Monday, August 10, 2009

Captain Thurmond's Challenge 2009

A few weeks ago my friend Jamie said "Me and Mike are thinking about doing Captain Thurmond. You wanna do the paddle leg?" I quickly agreed, and set about finding a fast kayak. Mike and Jaime are both fast, and I didn't want to race the New River gorge in my creekboat. Bobby Miller had a Wavehopper he wasn't using, and I jumped at his kind offer to use the boat. I'd never paddled one of them, but a straw poll of friends moderately reassured me it would be fine. Except Nori, who reminded me how unfun it would be to swim in Double Z rapid. (He gets the last laugh, since he beat me, but at least I didn't swim)

Race Day dawned nice and sunny, and as church bells tolled the noon hour, 58 racers took off on the Le Mans start of the bike leg.

Video by Dave Seay.
If you look close at the :17 second mark, you can see Mike (in gray on a red bike) take off through the pack. The bike leg ran from the Fayetteville town center to Cunard, via a mix of pavement, gravel road and single track. Mike, on a hardtail single speed (34x16), grabbed the lead and held it as he bombed through the course in 54:52, a full 3 1/2 minutes in front of the next finisher. He would have been a little quicker, but a wheel came out from under him on a bridge crossing and the wreck twisted his handlebars around. He tried to ride 'em crooked, but eventually stopped and yanked them square. Also, there was the matter of divebombing around raft buses and trucks on the paved descent into Cunard. Just before 1pm, someone said "Here comes the first rider" and I looked up to see Mike blasting in. He handed me the team bracelet, and I sprinted off to the river.
I was a bundle of nerves and twitches as I sorted out the Wavehopper and my pacing in the first few miles of the race. (I squeezed the inside of the boat so hard that my legs ached for days.) It was indeed counter intuitive to paddle, (lean right to turn left) and the initial stability was almost nil. It took some time to learn to trust the wings and secondary stability the boat offered when heeled over or engulfed in whitewater.
There was no question it was fast though. Terrified I would lose the lead Mike gave us, I probably asked a dozen different rafts if they could see any racers upstream. If you are a raft guide, and a guy in a red Wavehopper paddled past and said "Seeanyonebehindme?" in a single grunt, that was me. Thanks for checking my six.
I passed a few friends and grunted hello's, and several people cheered me on in the pools. I got a little surge of speed every time someone cheered me on, which felt foolish and fun at the same time.
I rolled through Fayette Station rapid and nearly eddied out on the left, but managed to stay in some current almost to the beach, where Jamie was waiting. My kayak time for the Cunard to Fayette Station paddle was 53:23, good for 5th overall. I got beat by a Sea Kayak, two Pyranha speeders, and a K-1. It was fast enough, however, to keep us in the overall lead and send Jamie up the run in front.
She did a great job running up the seriously steep trails back to Fayetteville; nobody caught her and she cruised back into town with a bigger lead than she started with, still in front. Her run was 1:02:45, and our total time was 2:51 flat. Sweet!
Our team at the finish line. Mike Vanderberg, Jamie Fields, and JB Seay. Photo by Brian Menzies.

Brian Menzies, another Morgantownie, and winner of the Men's Solo with a stellar time of 2:59:25. 6th in Bike, 2nd in Kayak and 6th in the run. Fastest individual competitor, and he beat all the teams except one.

Messing about in boats after my leg of the race. I even had time to get in my boat and chase down a pilotless kayak. The Wavehopper proved to be a surprisingly good bulldozer for the swamped Mirage.
We hung around in town for the awards ceremony, and picked through the big pile of prizes onstage. I scored a pair of END trail runners via Water Stone Outdoors. I like em, and the company appears to have a great approach to making environmentally responsible shoes.
I had a great time, and look forward to defending our team title next year. Full results of the race can be found here. Thanks to Adam of Marathon Bikes for keeping the race alive, and thanks again to Bobby for the use of the fast kayak! Its pretty fun to paddle those quick boats...

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Ed Gaker

Photo by Adam Johnson

It's been two months, but it still stings.
The phone rang at a late hour, and I knew intuitively it was not good news. I sat on the steps outside my in-laws', stunned by what I had just heard. The Morgantown kayaking community lost a member.
Ed Gaker was more than that, of course; he was one of a big family in Ohio, a doctor's son, headed to med school himself in the fall. Ed talked about how he needed to get all his boating in now, before he really hit the books. That's funny considering that he had just graduated Summa Cum Laude from WVU with a degree in Chemistry, while boating all the time. That dude was motivated.
Ed was in love; he asked his fiancée to marry him in the big eddy above Sweets Falls on the Gauley. He raised money for the ring he gave her by selling his Dagger Green Boat.

She was there watching helpless when everything came apart on Ed's run of Sherman falls, on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison in Colorado. You can read Sarah's brave account of what happened here. Her ability to collect her thoughts and post that to multiple message boards is impressive and appreciated. Thank You Sarah.
Ed's Facebook page quickly became a memorial of sorts, with words from friends and information about what happened pouring in. A number of boaters made the trip to Ohio to attend the memorial service and burial. Matt Fithian spoke of the recent marathon day of paddling that Ed and Ben Ledewitz had completed: Deckers Creek, the Big Sandy, the Upper and Lower Blackwater, and the Top Yough in a single day. I told you he was motivated. His parents invited everyone out to their home for food and fellowship after the burial. I think Sarah was the only person who knew both the boater and the hometown side of Ed. It was a nice chance to meet much of his family, learn more about Ed and each other, and find common ground in memories and recollections. Thanks very much to them for their hospitality.

One of the last times I paddled with Ed was a unique, spur of the moment opportunity. Clear skies and a full moon coincided with a good water level on the Big Sandy. I called Ed about 9pm, and of course he was game. C-1 extraordinaire Jay Ditty was game too, so we met up around 10:30 and headed to the put-in.
We blinded ourselves pretty well trying to take a picture at the beach, then clipped glow-sticks to the back of our pfds and set off. Everything went great. Wonder Falls was in full, direct light; from downstream it appeared to glow from within. Beautiful. Familiar rapids and lines passed by, and we found ourselves at Big Splat, the largest drop of the creek. As we crossed from river right to left to approach Splat, two large rocks loomed like a gate, with deep shadows behind them. I eddied out to think about the line, and ask Ed what he thought about running it in the dark. He made it pretty clear what he thought when he paddled right past me, into the entrance of the falls. I've run Big Splat pretty high, and I've run it in a playboat, I've even run it pretty high in a playboat, but no previous run compares to peeling out behind Ed and running through our familiar beast at midnight.
I'm gonna miss you buddy.