Vatten Paddlar Race Report
Saturday, June 9, 2022 – 9am
I was discouraged at the start line to see so few stand up paddleboards, but excited to try to compete and do by best. I signed up for the Vatten Paddlar 5 Mile paddle race in hopes that it’d be a fun training for the Boundary Waters traverse – a project I had on the docket for later in the summer. Also, I had last year’s win to defend. The day started off very similar to last year except I was kind of late getting down to Barnes, which is about an hour’s drive from Duluth, but that hour does not include dropping my board off at the start line, driving to the finish and taking the shuttle back. But, it all worked out and I warmed up just like last year in a perfectly calm, nice and sunny bay where the race started on Middle Eau Claire Lake. Beautiful country.
I did see a kayak that I recognized, and the owner who I tried to draft off last year. The race organizers gave us 15-minute heads up, 5 minutes, and a one-minute notification, and then a GO out of the blue, which caught me off guard. I thought I started my watch and started paddling. I realized… what was I doing? PADDLE!! GO!! Then started thrashing at the water at a ferocious rate, lifting my head to see the green kayak pull out ahead. Two canoes made their way out front, then the green kayak, and I settled into the fourth position, 30 boats or so behind me. I kept my eye on the stand up paddleboard right behind me as well. The glassy water was fantastic. A gust of wind hit me… there it is! I knew the drill – it is so much more efficient to draft and I paddled hard to get to the kayaker in front of me clipping along at a nice consistent rate. I was on either side of him, and at some points really close. I hope that wasn’t a frustration, but I didn’t care enough. This is a race. I finally got right behind in the sweet spot of the wake and the effect was so tremendous. I could stop paddling! I wondered if he started sandbagging to stick it to me for riding his tail so close. When my watch beeped and I saw 11:30 or so, I knew that wasn’t the case. Now, if I could just stick here the whole race, that’d be great. But, a couple buoys and required turns and I lost him just like that
I tried to focus on what I could control, and one thing I learned looking at photos from the Big Ole 17 mile race last year was that I needed to keep my paddle in the water. I was wasting time and energy with my paddle in the air, and had been practicing keeping my stroke the same but getting the paddle in right away and minimizing the recovery time. I had no idea if that was more or less effective, because it was almost a spitting image from last year. One mile in, same exact position with two tandem canoes and a kayak in front, a beautiful northwoods Wisconsin day in July with the sun beating down on me and sweat beading up.
So from there I tried to hold steady, and accomplished that. I kept a 20 foot eye on my kayaker friend, and just made more ground on the rest of the field to the point where on curves and narrows in the middle part of the race were enough where I couldn’t see anyone behind me. I was looking to see, and checking on weeds on my fin. I saw one little stringer and it was enough to paddle backwards and shake it off. I confirmed the seaweed dropped off and furiously paddled forward to regain my momentum. I remembered the shallow areas and had a few close calls, seemingly, going over downed trees and sandy shallow areas. Under the first bridge, through the narrow canal with cheering cabin owners and I got to the dam. Just like last year, this is where I’ll clump up with the slower-to-portage kayak and its speedy owner. I saw him hit sand, and kind of just sit there as I approached rapidly. He got out, got the boy scouts situated to help him and was off on the portage as I landed. I yelled that I was coming through, grabbed my board and ran out of the water to land. I passed the kayaker in the woods right after they looked back like “what the heck is he doing”. I sprinted up the hill and over, down the grassy and steep other side and practically belly flopped into the creek in my haste. I jumped onto my board, crimped my toes to keep my left sandal on and jumped right up to start furiously paddling again. The kayak was just entering the other side of the portage as I got my rhythm and speed back. A few more curves, under the second bridge, and I remembered getting stuck in the sand before the last big lake, Lower Eau Claire Lake. Shallower… shallower… paddle hit sand, then my fin abruptly stopped me and I jumped off and awkwardly, slowly tried to shimmy my way through the sand bar. How frustrating. I wondered how the kayak would do through this. I got to the darker, deeper water, and could see chop coming around the bend already. It was slow going, I saw a spectator and yelled “here is the wind!” and took it head on. Rough. It looked calmer around the bend but I figured the last mile and a half here or so would be slower than the couple of miles I’d racked up already. But also, this is where you put your head down and crank. So that’s what I did.
The kayak was making up ground on me. I wanted to beat him. I wanted to be the fastest solo craft. How cool would that be? So that was my carrot – don’t give up your spot. I figured power, efficiency, and navigation would get me there, and to focus on cutting the corners the best I could helped me ignore the pain of nearly an hour of paddling as hard as I could muster. It worked, but I also knew I was going slower than ever. My focus fell back on a speedy stroke recovery. I had my mean face on, my ugly face, and pushed hard. My left shoulder was starting to get very sore, because I had to paddle in a counter-clockwise direction with the wind coming from my left and really didn’t get an opportunity for relief. The waves and wind subsided tremendously as the finish line came to view. I peered back momentarily and saw the kayak operator no closer than ever. I think I had it. Could I go under an hour? I didn’t think so but was unaware exactly where my time was at. So I focused on bringing it in. I was in pain but could manage for just a few more minutes. On the very home stretch I knew I beat the kayak and it was such a relief to stop paddling at the dock, very warm and happy to finish. The timer yelled out my time: 1:04 and some seconds. Huh. I knew my time from last year. 1:04. Same time? One better placement, though! The other finishers trickled in as I paddled to the bay and jumped in. That was the best feeling ever, and a nice follow up feeling was a cold beer in the sun watching other finishers. After an hour, I just couldn’t wait. I talked to the director Pamela, who like everyone at the race was extremely nice and hospitable. She gave me my sweet medal and $50 in gift cards. I mentioned my request for SUPs to be included in the 10-mile distance. It was funny to see every finisher miraculously have an open Busch Light beer can immediately upon finishing. Not only is it a beautiful area, and a fun and well-produced mom-and-pop race, but the bartender covered my brew since they don’t accept credit cards. Therefore, I’ll be back.
Stand Up Paddleboard: Surftech Bark Dominator 14′