By Austin Kieffer
In 2018, I decided to attempt my first ever Molokai Challenge. The race starts on the island of Molokai and spans 32 miles of open ocean known as the Kaiwi Channel to the shores of Oahu. The channel's Hawaiian name translates to "Channel of Bones" and if that wasn't nerve wracking enough, the 2018 field of competitors was one of the best to ever assemble in the history of the race.
It is therefore an extreme understatement to say I had some nerves come race morning. Truthfully, they had been there for weeks, so when the start horn finally sounded, my challenge wasn't to start the race, but to pull myself back.
I took off behind my friend Cory. My plan was to shadow-box with the favored athletes and let them set the pace and the course direction. Cory Hill, Hank McGregor, and Zsolt Szadovszki (who was part of a team) lead the race early, letting everyone know that this year, Dean's course record was in serious jeopardy. I stuck to my plan and hung back. Floating about 100 meters behind the leaders with Jasper Mocke, Macca Hynard and Pat Dolan. The pace was solid and my strategy was to match and follow. I would spend as little energy as possible, follow the lines of the experts, while staying within striking distance. When we all entered the last third of the race, that was when I would put the hammer down.
My pre-race line choice was to stay a bit north of the rhumb line. In one of my practice crossings, I had drifted much too far south trying to attack a tiger line and I knew that to be in contention I would need to be just north or a good bit north of the line early.
About 20 minutes into the race, I realized that the wind direction was more favorable than I had hoped. The wind and ground swell weren't pushing us south the way it had in my training runs and when my escort boat pulled up beside me, Todd (my escort boat driver) told me that we were all heading well north of the rhumb line. Todd and I had strategized a bit before the race and despite my fears, he was confident with the wind direction lining up from the East, the negligible ground swell and the flood tide all made the rhumb line the fastest way to cross the channel.
At that point, I had a decision to make. One, I could stick with my initial race plan and play follow the leader with the best in the business, hoping that I had more in the tank for 52km than legends like Hank, Cory and Jasper. Or two, I could make my own path, take a tiger line and gamble for the win. I knew experience was everything in this race, I knew Hank, Cory and Jasper had surely all done their homework and I knew it was dangerous to abandon a plan in the heat of a race ... but we were already so north. What if they were making a mistake? What if the whole field was banking on a line they researched for slightly different conditions?
I couldn't decide, but when my escort boat urged me to drop south and make a move for the rhumb line and the lead, I couldn't resist. I had slogged through hours of brutal upwind, frozen my entire body during countless winter ocean paddles, and fought out rep after rep of solitary intervals. This was not an Austin content with a solid top 5, I wanted to win.
I dropped down south and attacked. I knew it was early, I knew I should be pacing, but I felt incredible and I wanted to race. Within the first 10 minutes, I pulled up about even with the leaders on the inside line. Todd told me I was still slightly North of the rhumb line. I put my head down and kept attacking. Even with the strong side surf, I was averaging 15-17km/hr on each of my kilometer splits. I was flying and I knew from a little pre-race calculation that these speeds were course record breaking speeds (if I could hold them).
I doubled down. I surfed as efficiently as possible but attacked at every opening. Yelling over my shoulder, I asked Todd, "Where the leaders? How far behind am I?"
Todd screamed back, "You're ahead! You are winning this thing!"
I couldn't believe it. I was leading the Molokai and not only that, I was on the shortest line point to point. Eventually everyone would have to come to my line and make up extra ground (both to catch me and to close the distance they had veered from the rhumb line).
"Set your pace and let those guys come to you!" Todd shouted.
I didn't know, if I could keep this pace up for 50km, but I was winning the race! My new plan was try to hold on and defend this position at all cost. Of course, I would try to surf as efficiently as possible, but I decided I would blow before I took my foot off the gas.
For the next two hours of blissful surfing, I was winning the race. The wind and waves were fantastic! I found myself in a hypnotic rhythm, Todd and Emily (my champ of a fiancé who agreed to second me on the escort boat) encouraging me by yelling things like "You're still winning!", "No one has passed you yet", "Just keep this up and you've got it". Their support allowed me to hold my pace together and my focus on the waves was complete.
I knew the caliber of athlete I was racing, I knew it wasn't likely I would hold them off, but if I broke away, took the lead early on the rhumb line, and my escort boat couldn't see a single competitor's boat or escort boat pass me to the north, I truly was winning this thing!
Todd even screamed to me that we were getting calls from other escort boats, asking who the heck he was escorting because that person was leading the race.
With just over an hour to go, Todd told me that I was still in the lead and the closest athletes behind me on the rhumb line were Dean Gardiner and Oscar Chalupsky. It seriously worried me that we hadn't seen the race favorites I broke away from early, but with Dean and Oscar behind me, it gave me some renewed faith in my line. Between the two of them, they had almost won the race more than every single other victor combined. If they both were on my line, it certainly wasn't a terrible line.
In the last 30 minutes of the race, as we approached China Wall, Todd got a call telling him that Cory was leading the race. I was confused, since we hadn't seen anyone come by, but it didn't come as much of a surprise that the back to back World Champion was ahead. Second was a fine place to be in. I just had to hold on and make sure no one else got past.
Rounding the final point, things started to fall apart. From the start line to the reef at China Wall, I averaged 15.941 km/hr. A speed, I was incredibly proud of holding for over three hours, but my next 3km of headwind/flat water were pathetic. My heart-rate refused to come out of the 180s and drop below my threshold. As a result, lactic acid poured into my bloodstream as I refused to stop paddling. I had executed a near flawless 3-hour race up to that point. I had to finish strong!
Finishing strong wasn't exactly what I would call the final 15 minutes of the race. I suffered some of the most extreme race pain I think I have ever endured. My whole body was on the cusp of cramping and as Emily described it: "It looked like watching a video of you paddling in slow motion." Certainly not what you want to hear about the waning kilometers of the race of your life, but with no one coming by me, I thought I might just be able to come away with a podium!
FINALLY!!! I crossed the finish line. With bleary vision and my body shuddering, I looked up at the athletes who had already crossed the finish line. Six athletes looked back at me. Six athletes?! What?!
As I looked around, each one of the athletes deserved to come in with a top six finish. I admired and respected each of them tremendously, but I was dumbfounded. How had this happened? How had I not known about it?
The next few hours were spent recovering in a heap on the grass banks of the finish. Mind slowly trying to process what had happened. Clearly, the northern line had paid dividends in the latter half of the race, but I felt like I had done everything right.
My initial thoughts were ones of frustration. Why had I been such an idiot, why had I not stuck with the leaders? I knew I was fit enough to at least have contested with that group for a higher finish than seventh. However, as the shock and frustration subsided over the next few days, I realized that, I wouldn't have changed a thing. I had taken the race by the horns. I had raced my own race and for three hours I felt like a king. I pushed the pace, made my own line, thought I was (and for a time actually was) leading the race. I believed in myself. That is how I want to race. Even though I fell apart in the last 3km of the race, even though I came in seventh place in the end, I could not be prouder of my first Molokai.
And one thing is for certain: I'll be back!
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