During the last three years I’ve had my butt spanked by several disparate events at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado. Last weekend was no different.
With the enormous snowpack from a great 2014 winter season melting rapidly under the June sun, whitewater rushed down Gore Creek at ideal flows for paddling — for experts.
A regular participant in these outdoor games, I’ve run the lung-crushing Vail Pass Half Marathon and completed the winter edition of the grueling Ultimate Mountain Challenge. But the Stand Up Paddle race is something that has always intrigued me.
I had never stepped foot on a SUP board before race day. While running a fast-flowing, three-mile section of whitewater is probably not the best entry into the sport, I’ve never been one to shy away from potential bodily harm and humiliation.
As Hunter S. Thompson once famously wrote: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
And what a ride it would be. As I stood shaking at the starting line, watching expert SUP racers zip downstream, apprehension turned to a bit of fear. For an absolute first-time beginner like me, the water looked mighty fast.
The countdown was short, and the starting committee shoved me and the Starboard Astro Stream Dan Gavere board downstream (it was a borrowed board from the world-class SUP’er Dan Gavere himself). It would be mere seconds before my first swim.
I was immediately thrashing along the class I and II rapids of Gore Creek. I’ve spent a lot of time on normal surfboards, and immediately I reverted to the sideways stance to which I’m accustomed.
Mistake! I swayed precipitously for a moment before tumbling sideways into the frigid water, grumbling to myself and clawing my way back onto the board.
Soon, Redington SUP angler Ken Hoeve passed me on his way downstream. For some inexplicable reason he was behind me in the starting sequence, but it worked in my favor. As I saw him zip by I was reminded of the forward-facing stance that every expert I’d spoken with had insisted was the right way to SUP.
Eureka! The sport got a lot more fun instantly as I planted my feet side by side and faced forward. I dug the paddle into the water, still a bit unstable but definitely moving more confidently with the proper stance.
I rounded a corner and was greeted with a two-foot drop. I relented to the river, dropping to my knees and braced for the near certain crash that was to come.
Splash! The board kicked me into the swirling maw of the small waterfall, spitting me quickly into an eddy. Fortunately, I’m a strong swimmer and was back on my feet within a few seconds.
The rest of the race went much more smoothly than I deserved. I glided easily over several more small drops and past boulders. With the water flooding the banks of the stream, I had to duck a few trees as I rushed quickly by, but as I passed small knots of cheering spectators, I realized I was about to finish.
A few more strokes and I passed under the Covered Bridge that signaled the end of the race.
My run downriver was far from graceful. But after the first minute of thrashing pathetically with an improper stance, I had a lot of fun.
I will try SUP again, although I hope next time it is not in front of a crowd but instead on a quiet stream or lake where I can learn the skills to make the sport look not-so-hard, because it’s sure a lot of fun. —Sean McCoy