by Cliff Roach
Talk to any top paddler and they are usually happy to inform you that a race is nothing more than a series of sprints. Sometimes we sprint to get onto someone’s wash for a free ride. Sometimes we are sprinting to prevent being tailed. Some sprint off of the start line, most sprint at the very end. Most of these are intuitive, but the following were not to me. They came as an “ahaaaaaaaa” moment, and not while paddling. Take river paddling.
Many of the races in Eastern PA are loops on shallow rivers. We all know it is harder to paddle upstream. I used to console myself that the slow time upstream would be made up with the higher speed coming downstream. Since I hated paddling upstream, I would tell myself to paddle slow and steady and rest a bit so that I could come screaming down the return leg. This does not work. You can not make up time spent on the slow moving water by paddling faster on the fast water. It comes down to this: Spend as little time in unfavorable conditions as possible! Why?
Imagine paddling on a river with a 6mph current. If you are a 6mph paddler, you will cruise downstream at 12 mph. But, when you turn upstream, you will be going, oh yeah, 0 mph. So it does not matter if you are able to paddle at the speed of light downstream if you can’t get back upstream. It gets very interesting when you paddle against a 7mph paddler because he will at least finish. If the current is 5mph and you are at 6 and your competition is at 7, you are making 1mph while he is making 2mph. So, even though you are both paddling relatively similar speeds, he is going TWICE as fast as you. Adding insult to injury, you probably wont even notice you are being beaten so soundly. Why? If you are paddling into a heavy current, and someone has a 300 yard lead on you, it can easily be the equivalent of a 2000 yard lead. You will not notice this until he/she turns. Only then do you realize that it takes a long long time to go 300 yards when you are moving at 1mph. You are still in the slow water while he is flying downstream. This phenomena holds true for any unfavorable conditions, including headwinds, rough water, and suck water (shallow water that slows the boat down). So, dig in when the going gets tough, and try to keep a solid sustainable stroke on the more favorable legs.
Another place I used to loose time was at portages. One of my favorite races is the Run of the Charles in Boston. It is some 19 miles with several relatively long portages. After two knee surgeries, I do not run well, and am not able to train for running. I got killed on the portages the first year. I used to think that paddling as hard as I could up to the portage was my best bet, then I could rest on the portage and take my lumps. This is a good way to get killed. Instead, think of this: I now slow my speed from approx 7mph to 6mph a minute or so before the portage. This only slows my water time down some 10 to 15 percent for a minute. But, it means I arrive almost fully rested. I get out and run as fast as I can without getting irretrievably winded to the put in. My heart rate is maxxed and I am breathing heavily at the put in. But, I can recover easily in the boat at 6mph fairly quickly (again only 10-15% slower). The difference between running with a fresh start and running having paddled at max rate before the takeout means I can run probably 50 to 100 % faster. The more you train the faster your recovery time. Again, get out of the unfavorable conditions ASAP. I think I picked up 15 minutes and more than a dozen places between 2008 and 2009 at the Run of the Charles. I hope to keep moving up the line this year too. Let’s all get fast together.