By Joe Glickman
Brandon Nelson has officially set a new world record for distance paddled in 24 hours. His tally: 151.87 miles. That according to Guinness, which certified the record Sept. 5. Nelson set the record August 21 and 22 on Lake Padden near Seattle, paddling his Epic surfski at an average speed of more than 6.27 miles per hour. The course, as specified by Guinness, was a 1.73-mile circuit on a lake without current.
The record was a long time coming. Nelson’s first attempt came in May, 2006. Seven hours into that effort, his custom-built, 23-foot carbon sea kayak cracked behind the seat. He had to paddle a heavy spare kayak for the next 10 hours while his crew worked on repairs – and still he notched 146.9 miles, eclipsing the previous record by nearly 10 miles. The triumph was a tribute to his mother, a former hospice worker who had died of ovarian cancer just weeks earlier.
Soon however Nelson received some shocking news. Three days earlier, Carter Johnson had paddled 150.34 miles on California’s Lake Merced. Nelson had beaten the old record, but still come up short. “I couldn’t have been lower,” says the self-described former whitewater dirt bag, who credits his unbridled love of the outdoors to his parents.
More than seven years later, at 8 a.m. on Aug. 21, 2013, the 41-year-old father of two began the first of what he hoped would be 87 laps on Lake Padden. The 6’6″ former All State basketball player from Muskegon, Michigan had just one goal in mind: to fulfill the promise he made to his mother seven years earlier.
CanoeKayak.com: How did you prepare?
Brandon Nelson: I started training in June for the August attempt. Three days a week I’d leave the house at 3 or 4 AM and paddle a 37-pound Epic V10 for three to four hours. I didn’t push hard and I averaged about 7.1 mph each session. A few weeks before the attempt, I averaged 7.6 mph for 3.5 hours so I knew I was ready.
Did you have a specific plan?
To set the record I had to average 6.266 mph. A few weeks before the attempt, I did a 10-hour paddle where I averaged 7.1 mph. I felt fine so I knew if I averaged 7.0 mph for the first 12 hours I could drop as low as 5.6 mph and still break the record.
Having done it in 2006, were you nervous about how bad you’d feel?
I had no fear. I knew it was going to hurt, but that's something I’ve dealt with in ultra-marathon races many times. With a faster boat I was 110 percent confident that I was going to pull this off. I thought I’d go 160 miles. Having said that, this paddle hurt me in ways I didn’t anticipate.
I averaged 7.3 mph for the first four hours, but then my guts felt terrible and my legs began cramping. I was eating strawberries and sweet potatoes and drinking the same Hammer products that I used during my 10-hour test paddle but I hadn’t realized that my drink mixture was pulling water from my muscles. Over the next six hours I peed just once. In my foggy state, I started asking for caffeine tables, Red Bull, and junk food — stuff that I planned on using only in case of emergency. The next thing I knew, I was puking all over myself.
Did you think about quitting?
I had huge margin so it never occurred to me to stop. But around 2 or 3 am, my heart was racing and I was hallucinating and I began shouting to my crew that I couldn’t tell up from down. The next thing I knew I fell out of my ski. Without my PFD I’d have drowned.
How’d you carry on?
A tiny voice in my brain that was still mammalian said: “You’re going to do this. Climb in the boat and calm the fuck down.”
Had you experienced this before in an ultra?
No, never. I’d keep it together for a while and then, like with a drug overdose, the psychosis would return. The muscles in my core were so wrecked I had no balance and had to lean back with my back arched. I’d take 20 strokes, just scratching at the water, and lean back again as if I were paddling up a mountain. My speed dropped to 5 mph.
What were the darkest moments?
It had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t break the record until that first swim. I thought, ‘Oh no, if I can’t get back into the boat, I’m toast…23.5 hours into the paddle, just 100 yards short of the record, I fell off for the third time. Struggling back into the boat and carrying on became the brightest moment.
Was it worth it?
Of course! While my mother wouldn’t have cared one bit if I set the record it was something I had to do. Having not done an ultra since 2006 it allowed me to revisit that part of my life and also awoke this feeling that I have this incredible potential to put the same determination and focus into the things that are more important to me and my family now.
How much did you think of your mom during the paddle?
Her presence was palpable throughout. Three or four times during the night I said, ‘Mom I really need you!’ As always, she was there for me.