It’s racing season boys and girls. The leaves are starting to change colors and long boats are showing up on the southeastern rivers in full force. For me, the stoke is high for this racing season even though I may be on the sidelines for most of it. Although I am in the final recovery stages of a bad injury and series of surgeries, I was given promising news that a few late season races may be a possibility. When the doctor gave me the news, my first feeling was pure stoke, but then butterflies sank in as I started to reminisce on the most exciting and nerve-racking moment in whitewater racing, the “3..2..1… GO!” called out above Frankenstein on the Green River Narrows on the first Saturday in November. The nerves settle after the first few paddle strokes, but are tested again as racers exit Chief’s to face a roaring wall of hundreds of enthusiastic and rowdy spectators. Cow bells ring, voices cry out, airhorns sound, and even libations are sprayed into the river as the racers enter the renowned notch that creates the entrance of the most celebrated rapid of the race course, Gorilla, where spectators get an intimate glimpse into the greatest show in sports.
A solid race requires much more than just a steezy line through the formidable monkey. A great race lap differs from racer to racer, but it does require supreme focus, execution, and the smooth connection of one rapid to the next. Personally, I have struggled with the Green Race in the past, failing to execute and complete the course in a time comparable to my training laps. After a lot of thought and comparison to my other athletic endeavors, I realized that I was simply putting too much pressure on myself and losing confidence. I was so nervous about stumbling on race day that I could not even focus on executing the race lines I knew I was capable of. Over the years I have realized that I preform exponentially better as my nerves subside and confidence is maintained. I learned this as a wrestler when I started to realize I was consistently pulling off upsets against accomplished opponents when I was excited about competing rather than scarred. The regularly used “get stoked not scared” quote applies perfectly. After realizing how consistently faster my Green Race training laps were than my official race laps, I thought of what I did differently. Although I was certainly still focused during my practice laps, there was a level of excitement and eagerness to race down the rapids that was later overshadowed by nerves on race day. There is no question, smoothly racing down the Green River should be and is an absolute blast, and I had to remind myself not to forget that on race day.
In the last Green Race I competed in before my injury, I intentionally tried to maintain a level of excitement and not be overcome by nerves. Everything was going as planned until the word “5” came out of the race organizer’s mouth, followed by “4,3, 2, 1… GO.” Each declining number raised my heartbeat tenfold, then “GO” seemed to shove all my mental prep work to the side. I charged towards the entrance of Frankenstein nervous about stumbling, and of course, I stumbled big time. My boat pinned in the entrance slot of the main drop. The seemingly detrimental pin stopped my momentum completely and took many seconds to free myself. Ultimately, this meant I was no longer going to achieve the race lap I had hoped for. My first reaction was panic, but then I settled down and dug deep for that stoke I had been building up to use on race day. I found it and started to feel it with each succeeding paddle stroke. All of the sudden, I was having a blast. I maintained focus, but could not help but grin as I skimmed over the rapids. Then all of the sudden I saw the finish line from the top of Rapid Transit. I knew my performance after the pin had not been flawless, but it was still a personally fast lap and better than years’ past. This realization did not make me nervous, but even more eager to fly through the finish gates. I was happy at the bottom and stoked to take part in another unforgettable day. My race time of 4:39 was not what I had hoped for before the race, but I was pleased nonetheless with my recovery and ability to shake off my early mistake. Green Race goal are different for everyone and each racer has a unique way of performing their best. For me, a big part of this execution is the mental battle and turning my nerves into rocket-fueled stoke. Whether I’m racing or cheering this year, I’ll be out there on that sacred day in November full of stoke.
Here are a few tips I use each race season (take with discretion):
1) Get stoked not scared!
2) Don’t think about stumbling, think about nailing your race lines… over and over again.
3) Do genuine practice race laps, and lots of them.
4) Link up the rapids in your training runs. If you’re comfortable, refrain from eddying out above the tough spots like Go Left or Gorilla. You’re not going to eddy out above Gorilla on race day, so get used to not doing so.
5) Get in shape. Push yourself with flatwater workouts, running, lifting weights, etc. Be sure physical fitness is not even an issue on race day.
6) Review GoPro footage of your training laps if you have the ability to. Sometimes the root causes of mistakes are more easily recognized by reviewing your GoPro footage rather than just trying to recall what exactly went wrong.
7) Don’t forget to enjoy your lap on race day. It’s fun! Some people have disagreed with me on this, but I’ve found that even when competing at higher levels, excitement coupled with focus translates to solid execution.
Go fast and take chances out there this season, but stay stoked not scared!
Photo Credit: Serge Skiba, Clay Wright, and Renée Bombardier