By Michael Gordon
The starting line was packed with over a hundred boats in array of color standing out against downtown Seattle. As racers exchanged friendly words of encouragement, it became evident that the Seattle racing community brought together paddlers from up and down the West Coast. ‘This is a seriously friendly race,’ I thought, lining up at the fourth annual New Year’s Challenge on Jan. 5, united with paddlers from every discipline—OC-1, OC-2, OC-6, dragon boats, SUPs, sea kayaks, surfskis, rowing shells, one canoe and one craft that can only be described as a wooden kayak-maran bicycle—for the seven-mile race on Lake Washington.
I was side-by-side with over a hundred paddlers, lined up, paddles raised, ready for the race to begin. Then in a blur for the start followed by the sound of water churning, paddlers sprinted off the line. The rowing shells took off like lightning, the dragon boats digging hard in rhythm. I entered a trance as stroke rate, breathing and speed took over my brain. The race was on.
The first section of the race squeezes into the Montlake cut. I was in the front group, pacing behind Minne Fontenelle who was paddling an OC-1. I started to realize that pacing Minnie, who finished first in the OC-1 Women’s class with a time of 1 hour, 13 minutes, 20 seconds, was not in my best interest. As Minnie pulled away she shared a few encouraging words, lifting my spirit as I struggled to find a more reasonable pace—I didn’t see Minnie again until the last straightaway.
Halfway through the race, I found my focus and began to make up time. I passed six boats before joining with a SUPer who was charging and closing distance on the leader pack. We instantly had a silent friendship as we fed off each other’s energy. I was able to pull away, offering a few encouraging words as Minnie had offered me earlier. The race blended into peculiar focus that combined a running high with the serenity of paddling, the rhythm of each stroke and each breath strengthening the focus. I was paddling fast, smooth and weightlessly. After passing the dog park, the finish line came into view. Another burst of energy propelled me through the last quarter-mile and across the finish line in 1:16:30.
At the finish line, words of encouragement arrived from the Sand Point Pier and from paddlers who’d already finished. I found Minnie and we both smiled and congratulated each other on a strong race. The camaraderie helped set the mood for entire race. I also tracked down the SUPer who I paddled with and cheered him through the finish. The SUPer and I exchanged congratulations and he said, “I was really struggling at the halfway point. Talking with you lifted my spirits and I found a second wind.” His words highlighted an important strength of the New Year’s Challenge: it’s as much about your personal performance, as it is about everyone having fun. That makes for a yearly tradition which I’m sure to continue.