Monday, June 13, 2016

SUP Race Report: Battle on the Blueway 2016

Race: The Battle on the Blueway.

Date it happened: 11-12 June 2016.

Host / Sponsors / Benefitting: Hosted by Lee County's "Calusa Blueway" paddle trails program and the SWFL Sup Club. Sponsored by Ron Jon Surf Shop, Estero River Outfitters, and others listed on the event page. Benefiting Lee County Special Olympics.

Location: Crescent Beach Park, Fort Myers, Florida.

Distance: The Saturday main event was three laps around a 4 km course, a little over 12 km total. There was also a shorter race that was just one lap. Each lap had 6-7 buoys to go around, although two of those turns were oblique enough that you could curve around them without slowing down. Sunday morning there was a 16 km race for 6-person outrigger canoes (OC6), and while that was going on there were SUP sprint relay races in the morning, then kids' races and Special Olympics races.

Conditions: It was hot and humid with minimal wind. The Gulf of Mexico was glassy except for tiny wakes and swells. Light tidal current flowed from North to South. The water was brown and the beach stank with dead algae, dead coquina clams, and prune-like dead sea squirts presumably washed up by the preceding week's high surf from Tropical Storm Colin. Another factor contributing to the nasty water was ongoing discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, which empties near Ft. Myers Beach. The polluted lake water ought to be treated in wetlands south of Lake Okeechobee and then passed southward to the parched everglades to mimic the historical north-south flow pattern. But instead it's dumped west to the Caloosahatchee to appease the wealthy sugarcane barons who own land south of Lake Okeechobee and who are in the pocket of many state politicians. As I've advocated in this blog post, the state needs to buy out the sugar land asap and convert it to a wetland for water storage and treatment, or our SW Florida beaches are just going to get browner and stinkier each year.

Participants: There were over 100 competitors in the various divisions, including about 50 SUP paddlers in the 12 km race. The men's 14' division included professionals Ryan Helm (Riviera), Gabriel Beauchesne-Sevigny (Riviera), Josh Riccio (Rogue), and Garrett Fletcher (Yolo). The women's 12'6 division had international stars Seychelle Hattingh (Mistral) and Kim Barnes (Riviera), both just back from Europe. (Interestingly, the women raced 14s in Europe, and taller Seychelle excelled ahead of Kim in those races. But on 12'6s here in the USA petite Kim was on equal footing with Seychelle again.) Some of the top Florida sponsored riders, including Hoviesup's Brad Ward and Kieran Grant, switched from their usual 14' boards to 12'6 boards for this race- wise moves to have a better chance at money positions on the 12'6 podium. The CGT Kayaks and Paddleboards "Tribe" was out in force for this big race in our backyard, participating both as racers and as volunteers helping in all sorts of ways both Saturday and Sunday. For example, artist/craftsman Steve Nagy volunteered, and raced, AND was the one who made the trophies. Big thanks to all the volunteers.

Results: Full results are posted on Paddleguru, and photos and news clips from the race are posted on the Battle on the Blueway facebook page. Disclaimer- Every SUP racer's times listed for the Ron Jon Pro are slow by about 90 seconds, probably because they are based on when the kayaks and outriggers were released, which was a bit before the paddlers. In men's 14, Ryan Helm got 1st in 1:16:17, Josh Riccio 2nd in 1:16:32, Gabriel B-S 3rd in 1:16:36. (In the video it looks like Josh and Gabriel arrive at the shore simultaneously but Josh jumps off and runs quicker.) Garrett Fletcher was 4th in 1:18:05, Sam English 5th in 1:20:45, Mark Athanacio 6th (1st 50+) in 1:20:59, me 7th in 1:22:11.84. Between Athanacio and me were the top two men's 12'6 racers Kieran Grant in 1:21:12 and Brad Ward in 1:21:42, and Darian Hildreth on an unlimited length sup in 1:22:11.47. Just hundredths of a second behind me was 8th place 14' Jake Stepp (GUSU) in 1:22:11.89. More on that later. Seychelle and Kim had a typical near-tie finish in 1:25:03/04. Matt Kearney was first of my CGT team 14' sup peers in 1:28:29, followed by Mark Hourigan and Justin DiGiorgio just a bit later. Another CGT teammate, Devin Turetzkin, was the first over-50 12'6 in 1:33:20. Joe Gladieux was the last to complete the race in 2:03:17, riding the tippy 14x24.75 Fanatic Falcon that I used in last year's Battle of the Blueway. I think that's a darn good achievement for a guy who jumped right into SUP a few months ago with no headstart from any similar sports. Joe would have placed well in the 4 km race but was brave to go for the 12 km.

Gear: Up until the last minute I wasn't sure if I would use my 14x23.75 carbon Riviera or the newer 14x22 Riviera. When I heard that visiting pro Gabriel B-S needed a loaner board I decided to avoid choosing by letting him choose first. Gabriel chose the 14x23.75, which was closer to the board he trains on, so I used the 14x22. After the race Gabriel paddled the 14x22 and said it might be faster, but we didn't do any actual testing. For the fin I used a fairly large windsurfing weed fin, which I think adds stability to the narrow board. For the paddle I used my usual Riviera Vantage R8, which I found out is the same blade pro Ryan Helm uses, although he has the newer "Bump" edition with a more flexible, bump-grip shaft. Interestingly, super-strong Gabriel prefers a smaller paddle blade than Ryan- the Bump 7.5.

Play by play: We lined up at the water's edge, they blew a horn, we dashed out, jumped on our boards, and started sprinting for the first buoy. A lot of people had good starts. Mine was average, and I found myself in about 10th when we rounded the first buoy. It looked like my best hope would be to link up with Mark Athanacio and Sam English, who had gotten off faster and formed a pair that was trying to catch the lead train of Ryan Helm, Josh Riccio, Gabriel, and Garrett Fletcher. I paddled hard and tried to find some kind of wake or bump to help me, but was running out of sprint mojo and not getting any closer to those two, who were were going even harder. They never caught the four leaders, but I never caught them, either, so somewhere in the first lap I resigned myself to going solo and trying to just defend the position I was in.

It was hard to keep pushing after the close competition slipped away, but my speedcoach GPS and heartrate monitor helped keep me honest about my speed and effort level. Also, the many buoy turns in this race gave me a glimpse of the people behind me whenever I rounded a corner. One of those people caught up to me late in the first lap. It was Darian Hildreth on a long unlimited SUP. For a while we traded positions because he was faster in the straights but I could do the buoy turns faster. But gradually he extended the lead to the point that I couldn't get him again. Similar battles between other good-turners vs. good-speeders were happening elsewhere on the course. For example, strong 50-something Mark Hourigan would close in on nimble 20-something Matt Kearney in the straightaways, but Matt's fast turns ultimately won the day.

As I got tired my speed went down- pacing, efficiency and endurance are all things I need to work on. My first lap was at 9.4 kph average, second was 8.9, and third 8.7. Increasing heat and increasing tidal current may have contributed to that, but mainly I was just physically and mentally fatigued. In the second lap the top two 12'6 racers, Kieran Grant and Brad Ward, passed me. I had to just let them go because we're not allowed to draft a different class, even if it's the "slower" 12'6 class. There was actually controversy after the race that a 12'6 paddler had been drafting ME for a while, but I wasn't any help in figuring that out because I never looked back to see it happening and I didn't remember. What I do remember was on the third lap when Jake Stepp on a nice 14x23 GUSU sup caught up with me. I got in his draft and was pretty determined to stay there, not wanting a repeat of the FL State Paddleboard Championships where I fell off and out of Reid Hyle's draft. It was not at all easy to stay in Jake's draft because he was going faster than I'd been going. Eventually, though, I was able to get my HR down from the mid to the low 180s, and I started to think more about how I could pass Jake than how to just keep up. He seemed to kind of stop for a break just after the buoy turn at the north end of the course, and he let me around without a fight. I tried to do my next buoy turn quickly and put a little gap on him that he'd have to struggle to regain. I don't know if it worked or not. Anyway, the final southward leg of the course was a fast one, with me not wanting to give Jake any opportunities to pass. By the last buoy turn it had evolved into an nerve-wracking, all-we-had-left sprint for the beach. I was less than one board length ahead, even when we jumped off the boards and started the footrace to the finish line flags. I'm not a naturally fast runner, but I went like a lion was chasing me and, fittingly, Jake let out a primal scream like a lion as he was within a hair's breadth of catching me on the final run. I got across first but it was like, WOW. Definitely the most intense race finish I've ever been in. My HR had reached 192 bpm, and Jake said he was naseous like he was going to throw up.

Here's my GPS track and data from the race. You have to go into Strava to see the details.

Other race intrigues: Once the racing was done, a cheery, relaxed atmosphere took over. I talked to Jake Stepp at the pre-awards lunch and he turned out to actually be a super friendly, chill, southern-talking guy who was not like a vicious lion at all, except for the mane of long hair. I also talked with Gabriel and learned a bit about his background (has a civil engineering degree) and career as a professional canoe racer (retiring now after just barely missing the cut for Rio Olympics). Gabriel might transition to full time SUP racer. He's definitely fast enough already, and will only get faster with more board and ocean experience. Or maybe he'll take a civil engineering job and make big bucks. I wish him lots of success and happiness with whatever he does. I also talked to the other Riviera pro, Ryan Helm, about board shapes and things like that. Mr. Helm is still in town and will be doing a sup racing CLINIC at CGT Kayaks and Paddleboards on Tuesday evening. Should be awesome.

Another thing that happened after the race was the formation of 4-person, mixed-gender teams for Sunday's sup relay races. Mark Athanacio formed "Team Old School" with his longtime race buddies Packet Casey (yes, I think his name is actually Packet), Jake Portwood, and Amanda Portwood. Riviera representative Will Connaughton made "Team Riviera" with Gabriel B-S, local racer Kate Pagan, and another female paddler to make the most gender-equal team. I persuaded Jen Hayes to be on my "CGT 1" team with Matt Kearney and Robert Norman the superman board guy. There was also "CGT 2" with Damien Lin, Devin Turetzkin, Bryan Herrick, and Doug. Another team was made up of Special Olympics coaches Jodi Ziajka, Donna Catron, Steve Nagy, and Stephanie Perrelli Dangler. There were 7 teams total. Saturday night there were festivities in the fun atmosphere of Ft. Myers Beach. I had dinner there at "Pete's Time Out," but I didn't stay for the wild drinking and dancing that was apparently led by Team Old School (minus teetotaler Athanacio).

The relay race itself was well organized, with four lanes marked with cones, flags, and buoys, and identical Yolo Hammerhead 10'6 sups provided by Yolo boards. Robert Norman helped our CGT1 team come up with an efficient board-handoff dance, which made us smooth in the transitions. We weathered some trash talking from Athanacio and made it through the first round into the second and final round. There we faced CGT2, Team Old School, and Team Riviera. We put up our best effort and got second after Team Old School. It was scary at the end having Gabriel from Team Riviera churning the water behind me and digging away at the modest lead I'd started with- Good thing the laps weren't any longer. The top three teams each got a couple hundred dollars to divide among themselves, which was awesome.

What's Next: Next weekend is the first race of the Sunshine SUP series in Fort Lauderdale. (There are just two races in that series.) I haven't signed up yet, but I think I probably will. Racing is addictive.

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