Today was the Armond Bassett race. I was originally planning to not go, because I’ve rarely had any fun at it. The first time I did it, it was torrential thunderstorms. The second time, it was hot as hell and not a breath of wind, and I went out too hard and faded hard. Last year I was still recovering from my shoulder surgery and I only did the three mile short race. So basically I’ve never really enjoyed this race.
Today it was perfect weather, though – it wasn’t too hot, and there was a very pleasant breeze. My game plan was to not go out too hard, and try to keep it in a reasonable heart rate zone. In support of this plan, I finally got around to putting the weed guard on my boat, and I also bought a energy gel thinking that would stave off that big drop off in performance I get at about the 1 hour mark. I also made a GPS mount, which turned out to be a bit cock-eyed because I suck at cutting straight lines.
When I got to the race, Jim and Todd were there, so obviously first and second were out of reach, and my old nemesis Mike Littlejohn was there, meaning that I’d have a fight on my hands if I wanted third. As well there was an unknown quantity, a guy named Alex or Adam or something like that from Ithaca. He was in an ICF sprint boat, which meant he could be good. Todd said some thing about how since he couldn’t beat Jim, he might as well paddle with Mike and I and give us a wake to ride (and obviously still drop us at the end). I guess that was before he saw Alex.
Unlike 2009 they started us in waves, so the c2s and c4s were long gone before we started. So at the gun immediately Jim and Todd and Alex lept ahead and started opening a big gap. I jumped on Mike’s side wake and stayed there as I tried to keep my heart rate settled. That worked fine for about 1.5 km until it looked like Mike was heading out beyond a buoy when it looked to me like there was a considerable distance saving to be had going more directly, so I left his wake. And within seconds I discovered that either that was Mike’s plan all along, or he’d seen what I was doing and agreed with my line, because I look back and he was on my stern wake.
Ok, I thought, no harm giving him a ride after he’d given me one, but now I was trying to figure out how to get him to pull through and take a turn after he’d had some time on my stern. I couldn’t exactly ask him, since we were rivals rather than team mates, and unlike cycling there is no recognized gesture like the elbow flick to indicate that it’s somebody else’s turn. As the kilometers kept ticking away I was getting more concerned that I was playing into his hands. I had hoped that my first grab for my drinking water tube would get him to come through, but it didn’t. Then I hoped maybe he’d out turn me at the buoy at the bottom of the course. But he paddles a very long boat of his own design and it turns like a barge, so as we rounded the buoy I’d actually gotten a small gap. I decided to put the hammer down, hoping to deprive him of my wake – if I couldn’t get a rest in his wake, I could at least make him work on his own. It didn’t work; he managed to climb back up and latch onto my stern wake again.
After about two or three kilometers going upstream, I noticed something great – Alex appeared to be having some difficultly, and Jim and Todd dropped him. He was in so much difficulty that he was doing a bit of a brace stroke every now and then, much as I do when I’m paddling my Think Legend. After I raised my speed for another kilometer I managed to pass him, still dragging Mike with me.
As we passed the start/finish area, crossed the canal and under the bridges, I was feeling amazingly strong. Keeping my heart rate under 155 really seemed to be paying off and I stopped worrying about how to get Mike to take a turn since I was convinced I was going to just grind him off.
At about the 55 minute mark, I briefly paused in the wake of a c4 in order to take some of that gel I’d brought along. I’m thinking that might have been a mistake because I got mild stomach cramps a few minutes later.
Soon afterwards we encountered a whole bunch of the stronger canoes in the race stopped and milling around. We didn’t stop to enquire what was going on but I heard people asking each other if anybody had brought a phone. I didn’t have mine, so I didn’t stop. I found out afterwards that one of the paddlers, Mike Skivington, had a medical emergency and had been taken off in an ambulance. I guess that is one advantage of the Armond Bassett race over an Adirondak race – there are paved roads on both banks of the river for the entire length. (I didn’t know it at the time but the organizers decided because so many top competitors had stopped to help that they’d agreed to neutralize the race, so no awards and no NYMCRA points.)
Not far from the canoe commotion was the second turning buoy, and once again I got a tiny gap on Mike, but this time I was starting to feel the pace and I didn’t try to gap him. Instead, he started pulling up beside me. There was a headwind coming from the right side so I tried angling into that shore to see if it gave me an advantage, but it didn’t so I angled back into the middle and put in a minute of hard effort to get back on Mike’s stern wake. I guess the question of when Mike would come through and do a turn was finally sorted, but I was struggling to hold on.
I sat there in his stern wake thinking “his technique is worse than mine, his boat is heavier, he’s wearing a hot sweaty pfd, surely he’s got to get tired at some point!” But he never does. He’s relentless. A couple of times his speed briefly dropped and I though “oh thank God, he’s getting tired”, then “maybe he’s just trying to get you to take over the lead again – well jokes on him, I’m too tired” but then his speed would pick up again and I’d be back in my own little world of hurt. I wasn’t recovering or saving myself, I was just hanging on, trying to convince myself not to just say “screw it, let him go”. I came close a few times.
Finally we got under the final footbridge. He was heading directly for the dock, and I was heading directly downstream in what I thought was a slightly shorter distance to the finish line. I don’t know where I found the energy but I started sprinting for all I was worth. My technique was falling apart, and my arms were sore and I was gasping for breath, but I crossed the line and risked a glance over, and it looked like I just barely edged him out. I could barely manage to turn off my GPS and paddle for the dock. I briefly considered jumping into the water, but I didn’t think I had the energy to remount my boat.
Afterwards, we could see that both Mike and I had picked up weeds on our rudders. I’d also lost my weed guard. Todd told me he makes replacement weed guards in his shop, so hopefully I won’t had to pay Epic for another one.