Racing is not my strong suit. I’ll say that right out of the gate. When I’ve participated in whitewater races in the past, I have historically lost focus, messed up logistics, or otherwise sabotaged my chances of performing well. I almost always leave a race thinking of one or two (or more) points in the race where a different decision or mindset could have made a huge difference. I like to think that I have not yet reached my potential in racing, that my best races are still within me, but at some point you have to trust the evidence–maybe I’m not a naturally good racer.
But I’m drawn to compete again and again, and I think it’s largely because of the challenge involved. I like how competition demands focus. It places you, mind and body, in situations that require all you’ve got to give. I came into the fall season this year looking forward to the race circuit that I usually participate in (Russell Fork Baddlun, Lord of the Fork, and Green Race). As usual, I did not put as much time into training as I’d planned, but I did manage to fit in more preparation than in previous years–more road biking, long boating, stress-management, etc. Also, I’d worked it out to borrow a Stinger from Liquid Logic specifically for the Baddlun Race. I thought I had a pretty good change of placing top three in that event this year if I had my best race (if, if, if).
Joey Jarrell and I went up to the Russell Fork the weekend before the race, and from the first moment I took a forward stroke in that boat I was in love. I have not paddled Liquid Logic boats and am not sponsored by them; so you can take my opinion for what it is: truly unbiased. This is an awesome boat! Pulling forward strokes, I felt the boat come right up to speed and track smoothly through the eddy. It felt like I was effortlessly cleaving the water with my bow (no resistance), and the boat tracked smoothly forward without veering. On our three runs through the Gorge that first weekend I found the Stinger to be easy to maneuver and a delight to paddle. I remember an irresistible grin spreading across my face as I tracked smoothly into Tower and spanned that long boat off the boof. Later, running the right side of El Horrendo, I melted the ledge and took all twelve feet of Stinger for a mystery move. The only complaint I could find all weekend was that you could sometimes feel the extra length in back banging around behind you on dry ledges, but it was a small issue given the fun (and speed!) provided.
Joey and I practiced the bike and paddle legs of the Baddlun coarse that weekend and endlessly talked over our strategy for the upcoming race. A week later we found ourselves back at the Ratliff Hole parking lot lining up shoulder-to-shoulder with twenty other bikers for the start of the race. I’d been hydrating all morning, had carbed up and lubed my road bike, and I felt ready to go. We were cramped there at the starting line, hardly room to breath as we all clipped in and quieted our minds. I absolutely love starting off in these grass-roots style events: It all comes down to a bunch of friends standing side by side, waiting. One guy with a stop watch gives the thirty second warning, the ten second, and then we’re counting down to zero. Go!
I stood up on the bike and cranked up near the front of the pack. I had three or four bikes ahead of me as we came into the bottle-neck exit from the parking lot and turned up the brutal hill leaving Ratliff Hole. Our tight cluster of bikes moved like a school of fish, conforming as a single unit as we entered the tight right-hand turn. Then, before I could fully grasp what was happening, Delaney Albright swept out to the left in front of me, leaving the formation. I would later learn that Gareth had thrown his chain ahead of us and Delaney was swerving to miss him, but at the moment all I knew was that my front tire was about four inches off of Delaney’s back tire, and I could not adjust quickly enough. Delaney’s rear while swept my front wheel off the pavement, and I was down on the ground with sixteen other racers trying to get around me.
I jumped up and got out of the way, thankfully avoiding causing any other wrecks. Joey had to un-clip to avoid hitting me, but he was soon back in the saddle and climbing the hill. I waited for everyone to get past and then climbed back on and prepared to climb. My chain was off. I dismounted and re-set the chain, and then I had to walk back to flatter ground where I could get on the bike again. By the time I started the climb the pack was out of sight. When I was panting half-way up the hill, I could see the main body of riders making the turn onto the level gorge road. The leaders were long gone, but Joey called down encouragement, “C’mon, Chris. Catch us!”
I was off the bike for maybe forty-five seconds to a minute, but in bike races such a delay gets compounded by other factors. You’re suddenly riding alone, unable to cooperate and gain efficiency with other riders. The good news was, my fall off the bike had given me a surge of adrenaline that propelled me forward. Once I topped out the hill and re-gained my breath, I was riding a wave of anger up the gorge road. I caught the main body of riders in the first descent, and I made it up even with Joey at the bottom of the first hill. After that the spacing between racers became much broader, and I started focusing on catching one rider at a time.
I caught up with Taylor on the long hill–he was toughly grunting it out on an old road bike frame that probably weighed double what the rest of us were riding. As I passed Taylor, I could see two more racers far ahead of me, and I slowly closed the gap on them for the remainder of the ride. I came even with the first rider at the top of the second long hill and discovered it was Delaney. I knew even then that it probably wasn’t his fault that I wrecked, but I couldn’t help feeling some vindictive pleasure as I made the pass and left him on the downhill. The last rider I could see ahead of me turned out to be Gareth. I caught him as we began the final down-hill towards the river, and we were able to work together on the descent into the gorge to increase our speed and efficiency. We caught Charles as we came even with the river, and the three of us peddled into the transition just as Brian Menzes was making the change ahead of us. It looked to me like I’d made it back up into third or fourth position, though I remember wondering where on earth Jay Ditty was.
We all dumped our bikes and began scrambling into boats. I was feeling very winded; so I focused on making a deliberate transition and not wasting time with foibles. But as I put on the river, it was clear I’d lost a lot of time: the other three racers were already a hundred yards down river in a pretty tight group.
Throughout the paddle leg I was able to catch occasional glimpses of the other three ahead of me, but it was quickly evident that I’d spent my wad on the bike. My arms felt limp from the outset, and I made up my mind to paddle smoothly rather than to sprint and risk a mistake. I was thankful to be in the Stinger, which was easy to paddle and did a lot of the work for me. Going slow and steady paid off, and I caught up with Brian Menzes at the end of the river leg. We started running up the steep, rough logging road with maybe forty yards between us.
I had nothing left to give as I scrambled up the trail. Within the first quarter mile I let go of trying to hang with Brian and just walked, intermittently jogging for spurts. I hoped that I had enough of a gap on the racers behind me to hold them off, but about halfway into the run Delaney came cruising up beside me, looking very fresh. I made a half-hearted attempt to fend him off, but there was no way. He loped past me easily, and I struggled forward in his wake. On the downhills I had searing cramps in my sides; most of the time I felt like I couldn’t breathe if I was jogging. I was constantly looking back for the next racer behind me. I thought to myself: this is fun.
I finally caught a second wind as I came back to the river gorge, and I was able to jog up to Ratliff Hole and back stroke across the river, limping into sixth position. The rest of the racers rolled in close on my heals, and we all spent the warm afternoon recovering on the beach, talking and drinking beers. Jay Ditty won the whole deal, and that only using one blade on the river and choosing to portage around Fist. Crazy!
I could kick myself for the mistakes I made in that race, but at the end of the day it’s not all about what a bad-ass athlete you are. These events are fun for me because they’re a test. They expose my weaknesses, and they punish me into being a stronger human being. Most importantly, the races are an opportunity to enjoy great fellowship with a fantastic group of people.
Three weeks after struggling through the Baddlun I would return to the Russell Fork to put up another disappointing performance in the Lord of the Fork Race. Who knows, maybe I’ll never get to enjoy the perfect race that I envision. If I don’t, at least I feel that I’m still getting better and getting stronger, bit by bit. I look ahead to this year’s Green Race with the usual mixture of fear and excitement, and I’m going to try like hell to have a clean race. If I don’t, I know that sixty or so good friends will have my back out there and will make the day a worthwhile experience. It always is.
My prediction for this year’s Green Race: Team Liquid Logic will be a force to be reckoned with. I think that the Stinger presents less of an advantage over the Green Boat on the Narrows course than in a long format race, but that design is fast on any water, and Liquid Logic is bringing out the big guns this year. Mike Dawson ran away with the Lord of the Fork Race, and that after only one trip down the river. He’ll have had several weeks of paddling on the Green under his belt when it comes time to race next Saturday. Will the title of Green Race champion stay local, or is this the year we see the event taken by an international talent? It’ll be a fun day regardless. I’m looking forward to seeing you all out there and to getting good and scared on the river together. Here’s a quick video that I shot at this year’s Lord of the Fork Race to whet your appetite.