Three years ago I competed in the 2014 inaugural Canadian Surfski Champs where I was properly walloped by an impressive field of international athletes. Sean Rice claimed the title and beat me by a staggering 6 minutes. I will admit, after that race I avoided the CSC in fear that no matter how I changed my training, it wouldn’t be enough to affect my result. I had convinced myself I could only race well when the wind was up and everything was in my favor.
The Canadian Surfski Championships (CSC) is a 21km course designed to test paddlers’ skills and stamina. Starting just south of Porteau Cove, racers sprint 2km with the wind and waves on their beam for the Hotspot (and an early cash prize). From the Hotspot, racers turn downwind to chase waves in the beautiful waters of Howe Sound, paddle around the jutting rocks of Watts Point and battle through confused and choppy water to the very edge of Howe Sound. Finally, the race finishes with a 1km flatwater sprint up the river mouth into the town of Squamish. This summer it was finally time for me to face my fear.
I was nervous, for sure, but also excited. Living in Seattle for the past year I had an opportunity to work on my flatwater technique, which has always been a weakness for me. Even with the amazing wind that picked up on race day, I knew it would be a grind, but unlike previous years, I felt up for the challenge. I no longer dreaded this race and that mental shift made a huge difference. It was time to test myself. The siren sounded and we were off!
(Seconds after the starting siren)
The pace off the line was blistering. Sean lead from the fist stroke and the rest of the field descended into chaos. Each athlete jostled for position as the lead pack established itself. I managed to stay calm and out of the worst of the melee. The Hotspot pace usually destroys my race, I push way too hard off the line and blow up long before I can settle into a rhythm. This time, I was pushing hard, but I wasn’t over my exhaustion threshold. I concentrated to keeping the grip on my paddle relaxed. Though the pace was fast, it felt bearable; I hung on.
Half way to the hotspot the lead pack shattered. Sean and Kenny Rice surged ahead for a crack at the cash prize and Jasper Mocke and I chased in 3rd and 4th. I focused on Jasper, staying on his draft and trying to let him do as much of the work as possible. Sean rounded the hotspot just ahead of Kenny and a few boat lengths back Jasper and I charged after them. I managed to stay calm as we angled to round the Hotspot, then realized that Dawid Mocke had tagged on to my tail. The three of us turned downwind in tight formation, a decent gap away from the paddlers behind us. It looked like it was going to be a five horse race as we caught our first waves and surfed after Sean.
For the first time I was comfortably right in the mix going stroke for stroke with the top paddlers in the field and still feeling strong. I was able to push the pace, linking waves and climbing over any that were too slow. Within 15 minutes I surged ahead of Jasper then pulled up even with Kenny and Sean. I couldn’t believe it! I was feeling like a winner and grinning like a madman. It took considerable concentration to focus back on the waves and my race.
(Jasper, Sean, Kenny, Dawid, and myself from left to right)
In my excitement, I might have pushed the pace a touch too hard. Not long after my exultation, I looked down at my heart rate monitor. Too high! I knew that I couldn’t keep up the pace. If I wanted to be anywhere at the finish, I had to relax, find a rhythm and work with the waves. With my foot off the gas, someone started to come up on my right. A Fenn bow appeared in my periphery vision as Dawid pulled over and dropped down onto the wave I was riding. It was clear he was in his element.
(Dawid moving into third place)
My default was to chase him, push the pace and refuse to give him an inch, but we still had 45 minutes to the finish. I decided to stick to my rhythm. We surfed together for a while, trading the lead as we snaked our way through the network of waves. The water was a milky grey turquoise from the snowmelt mixed with the Sound. The strange color changed my depth perception and played tricks on my vision of the waves. I was forced to rely on feel as much as sight. Dawid didn’t seem to be phased and he managed to pull ahead. He had fire in his tank and he pulled over a few waves. Just after that, Jasper’s bow came up on my left. Like his brother, he was surging too, just a wave or two behind. Blowout or no, if I wanted to be in this race it was time to push again.
Right before the point we all converged and the top five paddlers strung out in a straight line. Kenny and Sean fought wave for wave for the lead, Dawid was solidly in third place, I managed to get myself into fourth position with Jasper hot on my heels in fifth. In the wind shadow created by the point, conditions start to flatten out, making it necessary to climb up and over the dying waves to stay competitive. As we all wrapped around the point, Dawid decided to swing out to the left in search of more wind. I chose to barrel straight ahead after Sean and Kenny while Jasper continued to dog me on the right flank. Once out of the protection of the point, the wind churned the water up again giving us a final stretch of choppy waves.
(Jasper and I coming up on Watts Point)
As grinding became surfing once more, it was clear Dawid’s line hadn’t paid off the way he had hoped. His hold on third was slipping and I slowly closed the distance, drawing up level with him on the direct line. He altered his course and surfed back towards the middle. Jasper, too, knew the finish line was fast approaching and sprinted to catch up with me. Somehow, we all converged. After battling almost 20km in the Sound’s open water, and with only a few minutes left in the race, we all pulled onto the same wave not 30 feet separating the three of us. It was surreal surfing the same wave, sandwiched between the Mocke brothers. As starstruck by the moment as I was, I knew this was a deciding point in the race. I was passing Dawid and I had held Jasper off the entire race, but by all accounts he was passing me now. I needed to go.
I surged up and over the wave in front of us. I carved side to side, linking the next wave again and again in the confusing waters. I jumped another small wave as I charged into the flatwater and I looked back. Jasper had fallen a few boat lengths behind and Dawid was even further. I had it! I was going to claim my first ever Surfski World Series podium finish! I tore up the river and sprinted head down. As the river curved left around a line of wooden pylons, I cut as close to them.. “Common, you’ve got this,” I thought to myself.
(Sean and Kenny battling to the finish along the pylon wall)
However, to my dismay, Jasper had gone inside the pylons. He was between the shore and the line of pylons! Not only was he on the inside, but he was in less river current. I just couldn’t overcome the advantage. As the line of pylons ended and the river straightened out to the finish, Jasper pulled up beside me. We were nose-to-nose, but I was spent.. I had given everything to establish a lead and hold him off. I knew he had me.. I think he could sense my mental shift. After a few minutes of battling, he dropped the hammer for one final push. I had no answer. I lost his draft and he pulled a boat length ahead just before we crossed the finish line in third and fourth. And that was it.
You’d think I would have felt defeated, having missed an opportunity to medal in the last minute. But it had been the best race of my life! I had come to face my fears and it was worth the risk. As I crossed the finish line I felt overwhelming pride and elation (along with debilitating lactic pain). I smiled for the rest of the day.