Voices of the Green Narrows Race
By Chris Gragtmans
5 … deep breath.
4 … hold.
3 … exhale, place paddle.
2 … shift gaze downstream, focus.
1 … simultaneously clear and overload mind.
All emotions and experiences are amplified when experienced in front of a field of strong competitors and cheering crowds. This is why race season in the Southeast is an irreplaceable part of the fabric of this paddling community. It needs to be experienced to be believed. The fall colors, camaraderie, competition, and search for flow is addictive.
Check out my pre-race report HERE for a little background, as things kicked off quickly with the Russell Fork Race on October 27. As expected, this was the baseline indicator of fitness, confidence and skill by the racers, and as in years past, it predicted the Green Race winner. After all of us lined up and slugged it out on course, Mike Dawson put his Olympic training to work and dismantled an extremely strong field. Jason Beakes and Geoff Calhoun, strong rivals from the D.C. area, took second and third place, respectively, and it was obvious that things were up in the air for seven days the long seven days until the Green Narrows. (Click HERE full Russell Fork results.)
After a week of apprehension and an awesome Thursday night party, the first Saturday in November dawned a spectacular fall day. I started it by turning on rowdy music at 7 a.m. and tackling my buddies Joel Kowalski and Kelsey Thompson, who were sleeping in my living room. It was my 10th Green Narrows Race morning, and I can think of nothing that I love more.
The gorge was as beautiful as ever, and 160 racers gathered around race figurehead Jason Hale for his annual pre-battle speech. Visualize a Hollywood pep talk crescendo — Rudy, Remember the Titans, Braveheart — pick your favorite, and multiply that by 100. A huge crowd of new and returning racers exploded at the end of the speech and charged toward the river.
The starting line was every bit as energized as any year in the past. The sun beckoned us downstream, and start timers counted down as minutes ticked away to #17. Jason gave me a sprinkle of Jeff West’s ashes on my right hand and paddle, and I was suddenly overcome with emotion thinking about a great man who was lost this year. I know that he was with all of us out there that day and will continue to be.
My slot came quickly, and before I knew it, I was on course. First impressions: Whoa, this river is full! I stumbled downstream and took all kinds of water to the chest as I tried to remember my high-water lines. The race experience is surreal because it goes from loud and excited at the starting line, to utter silence for a quarter-mile down to Boof or Consequence, then to a rising state of cheering and commotion to Chief’s, and from there everything goes absolutely haywire as you paddle into the Gorilla coliseum. Bouncing over a pinned boat at Boof or Consequence shook me up pretty good, and things got a bit out of control between there and Gorilla. I muscled it out somehow and flopped my way downstream, but a sketchy line at Go Left and a half-spin at Zwick’s injured the clock.
One of my favorite songs, Zion I’s Trippin’, blared through my headphones, and I cruised into Gorilla feeling how I always do: overwhelmed. I’m always nervous of making a big mistake and scaring the crap out of my family, but that same feeling makes it exhilarating. I planed through all of the drops uneventfully, and my lines cleaned up as I ran the final four slides. Sprint, sprint, sprint … finish line! All of that buildup is over before you know it.
It’s amazing to think that anytime you are on course, four other people are experiencing the same emotional whirlwind with you at one-minute intervals. It’s a conveyor belt of adrenaline, and that is part of the reason why it draws us together the way that it does.
This year, the race manifested itself in three ways: records, carnage, and creativity. The powerful water level accelerated many of us to PR’s, and two people (Mike Dawson and Dane Jackson) broke the overall record set in 2009 by Andrew Holcombe. That same water caused many many people to have bad crashes and swims, but fortunately everyone came out unscathed. (I managed to finish eighth.) And finally, a trio of duos and two paddlers going backwards showed us that there is always a new way to enjoy the day. Full Green Race Results can be found HERE. And a big congrats to Frenchman Eric Deguil, whose fifth-place finish put him atop the AWP World Series final standings for the second year in a row, followed by Dawson in second and Evan Garcia in third (Check out the last VOICES installments from this year’s AWP World Series events at Idaho’s North Fork Championship and the Czech Republic’s Devil’s Extreme Race).
After all was said and done, the legend of the Green Race only grew, and number 18 is sure to surpass all expectations once again. See you at the starting line!