Greg Lesher: 2008 you crashed the Blackburn Challenge party and notched your first of seven top-ten finishes – including a win in 2010. How did you find your way into a surfski? Onto a surfski? I never know which to use.
Craig Impens: Like many other Northeast paddlers, I transitioned from a West Side Boat Shop Thunderbolt onto a surfski. I had the pleasure of working at Jersey Paddler, which gave me access to many different types of boats. My first surfski was a Current Designs Speedster, which isn't the most user-friendly ski. But I loved the challenge of it and have been paddling surfskis ever since.
GL: Can you tell us about your third place finish at this year's Blackburn?
CI: This year's race went well for me but didn't start out as planned. My preparation and training leading up to the event felt good and I was focused on doing well. Getting into the water and doing my warm up, I turned on my trusty Garmin GPS and my eyes focused on a frozen screen! This has happened once or twice before but never on race day or a 20 mile event. After pushing every button on the damn thing so hard my thumbs were starting to get sore, I finally gave up after 10 minutes or so and raced the course by feel. Luckily, this year for the first time I had music on an iPod for the race and that definitely helped ease my mind from the malfuncIioning GPS In and focus on the task at hand.
I had a solid start and was in the mix of the front runners for a while but couldn't hold the pace they were setting. Finding myself in 8th place I knew it was a long race and paddled at a pace I was comfortable at. Matt Drayer and I battled back and forth for about 9 or 10 miles and still had sight of the leaders and racers in between, who were all out on a wider line of the course. We stayed closer to shore and were gaining! Finally knowing exactly what mile I was at approaching the halfway check in, I was feeling great. I started picking up the pace, feeling smooth, and my playlist was rockin'!
This is where I believe I excel. The second half! I began passing racers and found myself in the top 5 - which is great - but I could see that a podium spot was attainable. Keeping my pace fast and steady, I ground my way up to third while focusing on hydrating and popping Gu Gels whenever needed. I could see the leaders, but they were too far ahead as we approached the final stretch inside the break wall. I maintained my position and was pretty stoked to make the podium in one of my favorite races.
GL: In the 2015 Blackburn, a third of the skis DNF'ed and 5 of the top 7 finishers got some rough water remount practice. I went over twice, blowing several remounts on the first. What was that race like for you?
CI: That Blackburn was a rough one! The sea was angry that day and the wind not so friendly either. I went over on a pretty good sized wave at about mile 12. I was flying down the face at an estimated 10 mph but had a smaller weedless rudder on and my tail end slid out. Trying to save it by using bracing strokes failed and I was in the drink. It was in a very rough spot on the course. Panicked and pissed off, I tried unsuccessfully several times to remount in the waves but the ski kept rolling out from under me. A safety boat was near watching me and started heading my way to help out. I calmed down, pointed the ski into the wind and remounted successfully. My race went well after that, but the damage was done. No podium spots when you spend 5 minutes of the race swimming!
GL: I'll let you get out of the Blackburn question cycle on a high point – how was the 2010 race?
CI: The 2010 Blackburn Challenge was a fantastic race for me. That was the year I joined Epic Kayaks as a sponsored U.S. Paddler and I guess I I guess I felt I should justify the support I was given by doing well at a big event. To notch a win at this event is a tough task. I am grateful to be on that list of Blackburn winners.
GL: You do a lot of flat-water races on a ski. And do quite well. Do you prefer flat to ocean paddling?
CI: Unfortunately, there are not too many ocean races in my area. There are a few races on the bay, but most are on flat water. I like racing against K1's while I'm using the surfski and it helps me gauge my training leading up to the bigger races. I actually prefer the rough stuff, but it's over 5 hours of driving each way for me to get to the races in New England that offer bigger conditions. Hopefully, we will see more ocean races in our area in the near future.
GL: For many of us, Photoshopping our heads onto your body is a favorite down-time hobby. What's your gym regimen? To what extent do you concentrate on kayak-specific strength exercises?
CL: Hahaha. My gym regimen isn't anything too complicated. I do biceps and triceps one day, back and chest another, shoulders and a mix of anything I feel needs work on another. I do mix in abdominal work every third exercise daily (for example, 4 sets of bi's followed by 4 sets of tri's followed by 3-4 sets of abs, then repeat) and usually, finish a gym session with 20-30 minutes of fat-burning cardio.
GL: In a bar fight, you or Elite Oceansports' Mark Smith? You've got the reach, but he seems pretty tenacious.
CI: I usually let my 11-year-old Samantha handle all of my light work, but if Mark and I were to find ourselves in a brawl I am not sure what the outcome would be. In any sport, you cannot underestimate your opponent and you have to be ready for anything. Maybe if we stayed on our feet I would have the advantage but if it went to the ground Mark may have the advantage. For now we will just fight it out on the water!
GL: What kind of cross-training do you do during the season? Do you have a particular off-season sport?
CI: My cross-training during the season is mountain biking and swimming. I have a bum knee, so have to stick with low impact exercises. As far as an off-season sport, I tend to stick with snow shoveling and 12-ounce curls of Stone IPA.
GL: You've been pretty open about sharing at least some of your training sessions on Facebook. And perhaps a little frustrated that other paddlers aren't more forthcoming? Wanna be my Garmin Connect buddy?
CI: Sure, I will be your Garmin Connect buddy. But I may have to purchase a new Garmin before we go any further with this relationship!
GL: You missed the entire 2011 and 2012 seasons due to a back injury that required surgical intervention. Can you tell us about the injury and the rehabilitation process that got you back to paddling?
CI: Back surgery at 35 years old was a big decision, but a necessary one. I had sciatic nerve issues with my left side that eventually got so bad I couldn't even sit in a boat for 15 minutes. After many doctor visits, I decided to go with the surgery - a fusion of L5 S1 discs. After the surgery, the doctor said when he went in there the disc pretty much crumbled apart. I never thought that I wouldn't be able to compete at a top level again and was motivated to get back out there, but took the necessary time to recovery properly even though my mind just wanted to get out and race as quickly as possible. I always kept a positive attitude and knew I would be back to racing soon. Currently, my back feels good and I am happy with the decision, but there are good days and bad days. I just listen to my body and back off on the training when needed.
GL: You've cultivated a certain… streamlined look. Any grooming tips for those of us heading your direction?
CI: My streamlined look isn't by choice! I wish I had the flowing locks of a Reid Hyle or Eric Mims, but having a full head of hair is rare in my family. If you find yourself in my predicament just shave it off. Low maintenance and aerodynamic.
GL: You are a Terminator-like presence in longer races. You set a solid pace at the start and just keep it there, methodically grinding down paddlers who went out too fast. If I happen to get ahead of you at the start, I'm always wondering when I'll look back to see your glowing red eyes. Is that a conscious race strategy?
CI: My motto is "Start Strong and Finish Stronger". So yes, this is a conscious race strategy. Not sure how you see my glowing red eyes with my Reflekt Polarized shades on though! ; ) I train very similar to this technique which is a great breakdown of "How to train" by Jimmy Walker
GL: Perhaps your most impressive paddling achievement is corralling Stone Brewing as a sponsor. How does a New Jersey native end up partnering with a premier West Coast brewery? What's your favorite Stone beer?
CI: Stone Brewing makes a great selection of beer. During my recovery time from back surgery, I spent a lot of time on the couch and iPad and sent out an email to the company to see if they would be interested in sponsorship. They asked for more information about the sport and a list of results from past seasons, which started the ball rolling. At the time they were - and still are - expanding quite rapidly and wanted to market the brand more on the East Coast. We agreed on terms and the rest fell into place. Some people may think that a brewery may not be the ideal sponsor to promote in athletics but let's face it, most of us enjoy a cold one after a tough session or hard fought race. Stone Ruination would have to be my favorite if I had to choose one!
GL: Some quick questions to finish…
What's your favorite interval work-out?
CI: I don't do nearly as many interval sessions as I should. In fact, I may have only done a handful of them this season. When I do them it's usually the length of the lagoons near my house. I will sprint the first lagoon then paddle easy to the top of the next lagoon then sprint back down and so on. It's pretty fun in the summer when people are out barbequing and see you ripping past them at a good clip!
GL: What are your paddle specs?
CI: Epic Mid Wing Full Carbon 2 piece at 212 cm and 60 degree feather.
GL: In a dystopian future world, you're allowed one boat for all races. What is it?
CI: Dystopian - is that like an Avatar world? I would easily pick the Epic V10GT. The comfort and speed of this boat in all conditions is hard to beat. The weight of it is remarkable coming in at 20 pounds, which is just under a pound per foot!