It is winter time in the Northern Hemisphere, but here in Veracruz we are so far south that winter is like a mild summer day in TN. Highs in the 80’s, lows in the 60’s- a mix of sun and clouds most days. However this is like a cloud forest area and the fog comes in fast and heavy at times. It will be sunny and clear in Tlapacoyan and by the time you get up to the put in a heavy fog could easily be covering everything making it darker and kind of eery looking, but also adds to the magic of the place. Yesterday, however, was a crystal clear day, the first of 2013, and it was race day.
Antonio of Adventurec hosted the racers and race at his facility in town. Food, lodging, etc.. was top notch, while Tom McEwan, from the USA, helped to organize some of the racing logistics. Entry fees were $15 and that included dinner!
We were scheduled to be at the start of the race at 11am for the opening ceremonies. Nick, Dane, Clay, and I wanted to do final practice/warm up lap but we were too late for that. The opening ceremonies had already started with the Mayan priest and his group doing a mass blessing of the organizers, the competitors, and spectators. We got smoke blown into our faces, rubbed with the feathers of a hawk, splashed with holy water and had some kind of blessing said to us and chanted by the group as part of the experience.
I think we are invincible now, or at least more protected, not sure. Either way, it was cool to be part of the rituals.
In good Mexican style, they had the dignitaries from the department of tourism of Veracruz, Mexico, and local officials come up and address the group. I recognized two of them from our trips here before with Veracruz. They had me up on stage and somebody had to tell me to come up as I didn’t know I was supposed to go.
Finally- Tom had the competitors meeting and had a couple of rules that were pretty cool for locals racing. For example, if you get stuck in “Big Hole” something that is very easy to do, there will be safety there to help you get out and if you get out, you can keep racing. Normally in a race if you get help you are disqualified. 45 competitors from 9 nations were present. There was a big contingent from Quebec, as well as Ontario Canada, and from the USA and from Mexico, and there were people from France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, England, and somewhere else that I can’t remember. We got our bibs and it was time to race. I was sharing Dane’s Karma M because I don’t have my own boat here. The first prize was a Liquid Logic Remix, and it was cool to see them sponsor the event. It is a good event to sponsor.
I synchronized my watch to the starting line, which was running at 3 minute intervals and then left Dane and Nick at the start and drove to the finish line where I would pick up Nick and Dane’s boats and bring them back to the start for Rafa and I.
The Race itself:
This race course drops over 300 feet in under a mile- it is steep, but the gradient comes in drops and there are pools in between each drop. The most famous rapid in the race is “S-Turn” which is a twisting steep rapid that is quite exciting and technically hard to do well. The first person I ever saw run this one was Jesse Coombs and he dislocated his shoulder in the rapid. I have respect for this rapid. Another one called “Big Hole” is a challenging boof over a very sticky hole. If your bow swings left on the boof you get stopped and have a deep surf that is walled out immediately and 90% of every surf ends in a swim in that hole. It is also, however, one of the coolest “sky out” boofs on the run and you can really fly over the hole and downstream. Like any race that is 13.5 minutes long pacing is critical. You can’t sprint for that long, but you can’t just “cruise” either and expect to do well. This is a physical race that requires precision paddling in the rapids and humping it out in the pools.
The key to being fast on this course is to carry your speed from the drop out into the pool. Plugging in with your bow on the rolling slides, or getting deflected to one side or another on the high speed landings, or having a trajectory on your landing that requires correcting your angle and driving in another direction are mistakes that cost 1-5 seconds each and unless you are an animal compared to everyone else, you’ll never make that time up in between the drops. Paddling hard in between the drops and keeping your boat off of the little rocks is the second key to doing well, because there is .5 to 1 second in each pool if you are in better shape and have a better forward stroke compared to somebody who is cruising it. That isn’t much time, but with 20 pools if you can gain .5 seconds on each one you get 10 seconds that they have to make up in the rapids. That isn’t much margin for error as if your lines on the rapids are less than ideal on 3 of the 20 you lost any time you gained already if not more. Nailing the rapids and paddling fast and efficiently in the pools is the ticket.
I was at the finish line and got to watch a few people come over in the 14’s time frames before Dane came in at 13:21. My best run was my training run the day before at 13:29. Nick came in at a 13:32 and Clay at 13:42 while I was loading boats on the car. They went in the beginning and Rafa and I went in the end so that we could share boats.
My start was delayed as I was going after one of the older racers from Mexico and he asked that they give a 6 minute break between us. I was sitting in the eddy at the start when they told me that. 6 minutes sitting in a starting line is FOREVER! It is hard not to have your mind wander and to burn up adrenaline. I chatted a little to the starter and started my GoPro and it eventually got to 1 minute and game time. Tom McEwan was on the rocks watching and I have been in that position as far back as 20 years ago at the Great Falls race in Washington DC where he was there on the rocks as I am about to go. There was something comforting about that. Tres’, doux, uno, whistle-GO! I got off the line around the first rock clean and right into the double drop which, if you get a good boof and are dead straight is very fast, but if you miss the boof the race is pretty much over. I waited for my stroke and when I hit the right wall did a hard left boof stroke and sailed into the pool below. I let my boat decelerate into the pool into a pace I could keep around the bend and into the next very manky shallow drop that you want to land on the rock at the bottom to skip you out. I got that pretty good and reaccelerated but was putting too much power in my strokes and was clearly going to blow out unless I paced better. The next Triple drop was a tough one in that the second from last drop gives you white out and nailing your boof at the bottom is a hard one. Dane suggested that this drop would kill many racers’ times when we were talking about it before the race. I kept my face dry enough to keep an eye on the curler and got my bow pointed up on the right wall and lifted it using the curler and brought it back to straight on a long C-stroke boof. I was inches from the right wall but just enough to follow the fast current and get both blades in the water to paddle out through the pool. Each rapid seemed to go well leading up to the S-Turn Rapid. I did the 180 degree turn around the rock at the entry of the S-Turn rapid and drove into the drop. There isn’t really much you can mess up on this rapid for the race at the top as long as you stay upright. The water is so fast that the lines are not critical until you get past the crux into the narrow slide below the S. There you have a rock that deflects your bow left into an eddy that will suck you in at high speed, peton you and at worst pin you across the alleyway for a swim. I drug my right blade along the rocks instead of forward paddling for extra control there and then started up on the bottom 50 feet into the final boof out of the 5’ wide vertical walled little canyon. A little right angle here and you fly out… I boofed with my left edge down a little and the boils took my bow left into the eddy… UH!!! I did a hard sweep, draw, and reaccelerated full speed to get my boat back on line. It was a 1-2 second mistake but it cost me a ton of energy and I was now blowing out and going anaerobic. I did my best to get through the next pool and then rested in the next two rapids, using the speed of the water to move my boat and just focusing on the lines. I ran my boat out into the pools using very soft strokes and getting my wind back and then started pushing hard as the pools slowed down again. The rest of the course went well as I got into the shallower stuff, but was diminished in my physical ability and was hanging on. The final channel into the final bigger drop at the finish line has a bridge over it. There were people there, TV crews, etc.. cheering everyone one as they came by. I waived to the crowd in signature EJ style as I went by and then went around the corner to the final drop that could kill the race. I entered it with all of the energy I had left to get off of the rock at the top of it without losing speed and then settled into the middle of the drop waiting for the bottom, keeping it dead straight so I would skip out to the finish line (a 2 second finish) verses getting deflected or plugging (a 5 second or more finish). It went well and my Karma skipped right out and a couple of final sprint strokes and I was across the line. Cool!
In good Mexican Style I had three different people offering me bottles of beer right there while I was still in my boat. While it sounded good to me, I didn’t really feel like it yet, barely catching my breath. I timed my self at 13:29 on the course but that was just looking at my watch at the finish. It is usually accurate to the second, and having Dane at 13:21 we were too close to call for 100% there.
Eventually we made it to the awards after Dane, Nick, Rafa, and Clay did a backwards “switch” run down the course and we figured out where the awards were. I drove shuttle as I didn’t have a boat.
The awards were awesome. A big crowd in the center square and everyone was so fired up. When they called the “first place in todays race” They said “There is a Tie”… Whoa- I never imagined a tie in a 13 minute race! They announced Dane’s name first and then I heard the word “Papa” and knew that Dane and I were going up as both tying for first place. It was amusing to more than just Dane and I and there were lots of comments about that one. Nick got third, Clay 4th, and Rafa was 5th. They had Dane and I both at 13:21, while Nick was 13:32, Clay 13:43, and Rafa 13:50.
We were paddling the new Karma, which is worth mentioning as we have been so fired up on it since it came out. It is such a great combination of easy to paddle, fast, carries it speed out and away from drops, lands soft, comfortable, and carves well. It is the perfect race boat, creek boat. We finally have the right tool for these races.
Dane was sick from something yesterday and didn’t feel well. I got sick as well and am still not recovered and didn’t eat dinner last night. Today we are hoping to do Big Bannana section of the river- one that I was part of the first expedition on it years ago. Coming back and running it like a normal creek run after the high energy exploratory trip in 2007 with Ben Stookesberry is always satisfying. Knowing that we opened up a river that is now a staple run down here is a great feeling.
5 More days of creeking in the Karma (I got Barry’s Karma M as he is going home today) and then back to Rock Island! I do miss Kristine and KC a lot. I have been in Mexico for over 10 days already.