Saturday, October 22, 2016

SUP Race Report: Imperial River Challenge 2016

Race: The Imperial River Challenge.

Date it happened: 22 October 2016.

Host/Sponsors: Hosted by the town of Bonita Springs. Sponsored by CGT Kayaks and Paddleboards, and lots of other Bonita Springs businesses including the Shangri-La Springs yoga/spa/resort, Stan's Subs, Wells Fargo Bank, Heaven Shakes Ice Cream, Heaven Scent Flowers and Tuxedos, the Everglades Wonder Gardens, and Benson's Grocery.

Location: The Imperial River, from Kent Road (West of I-75), downriver to Riverside Park in downtown Bonita Springs, Florida.

Distance: Approximately 4.1 km / 2.55 miles, sometimes more than that depending on river levels and how you negotiate the turns and obstacles. The course is one-way, downriver. This is a GPS track from a practice run I did earlier in the month- I didn't use a GPS during the actual race because I didn't want to have to stop if it got knocked off the board by a branch or something.

Conditions: It was pleasant, sunny, breezy weather, not too hot and humid. The river level was much lower than it's end-of-wet-season peak about a month ago. The water flow was relatively slow, but swift enough to create challenging eddies and vortices around the bends and submerged objects. I'd been concerned about some impassable obstacles (fallen trees, etc) that appeared when the water level went down- I had to portage around them when I did a practice run on Tuesday. But between my last practice run and the race, the city had gone up the river and chainsawed the obstacles out of the way. Whew!

Participants: There were a mix of kayakers, canoers, and SUP paddlers, with a majority doing kayak or canoe. In some years there have been serious race kayakers in skinny boats, but this year it looked like mostly slower recreational kayaks. The fancy gear and race-minded paddlers were concentrated in the SUP class. On the women's side there was Damien Lin on a 12'6 Hovie Comet ZXC, Donna Catron on a non-race SUP, and Heather Olson on a 12'6x24 Riviera RP. On the men's side the three top contenders were Mark Athanacio on a 14'x21.5 Hovie Comet GT, Robert Norman on a 14x23 Naish Javelin, and me on my 14x23 Riviera RP. Solid racers John Weinberg and Joe Gladieaux were also there. Four of our usual racers were absent because they're in Tennessee for the torturous 50-km Chattajack race.

Gear: I used "Minty," my 2017 14x23 Riviera RP. The Riviera production boards have really good resistance to cuts and dings, so I wasn't too worried about taking my beautiful board through the "rapids".

Results: I narrowly got first in 26:49, with Mark Athanacio at 27:00, and Robert Norman at 30:29. There was drama when Robert's time was originally announced as an "amazing new course record" of 20:29, and we had to talk to the committee to uncover their timing error. First woman was Damien Lin in 32-something, followed by Donna Catron and Heather Olson. The SUP paddlers were faster than all the kayakers and canoes this year. But canoeists won the costume contest, with a pair dressed as a Gorilla and a Banana.

Play by play: Since the upper river is really narrow and twisty it would be a demolition derby if they started everyone at the same time. So they started us one by one, about a minute apart. I was terrified that I'd get stuck behind a slow kayaker or something, so I bullied up to the front of the line and got to start first. Athanacio started second, and Robert Norman third. The first part of the course alternated between briefly sprinting and awkwardly negotiating sharp turns. Sometimes I would step back on the board to do a proper "buoy turn" aka "pivot turn" and other times I would do some variation on the "cross-bow" turn without stepping back. It's hard to know what is the fastest sometimes. Athanacio says his strategy in that part of the course was to stay back on his board the whole time to pivot it around, not sprinting too much but mostly saving his energy for the more open water later in the race.

There were about three times that I ALMOST fell off my board and caught myself by using the paddle as a crutch. It wasn't the turns that were throwing me off, it was where a swirling current would shift the board under me unexpectedly. By the time I got through the upper part of the course I was feeling a lot of cardio fatigue and muscle fatigue, but I tried to stay fast and find a rhythm for the rest of the course. I didn't have my speedcoach GPS on the board because I was worried it might get knocked off, so I just gauged my effort level and speed by how I felt. In the last several hundred meters I took it up a notch, and when I saw the "FINISH" banner and balloons stretched across the river at the end I went as hard as I could. I rested in the water until Athancio finished, and was relieved when he said his time was a few seconds slower than mine. Too close for comfort, but good enough to get the first place prize basket and $100... which Athanacio will get anyway because I'm paying him to train me. :)

Congrats to everyone who finished this challenging, adventuresome race, and big thanks to the race organizers.

What's next: There's going to be one final race in the CGT Kayaks summer series, and a race in Englewood in early November.

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