For many years I have been coming to the Gauley Festival. Every Monday morning I wake up and can’t wait to hit the river, with my play boat and do a 5 hour run down the river, playing every spot, running every slot and generally blowing out any leftover energy from the weekend and milking this play run for all it is worth.
Every Monday morning at breakfast, I get asked the same thing…. “Are you racing today?” The Upper Gauley Race, known as the Gauley Animal race, is the Monday after Gauley Fest and is the wrap up to this awesome weekend as well. My answer is always, “sounds like fun, but I want to play today.” I was going to the USA National Slalom championships next weekend in DC, but changed my mind and decided to go to GAF at NOC. My thirst for a good competition and specifically a race would not be quenched at NOC next week. By the time the 5th person asked me if I was racing, I just said “yes”. Kristine looked at me, so did Dane, wondering if I was kidding. No, I answered the 6th, 7th, and 8th person who asked me if I was racing with “yes”.
Nick quickly joined me in our decision to race. We got to the put-in at 10:30 and found out that we were late for registration! We snuck in anyhow, and got our bibs. David Levitt was already getting his gear on and had a Green boat on the ground. He had a Lettman Mark 4 on the roof of his car. I asked him if I could use it and he agreed. Sweet! In 1979 my Dad and I bought matching Lettman Mark 4s, built by Old Town (red/white) and that is what I learned in. I haven’t paddled one since 1980. It was designed for the 1972 Olympics in Germany by Klaus Lettman of Germany.
Nick used a slalom boat, 2007 design.
I warmed up along with 100 other paddlers at the put-in and waited for the start. I have never seen a Gauley Race start before. I knew it was a mass start, and a one hour race, but wasn’t sure what to expect. They broke us into classes, Wildwater boats, slalom boats (13’2″ down to 10′) and “playboat” which was anything under 10′. There were 3 wildwater boats- one true wild water boat and racer (Geoff Calhoun, in a real composite wild water boat), and a Speeder that Mike from TN was using, who is on team Pyranha, and a c1 wild water boat.
There was a huge slalom boat class, with a bunch of Stingers and Green Boats, as well as other boats over 10′ and under 13’2″ long. The class was so big that they broke it into two groups for the start! I was starting in the second group, which was exciting, but not exactly good for a fast racing time. I watched the start of the first group with interest and saw Chris Hipgrave sprint out of the start and head to river left and end up in first place out of a good 20 people. What a mess! there were paddles and boats flying everywhere with people trying to find a piece of water to paddle on and make their way down the river quickly.
I knew who the guy to beat was in my heat, Mark Hamilton, who won the last race he competed in here. He had a record time as well and is a three time Olympic Team member for flat water sprint racing. Guys like that take their endurance and races very seriously, even if they don’t seem too serious. The starters asked the second group to line up, sterns on the shore, and be ready to go in 60 seconds. John McConnaville lined up just downstream of me in a better position with his sea kayak looking boat. Mark Hamilton was just upstream of me and his stern on a tree that was sticking way out from the shore… hmmm…. good idea! Shoot, I didn’t want to jockey for a better position this late in the game, and we were about to start a 12 mile, 1 hour race. the start was important, but not the whole race. I was in a fiberglass boat with an oversized skirt with holes in it. That weighed on my mind more than the start did.
The count started- 5, 4, 3, 2 (everyone had their paddle in the water and some started pulling) 1, Go! I couldn’t help myself as I sprinted full speed out of the start as if it was a 60 second race, instead of 60 minutes. 20 paddlers converged on the eddy line all going for the current and to get on their way downstream in good position. John McConnaville, Bryan Kirk, and Mark Hamilton and I were all battling for that first position. John’s boat was in my paddle zone and I struggled to get good strokes so I busted a move left and kept on full gas. We took the lead together as Bryan Kirk and Mark were just behind and on our sterns. John looked at me and said, “somebody has to take this!” meaning that we couldn’t continue side by side forever as we made our way into the first rapid. We must have done a 2 minute sprint before I was just about to drop back behind him, as I was already ready to stop paddling after 2 minutes of sprinting. I changed my mind and hit the gas for one last hurrah, and make enough ground on him to cut in front of him. His bow was pushing my stern as I worked hard to keep from spinning out, but finally I pulled the pass off and he was directly behind me. I backed off to allow my lactic acid to flush through as I started my long paddle down the Upper Gauley. I was not in the position I wanted to be in. I wanted to be in second place at this point, but behind Mark. I have NEVER raced down this river, nor have I ever even looked at learning any race lines. I spend most of every run on the Gauley off the beaten path, in the slow water, running slots, playing in holes, etc.. The major rapids I had no idea where all of the holes and rocks were in the main lines. Initiation, insignificant, lost paddle, Iron Ring, and even Pillow Rock were always run by me any way but on the race line. Luckily for me I trained for slalom for 15 years and know how to choose fast lines by read and run.
I was doing a good job picking lines so far in the smaller rapids and felt like a racer, keeping my lead, and thwarting each attempt to pass by Bryan Kirk, John, or Mark. I was catching up to the group before us and starting my first pass and was focused on passing my first boat when I saw in my peripheral vision Mark Hamilton going right of an island while I was chasing down a lesser experience boater on the left in the main current. Ooops!! I made the direct pass my goal for that moment instead finding the fastest line, and was making my first tactical error. Mark hit the gas and Bryan and John were on his tail, all three going right while I was committed to the left. I went into full sprint mode and was doing all I could do at the moment which was to go fast enough to come out the bottom of the island as quickly as I could and hope their shortcut wasn’t big enough to cut me off. we started merging in at the bottom and I was about 1/2 a boat behind him but in faster current. I kept sprinting and gave it just a tad more and pulled just in front of his flank and got back in front. Once again, not a good physical tactic as I went anaerobic once again, but was still winning.
Now I was passing a boat from the group that started 2 minutes in front of us, every minute it seemed. Making the pass while Mark was literally on my stern each time. Mark attempted several passes but I just kept hitting the gas and there was no way he could pass me unless I made a mistake or ran out of energy.
I thought of a new, good, technique to prevent me from taking the wrong line again. I would choose what I thought was the right line into a rapid and make an obvious move for it, then look over my shoulder to see if Mark was following me or breaking off. if he was breaking off, I would immediately break back in front of him and go for that line.
I was starting to get concerned as my skirt (old playboat skirt of Dane’s) was sagging into my lap and water was coming in fast. When I entered Insignificant, I was truly lost and zig zagging in front of Mark. I hit a rock then the corner of a hole, and he was on my stern again. Somebody was surfing the wave at the bottom of the rapid and I was deciding which side to pass them, instead of focusing on the fast line. They cut off the wave and like and idiot I went straight into the breaking wave, got stopped, then hit the hole behind it and stopped again. My first really big mistake and Mark flew by me on the right. Dane, Clay, Stephen, and Emily were all there and saw me get passed.
I chased Mark down and got on his stern, a new place for me, but my first choice for easily finding the fast lines. He has the lines down for racing and all I had to do now was follow him and go for a pass if the opportunity was there. We were in the middle of the pack for the group before us and still passing people left and right. Each pass was a challenge as you have to go much faster than they are going to pass cleanly and not get slowed down too much. Often they are on the fast line and passing meant going into slow water and sprinting much harder to make it happen. Mark was making great passes and had one key one where we entered the rapid together and he made it around two racers in one pass just before it narrowed down into one line and I had to drop behind them. I followed them for a good 3 seconds or more before I could make my move and when I did I was now a good 3 boat lengths or more behind. Each pass was getting harder now as the people we were passing were getting faster and faster (which is why they were further ahead of the people we already passed). I got bogged down by another few passing attempts and was now a good 10 boat lengths behind by Lost Paddle.
My boat was also sinking and I was concerned whether I would make it to the bottom or not before I was no longer horizontally stable. (bow or stern stall on its way). We were no longer passing many people as we were passed the majority of them already. I was now chasing Mark down and making up time in the flats, but losing it in the rapids. I was not keeping the bow dry anymore and taking hits to the chest in most of the rapids. This was where the race took on a new element. It was just the river and me, against the river and Mark. Mark was always close enough to follow his lines, but no longer close enough to make a pass based on one mistake. Chris Hipgrave was in my sights and Mark’s sights around Iron Ring, and we were both chasing him down. He was the last guy to catch in the heat before us. Chris was going fast and Mark passed him before Sweet’s Falls. I was chasing him down but he went over the lip of Sweet’s before I could catch him. I was sinking but the boat still floated properly as I entered Sweets at the same place Chris did. I usually do the rock spin on the left, or the boof on the right. The race line went well and I came out straight and paddling to the finish line. I ‘Harry Potter’d) the rock with my paddle and dropped it, and tipped over too cool off. When I went to hand roll up, I then remembered another reason why boats this long were hard to paddle. All of the water was stuck on one side of the long walls and a hip snap only got the boat on its side, with 100 pounds of water stuck on the side of the walls and not allowing me to get the boat under me. I was underwater laughing already, as I knew how dumb I was to tip over without a paddle, full of water, in a 13’ boat with no hip pads, no back band, and full length walls. I have only swam two times before in my life. The first time in 1979 out of a Lettman Mark 4, and the second time in 1996 out of a Wavesport Kinetic fiberglass prototype. My third time was upon me. I punched out and “claimed it” before I broke the surface, laughing myself and feeling quite good about it already. Cool. Three swims, all out of composite boats, two out of Lettman Mark 4’s. This one at the finish line of the Gauley Race with hundreds of people watching. Ha.
Kristine, KC, and Tara were on the rocks watching and Kristine gave me the shoulder shrug, like “What did you just do?” and laughed at me. I took out and hung out with them for an hour or so watching more people finish the race and then went down. Great race! I had a good time and am glad I raced today.
The awards were at Songer. The overall best times were by Geoff in his wildwater boat at (I can’t remember his time, sorry, then Mark at 52:47, then me at 52:17, then Bryan Kirk at 52:53.
We played a round of disc golf after the awards and then hit the sack.
Good race- thanks to the organizers for putting it on, since 1992.
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