Brace yourself … but not like that.

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Egged on by Stephan, I entered the Tasmanian Ocean Paddling State Titles today.  Yes, me, who is one of the slowest paddlers in Tasmania. 

As could have been predicted, it didn’t start so well … two minutes into the race I was the last on the water (Stephan was behind me in his OC1, but that doesn’t count),  the paddler (I’ll call her C) in front of me had at least a 20 metre gap and was pulling further away, we were heading up into a growing headwind, my lower back was twinging and most worryingly I was struggling to get enough oxygen into me and I still had nearly an hour and a half of racing ahead of me.   I was in that wonderful convergence of hell in heaven.

In the fires of adversity, we grow, or as I read in a wonderful blog from Jill Homer last week “This is not about suffering so much as it is about overcoming suffering“.

I had desperately wanted to keep on C’s wash, but I had to acknowledge that this was not to be, and backed off a bit to try and settle into my own pace.  One thing I have learnt about myself is that I don’t do rapid starts or speed changes well, but I can hold a fairly constant slog once my body adjusts. 

Sure enough, a minute or so later the urgent need to die of hypoxia had passed, and I was able to move my mental focus back from survival to strategy.

I looked up and the race had settled a bit with C about 20-30 metres or so in front of me and the rest of the race spread out into the distance.  It was going to be a long slow battle upwind for about 5 kilometres until we turned arouind Spec Island … unless I could get back onto C’s tail … so I worked using everything Ben had taught me … I focussed on getting clean, good pulls with the blade, I pushed hard with my legs and back on every stroke and I lifted my cadence an extra 5-10% and slowly, inexorably, the gap closed.  One last sprint and I felt myself slip onto C’s wash and the paddling get slightly easier.  Not long after my Garmin ‘buzzed’ at me indicating that we’d done two kilometres.  Thirteen more to go.

I don’t think C was quite as happy about my return to her wake as I was, but unfortunately with the wind I found it very hard to hear whether she was congratulating me on a great come back (yea, right) or cursing my name and telling me to get to the front and share some of the work. 

Strategically, I knew exactly what I had to do at this point: C will beat me in a straight out race 10 times out of 10, no questions asked, so what I had to do was sit on her tail all the way to Spec Island, let her wear herself out, and then try my luck on the downwind leg hoping my boat stability would give me a slight edge.

Instead I rested for a minute or two and then attacked and tried to get past her.  I got the nose of my boat about a metre past the end of hers and that was it – I lost all forward momentum and C started to pull forward of me again.  I tried attacking three more times over the next kilometre or two, but could never do better than getting my nose a third of the way up her boat before dying and dropping back again.  This is why C will beat me 10 times out of 10 – she is a stronger paddler.

I resigned myself to sitting in behind and then challenging on the downwind leg, deciding that I’d see if I could beat her to the finish line (oh, how I dream …) but that if it was close I decided I would sit up and let her beat me (hey, there is honour involved in these things and I’ve always hated cyclists who would draft someone to the line and then sprint over and beat them).  Unfortunately whilst I was concocting this fanciful and well thought out dream scenario in my head, C was still actually racing and it suddenly dawned on me as I came out of my little dream world that she had surged and gotten a five metre gap … that was just rude given how much thought I’d just put into figuring out how the race would end.

I put my head down and sprinted back up onto her tail, nearly falling short, but thankfully just getting back on a few seconds before she turned to check and see if I’d been dropped.  Thank god for the ‘fog of racing’.

I’m pretty sure that C attacked several more times on the upwind leg, as the ‘elastic’ that held my boat to hers got stretched very thin on several occasions, but we eventually ended up reaching Spec island with me sitting tucked closely in behind.  I figured that it was time to attack again.

I swung out to the left, and tried to get past, but found myself dropping behind, so dropped back in, bumped boats (sorry) and then swung off on the right inside line … again I found myself drifting backwards, but deciding that enough was enough decided to just go with it … there’s no use sitting behind someone on a downwind run. 

A kilometre from the island and the situation was interesting,  C had decided to run with the swell a bit more and was about 50 metres to my right and about the same distance in front of me.  I had opted for a more direct line straight towards the canal, with my thinking being that if I could just stay in touch, maybe I’d have the advantage of the surf behind me coming into the finish line whereas she would have to tack across the surf  to the line given her current direction.

Another few kilometres on and I’d had a few good runs and was probably only slightly behind C in terms of heading for the finishing line, however she was now at least 50 metres to my right.  I’d also realised that C was following another paddler in front of her which was making me question the race line I had choosen.  However I couldn’t see the logic in heading inland given there was plenty of seas to catch the way I was going and I figured that this has to work to my advantage towards the end.  I actually started to head back into my fantasy realm of being able to make this a close race.

It was whilst in the nirvana fantasy world of mine, whilst catching some great runs, and paddling down and through waves that on any non race day I’d be far more timid in engaging, that the safety boat came towards us to snap off a few pictures.  It went to C first, stopped, took some pics, and then pulled away from her.  Next thing I knew C was in the water … maybe from the wake of the boat?  I don’t know. 

I called out and signalled to the safety boat as it approached me that she was in the water, and eventually after I put my paddle in the air and pointed at her several times he looked her way and signalled that he’d seen her.  This took the pressure off me to try and get over to her, but suddenly I found myself in a new dilemma.

Firstly, as much as I may want to beat C in a race (just once) this would not, and could not, count.  I couldn’t beat her, not like this, not having followed her all the way out letting her do the work and then getting in front during a capsize.

Secondly, I suddenly found I was much more aware of just how close I was coming to capsizing.  Seeing C capsize had made me focus on that possibility and in doing so had destroyed my confidence in my own invulnerability.  It was a bit like racing over at the Clarence Mountain Bike Park a few months ago… if I had a bike in front of me that went down a big drop, then I just followed … no questions asked, but when I went back there later by myself, suddenly those drops looked to be beyond my skill level, and that’s what happened here.  I suddenly found myself paddling a little more safely and conservatively.

I still raced, and on the plus side I found myself really practicing my low braces (something I tend to avoid) especially when a large set of swells would come in behind and suddenly throw me 50 degrees off course.

However, I noticably throttled back in some sections, took the safer lines through waves, and spent a lot of my time looking over my shoulder trying to find out exactly where C was … if I knew she was close then maybe I could have waited for her and still made it a race … at least that’s what I told myself … there was this other little voice in my head screaming “she could be sitting right on your tail and be about to come past you and laugh in your face, paddle faster you moron”.

Neither was to be and I crossed the line, alone, in about 1 hour 36 minutes.

In all my focus of racing C, we had actually both passed another paddler on the way out to Spec island, putting me in third last position (fourth last if you count Stephan), and although that’s not something I’m likely to put on my CV under sporting achievements “Third slowest ocean paddler in the State – 2012″  I still got off the water on a complete high.

I resisted the urge to tell C when I saw her on the beach that this one didn’t count in my stated goal to beat her (recognising mainly that she probably would have no idea what I was talking about).  My goal will be done, only if and when I finish in front of her after having put in an equal effort and having done so fair and square, not a ‘luck based’ win like today, no not like that at all.

So the highlight for me today was being there, competing, and strangely the practice I got in bracing.  It’s a bit like having the confidence to go over a log when you’re mountain biking: knowing how to do it is one thing, having done it under pressure and having also got to the other side without ‘crashing’ multiple times gives you the knowledge and confidence that you can do it whenyou most need to.  One of my stated goals for this year is to become a stronger paddler in bad weather conditions, and todays race took my confidence on a big jump towards achieving this.

In short, it was a good day …

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