was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.
While there are numerous stories to pick from, for this article I’d like to share an experience that I had while paddling between Oahu and Kauai.
We started from Kaena point at ten thirty at night, hoping that we would get to Kauai before sunset the following evening. That channel can be done in the course of a day but unfortunately for us the winds were blowing Kona. Not strongly but nonetheless the opposite direction you want for paddling that channel. With trades it’s 12 to 15 hours, with Konas 18 +. I honestly thought when we jumped in the water we were just playing a game of chicken, because neither one of us was going to back down–the Kauai channel is hard enough when the wind is blowing with you, it’s just unimaginable when the wind is against you. But in classic testosterone-fueled fashion, neither one of us was going to be the first to say uncle, so we paddled on into the night and for the next twenty two hours.
Somewhere around one or two the next day, Laird had managed to get at least a mile ahead, probably closer to two. It was weighing on me heavily at the time because I wanted this to be something we did together–literally. But over the course of about three hours Laird was really maintaining a faster pace then I could. When I first started to consider a push, to try and catch up, it seemed unimaginable. After paddling for at least fifteen hours at that point, where would I find the energy to make a push like that? I waffled back and forth for about twenty minutes trying to decide if it was a smart thing to do. If I went too hard, I might kill my chances of even making it, and after paddling that far I did not want to come up short. So I came up with lots of sound reasons to just maintain my pace and finish the journey. But I would have finished in the dark and probably an hour or two behind Laird. No shame in finishing second to Laird right? Wrong!
This was a moment in my life, where I was presented with a true challenge. Not a game of chicken with a friend or a challenge from a drinking buddy, but one that could possibly define me. Define what was inside, define what I stood for, define my very soul. Was I going to be content to just finish, or was I going to stand up to a task that just seemed unfathomable at a point where everything sensible told me to be smart, conserve my energy and finish. So to get my mind right for the challenge I used a technique I employ when I am being worked by a big wave. I compartmentalize the situation and just try to manage the task right in front of me. Don’t try to manage the whole thing at once, just deal with what’s right at your finger tips. And then after a few seconds deal with the next thing that’s at your finger tips and so on. That way you make your path through a tough situation one small manageable step at a time rather than overwhelming yourself with the whole ball of wax.
So with that in mind, the first thing I attacked was my breathing. Starting slow at first and very cautiously increasing at an almost unmeasurable pace forward. In my mind I kept saying to myself ‘just go for a little while and see how you feel’, being careful not to try and catch up all at once. After about five minutes I felt like I was playing with fire but still under control, so I thought I would turn up the focus on breathing for a while then turn up the intensity of my stroke. This went on back and forth for about twenty minutes and by this point I was starting to work myself into a bit of a lather. I had focused so much on my breathing that it had literally sucked me into a trance. I looked up occasionally to see if my effort was making any difference and for the first half hour it was hard to tell because he was so far ahead of me. And then one time I looked up and YES! It was making a difference. So that fueled the fire and I took my breathing to a full blown possessed inhale and exhale, which in turn sucked me into a complete paddle frenzy. So much so, I distinctly remember saying to myself ‘I don’t care if I make the paddle across the channel, I will catch Laird if it takes my last breath’. I had managed to work myself into a full blown possessed paddle frenzy, and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since, but at least I know it’s in there. If I ever really needed to call upon it again I hope I could find it, but I’m not sure.
What I think was unique about this was not that I had got myself into that state, but rather that I maintained it for about an hour and a half to two hours. I remember seeing Laird’s escort boat captain Donny looking back when I started to get closer and doing the full double take with his head, as if to say, ‘you’re not supposed to be there, you were just a couple miles back’. During most of that time I had never considered what I would do if I actually caught him. I was so focused on paddling, but as I began to near I thought to myself, ‘now what are you going to do if you actually catch him’? I hadn’t put much thought into that part of the equation but it started to dawn on me that, yeah I might have caught him but now can you stay with him after expending that much energy to catch up? I didn’t know. I was in a very vulnerable place. When I finally did catch up and Laird turned around and saw that I was ten feet behind him, it was one of the most satisfying moments of my athletic career.
Winning prestigious down-wind or channel races is great don’t get me wrong, but people expect me to do well. I expect me to do well, so there’s a bit of this: I’m only doing what is expected of me. But this time, I didn’t expect it, and anyone that really knows Laird knows what a physical freak he is. True, some of his strength is God given, but nobody out works him when it comes to preparation, not even me. He’s not just the kind of strong that comes from weights, that strength is accessible to anyone. His might comes from within, within his heart and his mind. There is never doubt in his actions, there is never caution in his movements, only confidence. To me that is real strength.
So for me, on this occasion, I got to be an equal with someone I hold in very high regard. That’s what matters to me, the internal competitions that you don’t sign up for or pay an entry fee, there’s no prize-giving at the end of these competitions, only satisfaction within, knowing simply that YOU CAN. Those are the ones that matter, those are the ones that I want to win.
When I pulled up along side Laird no words were spoken, only body and eye language. And what he clearly said were two things: Glad you caught up and we still have a along way to go. Simple but true. At this point he could have destroyed me, but I think he acknowledged my effort by slowing down just a smidgen so that we could finish together. We still had about four hours of paddling left to make it to Kauai, and we ultimately did, but the bigger accomplishment for me was catching back up.
Since that experience I’ve had time to analyze what it was I did that allowed me to get into that place where I literally paddled at close to 100% for almost two hours. Mind set was huge but in actual mechanics, it all started with the breathing. Even the best of athletes constantly have to remind themselves to breathe or focus more on their breathing. It’s natural to focus on the mechanics of the body especially if your working on a new technique. It would be like buying a tricked out race car and putting middle of nowhere, dirt road, gas station, gas in it. You’d be wasting all that time and effort of learning the proper technique, without giving your muscles the fuel they need to operate.
I was very fortunate to experience trance like paddling, I’ve tried to go there again a few times but have never really gotten back to that place where you’re completely possessed and going full bore for a good length of time. I think there must be something about the paddling for fifteen hours prior to, that tore away the clear and cognizant frame of mind that would normally protect you from doing something like that. But that’s what allowed me to literally get out of my own way, and let my body go to a place only it knew it could get to. Whatever the true reason, I’m just glad I got to experience it and I hope that you might too. Be careful though, it wasn’t effortless paddling, I had my finger on the button of a complete explosion that would have destroyed me, had I blown up. I’m sure in reality my heart was red lining for a little while there. Even if you can’t get to that place where you paddle possessed, be possessed to get on the water as much as you can. Not only will it be good for you, it will be good for me if you’re happier when I run into you some day.