Story by Joe Potoczak
Photos by Regina Nicolardi
"Every year always seems to be the best one ever," said race co-organizer Jason Hale at the awards ceremony of this year's world-renowned Green Race in North Carolina. The nineteenth installment of the annual extreme creek event once again delivered on its promise of unrivaled excitement. It began Saturday morning when racers awoke to several inches of snow in the surrounding region, delaying the race one hour from its heralded "high noon" start time, and lasted through the final ceremonies where organizers struggled to name a single winner. The second- and first-place men's longboat finishers met in a virtual tie, with a time of 4:19 appearing on three of the four stopwatches present at the finish line. The fourth watch would be the deciding factor; it showed one racer clocked in again at 4:19 - the other, 4:20. That final watch crowned Isaac Levinson as the fastest boat at the 2014 Green Race, and left kayak superstar Dane Jackson with the silver for the third year in a row.
"It's awesome," says Levinson. "I put a lot of thought and energy into this race every year, and to win for a second time is probably the most gratifying feeling I have ever experienced," adds the overall champion, who won the 2011 Green Race with a time of 4:22. Levinson says that such a tight finish in this year's race shows just how competitive it has become.
While victory at the Green Race has never been easy to achieve, the caliber of the athletes who attend each year and its ever-growing status as one of the premiere extreme whitewater races in the world, have made competition increasingly tight. Putting down flawless lines, which has become a necessity for top finishers, requires racers to maintain intense mental focus, style, and unbending physical execution through the half mile of notorious Class V which falls 300 feet from start to finish. The slightest mistake will take even top racers offline, costing them precious seconds or worse. All of the pieces of the puzzle have to fit together at the right moment to win the Green, which makes the 25-year-old Levinson’s performance — especially considering it was the tightest finish in the history of the race — all the more impressive. But don’t overlook the fact that Dane Jackson, at 21, has now been on the edge of victory three years in a row. In the heated competition of today’s Green Race, that type of consistency on the podium is as difficult to achieve as the fastest time.
"This was the first year I really felt capable of winning," says World Freestyle and two-time Grand Prix champion Dane Jackson who expressed satisfaction with his performance no matter what happened in the results. Jackson will now have to wait another year to attempt at winning the crown jewel that seems to be eluding him. But fellow competitors, including Levinson, know the talent he possesses and say it is only a matter of time.
Along with Levinson, the majority of this year’s winners are making a return trip to the top. Adriene Levknecht won her sixth title as women’s Green Race champion, posting a time of 4:44. She has developed a formula for success on her home river, which she says is a mixture of faith in her abilities and humility before her surroundings.
"I have a confidence on the river, and I know that I can make the lines I want to," says Levknecht. "But it’s hard, especially on race day when you want to hit every line perfectly. At that point it’s all about respect for the river, respect for your limits and how far you want to push it."
No matter how many times they have raced the Green, many athletes describe a similar sensation on the course. "As soon as I hear someone say Green Race my heart starts pumping," says back-to-back C-1 champion Benn Fraker. "For me there is this defining image of the race. After finishing Go Left, you can hear the crowd starting to pick up. Then as you are working your way down and getting ready to launch off Flying Squirrel and enter The Notch, you can see all these people standing at Gorilla. Knowing you're about to style it or eat it - that moment for me defines the Green Race."
Over the years, the event has grown from 16 buddies in 1996 who wanted to see who could run their gnarly backyard river the fastest to a race of close to 175 participants, now considered by many to be the marquee event of creek racing.
Extreme creek races have become a discipline within the overall sport of kayaking. Athletes specialize in this form of racing, and kayak manufactures have begun in recent years to design boats specifically built to win on the Green. Popular events are popping up all over the world. Money and sponsors are pouring into similar races. But the North Carolina staple wants to be true to its grassroots approach, even as its spectators and participants grow to unwieldy numbers.
"At the end of the day the race is really about going kayaking with your best friends," says race co-organizer Jason Hale, who is well known as the voice of the race. Hale, along with fellow organizers John Grace and Chelsea Christiani Grace, have taken it as their personal mission to make the day a success year in and year out.
As racers crash into the rocks below Rapid Transit to stop the clock for their run, they let out roaring hoots and hollers - emotions that have been building up through the entire race course, even through their entire training season. But even with hundreds of spectators joining in the cheers, the homespun feeling the event is built around remains palpable. The Green is a race where rivals are also friends, where the high fives, laughs and hugs at the finish line are as important to those involved as the stained-glass trophies presented at the end of the day.
Results of the 2014 Green Race (Click here to see complete results)
Note: Due to the delayed start time, the Ironman class was canceled this year. Competitors had to race in either the short or longboat categories, not both.
Men’s Long K-1:
1. Isaac Levinson
2. Dane Jackson
3. Pat Keller
Men’s Short K-1:
1. Nick Troutman
2. Dave Fusilli
3. Scott Harcke
1. Adriene Levknecht
2. Katie Dean
3. Mary Katherine Fields
1. Benn Fraker
2. Tad Dennis
3. Jordan Poffenberger
1. Bill Clipper
2. Jake Trotter
3. Keith Sprinkle
Men’s Open C-1:
1. Nathan Zumwalt
2. Robert Wiggins
3. Chris Loomis
*Addition:Sabrina Barm made Green Race history Saturday by becoming the first female to finish the race in an open canoe.
—Check out our VIDEO COVERAGE of the Green Race pre-party here.