The inaugural Irish Coast Paddling Championships was quite an experience and though conditions were tough, it was one of the best races on the calendar this year. I decided to compete in the Irish Champs as a perfect mid fall tune up to test out my Doctor training. Plus, with over 55,000 euro in prize money, I knew it would draw a top notch field of athletes. Finally, it was the perfect opportunity to test my ability to travel and race across 8 hours in time zone change.
The weather in the week leading up to the race was insane. With two category one storms passing over Dublin in the week leading up to the race, the wind was nuts! Landing on Wednesday, the wind was howling at over 45 knots. I honestly have never seen so many white caps landing in Dublin on Wednesday. With a field of incredibly accomplished flatwater marathon paddlers and as an athlete who certainly shines in the waves, I was hoping for all the ocean condition we could get.
Sadly the wind wasn’t in the cards for race day Saturday. There was wind blowing 35 knots the Friday before and 25 knots the Sunday after, but on Saturday the wind was barely puffing at 3-5 knots.
The race course was a gorgeous stretch of Irish coast, running 21km from Greystones to Dun Laoghaire harbor. The only problem for me was the beach start. Anyone who has read my previous posts, knows that the old jump start is one of my greatest fears. Not only am not as experienced as so many of the other top athletes (raised on a surf lifesavings background where jump starting was a part of life), but I have a woefully bad history of botching it in important races. I need only look back to the 2017 World Champs to remind myself of a time when my jumpstart went terribly wrong. And with 2,000 Euro on the line for the Hotspot (a turn buoy 1km off the starting beach), the start was destined to be a scorching pace from the word “GO”.
Sure enough, when the race director fired us off the line, the top athletes shot out like shotgun pellets. I ran into the shallow water and threw my boat down, jumping in conservatively with legs to either side. Somehow, my butt landed in the seat and I quickly pulled my legs in with a strong first stroke. I was in! I couldn’t believe it. After all that stress, I was level with the leaders and safely on my ski. My pride, however, may have been a bit premature.
I proceeded to completely whiff my next stroke. In all my excitement the paddle must have spun in my hand slightly and instead of a strong second stroke, I sliced through the water and very nearly fell in. I panicked, but somehow stayed in my boat with a low brace. The next few strokes were a scramble as I tried to regain my strong start, but my error didn’t prove catastrophic. Six paddlers were away cleanly and while I was no longer a threat for the hotspot, I was still in contact leaders. Sean Rice took the lead off the line and charged after a 2,000 euro payday. Hank and Kenny settled onto Sean’s side wave, with Cory, Gordan and Jasper just a wave behind. That left yours truly pulling up the rear of the 7 person lead pack. The pace settled for a few hundred meters until just before the hotspot. Hank surged, pulling Cory with him, but Sean was not to be denied. He kicked again, opening up a small gap and claiming the hotspot. Hank and Cory rounded in second and third respectively. While Kenny, Jasper, Gordan and I turned just behind.
Somehow, I rounded feeling strong. I knew there would be a push to catch Sean and I surged ahead. I moved up to the middle of the pack, watching my speeds spike. “I can do this,” I thought. Meanwhile, Hank was pulling hard to bridge the gap to Sean and pulled the group back together. Not two minutes later the group started to fracture. I was actually the first to go. After my surge and my spike of speed, I realized, I had made a mistake. I started to hurt, badly. I looked down at my watch and seeing that we weren’t 2 km into the 21 km race, I had a bit of a panic. 19 more km of this?! My pace slowed and I was the first drop from the pack.
I had very little practice wash riding and I realized that the pace was just a little higher than I could handle and I wasn’t used to having others dictate the pace. My dip and mental defeat, however, was momentary. I knew I may not be a threat to Sean in the lead, but I was very much still in this race. I drifted to the right to find some cleaner water (water undisturbed by the boat wakes of the first six) and start my own 19km grind to the finish. I was not about to go down without a fight.
Dictating my own pace, I felt my form and confidence surge. At the same time, I watched Kenny and Jasper drop from the lead group. Confidence redoubled, I settled into my rhythm and pushed the pace as much as I dared. I drew level with Kenny, just 20 meters out to his right. He saw me and drifted out to join. I tried to move enough ahead so my waves would be out of reach, but Kenny still had fight in him too. He latched to my back wave and together, we pulled even with Jasper.
Over the next few kilometers, our pace didn’t seem much slower than the leaders. Maybe by sheer luck, we were in faster water or were taking a more direct route than Sean? My motivation to push redoubled and I kept charging, pulling Kenny on my back wave. I wanted to shake him, but after he moved to the lead to take a pull. Maybe two paddlers together had a better chance than one? But unfortunately, his pull wasn’t the respite I needed and after a few minutes, his speed dropped and I retook the lead.
I suffered along focusing on the small bit of water directly ahead. I was so consumed by my task, I almost missed Hank dropping from the lead group. Excitement and possibility blossomed in my mind. I did everything I could to notch the pace up just a tiny bit higher. Slowly, I started to reel him in. His 50 meter lead became 40, then 30, then 20. I gave it everything I had and stroke by stroke I pulled him to within 10 meters. Hank glanced over his shoulder, sensing my presence and with a demoralizing kick, he surged ahead and lengthened his lead another 10 meters. I would not be denied, however, and with a kick of my own I closed the 20 meters and pulled onto his back wave. I would have been happy if the race had ended right there. But as I sat, I realized that the pace felt comfortable. If I caught him, could I pass him?
Excited I surged up and took the lead. Hank dropped to my side wave and I pulled past the island marking 4km to go. I still felt strong, but my mindset changed. Instead of charging with everything I had, I was being slightly cautious. I wanted to move ahead, but I didn’t want to push to a point of breaking. If I broke and he hung with me, he would make easy work of me to the finish line. I held my punches, hoping to prove the stronger of the two over the next 4km. I lead for the first two kilometers and then Hank retook the lead to pull. I tried to conserve and sit on his back wave. The change in mentality, however, drained my previous fire. I was suddenly more aware of my fatiguing body, wondering how it was comparing to Hank’s, rather than focusing on charging up through the field.
That charge should have remained my focus. It was only in the final harbor entrance that we looked beyond our battle and noticed how shockingly close Gordan was. He must have fallen off Sean and Cory during our battle and despite an incredible race up to that point, Hank and I had almost caught him. Hank pushed, pushing for one final charge, but it was too much ground to close. Gordan held us off for a solid third and Hank and I crossed the finish tip to tail, rounding out the top 5. It was one of the closest international finish of my life.
Hats off to an incredible performance by Gordan securing a strong third place. And also a huge congrats to Cory Hill who proved his strength and fitness even in the flat with a commanding second place. Finally, well done to an unstoppable Sean Rice who obliterated the field and put on a show from start to finish. Could not be more honored battling with everyone at this race and I am so proud of a close 5th place finish.
I have to take a few sentences here to thank Thomas of Wetiz Ocean Racing and Fenn Europe. Thomas made it possible for me to race by traveling all the way from Germany with a fleet of Fenn boats. He was incredible all week and helped not only with boats, but organizing paddles and making sure all the Fenn athletes were race ready come Saturday. I was impressed by his professionalism and how much it made me feel like a pro too. Thank you Thomas and Fenn for making the trip possible!