25 Jul 2021
Race Date: July 10, 2021 – 9am
The Vatten Paddlar was the first race I’d lined up for in about a year, and the second in 18 months. And my first paddling race! Needless to say, I was excited for a real race: to compete and push myself and get a finish line flood of the brain chemicals I like.
The morning started by picking up some drive-through breakfast at the coffee shop and hitting the freeway. I was planning to make the hour or so drive to northwestern Wisconsin, to the start line and drop my board, to the finish line to catch the shuttle, and shuttle back to the start. I was right on time, with ample time, despite being a little stressed until I got the start line. The first person I saw was the person I bought my new racing-style paddleboard from: John Mundahl from Herbster, Wisconsin. That was nice to know at least someone, which I didn’t really expect, and to talk about the board and paddling a little bit. I dropped my board and paddle near the launch by other crafts, in a bush, and went off to the start line. I wouldn’t really feel comfortable until I was back to the start line, even though that was hours away.
It was a 15 minute drive to the finish, and I caught the shuttle easily with a couple other paddlers and our nice driver. John shared the back seat with me and I did enjoy talking even more about paddling. It is fairly foreign to me still, and it’s honestly hard to find specific information about paddling, really especially stand up paddleboarding, on the internet. We got back to the start line with an hour at least until the start time at 9. I kind of dawdled around, did a fairly normal pre-race routine no matter what the sport, and got pretty excited pinning a bib to my jersey once again.
I think I was the only one to perform a warm up – I wanted to get into the water with a little bit of time to make sure my setup was on lock. I didn’t know if that was part of the rules. I had found an extensive rules document on the website the night before and was glad I had. Stay between the buoys and shore, no cheating. Eventually as we got within 10 minutes of the race start, the boats all piled in at once. I saw the couple other SUP competitors, and there were certainly a few other 14′ racing boards. My board’s former owner John was in a fast-looking canoe with his wife. The morning was just taking forever as we neared the start. A line of watercraft stayed behind the dock, “GO!” and we were off.
I didn’t look around me, but just paddled furiously right out of the gate to get ahead of everyone. I was wondering if I would regret pushing really hard right away, but I pushed hard right away anyways, and it kind of shook out with two canoes up ahead, a guy in a kayak in front of me, and the two paddleboards behind me. I knew that drafting was going to be very beneficial, and the kayak in front of me seemed to be a perfect option – just fast enough where I maybe couldn’t do that speed alone, but not too fast where I kill myself. I had to surge to get in the draft once I had the first fear of losing him. I took a peek behind me and saw a SUP paddler pretty close behind me as well.
When I got into the draft zone of the kayak, I almost hit him in the back of his craft! The stern. I could feel the draft immediately, and sucked right in. Ahh. But I didn’t have a good stroke. The stand up stroke is definitely different than a two-sided paddle stroke of a kayak, and I would kind of catch-up then fall-behind with each stroke as he had paddles in the water for pretty much double the amount of the time. I was dripping sweat a mile in on the beautiful Middle Eau Claire Lake, and maybe hit my fastest mile ever on a stand up paddleboard as my watch beeped for the first split in 11:40.
Training was spotty up to race day. I had a few 5-10 mile paddles on the new board, and that is about it… Dinking around at the beach or at the cabin, mile here, mile there, but nothing in any semblance of race training. I was going on pure general fitness to keep me in the mix here. And that lack of specific training maybe showed as I wiped the sweat away and skipped a stroke and the kayaker in front of me slowly pulled away from me. The SUP guy was pretty close behind me. I tried to tabulate the number of minutes as I crossed a cabin dock and rounded a corner. I was maybe a couple minutes in front, in first place in the small, small SUP division.
Looking at the race map beforehand, I had kind of broken the race into three parts – the first lake, the connector and the second lake. I knew there was a portage, and that was essentially into the home stretch. That’s what I had in mind as I suffered, trying to eek out every bit of power in my paddle stroke, track the board efficiently, and not lose time. I never realized how much you slow down if you don’t stay constantly paddling, until now, as I had someone behind me seemingly always paddling.
The course was beautifully marked with buoys well within eyesight every time. I was excited to see a river form on the southwest side of the lake and hopefully make up some time on the portage. I already knew I’d run it. The weather was absolutely perfect, despite the sun beating down and seemingly high humidity. I didn’t bring water – and figured I could go without water for an hour. I seemed to be on track for an hour as my watch showed a second split a little bit slower. The race was mostly west and southwest, and the wind was very calm out of the northeast. It was nearly a mile where the kayaker in front of me and the stand up behind me were equidistant to myself. As we entered a winding river-like waterway connecting Middle to Lower Eau Claire Lakes, we all broke up a little. The kayaker kind of took off, and I somewhat inadvertently cut the corner through some weeds. I knew that weeds in the fin would slow me down, but I could also inspect and remove weeds at the portage if I needed. The racer behind me took a wide turn around the weeds. Did I break the rules? Does he think I did? I was slightly concerned for a second, but oh well, no buoys and that wasn’t in the rules! Either way, I put the most distance on the field in the race so far. I pressed hard through a fun winding canal to the portage. There were a bunch of people, the Boy Scouts as it was told, at the sandy landing helping out. I didn’t take the help as I hopped right into the water with my shoes and all, grabbed my board and ran as fast as I could, hoping to catch the kayaker and get a draft in. I did catch him getting into his watercraft, and I tossed mine in right behind. I tried to get going as fast as possible, but the kayak pressed on with equal urgency and despite an intense surge I couldn’t close the gap. I looked behind and saw nobody. Under a railroad trestle, through another narrow channel, and I unfortunately got lodged on a sandbar. I quick jumped off and splashed around until I could push off to deeper water, and I hopped back on a furiously paddled away.
Onto the final lake, I knew it was a mile or so around the far shore to the finish. I just followed the buoys and tried to crank as hard as I could without stopping. I seemed to make up time on the kayaker as I grunted with each stroke. I was starting to feel the burn in my shoulders and wanted sweet relief from paddling so bad. But I wasn’t there yet. A quick glance at my watch and I knew I wouldn’t go under an hour. Oh well, I had so much time on the paddlers behind me I knew I’d at least win. That revelation made me slow down a little bit, as I continued to curve around the west side of the lake into a bay. I saw more people on the water then the finish line. Nice. I looked down and saw blood streaming down my leg. What the heck? It must have been a scab I ripped open on the foam decking when I hit the sandbar and had to jump off and back on the board. I washed it off with water quick, then finished up the race. Oof. I was so beat at the finish line, and my shoulders were dead. It was really nice to stop.
I talked with a few of the competitors, and one was going to the Big Ole race the next weekend. I left quickly, though, to get back to Duluth before noon. First, I took a cookie and grapes. Those were very delicious. The race was incredible – well produced and that is really important for a first timer to feel comfortable. It was different experience than I had before on a paddleboard. The thrill of racing… is great.
Pace: 12:36 minutes/mile
Watercraft: 14′ Bark Dominator