Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Hawkesbury Classic 2015

Another weekend in late October, and another 111km Hawkesbury Classic finished, with time to ruminate.

This year I had no goals, no target time, because of my commitment to the Sydney marathon hadn't done any hard paddling, unless you count a couple of 10km technique paddles and a 5km time trial as preparation, and was purely along for the ride.

I figured I was as aerobically fit as I'd ever been, did one very worthwhile hour with a local flatwater coach ironing out a couple of flaws that I sensed had crept into my stroke, knew how to fuel myself, importantly had done this race for the past 3 years and knew what I was in for, so why not...?
Continuing my excellent dietary tapering program (pic by Steve Dawson, who with Ross Bingle broke the LREC 2 record)
My craft of choice this year was the Think Evo II, and despite having paddled no further than 15km in the boat, I could tell it was going to be the best mix of comfort & speed for the race.

Compared to last year when the race started and ended with a fast running tide, this year was the direct opposite, with a pretty pissy ebb for an hour at the start, a brutal stretch into the flow for 5 hours, a second ebb, and then almost definitely, at my speed at least, an opposing flow over the last 10km. In other words, way more than half the race with a current in your face, and the demoralising reality that as you're getting closer to the end, you're only going to get slower!
Hanging' out with the SSCC - Remember who picks 'em, and what hand they use.....
Once again my trooper of a Mum, Suzanne was along as crew, although this year she'd also messed up her preparation with an enthusiastic session with the neighbours and their wine collection the night before. I bunked in with the Sutherland Shire Canoe dudes, relinquishing the opportunity as a sponsor to set up an exhibit in favour of a relaxed arvo under a tarp, and some lively conversation about dates and Gurney Goo.

The start was somehow even more furious than other years, and despite having the experience to know that I shouldn't be chasing the K2 down the river, I couldn't resist and whistled through the first 10km of slack water in under an hour. The tide then turned and by the time the sun set I was down to 7.8kmh and seriously contemplating pulling the pin at Sackville, the 30km crew checkpoint.

It just seemed too early in the tide cycle to be going so slow, and I surmised that maybe spending the Thursday night before the race enthusiastically catching up with my old Randwick mates on the south coast until 3am was biting me on the bum. Whilst I usually whizz past the Sackville stop, a little smug that I don't have to stop there, this year I pulled in, disconnected my knot of goo and drinking tubes, and stood in the mud. I stretched my legs, my back, looked around at everyone welcoming their paddlers ashore full of smiles and cheers, & decided to truck on after 2 minutes feeling very sorry for myself.

Inevitably in this race, if you can just tough it out, the tide turns and you start to feel better as the resistance on your stroke eases and the GPS lurches into double figures. For me this was about an hour from my planned stop at Wiseman's Ferry, so by the time I skidded onto the astro turf lining the boat ramp I was feeling pretty cheery. A quick stretch, beanie on, and after a seven minute rest I had the balletic and quite wet David Little for company as we both chugged out of the lights and headed for home.

By now the tide was really humming and I was clipping it along, bang in the middle of the river, lining up the turns easily in the glow of a very bright moon, probably as perfect a set of conditions you could ever hope to paddle in this race. I caught Rodrigo after an hour & gave him a wash riding tutorial on the go, which he took on board, slipped his Rockpool Taran onto my wash and hung around with me for a good hour chatting away in his South American lilt. He went on to do 11.30 in his first Classic, not bad for a guy who can really hang one in a mean sea, and only started paddling a year ago.

Just at the point I was starting to fatigue, a big old OC6 loomed behind me, and I took my chance to glide onto their slipstream and hitch a good thirty minutes up the line as they powered through the night. Six man paddling does look like fun, gotta give it a whirl one day...!

As the last big turn loomed the head tide returned with a punch, however the bright night made it a little easier to get out of the full flow & catch a few eddies going my way. The last bit of the race has been a painful one over the years, but Saturday night with no goal time I just took it all in, alone for once and enjoying the spectacular light show in the water from the bioluminescent algae that lit up the blackwater. Paddling real hard over the last 3km I was going just 7.6kmh in a ski well capable of going 13kmh, so the poor buggers behind me must have had a very hard run home.
I crossed the line in 10hrs 43mins, 16 minutes outside my best time in last year's race, but last year I had a lot of training under my belt, in a boat that is probably a little bit faster, in an easier tidal year (this year I had about 4hrs 30min with the tide, last year about 5hrs 30mins, my trace of the race is HERE). Even though it wasn't my fastest, I reckon it was the best I've ever paddled in a Classic. It just goes to show how silly it is to compare one Classic to the next by race time, we might get better, fitter, or even worse, but no river is ever the same twice, right? 
My race trace
Once again, it was a terrific night on the water, even if only for the fact that paddling is our thing, & where else can you take part in an event like this with such a big bunch of like minded souls?
Me & my crew in the middle of the night (pic by Dave Linco).
A couple of random thoughts on the race this year:

1. I heard a few of the hardy volunteers speaking among themselves about how much work it had been this year to even get the race going, because their numbers have thinned dramatically. The problem, it seems, is that so many of us enjoy multiple Classics as paddlers, but when we invariably take one off we don't turn up and volunteer, which when you think about it, is pretty crook. I've decided that if I miss one, and I'm in town, I'll be heading for Windsor or Wiseman's or wherever they want me to help out on the night and put a little bit back in. If twenty paddlers a year fronted up to volunteer, I reckon they'd be right.
The good humoured volunteers at the scrutineering tent.
2. Numbers were way down, reminiscing about the carpark at the start overflowing a few years ago it was barely half-full on Saturday, and many familiar names were missing from the field. There is a LOT of competition thesedays for the event junkie, and I should know. Even in paddling, the marathon series is fair humming along with participation numbers way up, ocean and harbour races are well attended, and little clubs, like our own Dolls Point Paddlers, are popping up around the place. I may be well out of line for even suggesting it, but I reckon an option of a 60km race to Wiseman's Ferry, or a 3 person full-race relay stopping at Sackville & Wiseman's to change paddlers, would greatly invigorate the event. Every big event nowadays has a half version, some even a half & a shorter race all going from the same start, and it would be great if the Classic organisers could figure out a way to do this. When I floated this past a mate he said it might make the full 111km event fade away, but I think it would actually elevate it to something really big to aspire towards, as it does in the running marathon. I know heaps of paddlers who would do the 60km or a leg of the relay with a couple of mates as a stepping stone to the big one, and it would be nice to see those big numbers at Windsor return. I don't think it's any coincidence that a race like the Myall Classic is thriving with big numbers across three race categories, 20/20 didn't kill 50-over cricket, 7's rugby only made the 15 man game better..... I also suspect that the points I made above about volunteers would also help facilitate an expansion of the Hawkesbury Classic, if that's the way they wanted to go.

3. Personally, I'm going to spend a lot more time concentrating on technique in preparation for these kinds of paddles, whether they're in the ocean or the river. My little tune up, a week before the Classic, probably saved me from a very long night, gave me little cues to remember when I got tired, and got me home with no hot spots, no injuries, no worries. When things went my way, I was able to operate within a sound set of movements that kept me efficient & safe, and paddle pretty hard. Of course you need fitness and I've never been as fit, so assuming it's possible to do the race every year without some form of targeted training is just plain silly, but when I was essentially forced to come up with a last minute plan, it was the technique that got me through.

4. Marathon vs Hawkesbury Classic? I had a fair go at both and they were only 32 days apart so fresh enough to compare. As I wrote in my marathon story, if there was a paddle race as brutal as the marathon we'd have people falling out of their canoes and drowning en masse at the 80km mark, not just feeling lousy and soldiering on. As a non-runner my view is obviously skewed, to finish a marathon I had to train really hard, to finish this years' Classic I got away with form, fuel & experience. Suffice to say they both take some doing, and both leave a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Thanks again to all my paddling mates out on the river and on the banks, surely this is the friendliest paddle race on the calendar, and thanks also to Don, Christina, David, Gav & my mates in the office for kicking in to support the Arrow Foundation & sponsoring my race.

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