The Green Race is almost upon us, and over 100 paddlers have been preparing for their race against the clock. But only a handful have the top place on their minds, and it’s going to take everything they’ve got to make that dream come true.

Who They Are

“The top contenders haven’t changed much,” said Geoff Calhoun, a Great Falls Race champion who’s lurked within the top 10 over the last 10 or so Green Races, “but we all are getting better every year.”

He and others, like Green Race local Pat Keller, Pacific Northwest Isaac “Honey Badger” Levinson, and Red Bull athlete Dane Jackson are this year’s top racers vying for first place on Nov. 5. Add elite international athletes like Spain’s Gerd Serrasolses and New Zealand’s Mike Dawson into the mix now that the 2016 Olympics in Rio are over.

“I’m sure some of those boys will come over to play,” Keller said. Which will take first place in a race where less than a second has separated first from second place the last two years and every mistake counts, he added, “You just never know.”

The Edge

Born and raised in the area, Keller has been competing in the Green Race for over 10 years, and when he’s not racing on the Green, he’s finding every other way to run the river as it’s never been run before. From connecting cartwheels at Go Left to hucking iconic Gorilla rapid blindfolded, Keller’s experience on and knowledge of the Green have helped to put him on the top podium three times, and this year could just as easily make number four.

Most of the top dogs will have one to two weeks to dial in the same lines, calling upon different racing backgrounds to help. Last year’s tied winner and former international slalom paddler for France, Eric Deguil has seven Green Races under his belt to help pinpoint what he plans to do. Meanwhile, Calhoun has wildwater experience, first place in hand paddle at last year’s Green Race and, most recently, the domination at the Traditional Great Falls Race backing him.

But even Keller acknowledged it’ll be tough to outpace slalom phenom Dawson, should he come to reclaim the title he earned in 2012 with the still-standing record time of 4 minutes, 10 seconds. Pacific Northwest paddler Levinson also has a Green Race win, impressive for having contended with paralysis to half of his face during his 2011 victory. Between that and regular race appearances on such epic runs as the Little White Salmon, the former East Coast resident remains a force to be reckoned with.

Should 23-year-old Jackson compete this year, that’s another paddling prodigy and regular extreme whitewater race winner in the mix. Jackson tied with Deguil in 2015 and has a full-title victory to claim in the 21st annual race.

The Race Course

What began as a friendly bout against 16 friends in 1996 has since turned into an international capstone to the whitewater race season. Racers blast out of the starting pool right into Class V Hammer Factor, down a half mile of near nonstop Class IV-V+ rapids and finish on the left shore below Rapid Transit. The winner-take-all category is the aptly named longboat class, where kayaks range between 11 and 12 feet. One little error means some five feet off the line and a series of adjustments, or worse, spinning out. To stay straight and shave off the seconds, the racers must use every advantage they have and everything they know.

The Game Plan

Between longer stints in the gym to more days pounding out the longboat sessions to basically CrossFit, the top guns have tried different training regimes over the years to build the strength necessary for carrying out their game plans on race day.

“It’s difficult to have a set strategy in the Narrows. The river tempo is hard to follow exactly when you’re exhausted,” said Deguil. So after knowing the lines, pacing becomes critical.

“If you go wide open at the beginning, you’re crumbling by the time you get to Gorilla, and that’s where you have to be pacing and be fast and on top of the river otherwise you’ll blow it,” Keller added.

The strategy most have agreed on is to step it up from the gate, making sure each stroke counts, and be at 100 percent just above “Whale Tale” a tenth of a mile downstream of the start. As for some strategies, like Calhoun’s, we’ll just have to wait until high noon on Nov. 5 to see them and if they work. The beauty of the Green Race, everyone agrees, is that ultimately it could be anybody’s game.

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