Canoe to the Sea Race 2002, Day One
"Grand Lake to Fairbanks Center, 33 km including 7 portages"
Well, doesn't that advertisement make you want to run down and register before all the slots
are taken? What would make someone want to enter a 33 km race, stopping every so often to get
out and carry their boat over ramp and rock, only to put back in and keep paddling, for up to
4 hours? I know why I liked the idea, so let me tell you my story.
Other than a few tourist paddles, I was never in a canoe until the spring of 2000. I fell into
the sport pretty quickly however, starting with a river-runner kayak and a few races. By the
summer, it was sprint kayaks at Banook Canoe Club and more racing. After a chance discussion
with Allan Billard, I ended up trying out marathon canoeing and got into even more racing. I
have been dabbling in all three kinds of boats for the last 3 years, which makes it difficult
to get good at any one discipline, but I'm unwilling to give up anything that is so much fun.
When I'm sitting in a kayak or canoe, I'm happy. I like the water being so close that I can
let it run through my fingers any time I like. I like being out in the middle of a lake, away
from car traffic. Paddling in the early morning or evening is about as peaceful as my life gets.
Mother Nature doesn't seem to mind me paddling through her living room.
Training and racing in a Marathon Canoe or ICF boat presents a nice series of challenges.
The boats are pretty tippy, the race courses are usually 10-20 km long and there is usually
some sort of portage to keep on your toes. Putting in a 2 hour training paddle is not unlike
road biking. You stay within your aerobic threshold, try drafting with your training partners,
put in a fair bit of distance and get a nice buzz from the workout. If you are the kind of
person who likes 2-3 hour workouts, then the next logical step is racing. Marathon Canoe races
test you mentally and physically from top to bottom. Can you do buoy turns without stalling,
have you and our partner worked on entries and exits at the portages, do you have a liquid &
fuel re-supply system that works, can you handle a 6-7 minutes anaerobic sprint to gain
position at the start of a race, can you draft efficiently, is shallow water really all that
difficult, have you been doing weights, can you handle a crosswind, do you have an efficient
stroke or are you still flailing about like the tourists? Can you stay in race mode for 2-3 hours?
This year, I started paddling as soon as the ice was clear in the Shubenacadie River, then
moved to Lake Thomas. I did paddling-specific weights all winter and have been running 10
miles a week year round. I've been to a few clinics about stroke technique and am very
comfortable in my boat. How do I feel about a 33 km race with 7 portages? I'm ready.
I start thinking about a race early in the week. I want to make sure my training workouts
aren't draining me. I want to stay hydrated all the time, but especially near a race. I make
sure I don't miss meals or sleep. You never really know how you are going to feel on race
day, but it makes sense to stack the deck as much as possible.
For this race, I am taking my ICF kayak. It's 15 years old. Not as fast as the newer
models, but also a lot less tippy. I feel I can handle up to a 1 foot chop with a crosswind.
The race starts at 10:00 AM, so wind will be a factor by the time we get to Lake Williams.
A bunch of us drive up to the top of Grand Lake, schmooze a bit, get our gear ready, and
listen to Doug Archibald describe the course. I'm pretty bad at directions, so it's usually
a good thing that I'm in the back 1/3 of the field, so I can see where we're supposed to be
The start of a Marathon Canoe race is always a shock to your system. You would think that
anyone who is expecting to paddle hard for the next 4 hours would sort of ease away from
the start line, let the aerobic system get warmed up and then pick up speed over a 7-10
minute period. No sir! In these races, position and drafting are very important. On some
narrow river courses like the Annapolis, you don't want to get behind someone who is a tad
slower than you. It will take an extreme effort just to get by them.
The race starts and we all shoot off the line. I'm paddling my heart out, trying to at least
maintain position and not be the last boat to the first portage. There is a fair bit of boat
wash coming off the back of the Pro Boats and I have to work pretty hard just to stay in stroke.
Adrenalin will get you through the first 2-3 minutes of any race, but the next 4-5 minutes of
sprint require training and a decent fitness level. The first portage doesn't go well, and I
get passed. How can I be working so hard, and still get passed? Drives me nuts.
After 15 minutes, I finally get into a rhythm where I can breathe without wondering if I'm going
to have "the big one". I take some time to look around a bit. It is a gorgeous day and I feel
pretty good considering the circumstances. There is someone in front of me to chase (isn't that
always the case?) and I'm happy. Racing gives you a chance to test yourself. As your age moves
you to the front of the pack and your results move you closer to the back, you are the only one
that can judge how well you are doing. Even if you prepare well for the race and make all the
right decisions as you work you way down the course, you are continually faced with the question
of just how deep you are willing to dig. How much pain will you endure? Can you get 100% out of
your body or will you shy away as the cost of the effort starts to mount?
I start to gain back some time on the canoe ahead of me and get a chance to draft for awhile.
Given equal circumstances, a single kayaker ought to be faster than 2 paddlers in a Marathon
Canoe Stock boat, and maybe a tad slower than a Pro Boat. Of course, that is a personal opinion.
There are so many other variables involved that making any sort of statement like that will just
start an argument, which is half the fun.
Just as biking in a group creates wind drafts, the canoe ahead of me is creating a water flow
that I can use to my advantage. Once in the draft, I can maintain my speed using about 10% less
effort, which gives me a chance to rest a bit and store up some energy for the pass. Drafting
is one of the many tactics involved in this type of racing and is even more fun when a bunch of
boats are close together.
By the time I get to the portage at the end of Grand Lake, I have passed the canoe that took
me on the portage. Most of the racers have settled into a sustainable pace. If you're more than
20-30 seconds behind someone at this stage of the race, chances are you won't see them again.
However, since there are 7 portages in this race, you can make up a fair bit of time on land.
I'm not very good at portages, and as we head into Lake Fletcher, I'm passed by Lawson in his
Marathon C1. We stay close together for a few lakes and one thing becomes quite obvious. While
I'm quicker on the water, Lawson is kicking my butt on the portages.
During the water legs, my kayak has the advantage. C1s are quite long and move around a lot
in the wind. As well, my kayak paddle has a blade in the water much more often, which gives
me more control in the wind.
On the portages, Lawson has bit of an advantage during the entry/exit, but that's not the big
difference. When we have our boats hoisted, I feel like I'm running uphill in knee-high water.
Lawson looks like he is running downhill. Very dis-heartening. For the next 2 hours, we take
turns passing each other, I get him on the water and beat him into the portage, he passes me
easily on land and gets a good head start on the next lake.
The transition from Lake Fletcher to Lake Thomas includes a series of portages adding up to
about 0.7 kilometre and Lawson is now almost out of sight. I have drunk all my Camelbak water
and stop at the bridge to pick up my stored water bottle. This gives me a chance to catch my
breath and say hi to the volunteers. At all the portage points, there are volunteers helping
you stay on course. I am very grateful for this, as my sense of direction wouldn't win any
awards. I think that everyone who races should volunteer their time as well. It keeps things
in perspective. Without volunteers, these types of races just wouldn't exist.
I started my kayaking in Lake Thomas and still do a lot of training there. I can remember
the first time I paddled a full kilometre on this lake and how pleased I was with myself. Now,
the entire lake is but 4 km in a 33 km race. Cool! This thought fires me up. I am feeling really
strong. My focus is very good and my entire world is this race. There is no yesterday or
tomorrow, no job, no bills. There is no real pain yet as the race is still young. There is
still plenty of time for the big hurt. I pick up the pace a bit and am taking time from Lawson,
but not enough to get close on this lake.
By the time I finish the short portage into Lake
Williams, I am aware that I need to fuel up. Generally, I don't take on food during a race unless
it goes over 2 hours. After this race, I will probably move to an hour or so, which would match
the other racers. Being a single person with a 2-handed paddle, I have to sit still to eat,
so I take in one of those gel packs right at the dock. Who though those beastly things could
taste so good? The wind that was noticeable on the last lake has now become a race factor.
It's in my face and the chop is easily a foot high. I'm really glad to see those support Zodiacs
out there in case I have any trouble. The waves are breaking over the front of the kayak and
washing right up to the cowling. In these conditions, my advantage over Lawson is better, and
I beat him to the portage, but not through it. We are actually in each other's way, which
gets pretty funny as we go along. I can't drop him and he can't drop me. Going under the bridge
close to Lake Charles, our boats are banging a bit in the channel as we slide over the rocks.
I need to stay close, because if things stay true to form, I will have the advantage as the race
finishes on water.
The paddling and the portages are starting to beat me up. It's great having someone to race
against, but my boat feels like it's made of cement. There is pain. Digging in hurts. It hurts
every second, every stroke. Pushing yourself is not a one-time decision. Your body is
continually trying to get you to stop. Paddling feels good but my muscles have lost their zip.
I'm working under the endorphin-induced illusion that I keep my stroke form even as I tire.
I finally pass Lawson for good on Lake Charles and as it is a long leg, I put some distance
on him before the canal. My position in the race is secure, so there is an option to coast
a bit at this point. I need a new goal, so now I'm hoping to beat a set time (4:10) and it
will take a bit of a push. My goals have changed as the race wears on. First it was to stay
in the pack and hopefully catch and pass a few boats. Then it was to stay ahead of Lawson.
Now I'm racing a clock. My position won't change and my finish time won't change that much.
Only I will know how much that final push hurt. Once I am finished, I'm as pleased with
that last kilometer as I am with the whole race.
If finishing a workout provides a nice buzz, then the feeling at the end of a race as
grueling as this year's Canoe to the Sea was exquisite. When I was much younger, that
buzz would last a long time and then perhaps a bit of pain would set in. Nowadays, the
buzz and pain perform some tag-team wrestling in my much-abused, aching body. The pain
always wins out in the end, but it is never enough to dim my desire to continue training
P.S. The 2002 Canoe to the Sea race actually takes place over 2 days. Day Two is a 20+
kilometre race in Lake MicMac and Lake Charles. While I did make it down for the awards
ceremony, my body did not answer the call for the race itself. No excuses and definitely