Dane, Nick, Rafa and I showed up here one week ago to begin training for this event. Only Nick has competed here before and he did really well last year with an 8th place. Unlike many competitions we go to, this one is a true melting pot of disciplines racing here. You have World Cup Slalom Champions (current) and you have tons of olympic slalom racers and medalists. You have steep creekers from around the world, who don’t race a ton, but run the hardest stuff in the world, you have freestyle kayakers who also river run, quite a few World Champions in freestyle and World Cup Champions (Dane, EJ, Nick, Peter Czonka) and the list goes on! 142 kayakers from 26 nations started in today’s World Extreme Championships- called the Sickline Extreme World Championships. Only 48 made it through today’s race to compete in the Quarter Finals tomorrow. For me it is like a coming home party. I have been racing in extreme races since 1985 but that has cooled off over the year’s as the Gorge Games disappeared and the Green Race is so late in the season that I just want to stay at home for the first time in 6 months, not leave home to train for another event. This event was perfectly timed for me as I was at Kanumesse show in Germany last week and came straight here afterwards. Dane, Nick, and Rafa, and I share an apartment we rented here in Oetz, Austria at about 3,000 feet above sea level. The Austrian Alps rise high above and the valley is narrow and steep. The Oetz River always flows as it is glacier fed (we went skiing and snowboarding on the glacier last Sunday) so it is always cold and always running. The race was very close to being cancelled due to high water above the level that they could get a permit. Luckily the beautiful warm sunny weather melted the lower elevation snow and the water has since dropped into prime levels that the organizers won’t be accused of being irresponsible.
The mood here is one that is a unique mix of tense and nervous, and very laid back. Everyone knows that each cut is deep and that the final drop in the course, named “champion killer” is one that gives up a mix of great lines and “sorry, you just lost” lines. A 12′ rolling drop into a massive hole with huge boils that pop up on the exit randomly. Missed boofs equal backloops or sidesurfs, while a good boof but a big boil just downstream can mean a quick 90 degree turn and full momentum stop that costs 3-5 seconds. A clean boof and clean line equals a fast time. This is the last drop. The course starts with a Big seal launch from the top of a huge boulder. They put a board as a kicker to keep you from plugging in. This kicker has its own special technique. My first training time down a launched it and came bow down and plugged in anyhow. My second training run down it I hit a sweet boof and my boat bounced so high off the water on the landing that I went for a big acceleration stroke and missed the water and nearly tipped over. You immediately go into a twisty rapid and a boof over a big hole and then into the only flat pool in the course that lasts about 8 seconds. Leaving that pool you wind around the left of a boulder and through boily water into a 4′ boof between two rocks where if you nail it right you clean right through them and carry your speed. It fades off into a fan rock that the water falls off both sides and you want to fall off the right side at the last second to hit the fast water. This leads you into a crux move with two options. The “left line” or “right line”. The Left line is a double boof where the second boof is into a hole that is quite tall and curls hard into an undercut that if you don’t nail your second boof right you go under the rock and often flip and then are going into shallow rocky fast water and are really off line! The right line is a double boof as well but over two rocks into a fast jet of current into a third boof and a short fast paddle to the “TNT” drop. In between the two lines is the Peton Rock which offers up a huge hit and some interesting, scary, acrobatics if you hit it. I haven’t hit the peton rock yet, but I really don’t intend to. I am amazed at how many people have nailed that rock so hard and been backflipped in it, or powerflipped right into the hole and then surfed into the wrong side of the creek for the TNT drop. The fastest line is clearly the left line, but only when done just right. The right line is faster 8 of 10 times on my watch and is more predictable. My plan is to try to make the finals using the left line and then, since there is no point in racing for 2nd place in the finals, going for the left line in finals (assuming I make it that far, of course- a ton of hardcore racing between now and finals!)
The TNT drop is a 4 foot drop that has a boof rock in the middle and two small horseshoe holes on either side of it. The left side is the fastest- getting a boof, but with left angle and landing in the left jet and keeping your bow up and speed going. It is VERY easy to get pushed right over a hole and then having to wind your way back left giving you a less desirable entry into Champions Killer. Champions Killer is a simple boof that you want to launch big but not to early, but the rolling nature of it makes it hard to get your bow up high enough. The Villain is the perfect boat for this drop as it is super easy to boof and has a big, high volume bow. Still, I have some good footage of me underwater and backwards at the bottom of it. Today I had two good runs on this drop for the Qualifiers and Feel good about it. The final move is to sprint through the boils and straight into a small slot that is harder to get into than it looks. the boils want to spin your bow right or left and your boat can’t fit in it sideways. Nick pinned in it today on his first qualifier, but got himself off in a few seconds and still made the cut. A short sprint through the slot and out the backside and the race is over.
Dane was super fired up to come to this race and Nick sold it to me as well. I boycotted it in the first year it was an open race, only because they called it a World Championships in Year 1 and 2 and it was an invitational. You can’t call an invitational a world championships. They have since opened it up to anyone to enter, and take the first 150 entries and always fit in people who come from different countries, etc.. With 26 countries and the worlds fastest slalom racers, creekers, expedition boaters, freestyle kayakers, etc.. all competing, I am comfortable with the idea that this is the World Championships of Extreme racing. No race in the world has a stronger field. Green race has a very strong field but nothing like this. This is the real deal with huge depth of field. Any time you have 10 people stacked into 1 second, you have a strong depth of field. That is pretty awesome. 60th place was only 6.25 seconds behind 1st place in a single run. That is an average of 10 people in each second.
Tomorrow’s racing cuts the field down in the quarter finals with a head to head format. The winner of the head to head races go to the Semi-finals. The two fastest losers also make the semi-finals. The semi-finals are also head to head with the winners making the finals (13 places, plus the two fastest losers making the cut for a total of 15 finalists).
The finals are one run, time trial- fastest racer wins. Last year Sam Sutton, from New Zealand, won the top prize. When I arrived here last week, he was already hear training away. He is also an Adidas athlete and has a heap of pressure on him to win again. Training with him is awesome and he is truly gifted as a paddler and it is not a surprise that he won last year. Mike Dawson is another super fast paddler who has won the semi-finals, but not the finals yet. He could also take it. However, there are more in the mix that, like me, all are going for the top spot. That is the way of competitions, especially when you are having it with a bunch of adrenaline junkies like this race attracts. There is a great level of mutual respect, however, among all of the paddlers and nobody seems to be sending out negative vibes. Everyone is supportive of each other and respectful for the other’s skill set. Dane, Nick, Rafa, and I have all felt quite welcome here. This really makes it much more enjoyable.
I am really enjoying the daily sunny weather, great whitewater, training and racing with Dane and Nick, and Rafa and the rest of the paddlers here. Our ski/snowboard trip, awesome dinners (great pizza here!), good beer, great friends, and family, already made this trip a winner.
Now I want to go out there tomorrow and paddle my kayak down the class 5 rapids with the speed and precision I have at my disposal. With a good mental focus and a drive to make each stroke and move count, and a bit of luck, I think I can make finals, and then…
Time to get off my computer!
Wish us luck!
all of the photos (look for a video soon)
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