The venerable United States Canoe Association holds its national championships event each August. Marathon canoeing has long been the signature of the USCA, and the C1 and C2 classes remain the largest fields at the nationals, an annual tradition for hundreds of athletes who love to use a single blade on flatwater. But participation among kayakers has been steadily rising, and the particular popularity of surf skis in North America in the last decade or so means that a huge number of those kayakers are showing up with skis. And for now their home at the USCA Nationals is the K1 Unlimited class.
K1 Unlimited is just what the name suggests: any kayak that will float is welcome to enter, basically, with no restrictions for length or width or weight. The great majority of entrants paddle surf skis, but ICF-sanctioned flatwater K1s are eligible as well. There's a valid argument that this is not fair: the nationals also feature a class specifically for ICF K1s, and the popularity of surf skis is so high these days that they probably merit a class all their own. But I'll save that for another day. Suffice it to say that I probably wouldn't do any better if I swapped boats with any of the K1 paddlers.
I arrived in Northfield, Massachusetts, for the 2016 Nationals on Thursday. I got checked in at the registration area, did a 40-minute paddle with a few sprints, and retired to my friend John Kazimierczyk's house a few miles away in New Hampshire to get ready for my race on Friday. According to the buzz, this was going to be the best-attended USCA Nationals in years. The rumor was that over a hundred single canoeists were signed up, and in K1 Unlimited the number was over fifty. When I last attended the USCAs back in 2007 and '08 there weren't more than maybe fifteen or twenty of us in K1 Unlimited.
I got to the race site about 90 minutes ahead of the 8:50 start time Friday morning and went through my usual routine of equipment readiness, stretching, hydrating, warming up, and so on. Once I was on the water along with the dozens of other K1 Unlimiteds, I could see that it was indeed the biggest class I've entered so far this year. Even with all my years of racing, many distractions beckoned: it was tempting to look at another racer and think, "That guy looks really good, and his warmup routine is entirely different from mine... maybe I'd better do what he's doing!" At times like that it's very important to have faith in your own race-readiness and stick to the routine that's worked for you in the past.
One thought I did allow myself was the fact that I was probably not going to win. There were several fairly elite athletes on the water who would just about have to drop out of the race for me to beat them. There was Mike Herbert, the three-time Olympian and world championships medalist from Rogers, Arkansas; there was Mike Dostal, an accomplished K1 paddler from over in Albany, New York; there was 21-year-old Pennsylvanian Jesse Lishchuk, a rare youngster excelling in flatwater marathon and surf ski racing in this country; there was Roei Yellin, an Olympian for Israel in 2000 and 2004 who made the 500-meter K1 final in 2004.
The gun went off and we embarked on the 13-mile journey up and down the Connecticut River. I found myself in a similar situation to that at Fontana Reservoir six days earlier, surrounded on all sides by surf skis. Just like at Fontana, I tried to work my way as far up the ladder as I could. In the first couple of miles I felt great and couldn't quite believe that I would ever tire.
Reality would set in soon enough, though, as the field began to separate into smaller and smaller packs. I spent a large portion of the upriver pull trying to move up onto the wake of Scott Cummins of Louisville. I could make out the waves behind his boat and I would throw in a sprint to draw five waves behind, then another sprint to draw four waves behind, then another sprint to draw three waves behind; then something weird would happen and I'd get knocked back to four waves behind. When I finally got up onto his stern, I should have just sat there for a good long while, but in my usual brash way I had my eye on the boat up ahead of him and I continued to push the pace, thinking maybe he was getting tired and I could drop him.
In short, I was using a ton of energy in the first half of the race. Scott stayed in contact with me, while the racers ahead of us seemed to be increasing the gap. Finally, about a mile before the turn-around point at the Highway 10 bridge, I let Scott retake the lead and gave myself a long break. During this period Tim Dwyer of Jamestown, Rhode Island, moved up to join us. As we approached the bridge we could see the lead pack coming back down, and it was no surprise who was up there: Herbert, Lishchuk, and Dostal were duking it out up front, with Yellin a few boat lengths back.
Once we were heading back downriver Scott and I took turns pulling while Tim stayed in contact on our sterns. For me the fatigue was setting in with a vengeance, but I couldn't detect that my two competitors were feeling any better and I held out hope that I might be able to pull away at the end. But then Tim moved up front and began to push the pace himself, apparently fresh from all the wake riding he'd been doing. When he began suggesting, in a chipper tone of voice, that the three of us rotate pulling duties at three-minute intervals, it was obvious that he was feeling a lot better than I was. I was well into "survival" mode while it seemed that he was just getting started. I tried my best to take my turn in the lead, but when it was clear that I wasn't setting a fast enough pace for the other two they took over and I finally let them break away with about two miles to go.
Up front, Mike Dostal broke away from Herbert and Lishchuk and glided to the K1 Unlimited national title. Lishchuk, paddling a surf ski, managed to outsprint K1 paddler Herbert to take second "by a nose." Yellin, paddling a borrowed surf ski, finished strong to take fourth.
In front of me I could see Tim breaking free from Scott. Scott was a good 50 meters ahead of me and I had no illusions of running him down. I just maintained the most respectable pace I could and brought my race to a close. As of this writing the results have not yet been posted online. My guess is that the winning time was somewhere around 1 hour and 40 minutes. I think my time was a minute or two under two hours, and my finish was around 15th place, perhaps. The websites to watch for results are http://www.uscanoe.com/ andwww.newenglandnationals.com.
Sometimes I finish a race like this and agonize over the "coulda-shoulda-woulda" aspects of it all, but I wasn't in the mood for that this time around. There's no question I could have done at least a little bit better; maybe if I'd paddled a bit more conservatively in the first half of the race I'd have been capable of a stronger finish and possibly beat Scott or Tim or both. Then again, even if I had done that, I'd still have been in the middle of the field, one paddler among many. So I'd say my post-race attitude is that it's all good... it's cool. You win some and you lose some. And whatever other platitude might come to mind.
The 2017 USCA Nationals are set to take place on the upper Mississippi River at Dubuque, Iowa.
Read more from Elmore here: http://mytrainingblogbyelmore.blogspot.com/