In the best races, there is always that moment.
That moment when you just know. When you realize that no matter what you are paddling through, against or with, you are going to make it. You are going to accomplish your goal. And then some.
Last Saturday, during the ChuckTown Showdown, that moment was very distinct. It came at about Mile 3.46, just shy of an hour into the race, right before I turned to make the run along the backside of Castle Pinckney, also known as Shutes Folly Island.
I wasn’t at my fastest pace of the 9.5 mile course, hardly. And we were nowhere near finished. I was almost at the light tower that warns ships of the spit off the island that in low tide could be a hazard. The section from the end of the battery at White Point – where pirates were hung in the early 18th Century – to the that tower was the toughest, most technical part of the race. Standup participants were met with a fierce headwind and white caps. If you were going to fall, it would likely be here. It is the one of the main channels of a busy Charleston Harbor. But it’s also where you get the best view of the Holy City, its Rainbow Row, and the breathtaking Ravenel Bridge. If you can bear to look.
My craft of the day, the 22-foot long Puakea Ehukai is made for these kind of conditions. Designed by the master himself, Johnny Puakea, the name is Hawaiian for Sea Spray. And spray there was, coming off my bow. The Ehukai, as I have learned in the year I have been paddling it, loves a headwind almost as much as it loves a downwind.
At first, the onslaught of that wind, as we came out of the protection of the Battery, was jarring.
Just breathe and paddle. Breathe and paddle.
I saw my fellow sup competitors taking a line closer to the island. But for me, that would put the wind and the waves more on my ama or outrigger side, making me more vulnerable, tense and likely to favor paddling just on my right side, which would reduce efficiency. And it would also make the turn around the island, an ama-side turn, more complicated, likely forcing me too close to the island and the shoals.
I chose to head directly into the wind, even if it meant deviating away from the rest of the racers and taking me wider toward the light tower. Let the Ehukai run! This way I could power through the waves with a reduced chance of a huli or capsize, paddle just as strong on both sides thus improving efficiency and reducing fatigue, and really drive in with my legs. It would also set me up to take better advantage of the change in wind and sea I would experience when I came around the island.
I settled into a rhythm. “Ki-ah Kah-ha, Ki-ah Ka-ha…Imua Imua!” I chanted out loud. Like a metronome, a mantra, not as a curse. Kia Kaha is a Maori phrase that means “stay strong” and Imua is the Hawaiian admonition to go forward towards a goal. It can also signify commitment to a cause.
Soon, the bow was lifting up and over the white caps and slamming down into the water.
I felt the smile come over my face.
I felt my shoulders drop and my jaw relax.
Each time the bow went up and over, my blade was there, planting and pulling the boat ahead.
And THAT was the moment.
I just knew, that no matter what else happened, this was going to be a great race.
“Did you see all the carnage?”
Danielle on her prone board came along side not long after we rounded the tip of the spit, the light tower on the left side.
Honestly, I was so focused on the that section of the course I did not notice what was happening around me.
We were now heading into the most technical part of the race for me – the wind was ama-side and the water was disorganized. There were a few bumps to catch but I paddled mostly on the right side to be ready to brace. It was good to have Danielle with her local knowledge there to confirm my suspicions about the conditions and decisions on which line to take. And to just chat.
The heart rate dropped. I stayed relaxed. The smile remained.
The water was warm, and soft and I noticed how it felt on my skin each time my hands and lower arms dipped into it, every paddle stroke.
I saw stand up paddlers closer to the island and taking what appeared to be a closer line toward the cell tower that marks the other end of Castle Pinckney.
“They are being blown down,” Danielle said.
We paddled a much wider line, going far left again, to set up for the most downwind position possible to get by the light tower. That really paid off, as we were well positioned to take advantage of the conditions and to be efficient. And rested. We didn’t have to fight.
And then we saw dolphins right in front of us.
Always a good sign.
We crossed the channel again and I was able to catch bumps. It was fun! It was exhilarating, even though as Danielle pointed out, Castle Pinckney didn’t seem to be moving! But I didn’t care. I was still on some sort of OC1 high. Soon, we couldn’t hear each other because of the wind so we waved goodbye. It wasn’t long before I was back in the lee of the battery and in the Ashley River.
Two miles and some change to go.
That’s when I decided to kick it up a notch. Garmin and the SpeedCoach told me after the fact this was my fastest stretch. I was rested from the smart choices I made during those technical sections. I was still on the OC1 high. I was motivated.
I started passing people. Some of the same folks who made up time on me because they took that initial shorter route to the cell tower but were now feeling the fatigue.
I caught a few more bumps, including one that was big enough to bury the bow of my canoe. I leaned back. I felt the canoe go.
This year’s Showdown had a slightly different finish – adding some distance. I won’t lie, I was kind of wishing for the old ending. This year, we had to round a buoy father up the river then sprint to the dock for the end. I homed in on that buoy and managed a super tight turn around it, passing a fellow on a SIC board just like the one I used on Maui earlier this year. I’m not sure if I cut him off- I probably did.
At this point, April and John were there, cheering me on. I don’t know what I said to her, but it prompted at “YOU CAN TALK TO ME! THEN YOU’RE NOT PADDLING HARD ENOUGH!!!”
There was banter, and I may or may not have gestured or otherwise intimated faux displeasure with the two of them as I crossed the finish line.
No huli. Ten minutes inside the lower range of my target finish time. And feeling super excellent. Mostly because of the smart choices I made, and because I did not let the conditions play mind games with me. I reached the supreme paddle state because my mind won first.
I have been training for that outcome all season long.
Kia Kaha. And Imua, y’all!!!
See the entire ChuckTown Showdown 2016 results here.