This race was a family affair on all levels. First I have to say a huge thank you to our entire family that helped us get to the finish line. From coming to Austin just to take care of the kids so we could get in training runs or check out log jambs, to following us along during the race and surviving injury and exhaustion to make sure we made it to the finish, we couldn’t have done it without you. Y’all were amazingly supportive and we will always be grateful.
And a special thank you to our Team Captains, Dwight (Nathan’s dad) and Steven (Nathan’s brother-in-law). They meet us at each checkpoint and stop that they can find to provide us with water, ice, food, ice socks and encouragement. They were sleep deprived, dealing with the heat, climbing down muddy slippery river banks to get to us and they have the battle scars to prove it.
Aside from Nathan losing his sunglasses 5 minutes into the race, day one went like clockwork. We felt great, had a steady pace and were clicking off checkpoints one at a time. We made it through most of the portages and rapids without incident. Nathan did have to bail at Cottonseed to avoid hitting a 4 man boat that was stopped in front of us. But overall we couldn’t have asked for a better day one. We even made it to Palmetto about a half an hour ahead of our goal giving us a little extra daylight.
As it got dark we noticed a bright light ahead of us. We might have some company for the night for which I was grateful. We slowly caught up with Chris Stevenson. Not only did having someone to talk to made the hours pass but he freely shared his knowledge of the logjams ahead and thoughts on crossing the bay. When we reached the first small logjam Don and Rebecca Zeek were exiting the logjam just ahead of us and for the next few hours the three of us all paddled together. Then we hit the big logjam that required us to portage around it. It is hard to describe just what these logjams are like but imagine mud the consistency of peanut butter that you sink into and just stick, steep banks, barb wire and then steep banks back down the other side. This turned out to be where we lost one of our hatch covers (the third since we started training, for some reason we couldn’t keep them on the boat.) It had actually become our thing so much so that when Megan Yeager passed the logjam later that night and saw it, she knew it had to be ours.
At the Gonzales Dam we all split. Chris went river left, we went river right down the rocks. At the gravel bar we stopped to get food and water and I laid down in the river to relax my muscles. It was about 1:00 am. That was a mistake I won’t make again. I never did warm back up. While the fact that we weren’t dealing with 100 degree plus temperatures during the day was nice it also meant it was cooler at night. I had decided against bringing a jacket (although I had been advised to) and I was shivering and teeth chattering. By about 2:30 I was worthless to Nathan so we switched, and I got in the front of the boat to lay down and try to sleep/warm up. Nathan got in the back and kept paddling. It took me about 45 minutes to stop shivering and then I got about 45 minutes of sleep. When I woke up about 4 am I was a new woman. Which was a good thing since day 2 is a beast.
From the gravel bar to Hochheim is 37 miles. The longest stretch between checkpoints. Our goal was to average about 5mph the entire race so you can do the math. It’s a long night. Following that is 25 miles from Hocheim to Cheapside in the heat of the day. I don’t know what is about that stretch but there is no wind and no shade. It is just long and hot. Nathan and I broke it up by saying that every hour we allowed ourselves a 2 minute break to get out of the boat and get in the water to cool off. We had also given our TC’s a challenge to find a spot during that stretch to give us ice socks. We had just hit an hour mark and were looking for a good spot to get out when Nathan told me we had ice socks. Down the river we could see Dwight and Steve waiving at us from someone’s dock. Up on the deck above the dock was the owner and his dog just chilling and having a beer. Those ice socks, and our discussion wondering how in the world they found that guy and talked their way onto his property kept us distracted for a few hours.
We were making pretty good time on day two and knew there were some rapids around Nursery. The problem was we couldn’t remember exactly where and there was a chance we could still hit those during daylight hours so we kept pushing to get through Thomaston and the rapids before dark. By some miracle we made it and we were glad we did. There was more water in the river than the last time we ran that stretch and in the dark I’m not sure if we would have made it through those without flipping.
As we headed into Victoria we were trying to avoid a sweeper and a large log that we could see, when another log just below the surface that we didn’t see flipped us and swamped the boat. We were both tired and Nathan was dealing with some pain in his rib and my shoulder was struggling. After that we were also frustrated and wet. Unlike night one, Nathan was now worried that if he tried to paddle while I slept we could flip again and getting thrown out of the boat while sleeping could be dangerous. So we pulled up, ate some food and slept for almost 2 hours at Victoria. When we pulled into Victoria we were in 21st place and the 3rd mixed tandem unlimited. That would not be the case when we pulled out.
Just before 4am we headed out from Victoria. Holly Orr headed out with us and I can’t explain how much it helps to have someone to talk to and take your mind off of the fatigue and pain. I may have even paid a little more attention to my form and stroke knowing Holly was watching. Holly gave me my first paddling lesson about a year ago. She was going for her 10th Safari finish and trying to beat her own C1 record. (C1 is considered the hardest boat, solo, no rudder.) She accomplished both. We also met up with Joe and Libby Geisinger. This was days before Libby’s 18th birthday and this was how she wanted to celebrate. How cool is that? We had paddled some with Joe and Libby on day one and she is amazing in the stern of the C2. The 3 of us paddled together while the sun came up and the heat came out. By the time we hit Dupont though I was fading. My shoulder was burning and at Dupont, Joe, Libby and Holly headed out as we slowed down.
We made it through the railroad logjam and the cut and we finally caught sight of saltwater barrier. I could have screamed for joy. Without an ice pack my shoulder felt like I was being poked with a branding iron but not paddling didn’t get me any closer to the finish and it wasn’t fair to Nathan for him to pull me down the river so I kept putting my paddle in the water. How much power was behind that paddle is up for debate.
We stopped at saltwater barrier to ice my back and once that was numb we got fresh ice packs and headed out. When we got to Tivoli bridge my brother who had flown in from Atlanta was there waiting for us. We stopped at wooden bridge, said hi to the resident alligator and took on some food and water.
We hit the bay about 5:45pm. Our goal was to get across the bay and follow the shoreline to Seadrift. The wind and waves were definitely a challenge but we made it across the bay in about an hour and were getting close to the other shoreline when we turned and flipped. We walked the boat over to the shoreline. At this point it is deceptive how far you have to go. We walked the boat for about half an hour until we decided we were never going to make it at that speed so we got back in the boat and paddled and paddled and paddled. We finally reached the point of the barge canal just before 9:00pm and the sun setting. I was exhausted and can’t being to explain how ready I was to be at the finish. I knew my kids were there waiting for me and our family had been cheering us on for days. But it was now dark and we had not yet crossed the barge canal. That is the one stretch of the bay that is too deep to walk. Given how tippy we were in that boat and how rough the bay was I had lost confidence that we could make it without flipping and I wasn’t up for trying to swim in that choppy water pulling a boat. So we sat. We talked through our options and decided to try to wait it out until light. But the reality of trying to set up camp ended up being a worse reality. We were wet, it was windy and the island is full of briars. While we kept debating our options we could see lights on the other side. Turns out that my brother was up on the bluff playing with the headlights and driving in circles trying to get us to push on.
The final push that we needed turned out to be Mollie Binion. She paddled by just as we were thinking about crossing. She reminded us that the area of the barge canal that is dredged is pretty narrow so we only have a short way to go to cross it and then we can walk it in if we flip. That one encounter may have only been a tiny part of Mollie’s race, but it was the encouragement and confidence I needed to push on. Mollie headed across ahead of us. We had to wait for a barge to come through but we headed across some time after 10:00. Both of us paddled on the same side the entire time just trying not to flip and we finally made it across. Once we got to the marsh on the other side we got out and walked it the rest of the way in. We finally crossed the finish line at 11:42pm.
Waiting was our entire family. Parker was sound asleep in the stroller. Kennedy had been sleeping on a makeshift pallet and woke up for us to come in. In the end we finished in 30th place in 62:42. We were 4th mixed tandem unlimited. Given that the three mixed boats that finished ahead of us have a total combined 70 (yes 70!) TWS finishes, including a couple overall wins and the woman who holds the record for the youngest womens solo finisher, we felt pretty good about our finish.
The race itself was just the culmination of all of our training but I can’t imagine having done any of it with a better coach or partner.