On July 20-21 2013, Carol Choi, member of New York Outrigger, raced the inaugural 100 Mile Paddle – NYC, a two day charity race on the Hudson River from Kingston, NY to New York City. The event goal was to raise awareness and funding for Autism Charities and Clean Water Initiatives. Here, Carol recalls 10 memorable moments from her 100 mile paddle.
1. In the days leading up to the 100 Mile Paddle, New York City suffered from a record-breaking heat wave with temperatures topping 100 degrees. Time on the water promised to be a relief, but racing 100 miles in the punishing humidity seemed like it could prove to be a bad idea. In addition to the heat, the forecast called for side- to facing-winds which would hinder rather than help our progress. And the time needed to cover 60 miles on Day 1 required that we spend several hours paddling against the full cycle of the flood current that occurs even that far up the Hudson River, not to mention the circumnavigation of Manhattan on Day 2. For those reasons, I was not surprised to hear that entrants withdrew from the event at the last moment. Nonetheless, at 5:30 am on Saturday July 20, SUP and outrigger paddlers from around the United States lined up in the calm of Rondout Creek outside the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston. We were eager to get going. As the start went off, it was a full sprint to the mouth of the tributary into the Hudson River, with each paddler immediately jockeying for position. As we approached the exit into the Hudson River, the winds dramatically picked up and not from a good direction. I could hear a collective muttering of “oh sh*t” over the splash of the paddles as it became real what we were going to be up against. The race was on.
2. Going into the race, my race strategy was to “go slow, hydrate, and keep paddling.” Going slow for this distance in this heat was an option because I was the only outrigger entered into the race against a mix of solo and relay SUP paddlers. Outriggers have a speed advantage, until you factor in the paddler. I was excited to see that Will Rich, known for having paddled the entire length of the east coast on SUP, had entered to race. Will and I had made a random impromptu Scooby-Doo road-trip to a SUP race last year, along with John O’Hara and Patrick Broemmel, and I hadn’t seen any of them since. He showed up with a beautiful unlimited board (19’ in length and weighing only 30 lbs.) that was custom made by Broemmel (Bahn Pho Surfboards). Suddenly my 21’ long outrigger didn’t seem as much of an advantage. Will is a monster, though a very good looking one, at well over 6’ and broad of shoulder. He shot out of the gate like he was doing a 3 mile sprint race, and then he never let up. Never. For 100 miles. I don’t have a need to win, but I don’t like to lose either, so I gave chase. There were many times when I like to imagine I came close to him, but then he would pull a couple miles ahead again. This went on for 13 hours. At the end of the Day 1, we were the last two paddlers on the water. Sunlight was waning, so paddlers were being taken off of the water from the back of the line to the front in order to be motored to the Day 1 finish line. The escort vessel went back and forth between Will and I asking if we wanted to get a ride to the finish. When they came, I said “If Will is still paddling then so am I”. Finally we were both told to we had to get on the escort boat. We were both bummed. You have to understand that the first day was 60 miles mostly into the wind excepting the final 2 mile downwind run. I was taken off of the water at mile 56. Will was taken off of the water at mile 58, at the start of the downwind run, with the finish in visible sight. The next day, Will went on to make a well-deserved and clear win of the entire event.
3. Karen Wrenn is an amazing and fast water-woman. Enough said. You should look her up. Her stories of whale encounters and ocean crossings are a thrill.
4. Somewhere around mile 30 I started to feel tired. There were many moments later when I would feel tired again, around mile 40, mile 50, mile 65, etc. But 30 miles is about the length of a typical good long paddle session for me, and so when I got to it my body started to think I should be done soon. I have several habits for coping with fatigue. When I get tired, I like to focus on technique. I start a running internal monologue of people who have coached me and I try to perfect my unperfectable stroke. I hear my first coaches from Boston Outrigger including Joe McDougall’s maritime narratives and Billy Bates’ humble advice from someone who claims to “only paddle a little.” I see Johnny Puakea more recently sighing and doing his best to get me to rotate and bury my blade completely. And I have an unending chatter stream of Jimmy Austin telling me “reach, twist, don’t lunge, use your legs, don’t drop your top hand, bury your blade, pull with your bottom arm, don’t pull so far, reach further, take it out quicker, don’t bend your arms, paddle now, relax, I said reach…” Sigh… Around mile 33, I was still square in the tired zone when I was jolted awake by a call from Emily Harris from the Launch 5 lead escort vessel. Heads-up a squall is coming in fast. I turned back to see a dark thundercloud filling the sky and a white wall of water crossing the river behind me. We were under orders to head for shore if lightening was near, but I was lucky as I had just passed where the storm would make a direct hit through most of the SUP paddlers. The storm switched the wind from in my face to blowing from behind. My good friend Jeremy Grosvenor had promised to send me rain, and so I saw the squall as a type of aumakua coming to help me through my doldrums. With metallic rain drops piercing the water around me and 35 mile per hour gusts whipping up runners in the direction I was going, I ran the bumps straight to the ruins of Bannerman Castle. I was overjoyed with the beauty of the scene and the miles passed in a flash. I wanted badly to stop and enjoy Bannerman Island, this time not from fatigue but because the moment was perfect bliss.
5. The scenery was beautiful with green tree-tipped cliffs surrounding river bowls. During many stretches I felt alone on the water. The fish jumped with joy. I paused one time to pick shoreline lavender and put it in my hair.
6. My fingernail beds hurt. My nails felt like they wanted to fall off, the way marathoners lose their toenails in a long race. I had blisters on several fingers. When the first blister broke, it felt like a nerve had exploded in my right ring finger. The pain was surprising and incredible. When the second blister broke in my left ring finger an hour later, it at least took my mind off of the first. I figured out how to keep shifting pressure positions on each finger as each finger gave way, as if I was fingering positions on a tubular guitar while paddling. My left sits bone was killing me. I tried to maintain my weight on the right, which manifested in a rash on my right butt cheek as well as other places that you can ask me about in person. At one point on Day 2, Emily pulled up alongside and asked where my leg drive was. I had left it in Ossining. The last thing I wanted to do was rotate my hips on the rash. My boat took on water. When fighting the current, I hug the shoreline often a paddle’s width distance from walls, piers and rocks. Around 10am on Day 1, I ended up stabbing and running over a series of underwater rocks with my rudder which then punched a hole into the bottom of my canoe. I knew I had 40 more miles to go that day and was going to slowly sink. I wondered if I should try to tape up my canoe, but that would have required me to waste time pulling out and unloading my gear in order to fix something potentially unfixable. And tape creates drag. And pulling out was a technical disqualification. So I recalled my exchanges with Dorian Wolter who had recently won at the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships. To paraphrase him, there are a thousand possible excuses one can make in a race and it is extremely important to eliminate all possible excuses from one’s mind. So I left my excuses in my wake and kept racing. By the end of the day, I had an incredible amount of water in my boat and was moving at a turtle speed of 3.5 miles per hour. I’m not sure I made the right decision, but I have no excuses and no regrets.
7. Day 2 was home-stretch happiness. We still had a lot of miles to cover, but we had decided to take a straight shot down the Hudson River to the finish, meaning a paddle towards very familiar waters. I remember feeling comfortable and joyous that second morning, and well rested given the late start we had scheduled. We lined up to restart the race and I started strong, shooting into the lead behind Will.
8. Just 5 miles into Day 2. Uh oh. I was already tired. It felt like Mile 65, as if Day 1 had never ended. I got passed by the SUP relay team which disappointed me.
9. Approaching Spuyten Duyvil meant entering home territory. Every landmark, pier, buoy and passing ship was a familiar friend whom I looked forward to reencountering. First came the beach umbrellas at La Marina adjacent to the Dyckman Street Boathouse. The George Washington Bridge loomed over the Little Red Lighthouse, and then disappeared behind me. Jet ski’s zipped past and I imagined them as a personal motorcade leading me to the finish. I flew by the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, Fairways grocery store, Grant’s Tomb, and Riverside Church. There was the usual barge moored mid-river across from the sailboat moorings hugging the Manhattan side. Starting at the 79th Street Boat Basin, all of the sites went into hyper-speed. I blinked and I was with the weekend crowds on Pier i in Riverside Park. Blink, the remnants of the West Side Rail Yards. Blink, the Sanitation Pier, the Downtown Boathouse at Hudson River Park’s Pier 96, the new Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship ported at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal, the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum now home to the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the pier with the water taxi, the pier with the Beast and Circle Line terminals. Blink, I was crossing the NY Waterway Ferry Terminal, escorted by a personal safety vessel for the first time in my life despite hundreds of prior crossings. Blink, I was past the grey pier to where our cars get towed. And I slid right into cheers at the finish line at Hudson River Park’s Pier 66 where my friends waited with a lei to congratulate me on my arrival.
10. During the awards ceremony aboard the Frying Pan barge, Karen mentioned that her paddle-ometer clocked her in at approximately 76,000 paddle strokes on Day 1, and 27,000 paddle strokes on Day 2. Over 100,000 paddle strokes and ear-to-ear smiles for 100 miles.
I would like to thank the 100 Mile Paddle organizers, Andrew Mencinsky and Roman Kraus, for taking on the immense challenge of putting together this incredible race and for encouraging outriggers to join for the fun. Thank you also to the extensive support staff including medic Mary Showstark, Captain Greg Porteus of Launch 5, and the event photographers led by Jorg Badura for stalking me. I am also honored to have met and raced with such an incredible group of paddlers. Please keep in touch if you are reading this and if you return to New York City or if you see me on the water locally.
Thank you especially to Emily who spent two days as my support team aboard Launch 5. To Jeremy and Dorian for your advice. To Triple B for your non-stop texts to keep me going. To all the well-wishers by email, phone, text, in-person, and Facebook from around the world. I read everything even though I have no personal social media. Thank you to all my friends at New York Outrigger and the Pier 66 boathouse who came to see me at the finish, and to Keith Tsang and Avis Lai for the lei and pad thai waiting at the end.
Thank you to the following people for making donations to support autism and clean water initiatives: Ed Acker, Bonnie Aldinger, Anonymous, Paul Boyd, Sean Brooks, Alice Brown, Will Chang, Connie Chen, Marc DeSilva, Di Eckerle, Jeremy Grosvenor, Suesa Iopu, Brook Meerbergen, Chris Pierce, Stephanie “Triple B” Pratt, Dylan Rivas, Mark Ryan, Najah Sampson, Susan Skinner, Majid Tabesh, Shihfong Wang and Jaime Welch. Proceeds are going to Surfers Healing / Autism Hawaii Foundation / Best Day Foundation / Waves 4 Water / RiverKeeper.
*Credit for the article title goes to John O’Hara. Credit for most of the photos goes to Mary Showstark.