As that great philosopher, Roseanne Roseannadanna said "Its always something." Between dealing with trees falling on my house and work travel, I haven't spent a lot of time on the water this year. It figures - I eagerly await a brand new boat all winter and when it finally gets here, just not enough time to get out on it. I think last year by this time I had done two or three Wye Island paddles, this year not one.
So, the original goal this year was to do the Blackburn race in Massachusetts, but I haven't spent enough time in rougher water in the Marlin to be ready for that. That same weekend is the Nanticoke River Challenge in Seaford, DE - a 7.5 mile flatwater race that I have never done before. Since my local training paddle is 8 miles on Rocky Gorge reservoir, the distance was about right, too. Off to Seaford I went.
Mapquest said it was a 105 mile trip, so I had the Marlin and associated paddling paraphernalia on the truck and was on my way by 0700. After the traditional stop for the pre-race 7-11 coffee and a muffin, I was going over the Bay Bridge by 0800 on what looked to be a hot and sunny day with minimal breeze. I hit just a smidgen of Rt. 13 traffic just north of Seaford, as all those Delaware and New Jersey people were heading to the Maryland beaches, while the MD people were heading to the DE and NJ beaches. I guess $4 gasoline hasn't had that big of an impact yet - there were RVs galore, and of course I was doing 210 round trip miles of driving to paddle 7.5...
I pulled into the non-descript launching area and many of the usual people and boats where there. Susan Ladyjustice and friend were doing a tandem racing kayak, looking like Satanic Doublemint twins in their matching red outfits. Jeff Pringle (or what is left of him, anyway - he has apparently been making "healthy choices one day at a time" and is now positively waif-like) was there in his maroon Millennium and we bemoaned the fact that we wouldn't be repeating our close race from last year's Broadkill since I had moved up to a faster boat. Holm and Melissa Schmidt were also there - they have completed the move from South Carolina and are now living in Pennsylvania in a town that I guess was founded by aging liberals - Lake Mock-on-Nixon.
A number of other familiar faces were there with impossibly narrow racing boats, along with a lot of sea kayaks and vac-u-form rec boats. One thing that is unique about this race is that it seems to attract a large number of much older paddlers - many of whom seem to believe cigarette smoking is part of of a good paddling training regime. One guy was very proud that this would be the first year where he didn't actually smoke during the race - he would normally go through half a pack of cigarettes as he paddled along.
The put-in is only about 10 feet wide so there was a logjam to get out on the water but with a minimum of fuss we all got over to the starting line, where there was plenty of fuss. The tide was going out, and the river is not very wide at that point, so there there was a decent current. Twenty five or so boats jammed together trying to stay in place was not a pretty sight. After a few minutes of back paddling and boat bumping, we all finally grumbled at the starting guy "Just say go already!" and he did - which lead to a lot more boat bumping and wild thrashing about. Once the spray cleared and I avoided some of the wildly swerving rec boats, Holm was already almost out of sight.
The Nanticoke is a very twisty and scenic river, edged by lily pads and houses. On this section it is rarely even 100 feet wide, usually less than 50, and there is rarely more than a few hundred yards that is straight. I just started paddling at what felt like a reasonable pace and a pod of four boats formed: two women in a racing canoe, Susan and friend in the racing tandem kayak, a guy in an Epic and me. I figured they all had done this race before and knew the river, so I stayed behind to see what lines they would take around the bends in the Nanticoke. Or maybe I was just hypnotized by the syncopated paddling of Susan and partner in their matching red striped tops and red hats.
In any event, everyone took different approaches. The canoe women seemed to take each turn differently but they were so fast they pulled away. The guy in the Epic hugged every inner shore, just about scraping the lily pads. The Syncopated Satanettes seemed to swing wide on most turns as if looking for deep water. So, I did what I usually do and just generally stayed in the middle of the river - I'm really not much for tactics. I had worn my Garmin Forerunner and heart rate monitor to gauge how hard I could push it but as I looked down I noticed in the thrashing and splashing at the start I hadn't turned it on and once I did the display mode was such that the heart rate display was microscopic and even with my fancy new glasses I couldn't see it anyway.
It was hot out, but after the first 10 minutes or so I got in rhythm and felt pretty comfortable. The guy in the Epic asked me what race class I was in, so I thought "aha, he is racing me" so I decided that would be the race within in the race for me. There are something like 24 different categories, I actually had no idea what class I was in - maybe "name ends in a vowel, can't ever figure out how to use a Camelbak, under 55"? As the river narrowed, he pulled in front of the Doublemint Devilettes and I drafted them for a bit, then tried getting on their wake like we had practiced at Lake Anna, but a couple of skinny women in a skinny racing kayak didn't seem to have any wake that I could notice.
Holm and the faster boats came by on the return, so I knew we were getting close to the turn-around. Susan's paddling partner suggested I sprint around them or else I would have to wait out their slow, barge-like buoy turn. I replied "you are making a big assumption about what my buoy turn looks like" but I sped up and got in front of them (sort of, anyway) just as the guy in the Epic started back paddling to make the turn around the buoy (well, inner tube.) I had to swing wide, and proceeded to cut across Susan's bow and force them to turn directly into the shallow water. Now, I didn't realize at the time that I had done that but when I told this to Jeff Pringle at the finish he offered to pay me $20 for having done so. If they were giving out scores on the buoy turn, even if I had bribed the Italian judge she wouldn't have given me higher than a 1.3.
On the way back I followed behind the guy in the Epic and he kept turning his head to see where I was. I kept working on my stroke, often times even getting two out of the five parts to be halfway decent for a few strokes in a row. With about 2 miles to go I was still feeling pretty strong, so I decided to focus on the "axe chopping" part of the stroke - really stabbing down and getting a good catch and a power stroke, and stop trying to think about hand height and elbow lift and foot push and torso twist and frammis angle. I passed the Epic guy and even increased my stroke rate for a while to get some distance. I could see the canoe women up ahead but never really closed the gap with them. The return trip was against the current and much more slog-like.
I figured the Epic guy was drafting me but I never looked around. I figured that if I was the one behind, I would start to surge when we came under the Rt. 13 bridge with less than 1/2 mile to go - so I stepped up the pace before the bridge. Then once I could see the dock where the finish line was I just gave it everything I had and just did my version of sprinting, which lead those watching from the shore to think a bee's nest had fallen into my boat. Holm and Melissa were paddling around after finishing and they started cheering me on: Holm "Go, you get this guy." Melissa: "Great job of sweating profusely, John!"
I finished about 15 or 20 seconds ahead of him, I think in something like 1:21 - I never did hear a time. The town had a firetruck spraying water up in the air onto the river, so I headed through that to cool off - until I realized that high pressure water sprayed up comes down really hard and really fast - it was like getting slapped in the head with a mop. I got out of the water, put the boat away, apologized to the Titian Twin Terrors for cutting them off at the turn around, and chatted for a bit. The awards ceremony wouldn't be for several hours, and the real world awaited, so I stopped by Susan's van to say goodbye and I walked into a scene right out of the movie "Wild Things": Susan had set up her camper's shower, basically a plastic bag full of water that heats up in the sun. Susan and the two canoe women were standing under it, soaping each other up. All they needed were prison outfits and it would have been every guy's fantasy. They were all fully clothed, by hot weather kayaking standards anyway, so it was sort of the PG version but a nice exit note to go out on. With that vision in my head, I hopped in the truck and headed for the inevitable Bay Bridge slowdown on the way home.
When I got back and looked at the heart rate data, I was pretty surprised to see how high my heart rate was during the race. I'm usually in the high 150's in these races, but it looks like I averaged 172, though that is high because I didn't have it on for the first .25 mile of the race. It wasn't until the last mile or so that I really felt like I was pushing it.
All in all, a fun race on a nice scenic river, very well organized by nice people. Googleicious map of the race course below.