Out of Africa-2013
Being an athlete and professional kayaker, for almost 30 years- full time since 1984 has its chapters, successes, failures, and makes for a good story; for as long as I truly am in the arena, trying my hardest to be the best. The moment I give up on that concept, I become a fading star, with no skin in the game, nothing to talk about, but watching the skills, body, and drive fade, like a sunset, to dark, and the day is but a memory… I am happy to say, that day is not coming, not yet.
From making my own boat and booming enders…in 1982
to making my own boat and booming airscrews… in 2013
I don’t pretend that I live for the competition, or live for being the best, exactly. Without it, I have more than a full life, with my wife Kristine, my kids, my business, and the activities I would participate in without the drive to be the best kayaker year after year. However, without it, there is certainly a big part of me missing, the part of me that brings out the best in me. The part where striving to be the best, and the reality of being in the arena where I give it my all, but fail, tired, beat up, and nothing of substance to show for my efforts I reflect on how I need to improve to be the best. That is the state of mind that I improve all areas of my life, where nothing is on autopilot; nothing is taken for granted. I try to improve physically, mentally, and to be a better partner to my family and to those at Jackson Kayak as well. I imagine that it must seem like a curse to many to want to push myself so hard, for so long, almost as if it is some kind of self imposed punishment. I recognize that many don’t understand my obsession. I don’t think I can explain it in a way does more than just reinforce what people already think about it. However, I have it crystal clear in my head. I believe that I am either “growing or dying” and can’t find a middle ground of maintaining (not that I want to). I am getting stronger or weaker, more flexible or less flexible, better technically or losing my technique, improving or fading away. I love, more than anything, perhaps, becoming more than I am today, through hard work, creative thinking, and amassing a knowledge base that allows me to make the right decisions on a regular basis.
My time at the Nile, the 4 weeks there consisted mostly of time at the Hairy Lemon, paddling on the Nile Special Wave, Low Water Club Wave, and High Water Club Wave. The put-in is about a 12-minute attainment paddle upstream for most people. It includes flatwater, picking lines through shallow rocks, areas with bottom drag and the occasional rock , current all of the way to the shore in places, to a big open ferry with two major current channels and fluctuating waves and random eddylines and then a final attainment around a rock with a big surgy eddy that you can either jump up the attainment, or get rejected and have to ferry out to a rock to make it right at the Nile Special wave. It can be hard to quantify your physical prowness in the kayak without a good test that you know what the results should be.
It is standard to do two-a-days for 2-3 hours each session like so many people there do. That will always get you in good shape, just by showing, attaining up and surfing when it is your turn, and the catching the eddy after you come off the wave. However, just how good of shape you get in, how strong you get, depends on just how you paddle when you are in the boat. Freestyle kayaking isn’t like racing in that you can paddle slowly back to the eddy after you come off the wave, paddle up slowly, and surf with a focus on technique and not use much power. On a river like the Nile, even paddling, while trying to conserve energy, you will paddle hard and you will get in some sprinting to catch the waves, cross the eddylines, and attain at the harder spots. With the races coming up this spring I wanted to leave Uganda in both good freestyle shape and in good racing shape. With the new Karma, I am quite fired up to race this year.
My training on this trip included starting my stop watch with my stern on the sandy beach and stopping it at the top of the eddy at Nile Special when my bow hits the rocks. My first run up on Feb 4th was 9:38 at low water. By the end I was doing 8:28 at low water and my best at higher water was 7:58. Doing this each time I paddled up to the waves gave me purpose and set the tone for the rest of the two hour session. My body did exactly what I was hoping it would do. It broke down, getting tired and sore in the first week and then started getting stronger again in week 2. By week 4 I had gone through that cycle twice. In week 2 I realized that I wasn’t getting stronger in terms of muscle size and power, but just getting leaner and more fit overall. I added push-ups and chin ups to the equation to start getting my power back up. Everything started falling in place. I started drinking more water, mostly because I got really thirsty and it was hot, but I replaced coffee and beer with water. I got to bed earlier, even though I had a hard time sleeping. It was like a big weight lifted off my shoulders to be motivated to, take the time to, and implement a physical training program that turned my body from being good to great at what I want it to do.
Paddling skills are even more important to my ability to do the fun things I want to do in a kayak. With the World Championships being in a hole again, I knew there would be little opportunity for wave surfing this season. Spending our time on the best waves of the Nile was the plan. With Nick and Dane there I had the best wave boaters in the world to paddle with every day. This is yet another situation I love and want to be in whenever I can; to be with the best and trying to compete with the best, and learn from the best. There are some things I am better at and plenty of things that either one of them are better at to learn from. They were both trying to push the limits and do things that nobody is doing making the trip exciting and the sessions with plenty of purpose. There are many other great wave boaters, of course, but none better for this type of paddling, with a focus on pushing your limits. I am not sure that I’ll be using my wave skills before Kelly’s Whitewater Park in competition this year. We did get film much of our time on the waves and have a ton of great stuff to show off the new 2013 All-Star.
There were plenty of challenges on this trip that tried to get in the way of good training and improving. We decided to film and edit the new “EJ’s Rolling and Bracing” dvd while there. That project was about 250 hours of work between Nick, Dane, and I. Nick and Dane putting in many more hours on it than I did as they did the editing. We bit off a big project and it was more than anyone imagined. The final export of the DVD was done at the airport on the way home. I am guessing it was an average of 8 hours/day of just editing for over 2 weeks per person. Also my body broke down, got sick, and even my anti-malaria medicine got in my way some. I was on Doxycycline and my hands are swollen, blisters, and super burned from it and being in the sun all day. I generally held together for the entire trip, with only the last two days of the trip being sacrificed because of my hands. Nick hurt his hip at the end of the trip after having great training. I am hoping it is a quick heal. Dane took a few days off at the end to recover as well.
We did have a few parties in the mix, with the last hurrah being the “booze cruise” at Nile River Explorers. However, the lure of staying up late or drinking didn’t win over wanting a good night sleep and being ready for the morning session more than 2 or 3 times in 4 weeks.
I am writing this on the plane ride home, the leg from Brussels to Chicago. My mentality is right where I want it. I feel strong, feel like I can do more, in every category than before. I am not tired, downtrodden, or beat up. I feel like I can be a better husband, father, businessman, and kayaker all at the same time. Feelings of wanting to “relax and enjoy creature comforts” are all but gone, and feelings of wanting to push myself are high. This is one of the great secrets in life, I think, or at least for a life you can be proud of. While I have never been accused of not taking time to smell the roses, I do think that there is a big difference between spending all of your time wanting to do nothing and just relax, compared to wanting to do things you are proud of. I, like everyone I know, can cycle into a mentality where I want to work hard and then just stop, have a beer, and do nothing but hang out. Where “relaxing” is the goal and counting the hours until you feel that you can becomes the focus and goal. I had some of that going on inside of me before this trip. Eating a lot, exercising less, training less, and having more coffee in the morning, more beer or wine at night becomes the norm and I start my “dying” instead of growing. Is it a crime? Of course not, it is the American way for the majority of people and unless you are getting fat, unhealthy, or not accomplishing the things you want to, it is just fine.
I have broken out of that cycle in the past month of boot camp. I can see clearer, and “what I think, how I feel, and what I do” are becoming one and the same again. This is key to be happy, I believe. Only when those three things are in sync can you truly be happy. Getting back home will be a new challenge. I am so enamored by my business, and love it so much, and doing business is so much easier in so many ways, in that you can do it with a cup of coffee in your hands, and so much of it comes to you. This means that from waking to going to bed, my business will be in front of me, the challenges, for the most part, make themselves clear to me, and I have my entire family wanting to talk about that business all day and the task lists are endless. With snow on the ground, it will be a challenge to transfer my energies in my training to training at home right away. I will give myself a few days to settle in, to reconnect, and then get started on Monday. Nobody (other than Kristine) has every accused me of working too much, meaning, there is rarely a time where everyone can say, “Hey, EJ, seriously, there is nothing left for you to do, why don’t you take a break.” That will likely never come because I always create new projects as soon as I have the capacity to do them, like training and competing, doing all you can do, is more fun and rewarding, than being bored and underperforming, for me.
I look forward to having internet and more time to work on Jackson Kayak projects and I have no shortage of critical projects. I am super excited about that, to be perfectly clear. I am not going to tip the scales the wrong way due to that excitement, but I will be jumping in with both feet. I can’t wait to be with Kristine again and don’t intend to do another 30 days without her. That was simply a bad idea. KC, same thing, what am I doing without him? I had Emily, Dane, and Nick around, as well as friends in Jessie, Clay, Courtney, etc.. Hopefully Kristine and KC are as excited to spend time with me as I am with them.
While I was in Uganda I also worked on my “Life Without Compromise” book . I started it in Uganda 2 years ago. I expect to finish it in the next 2 years. I spent enough time on it to make a bit of a mess of the draft. Danny Stock is going to help me edit it. He was my editor for my Strokes and Concepts book in 1998. We’ll see how much of a mess I made. I have my fingers crossed that he can help get the structure sorted out. I am busy, which is how I like it. What is funny about our training, however, is that we hardly did any training in holes and the world championships are in a hole this year in the USA at NOC (fingers crossed that they can get the hole rebuilt in time!) What is funny is that Dane, Nick, and Emily were all talking about how excited they are to start training in holes again. We got our fill of waves and are ready for holes again! This is a great way to start the season where we’ll have plenty of competitions in holes, with the most important one, the World Championships, happening this summer. I would not likely win the world championships in a hole if it were held today. I intend to change that by September as I have been trying to win my 5th World title since 2009 when I got 2nd to Nick in Thun. So close, but yet so far.
Of course, in order to win the world championships, I first have to make the USA Team, a big challenge in, of itself. Where will team trials be? Who knows with the NOC hole being washed out from the flood and no way to fix it anytime soon and team trials being in 55 days.
I am smiling while I am writing this stuff. I am smiling because I have so much exciting stuff going on. Between my paddling and my business there are so many general and specific benchmarks I hope to hit that there will not be any sense of boredom or lack of purpose at any moment. The challenge of being the right partner for Kristine and the right parent for the kids ups the ante to where everyday has even bigger meaning and purpose. Alive, energized, ready for any challenge, but far from fully trained, far from being knowledgeable enough, far from totally understanding, and consequently so many unknowns that create the adventure in my life.
Let me see if I can find a few photos to go with this essay… finishing it up at 5:39 am- Sunday morning, on my birthday (I can’t sleep any more- it is 2pm in Uganda). When Kristine and KC wake up in 2 hours… it will be Eggs Benedict for me!! (Kristine makes this most amazing classic perfectly- Eggs poached lightly, english muffin toasted well, and her home made hollandaise sauce… oh yea!)
See you on the water!
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