Dawn Patrol

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I jolt abruptly into reality.

It seemed as though I was far beneath the surface just a second ago, lost in the deepest sleep. Now I am squinting at my phone alarm in the darkness… 5:05 am. I am faced with a simple decision. I can either follow through on my goal, or take the path of least resistance and go back to sleep.

Considering that for a second, I coax my stiff muscles out of bed and stumble into the kitchen. The hard-boiled egg and banana are waiting for me from the night before. Making short work of these, I put on capilene layers and board shorts, and head out to the truck. The chilled air of an autumn morning hits me sharply and my breath momentarily blinds me as it passes through the headlamp beam. The first frost will occur any night now.

As the road stretches into the darkness, stresses from the day before creep back into my consciousness. It’s tough to admit to myself, but I am overwhelmed with work. I need to finalize my taxes after requesting an extension, I have proposals due to sponsors for important projects, critical pending emails to clients, important maintenance to do on the house… the list goes on and on. As I knock one item out, two more seem to appear in its place. Many say “fake it ‘til you make it,” but sometimes I seriously doubt that I’ll make it.

While these things make me want to simply live in my office, I’ve made a commitment to myself this month:

I will do at least one dawn patrol every week.

Getting up and exercising before work is one of the most purifying things I’ve ever experienced, and its beauty is multiplied when done with a paddleboard, mountain bike, kayak, or trail running shoes. The day is started deliberately and proactively, making exercise and the outdoors first priority, not last. Dawn patrols allow me to tackle the challenges of the day with mental clarity and confidence, and the endorphin buzz endures as my body continues to operate at a high level.

In spite of how hard it is to miss out on those extra two hours of sleep, I know that I need this edge now more than ever.

My standup paddleboard slips into the river, and the world around is slowly inhaling life and color. The first paddle strokes feel awkward, like I need to reacquaint myself with this setting. Balance on the board and connection with the current is like a romantic relationship- it requires attention and steady commitment. As I keep working at it, each stroke begins to feel more familiar than the last.

This is one of my favorite workouts, and it is only possible at certain water levels. With a fast SUP, I can move upstream, or attain, through a beautiful stretch of river. By using eddies, momentum, and strategic sprints, I dodge the current and make efficient progress against the flow. Once I am sufficiently worn out (usually after about an hour), I simply turn around and float back to my vehicle and the real world. This transitional morning hour simultaneously represents a fantastic workout and a spiritual experience. It is an hour of peace and focus amidst the maelstrom of life.

The strokes are coming more easily now, and the putin has disappeared behind the board’s wake. The fall nights have been systematically pulling the heat from the river, and the mist over the river affords limited visibility. This mist has another more powerful effect on the world around… it seems to absorb all sound. There is no civilization anywhere nearby, the birds have not woken, and what pervades is unadulterated silence. My attention is focused on the rhythmic motion of my paddle strokes and the current of the water in front of me. Absent are the advertisements, emails, texts, music, and other interruptions that normally comprise life. Sight and sound are muted as attention turns to heartbeat, lungs, and the swirls of current directly in front of me.

I’ve rounded several bends of the river, and my body feels warmed up and comfortable in spite of the frigid air. Part of the thrill of this particular adventure is the focus required to stay on the board. I am dressed lightly to remain cool during the hard workout, but if I were to fall in the river, it would be quite the shock. The threat of hypothermia and need for dry clothes would bring an abrupt end to the workout. Each stroke, sprint, and current interface requires full focus to make sure that I stay high and dry. Perhaps I deliberately seek this heightened commitment to give the experience more weight.

Bend gives way to bend, and I’m feeling fantastic. As each stroke is carefully placed, the carbon board dances underneath me. It feels like an extension of my body; slight pressure changes in my feet and weight shifts yield dramatic results. The board slices and skips through the water, constantly correcting as it engages oncoming currents. Colorful leaves fall around me, and glide past on their way to the ocean.

The mist is lifting as daylight increases, and I come upon a great blue heron fishing on the side of the river. He snaps his narrow head in my direction, spreads his wings, and effortlessly takes flight upstream and out of sight. Five minutes pass and I am closing in on him… once again he retreats.

We play this game several times; bird and mist dodging around the next bend. Finally the heron grows tired of our game and flies over my head and back downstream. I glance at my watch. 3.05 miles in 55 minutes. I sit down on the board to catch my breath, and the river slows and stops my upstream momentum. The mist is finally burned off, and the ridge beyond the river valley is lighting up in a fantastic way. It isn’t alpenglow like you’d experience in the Rockies… it’s somehow more beautiful. The signature hue of the Blue Ridge is igniting in fantastic orange and red color. It’s obvious the sun is within inches of peeking up between two peaks.

Visceral river experiences like this always make me think of a quote by a mentor to many in the paddling world, Willie Kern. After his kayak descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in Canada, Willie said, “nothing is different, but everything has changed.”

As the current pulls my board, paddle, and me back towards civilization, I realize that perhaps the obstacles in my life aren’t quite as serious as I interpret them to be. Maybe I can tackle this day after all.


Benefits of Morning Exercise


1) Once in a routine, it will help you to sleep better.  Rather than being alert and energized by a late workout, your body is anticipating the exertion of the next morning, and your endocrine system and circadian rhythms pave the way for better rest.

2) Research has demonstrated that exercise increases mental acuity.  This lasts for four to ten hours after the workout.

3) Exercising in the morning boosts your metabolism and keeps it elevated for hours.  You will burn more calories throughout the day simply because you exercised early.

4) For those individuals with a weight loss goal, exercise on a pre-breakfast empty stomach coaxes the body to burn a greater percentage of fat for fuel, rather than relying primarily on carbohydrates.

5) Many people find that it regulates their appetite for the day, and the “healthy mindset” that they started their day out with helps them to make better food choices.

6) 90% of people who exercise consistently do so in the morning.  We are creatures of habit, and morning is a great time to guarantee that you get your workout done in spite of the distractions and challenges that may derail your plans later in the day.

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