Distance Day! I was eager to get back on the water for the distance race. 18km would be no easy feat but it's a style of racing I have more experience with. We boarded the big boat at 630 am and set off to the start location. Once again, the boat was a bit challenging to prep for a race but we made it work. Prior to distance racing, it's important to get your fuel and hydration in the right amounts and at the right time. Too early and you won't have any fuel for the race and too late and you might end up with stomach cramps as the race begins.
Things were looking pretty good but unfortunately due to some course setting issues the race start was delayed by almost an hour. This left myself and all of the other racers on the water trying to find shade behind some of the larger boats. It was an interesting scene on the water as some people chose to get back on the boat, others tucked in right beside the boats to find shade. Water bottles were raining down from the boat for racers who needed to hydrate further with the delayed start.
The race director boat showed up and finally got the race under way. There was a fair bit of current right at the start line which meant that we had to do a bit of a moving start which was awkward to say the least. I managed to tuck in behind some fast paddlers which put me in pretty good position heading to the first buoy. Starts in distance races are critical and things were looking pretty good for me until a massive pile up happened at the first buoy. Just like an accident on the highway, one racer went down who got hit from behind by another racer who also went down. Racers tried to move left and right to avoid collisions and ended up cutting off other racers. It was mayhem. The top 15 racers made it through clear but racers 15-30 were piled up. I managed to squeeze through in what I figured was about 20th position but by this time the lead racers had pulled well ahead. Once again, position after the first buoy is critical and I knew it would be tough to move out of this position.
After a little bit of jockeying for position I found myself right next to fellow Canadian Jason Bennett. He and I have raced against each other a lot over the past few seasons and it was great to have him nearby to give me a good idea of where I was at. We are quite evenly matched and so we both knew that if we were close to each other it meant we were paddling well by each of our standards.
We worked together in a draft line with a couple other racers but the choppy waters made it tough to stay together. Jason pulled away from me but shortly after he ended up in the water due to the choppy conditions. I managed to stay on board and continue paddling. Jason was behind me, the other racer in our draft went left and there were 3 guys about 100m in front. This meant I was paddling solo for while. Solo is OK but it's always nice to get a bit of break drafting other paddlers.
I felt good and was watching my GPS regularly. Speeds were decent, heart rate was good and I was slowly gaining on the 3 paddlers in front of me. As we approached Namotu Island I noticed I was gaining on them so I picked up the pace and manage to pass them as we rounded the island. This is where the race got hard.
With about 10km to go we had the long crossing from Namotu to Malolo Island. The wind seemed to drop off, the sun was getting higher in the sky and the water flattened out for this stretch. It was hot. I was watching my speed on the gps drop so I would try to pick up the pace and felt my body saying no. My muscles weren't tried yet, but I was feeling fatigued as my HR went up. I tried quickly scooping up some water and dousing myself to cool down which helped, but only fora short time. I was entering into an area I hadn't been before. I could handle the water, I could handle the distance but the heat was something I wasn't ready for. With the humidity and lack of wind it was reported around 35-40 degrees celsius. I was wearing some Vaikobi sun protection clothing which has a great cooling effect, especially when wet and in the wind but without wind I was just plain hot.
Things were getting hard and I was using every technique I had to keep my mind off the challenges my body was facing. My first technique is to count strokes. Mindless counting keeps me focused on each stroke rather than looking forward and thinking about how many KM are left to go. Next step was to look around and try to take in where I was; I managed to distract myself for a while and did actually see dolphins and two sea turtles along the way. Finally, I settled into singing songs in my head. Thankfully, our wonderful team mate Ryan Knysh had played us the perfect song for paddling just before our big race. I will link the video below so that you too can experience what was going on in my head for about 10km. Thanks Ryan.
I thought about quitting a few times and kept looking back to see where my competition was behind me. The three guys I had passed managed to pick up two more paddlers along the way. These 5 paddlers were my motivation to finish strong. My body was failing but I knew I would never forgive myself if I dropped 5 spots in the home stretch of the race. We rounded the final buoy inside the reef at Malolo which meant about 2km to go. This last 2km was some of the hardest paddling I have ever done. It was mind over body as I had to keep convincing myself to put power in on each stroke. The leader of the 5 paddlers broke away and started closing the gap on me but I kept looking over my shoulder and finding just a little bit more energy to continue.
I managed to hold them off and finished a respectable 22nd place. I've never been so happy to finish a race. I hit the water and didn't get out until my body cooled down which took about 10 minutes. A few short minutes later, Jason crossed the finish line and the look on his face told me he went through the same thing as me. We had been training through October and November in Vancouver which was great for our paddling but definitely didn't prepare us for paddling that long in that heat.
In the end I was really happy with how I finished in the distance race. I truly left everything out on the water and other than preparing better for heat, there's nothing more I could have done to have finished higher in the standings. Months of training were behind me and my race was finished. It was an odd feeling to finally be done racing but it really felt good to know that I was done...at least for a little while.