The 12th annual Bluz Cruz Canoe and Kayak Race took place on Saturday, April 30. This event is billed as a 22-mile race, though my GPS measured it on Saturday at about 20.7 miles or 33.4 kilometers. Most of the race takes place on the Mississippi River downstream of Madison Parish Port, Louisiana; the final mile and a half (2400 meters) or so runs up the Yazoo River to the riverfront at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Paddling and racing on the Mississippi River includes some of the aspects of flatwater marathon and some of the aspects of surf ski and outrigger racing. Most racers shy away from using flatwater K1s and C1s because even on the calmest day the river is full of squirrelly currents and boils and even a small whirlpool now and then. Surf skis are a popular choice, but the Mississippi rarely offers the sort of offshore conditions cherished by hardcore ski enthusiasts: the closest thing to true “downwind” conditions I ever see is the wave train behind an upstream-going barge rig, and barge traffic is typically halted for events like the Bluz Cruz. So I would characterize Mississippi River racing as a marathon, but one for open-water vessels like surf skis. I happen to love it.
Before this year’s edition I had raced in the Bluz Cruz seven times and won it six times, settling for second place in 2013 when a three-time Olympian named Mike Herbert was entered. I came to Vicksburg this year hoping to add a seventh victory, but I knew it would be anything but a cakewalk. My main competition included much the same cast of characters I’d raced against in the Battle On The Bayou race at Ocean Springs back on March 19. Rick Carter of Eutawville, South Carolina, has proven himself a sturdy nemesis even though he is a relative newcomer to the sport. The 14-year-old Pellerin triplets (Carson, Conrad, and Peyton) of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, have been steadily improving while racing as a K3, and on Saturday they added veteran marathon racer Tave Lamperez of Lafayette to form a formidable K4. Brad Rex of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who had raced with a different partner at Ocean Springs, teamed up Saturday with Randy Hargroder of Opelousas, Louisiana, in a fast tandem kayak.
At Ocean Springs I had been beaten by both the Pellerin triplets and Brad and his partner, and had just barely held off Rick. I had spent most of that race sitting in the pack and trading wake rides, and when the time came to go for it in the late stages, things didn’t quite go my way. I decided that if I wanted a different result at Vicksburg, I would have to try a different approach. In short, I resolved to be more aggressive and push the pace.
The gun went off and I sprinted hard off the line, just like I'd been training to do in recent weeks. In short order I sensed the familiar presence of Rick on my stern wake, with Rex/Hargroder just behind him. It wasn't hard to make them out in my peripheral vision: Rick was paddling a surf ski with a day-glo orange bow, and Brad and Randy were in a bright yellow boat. I glanced about expecting to see Tave and the Pellerins nearby, but couldn't find them. I don't know much about the boat they were paddling, but my guess is that it was a more stable (and therefore slower) craft than what I've been seeing the triplets paddle as a K3 lately. In any case, I assumed they were somewhere in the hunt back there.
I threw in several strong surges in the first couple of miles and managed to break away from my competitors. I was fully aware that I was taking a gamble, but I reminded myself of the good training I'd done in the month of April and proceeded with confidence. I was beginning to feel the first signs of fatigue as I rounded the first sharp bend in the river about eight miles (12 km) in, but I was determined to think only positive thoughts and told myself that as long as I kept the boat moving smoothly it would be difficult for the others to run me down.
After another sharp bend the river flows straight toward the city of Vicksburg for some seven miles (11 km). By this time fatigue was settling in for real, and I tried to stay relaxed and paddle as efficiently as possible, using my legs and my torso. Occasional glances over my shoulder told me that I still had a good lead on those bright-colored boats, but not an insurmountable one if I didn't keep my act together. I continued to keep my mind occupied with optimistic thoughts: "They're tired too." "This is the same river I train on all the time, so surely I'm handling this water at least a little bit better than they are." And so on. But twinges of doubt were creeping in, too. Once the course headed up the Yazoo River, my "big river" advantage would be gone and I would be vulnerable to anybody who'd conserved his energy better than I had.
The wind was picking up and I paddled through a couple of kilometers of increasingly choppy water. At long last I reached the mouth of the Yazoo, and I approached it on a path that I thought would miss the squirrelly shallow water there. Once off the roiling Mississippi I found I had a bit more left in the tank than I'd expected, and I added some power to my strokes while keeping the stroke rate low overall. Maybe, just maybe, this was going to work out. And then...
I saw some day-glo orange over my right shoulder, and at that moment I knew I was in big trouble. I tried not to overreact, and just keep things steady, but knowing Rick was getting a ride on my stern I threw in a couple of little surges hoping to break free. That didn't work, so I shifted my priority to keeping him from moving up onto my side wake where he’d be in a better position to sprint for the win.
Rick began to surge with a kilometer to go, and it was pretty clear that he had more left than I did. I hung in there and paddled as hard as I could, but in the final meters Rick separated himself and beat me by 15 seconds. Our times were 2 hours, 18 minutes, 31 seconds for Rick and 2:18:46 for me. The Mississippi was at a rather low stage Saturday—26.9 feet on the Vicksburg gauge—and as a result the times were slow. My personal record on this course is 1:56:34, in a year when the level was closer to 40 feet.
Brad Rex and Randy Hargroder were just 93 seconds back in taking third place. Tave Lamperez and the Pellerin triplets took fourth overall with a time of 2:28:15. The fastest overall female finisher was Denise D'Abundo of Baton Rouge, who clocked 2:55:18. The complete results are posted here.
Rick was characteristically reluctant to accept the adulation that’s typically heaped upon the overall winner. "You were robbed, man!” he told me; “You worked twice as hard as I did, and I just hung out back there and stole it from you at the very end!" But I see it as a perfectly fair-and-square victory for him. I believe that winning is often simply a matter of being in a position to capitalize when the competition makes a mistake or falters in some way, and that's exactly what Rick did. Expending your energy wisely is a big part of this game, and it turned out Rick did a better job of that than I did.
Also, I apparently made a mistake at the mouth of the Yazoo even though I didn't realize it at the time, allowing Rick to close the gap significantly. After the race Rick and Randy and Brad all asked me why I had “gone so wide" while moving from the Mississippi onto the Yazoo. "Go wide?" I thought; "I didn't go wide!" But in this sport I've learned that what you see from your boat sometimes looks very different from what people outside your boat see, and maybe at some point I should go back to the mouth of the Yazoo and see if I can figure out why the line I took was so costly.
In any case, my mood was upbeat after the race even though I'd spent the second half of it in fear of being caught from behind and then seen that fear become reality. My goal was to win the race and I was disappointed, but if I had to get beat I'm glad I got beat as a result of being overly aggressive rather than as a result of being overly timid. I went out and did exactly what I thought I had to do, and it just didn't quite work out.
In its 12 years of existence, the Bluz Cruz Canoe and Kayak Race has become an important part of the schedule for racers in the Mid South and Gulf South United States. Stay tuned to www.bluzcruz.com for the 2017 race date.
Photo Credits: Paul Ingram
Read more from Elmore Holmes here: http://mytrainingblogbyelmore.blogspot.com/