Lee Deviney (aka txpaddler on-line) is an experienced paddler and racer from Texas.
He wrote these comments on marathon kayak and canoe racing originally on Rivermiles.com forum in the context of the Missouri River 340 race.
He competed solo in 2007 MR340 and in the winning tandem with another Texan, Phil Bowden, in 2008 MR340. Lee is spending every summer vacations in Colorado. I hope to meet him here for some paddling on Lake Dillon.
Start of 2008 MIssouri River Race at Kaw Point. Photo by Connie Uliasz
Competing in canoe races, and finding experienced canoe racers to train with and learn from, is the most productive use of your time with the goal of being competitive and winning paddling races.
Interesting tidbit. In Texas canoe/kayak race participation has increased by a good chunk during the last 10 years. Most of the growth has come from adventure racers who entered a paddling race adjunct or to prepare for an AR. What happens is that they have fun, they find a fast learning curve and that canoe race entry fees are a whole lot cheaper. So, they become repeat customers.
I have observed that competitive swimmers are really good at understanding and mastering the mechanics of the paddle stroke. It also doesn’t hurt that the cross-over swimmers that have come into Texas paddling were also very fit. There aren’t many books and videos on technique but all you really need is Greg Barton’s video and Peter Heed’s Canoe Racing book.
The Brent Reitz Forward Stroke video is also popular but, personally, I prefer the Barton method.
Note: the only marathon canoe specific video that I am aware of is the Mike and Tanna Fries video. Also, Peter Heed’s General Clinton video is great for the wind trainer or the erg when it gets cold. (Personally, the ony thing I know about cold is that it should only be experienced with skis on. But, I hear tell that some people can’t paddle in January).
Media is fine but there is no substitute for paddling with knowledgeable and experienced paddlers. Missouri certainly has some fine paddlers, and I see them consistently on the leader board in the MR340, Gritty 50 and the two day race. In addition, I imagine that Charlie Lockwood would be a good marathon canoe resource, Jim Short (Springfield) and Rocky Caldwell (West Plains) are top USCA canoe racers. Also in northern Arkansas, Dale & Becky Burris, Don Walls and Stephen Lynn are all very accomplished canoe (and kayak) racers. The trick with the Arkansas crowd is that they generally race in the Spring and peter out by mid-summer.
Phil Capel may be a good point of contact.
Racing strategy includes: when to eat, when to cruise, when to sprint, wake riding, reading current, reading and assessing your competition, weather considerations, equipment choices and tons of stuff that you can read about (Peter Heed book) to get a leg up but that you really only master through experience. Strategy also depends on the distance of the race. Always keep something in the tank for the finish.
I didn’t want to sprint out the finish until we hit the IH-70 bridge. Bowden got excited and cracked the whip three miles out. It worked but I suffered horribly.
Note: If your name is Carter Johnson and you can sprint out, grab a lead and then go into high cruise mode for 36 hours…this is a good plan. The rest of us have to find alternate paths.
More on pacing: In a spec. boat marathon race, e.g. USCA “pro canoe” or ICF marathon boats form into packs, just like in bicycle racing. Each boat in its pack takes turns pulling and riding wake and the pack moves faster than each boat would on its own. Big races such as the Au Sable Canoe Marathon, the General Clinton Canoe Regatta or USCA Nationals feature a furious sprint off the start to form the packs. The packs will stay together until portages, shallow water or other conditions cause separations. Often the lead boats will stay together until they can smell the finish line and then it comes down to who sprints at the right time, just like a flat stage in the Tour De France.
Serge Corbin is without question the greatest canoe racer ever, period the end. Over 20 years Serge is/was the bowman in countless C-2 wins. It was rare (at least since the mid-90’s when I started paying attention) that the Serge boat ever broke away early. The routine as to run in the lead pack and then sprint it out. Serge could pull bow better than anyone so his boat almost always won.
Things are different in unlimited ultra-distance marathon racing. For one things boat hull speeds vary greatly (matters in the sprint phase) as opposed to monolithic spec. hulls. Also, there is a much greater diversity of ability compared to a “Triple Crown” marathon canoe race or an ICF marathon kayak race.
So what to do in the MR 340? Getting out fast early gives you the best opportunity to hook up with a boat of similar speed and it also allows you to see who has what on the top end. Many of the early leaders will be there at the end IF they don’t blow up or encounter sickness or other difficulty.
Young, generally less experienced, guys have a bad habit of going out too fast for too long and flame out. Been there, done that myself and I was a slow learner. Apparently “grumpy old men” share the same affliction too. Ironically, younger paddlers can recover from the Bonk or other malady quicker than us older farts. However, older folks are usually better at finding ways to work through difficulties and get moving again (again it's learned experience).
Rest in very long races. My break point with respect to sleep is around 40 hours. In 2007 I soloed the MR340 on a hoped for 50 hour pace (ended up being 55:30). I took a planned one hour nap early Wednesday AM in Glasgow and it did me good. I also slept twice more (unplanned) at Jefferson City and in Hermann. I probably could have skipped the second two stops and finished faster but at that point I had already caught every solo paddler who was catchable and I wanted o stay fresh in case someone else had a finishing sprint.
In 2008 Bowden and I didn’t sleep or stop for more than 16 minutes (per the split sheets, I thought we stayed longer at Coopers). I never got sleepy and I took no caffeine. What? Either the truck stop 5 hour energy boost worked, or they were a great placebo or we found ourselves in a tight race and that kept the adrenaline up. I think it was the excitement of the race.
I really wanted to plan an hour’s rest early Wednesday morning but it didn’t work out that way, and we got away with it.
John Bugge used to insist on sleep during 36 hour plus or minus Safari races. In team boats ideally you take turns sleeping in the boat while its moving. It’s hard to give ground during a race by sleeping or resting but sometimes it’s the answer to you best race. You finish fresher while others fade.
Another anecdote is that the Grumps crashed hard in 2008 so they slept, but they got up and finished strong and, isn’t finishing the primary objective?
After 21 years of successes and failures I thought that I had this figured out during the 2007 MR340. Wrong! My plan for 2007 worked in 2007 but I puked my way down the river in 2008. It wasn’t really a matter of what I ate and drank, it was a matter of how and when I consumed. The difference was I that in 2007 I was not pushing and I ate when I was hungry, I didn’t force feed myself and I ate while stopped (and standing on the bank). No such luxury in 2008, some pesky fellows kept interrupting my dining schedule particularly during the last 80 miles.
The high point was the fried egg sandwich at Cooper’s Landing. After puking up all solids for hours, we took 15 minutes, I stood up and relaxed my stomach and the sandwich went down and stayed down.
I can’t tell people what to eat and drink, only that common sense applies. Water and electrolytes are essential and you should test your food in training and eat what tastes good, has basic nutritional value and stays down.
Regarding equipment, the general rule is this: faster boats require more experience and time on water to use EFFECTIVELY. Faster boats are also generally tippier, handle (more poorly) and are less comfortable than “recreational boats”. At some point, usually determined by distance or course difficulty, a “fast’ boat can become a liability. I have a last place finish in the 2007 Colorado River 100 that resulted from trying to race a 25 mile tandem kayak on a 100 mile course.
I think that the Minn II was an excellent MR340 choice, it’s a good cruising canoe, stable and handles well on big water. The 20 year old home-made Spencer canoe that Bowden and I paddled was similar in stability but longer and with much less freeboard (a real concern w/r/t barge wakes). So, what is the best boat solution? The fastest boat that you can paddle at race pace effort while being comfortable and stable for hours on end. The right boat will vary from team to team and paddler to paddler. I favor canoe type boats and the results in very long races generally (but not always) point to. Different rules apply in short races.
About canoes and kayaks: What is the difference? A decked hull? A two-ended paddle? My rule is that if the HULL paddles most efficiently using a canoe paddle, then it’s a canoe. If you are sitting low and a kayak paddle works best, then you’re in a kayak. In the Texas Water Safari world the distinctions get real blurry. For short races I like to paddle kayaks. I’m a lousy canoeist so I don’t compete well in spec. boat, e.g. USCA racing. However, I love the comfort of a canoe over the long haul.
However, kayaks are more intuitive and easier to master. And, the low seating position in some pretty racy kayaks makes them stable. Kayaks and skis are also “sexier” than canoes which probably accounts for kayaks outselling canoes.
I don’t think that a reasonable argument can be made that one hull style is better, or faster than another. I do think that serious paddlers should experiment with canoes and kayaks and determine what will work best for them.
Regarding paddles: this is easier. The best paddle is always an expensive lightweight carbon fiber paddle. Canoe paddle, touring kayak or wing kayak paddle? They each have advantages and disadvantages. Canoe paddles are less fatiguing and you can turn the blade over quickly while getting a solid catch. (Good) touring kayak paddles are easy to use, lightweight and not particularly stressing on joints. Wing kayak paddles are the most efficient paddle for use in a narrow boat in which you can obtain a vertical catch. It’s also easier to self-learn and groove a proper stroke with a wing paddle. The downside of wings is that they are not good for maneuvering strokes and bracing is tricky. Use of an oversized wing or over-use of the wing can induce shoulder problems but less so with the newer styles of wings vis-à-vis the 1980’s Swedish wing model and similar.
In a typical racing hull you can definitely sprint and cruise faster with a kayak paddle because you will have a faster stroke rate. Over distance, and after you get tired, canoe paddles are a welcome relief and recipe for success. If your name is Joe Belize and you are a canoe paddle ace you don’t need no stinking kayak paddle to lead the TWS or the MR340…at least as long as you are still in the race.
It’s easier to learn to master the use of a kayak paddle compared to a canoe paddle, but the reward is there for learning the sit-and-switch canoe forward stroke.
More on paddles: It goes without saying that you shouldn’t use a paddle that you either haven’t attained competency with or, have not used at all. In unlimited races such as the Texas Water Safari and the MR340 you can use any and all paddles. So, experienced paddlers may use kayak paddles for speed in spurts and canoe paddles for fast cruising. This is a strategic approach and the situations during the race may dictate the tactics of which paddle to use when. Also, changing paddles means some change in muscle use and the opportunity to rest some muscles and adjust the rotation pattern.
I broke the cardinal rule of trying something new in the 2008 MR 340 and I paid a steep price for that mistake. A really bad wrist injury was the resulted when, after 70 miles Phil and I agreed to toss the wing kayak paddles and change to Epic touring paddles, a sound strategy that I used last year....the problem was that I hadn't used the Epic flat blade all Spring/Summer and pulling it at race pace messed up my wrist. We ended up singling the last half of the race until we went into kayak paddle sprint mode with three miles to go. My wrist looked like Popeye after the race and it’s not healed yet.
Don’t waste your time trying to propel a “fat” canoe with a kayak paddle, especially a wing. If you need a really long paddle, e.g. 220 cm or longer you are swinging excess weight and chances are your hull width prevents a solid vertical catch. If this is your boat, get proficient with a canoe paddle.
The trend for marathon for both canoes and kayaks is to go short and keep the stroke rate up. I was a grinder for many years (long paddle, big blade, lots of muscle). Paddling with better Canadian and Belizean paddlers in the 2003 and 2004 Safaris brought me around. I was amazed to find that I could maintain a high efficient stroke rate when everyone was pulling and the boat was gliding.