Last weekend, I ventured down to Southern California to compete in my third and final race of the Winter SoCal Series, the California Champs. Mere days before I boarded the plane, however, the 17 mile crossing form Malibu to Marina Del Ray was canceled. The frustration was high for everyone, as locals, out-of-towners, and a Slovakian Olympic sprint kayak team (in Newport for a training camp) all wanted a crack at an ocean race, champs or no. To fill the void, Ocean Paddlesports stepped up and create the “Unofficial California Champs”, a furious 11km out and back form the Newport Harbor to the Balboa Pier and back.
Despite the wind in the days leading up to the race, race morning arrived completely tranquil, flags hanging still and glassy water in the harbor. However, when everyone made it out to the ocean, it was still churning happily with residual bump from the days prior. The course conditions were perfect. Smooth residual wind chop to paddle against on the way to the pier (without a breath of wind to battle) and the same small bump to catch and surf on the way home.
Due to the informal nature of the race, the race began quickly and with little ceremony. Convinced the sprint racers would start fast, I tore off the line much faster than normal. Despite my worries, however, I pulled away immediately in the messy ocean conditions. The only paddler who came with me was Tim Burdiak. I knew Tim had been putting in the hard miles since I had seen him last and he seemed as comfortable as ever sitting happily on my wake.
I was so shocked to be so easily out in front and feeling good, that I was too stubborn to see Tim for the threat he was. Sitting on my side wake and contesting my lead occasionally, Tim conserved his energy and made sure I was worked hard in that first half. It was a masterful move on his part. I was cocky, confident and with the GPS clocking impressive speeds, I never thought to give up the lead. About 500 meters from the turn buoy, I started to feel the toll of the fast first half and I realized that I couldn't afford to have a fresh Tim on my wake any longer, especially knowing how much it helped to have a little extra when catching waves in the downwind. I needed to create a little cushion. I saw my opportunity in a passing wave traveling in our direction and I surged onto the wave. I was just able to drop Tim and put a little distance between us as we rounded the half way buoy.
I was in the lead, but I had pushed too hard to claim my gap. I felt myself getting light headed and as I turned for the downwind, I just didn’t have enough to catch the first wave. I scrambled to catch the second wave and I tried to gather myself. Catching my breath, I looked around to see Tim effortlessly link two waves and surf by me. Panicked, I tried to catch back up, forcing myself to jump the wave in front. As I floundered, Tim linked another run and surfed yet further ahead. Suddenly the race I thought I had won in the first 30 seconds, felt a lot like a race I had just officially lost.
I started to panic. I had no extra gas in the tank to overpower the waves and surge back into the lead and for every wave I did manage to catch, Tim wasn’t getting any closer. But as I struggled to stay calm and find my rhythm in the waves, I realized that he wasn’t getting any further away either. I still had a chance!
I turned every ounce of my focus to the water. Reading the swell, feeling the rhythm and timing of the waves, getting the absolute most out of every bump. I couldn’t catch him right now, but if I was able to surf efficiently, gather myself, and avoid hemorrhaging any more ground, there might just be time left to still make my move. I zoned out for about 10 minutes, surfing in a trace-like state. When I checked back in with myself, I was relieved to feel some energy had returned and see that I hadn’t lost any extra ground. The only problem now was the fast approaching finish line. If I was going to make a move, now was the time.
I changed my surfing from efficient to aggressive. Pulling over runs whenever possible and scratching hard to chase down every wave I could see. Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to claw my way back until we were finally side by side and mere minutes from the finish. But I couldn’t afford to stop. I had to keep my momentum. I didn’t want to gamble my comeback on Tim’s strong finish sprint. If I was going to win, it needed to happen right there. So I pretended we were actually at the finish line and I gave it everything I had. I pulled over the wave in front of us and then doubled down to just scramble over one more.
It just worked. I was able to make enough of a gap, to claim the win and I held it together to keep the two wave lead all the way to the finish. In the end, it was one of the most challenging races I have ever competed in and a huge lesson for me in mental toughness.
Hats off to Tim, who raced one heck of a race and made me earn every single stroke. So much fun racing with such a strong, classy athlete!