Big Ole SUPathon Race Report
Race Date: July 16, 2021 – 8am
I was excited to try my shot at a second paddleboard race in as many weeks. I wondered how much differently pacing would play into a race of 17 miles versus 5. My upper back had stopped being sore a mere day earlier, and I was paddling at an all-out effort to maintain about 5 miles per hour at Vatten Paddlar. That effort seemed unsustainable for over an hour. I was hoping for under four hours this day.
In previous years, and regularly scheduled for this year was a finish line on the lake of my parents’ cabin – Lake Miltona. The start line is just minutes away from the cabin and so when I heard about the race it was a no-brainer to register. I like to think I like long stuff better so I signed up for the 26 mile race event through many lakes. Due to low water the distance was downgraded to 17 miles, and I was OK with that. It was so nice to stay at the cabin the night before, and I made the long drive from Duluth to Miltona the night before, had a nice big breakfast in the morning and drove to the start line relatively late in the morning. (Relative to some other races when you’re up at the crack of dawn).
I saw local Duluth resident Jared Munch, who has some serious SUP accolades, including paddling trips of hundreds and thousands of miles (well, over one thousand miles). He had won the race in the past, and after looking at past years’ results, knew a past winner Craig Stolen was also signed up. Past winning times were at a 5mph average at least, and I couldn’t hold that for 5 miles one weekend before so didn’t have incredible confidence on pulling off another win. But I knew that I could utilize faster paddlers’ wakes to my definite advantage! And Jared told me about that key to the race beforehand as we were preparing.
It was a short time at the starting area, which was nice. I sunscreened up, got my pack and lifejacket all set up, and used the porta-potty at the boat launch. I had no issues putting my board in the water and warming up a bit. I tried my sandals instead of shoes this time, and wanted to try fingerless gloves just to avoid blisters. I didn’t know if that would be comfortable or not. I was fiddling with my stuff and one glove went in the water. Great! One wet glove. Gah. I second guessed my footwear, but didn’t want to set them on the deck unstrapped. What the heck am I doing out here? I was so tired the weekend before after 5 miles, how was I going to triple that plus a couple?
Other boats were circling around the small bay where the race was to start, and at 8 it was clear that the race would start late because not everyone was in the water. What the heck?? I’m here. Anyone? Anyone? There was a brief pre-race briefing, and I learned that there were no buoys at this race, as opposed to buoys lining the course a weekend before, and that the maps were pretty critical to completing the full course. The course was straightforward, but it certainly relied on map-reading and orienting yourself to the land features. Luckily, I felt like I had pretty good experience in that with just a couple Boundary Waters trips under my belt. I tried to study the maps as we neared the start time, and the organizers audibly agreed that 8:10am would be the race start. With a 10 second countdown, the line of boats heard “GO!” and churned up the bay by paddling out towards the opposite shore. A big, sleek solo outrigger canoe took off way fast, with Craig right behind drafting, and Jared somehow caught off guard and paddling hard to get on the draft. They were far to the left, and just took off way too fast. They were immediately gone and I was pretty bummed right away that I missed the draft. It was going to be a long, long day.
The weather was looking really good. A decent wind of 10mph by noon from the south. The first many miles of the race were headed north, affording a nice tailwind for the majority of the race. But, that means we’d have a headwind for the final 6 or 7 miles of the race, and the wind was only set to pick up throughout the day. I glanced at my watch and I appeared to be moving pretty fast right away. 17 miles, I told myself. Long long day. I had studied the little course map as much as I could to start, but wanted to make sure I was going where I was supposed to. Each of the lakes seemed fairly short, and the course fairly simple to follow. Also, I had a group of three up ahead cranking. I did see them going into the first tunnel from Lake Victoria to Lake Geneva. I was dripping sweat already. There were a couple dudes near the culvert with a cooler offering bottled water. I declined and paddled right through.
It was a bit shallow on the Lake Geneva side of the culvert but I got through no problem. The rower and two speedy paddleboarders had made up big time and they were nearly out of sight. I drank some water from my bladder hose, peeked at the map – straight ahead across the lake – and paddled away. Yep, it was gonna be a long day, I thought. I looked behind my shoulder after a paddle stroke and I saw two other paddleboard racers pretty much right there. Gah. My stroke slowed, power decreased slightly. I was gonna draft them.
Trying to keep a smooth, efficient rhythm and I heard right behind me: “you wanna draft?”. I yelled YES and stopped for one second. I was able to lock in with two older guys on 14′ boards. I recognized one of the boards in the pre-race meeting, the announcer talking about the prize drawing at the end and how this person won it and was back to compete in the race with the board he won. Cool board! He was cranking. The other guy had a more racy-looking one. Narrow, sleek and fast. It was nice to draft for a little bit. We chatted a little. Then, I started falling back. Gah, WHY. This was supposed to be easier! I had to get back in the draft. Ahh.. got back right behind the guy in the white board. Nope, fell right back. I HAD to surge if I wanted to avoid losing two more paddlers and being left in no mans land. I surged, and surged hard. It was no avail. They pulled away. Whatttt the heck. What am I doing out here doing fricken SUP races. The carbon kayak-like craft pulling those two fast dudes was way up ahead, out of sight. I was in the middle of Lake Geneva. Struggling. I stopped the aggressive surge and just kept paddling. Something must be wrong, and so I looked back. The leash was out of the water, but there was a huge clump of weeds dragging behind my craft. Typical! How long has this been going on? It must have been before the first culvert where it was a little mucky with weeds and shallow. I stopped, back-pedaled and tried to fish the weeds out. Accelerating quickly from backwards, I hoped to juke the weeds off as one big clump. A clump floated away, so I figured that did the trick. I paddled off, checked back and seemed to be clear.
Wow, just that acknowledgement that it was the weeds slowing me down gave me a bolt of energy. Plus, the brief break of relentless paddling. I felt like I was going faster… The shore was getting closer faster, and I seemed to be making time on my two pals right up ahead. Sure enough, I caught up before the end of Lake Le Homme Dieu. It wasn’t as hilarious of a story to them as it was in my head. They went through the culvert first, and I saw my mom on the road over top. Sweet, that would be nice for some energy potential future tunnels.
Onto Lake Carlos, I felt like I was cruising. I dropped the two older racers, and was chasing the three ahead of me. It was probably no contest at this point, but ya never know, and it’s an out-and-back so we would see everyone anyways. I paddled tight to a point, where there was a boat pointing towards the docks at Lake Carlos State Park where the turn-around buoy is. I saw the gal in the sleek boat just cranking ass way out ahead. She was making real good time. And, I figured, right against the wind. Yeesh. I got closer to shore, and it seemed to be getting a little wavier. It had been perfectly calm on the water with an ever-light tail breeze. In the first place for paddleboards was who I thought was past winner Craig Stolen not too far from the canoe racer, and Jared Munch not too far back from him. I was still a ways from shore, and the two guys behind me were a bit back. The guy in the orange board, the won board, was closer, and the master blaster on the white board was a bit back from there. I started planning my turn-around. Might as well eat a bit of food then. Might as well now, because the waves were pushing me to shore and I could see the buoy pretty close, through a bundle of weeds sticking out of the water. I saw my mom on the dock. I got onto my knees, grabbed a bag of chips off the front of my vest, seemingly fumbling about, just shoving the food into my mouth as quick as possible, a bit more, then shoved the baggie back into the front of my vest. I drank water immediately, then started trying to turn at the buoy. I got pushed to shore a bit, but righted myself and paddled away into the straight-on headwind.
It was over 10 miles in at this point, over half over and I was feeling pretty good. Good pace, muscles good, grip still good. I didn’t think I could make big time on Jared or Craig. They looked comfortable enough and that was just a really big gap. I could hold off the people behind me, and just see how the time would pan out to be. The wind was pretty rough, but I thought it’d benefit me. It was kind of a fun change up. Everyone’s paddling into the wind, if I can just slice through with greater efficiency, I can make up even more time on the field. Just keep cranking. The guy in the orange board made up a bit of time, and he was right there. He had earlier said he was slow in the waves. It was wavy, and a bit tippy every now and again. Not necessarily easy paddling. We were babied on the first majority of the race. But he was right there. He practically caught up to me! But we weaved headed back to the point where a volunteer boat was anchored. I would shake him in the shallows of the point, in the weeds. My board seemed to be in good shape, without weeds in the back. I was checking, and I weaved through the islands of reeds to the open middle part of Lake Carlos and back to the final culvert.
The corner I was passing through, with islands made out of reeds, offered a brief reprieve from the wind. I passed right through it. There seemed to be another jut-out ahead that I aimed for. It was a little arduous. I couldn’t stop for one second without the waves pushing my board to the side. I had to paddle on one side, and if I tried for relief on the other side I’d turn so quickly. I didn’t care about the slow rate, but noticed my mile splits were the slowest of the race so far, by far. I had put a little time on the guys behind me. They were both pretty close to each other, but I had a bit of a gap now. I couldn’t see Jared ahead.
I turned the corner that I had been aiming for and it was really shallow. I paddled hard, confident in my line, and luckily I didn’t hit the bottom. It was close, though. I saw the culvert right at the end of the bay, straight on pretty much along the northern shore. A peek behind and just like that, like a rubber band, he was right back behind me paddling furiously. I couldn’t shake this dude! I wanted at least bronze! I pushed hard toward the final lake, eating some gummi frogs for a last jolt of energy. I got close to the last culvert over a road and there were lots of people – several on the road, plus an angler in the water with waders, and my mom. I didn’t have much to say – I essentially grunted. I was tired. These waves were tough. I had to let it all out for third place, and knew this lake was pretty short, just along the right side to the finish. I was so excited to paddle on my left, if all we had to do was kind of bend around the right shoreline.
When I got to the final lake, it was a nasty cross-wind and I realized I had to paddle on the right to stay on track. My shoulder was killing me. My form seemed to be deteriorating, and I was using different methods to get forward propulsion, like long, deep, powerful strokes, then I’d be doing rigid, choppy, but very rapid paddle strokes. It was all painful. There were a few boaters and I didn’t want them to look at me struggle. I had to put time on this guy behind me, we were both aware of where the finish line was at, and he was strong right behind me, steady. I saw a big building and thought the finish was around there. I just put my head down and cranked away. I thought I got into some weeds too close to shore. I looked back. He was there, but pretty far back. I couldn’t stop. That would be the only way to lose. I saw docks further to the left, and a couple kayaks. That must be the finish. My shoulder was so sore from paddling on my right side. I had to push as hard as possible. It would be over soon. I happened to barely have a peek on my watch in between violent paddle strokes, and noticed I was beyond four hours. Jeez. The finish line became close enough to see exactly how I had to skirt around a batch of reeds, then in between two docks to the beach, then run across the finish line. I paddled it home, feeling so ragged. I pushed my boat onto the sand, hearing it scrape, then jumped off with the leash still attached and ran my board over the finish line. Oof. It was over. I stopped my watch, then barely dragged my board off the finish line to where others were lined up, and almost clumped to the ground.
Due to goose poop, I stayed upright. My mom was there, asking me questions and if I wanted a ride. I couldn’t make a decision, or form coherent sentences, so essentially she left to get groceries and I slowly recovered from an all-out intense effort to capture third place in the stand-up paddleboard division. In a cooler there was water, and in a grocery bag beef jerky and other various snacks for racers. That was pretty tasty. I took the shuttle back to the start line, got my van, drove it back to Lake Darling, stopped on the way at a gas station. I got chocolate milk, 1919 root beer, and a white gatorade and it was all so good. Back to the resort, I hauled my board back to the parking lot and strapped it on. I hit lengthy road construction on the 5-mile drive back to the cabin, and by the time I was back I was so exhausted I didn’t make it to awards! The 17-mile effort was intense, but the format of paddleboard racing is addictively intense and I’m so excited to do at least the two next season, as well as various other paddleboard route attempts.
Watercraft: 14′ Bark Dominator