The Inland Paddler On Being the Bug

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Inland Paddler Being the Bug

To quote Mary Chapin Carpenter, some times you’re the windshield. Sometimes you’re the bug.

Last Saturday was a bug day.

As in I bugged out. A quarter of the way into the Cape Story OC race across the bay at Virginia Beach. Funny thing was, I wasn’t nervous or anxious about the race. In fact I was looking forward to just paddling in the ocean and being with friends at what was supposed to be a low key event. I hadn’t even planned on attending this race. It just turned out that I was able to go, kind of at the last minute. So there was no build up of anxiety producing anticipation.

The water looked pretty benign at the beginning.

But once the horn went off and the handful of us in outriggers, surf skis and even a sea kayak or two got off the beach, appearances were nothing like reality.

It would have been a great day for a downwinder but instead, our course took us out with the swells on the ama or outrigger side which made for an uncomfortable paddle at best. I totally forgot someone else had last paddled in my canoe and the seat was all wrong- I couldn’t push off with my legs- kind of like driving a car without being able to reach the pedals.

I found it impossible to settle into a good rhythm.

This was going to be painful. It was going to suck.

I’d been in “It’s going to suck” spots like this before. Like the Graveyard at this year’s Carolina Cup, where I huli’d or flipped over four times just trying to get off the beach. Or Paddle Imua on Maui, where the usual downwind disappeared and was replaced by a nasty side wind, big side swells plus rain and fog. Both times, the drive to make it through the challenge and finish was strong. Sustaining. Invigorating even. I imagined myself finishing strong and being able to say “YEAH I FREAKIN DID THAT.” And both times I did.

But Saturday was just, well, let’s just say there was no carrot in front of the horse.

I would have finished, but it would have been well behind all the other paddlers; I was plodding along in the back of the pack. I could have dug in and done it.

But suddenly the pay off just didn’t seem, well, worth it.

Why aren’t I downwinding and having FUN instead of fighting this, I wondered.

Once you’ve had a taste of a good downwinder, it kind of spoils you the same way getting upgraded to first class kind of spoils you for coach.

The thought of quitting didn’t enter my mind until the Coast Guard safety Zodiac started trolling me. The little rubber boat with the big motor passed me, close enough to have an easy conversation, which is to say too close, not once, not twice but three times. And not just passing me, it actually did circles around me, kicking up a wake that made it even harder to avoid a huli each time.

Now, this is not the first time I have ever been dead last, or as they say in the Tour de France, the Lantern Rouge. Nope, not at all. I have had safety boats follow me before. But usually they make sure I’m good and go on, or they keep a respectable distance. That was the case with the Paddle Imua.The jet skis stayed way off, close enough to tell I was okay, close enough to get to me if need be, but far enough away to let me just paddle and race my race. I was reassured, not ever annoyed.

Now maybe this was the first time this particular crew of Coasties had ever done this kind of thing before. Maybe they thought they were doing me a favor. Certainly they believed they were doing their job. But after the third circle, I just couldn’t see enduring this kind of attention for another five miles, just because I happened to be the slowest paddler in the group.

After asking me a third time if I was okay, I actually felt like they wanted me to quit.

In retrospect, I realize I was fatigued from a long week at a trade show and jet lagged to boot. Combine that with the recent anniversary of losing my dad, I just didn’t have enough in the mental tank to blow off the attention of the safety boat. I let it get to me.

“You know what, I’m going to do us all a favor. I am going back.”

“We just want to make sure you’re okay.”

I’m paddling, aren’t I? I’m breathing, aren’t I?

Whatever.

I quit.

I have never done that before in any paddle race. Not ever.

I guess there’s a first time for everything.

I felt immediate relief as I turned downwind and enjoyed a few bumps before heading back to shore. But in the two mile paddle back, the negative self-talk started and I started to feel ashamed of the decision.

Then another safety boat, not Coasties this time, came at me.

“You’re doing great, You’re doing great!”

No, not really. What the??? Surely they know that Number 710 is DNF’ing done? The Coasties called it in.

They zoomed away and I promptly huli’d. But I recovered quickly and easily because, after the carnage that was my Graveyard start, I have practiced self-rescue in the OC over and over again, in fact I make it a point every single time I paddle it. The chop was so, well, choppy that the the ama was rebounding off the backs of the swells as they passed underneath me. It was a really weird sensation.

I looked upwind and saw a powerboat coming towards me. I stopped to let it go past. But right behind it was a ginormous fishing boat bearing down on me. It seemed that as I moved forward it was changing course to come straight at me. I was pretty darn sure it could not see me. Where the hell was that damn Coast Guard Zodiac when I really needed it??? I kicked it into high gear and sprinted like there was no tomorrow until I was well out of the boat’s way.

Then I huli’d. Again.

This time that non-Coastie race boat saw me and came in for the rescue. But, thanks to the wondeful, simple and fast recovery technique taught to me by Margo Pellegrino, I was back in the canoe and paddling before they could even say “You’re doing great!” again.

By this time, I felt horrible.

Maybe that doper cycle guy I used to admire was right. This was going to last forever.

The more I replayed the four miles I paddled over in my head, the madder I got. Mad at myself, mad at the Coasties, mad at my seat, mad at myself again for not checking my seat. I gathered up my gear, got my canoe off the beach and onto my car. I’m taking my outrigger and going home.

Then I saw a dear friend of mine. Her race ended one mile from the finish, after cramps and nausea got the better of her. That put things in perspective.

It took the three and a half hour drive home to get my head right. Traveling down I-95, I thought about Chapter Seven of Suzie Cooney’s book, the chapter on the mental part of paddling. The chapter where she reminds us among other things that if you’re unwilling to fail, you’re unwilling to learn. When I got home, I re-read the chapter and remembered that I have a pretty darn good toolkit to help handle these situations. Maybe I needed this situation to get reacquainted with it. Maybe I needed this situation to add to it. Motivation.

(Suzie discusses the mental part of paddling in this insightful webinar)

There are positive take-aways.

My huli recovery work has certainly paid off, for one.

The day after, I took the OC out for an easy low intensity paddle on the lake, focusing in on technique and practicing huli recovery. I saw snowy egrets and blue herons on the shore. I heard kingfishers. I was reminded why I paddle. Why I love it so. I worked on balancing the canoe just so to lift the ama out of the water without flipping. I was successful.

Inland Paddler Being the Bug

So, Mr. Armstrong was wrong. Quitting, just like pain is only temporary. What lasts forever is what we learn from it. We’re not losers or quitters if we can take something of value away from the experience. And hey, as it was pointed out to me, quitting often takes more courage than staying in.

I did not “Did Not Finish” Saturday, I simply Did Not Fun, as my friend Dottie would say. One of the things I learned – or at least was reminded of – is that the mind is a terrible thing to waste. We waste it when we let it go all negative. Just like Suzie says in Chapter Seven, “…having amazing paddling skills and training hard are both important, but to achieve the SUPreme state of paddling performance, it is the mind that must win first.”

Next time, I will open up that toolkit and most definitely defeat any self-talk. I will remember this experience and use it to my advantage. And since the next time is going to be in the Columbia River Gorge, where I will be downwinding, it most certainly will be fun.

Guarantee it.