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The Gorilla That Eats Paddlers

Blue Ridge Outdoors: Green River narrows.

Paddlers plunge down the narrows section of the Green River in the epic Green River Race each November.

High noon. First Saturday in November.

Those six words will raise the heart rate of any class V kayaker in the Southeast.  The Green River Narrows Race continues to be the most competitive and challenging paddling race in the country.

I have competed in the past eight Green Races, and it never gets any less intimidating or intense. My relationship with this river began when I was 15, on my first run of the Green River Narrows. As I stepped out of my boat at the takeout that day, I knew that I had just achieved a milestone in my paddling career.

I participated in my first Green Race a year later and started paddling and training with some of my kayaking idols, includng Tommy Hilleke and Andrew Holcombe. At one memorable run, I jumped into the starting gate in front of all of the superstars.  As I set my watch and prepared to take off, Tommy Hilleke, six-time winner of the Green Race, yelled at me, “I’m giving you ten seconds!”  There is nothing quite like the knowledge of one of the world’s best that close behind you to keep you motivated on a practice run.

The river has a way of humbling anyone who becomes complacent with its power. A few years ago, I made the mistake of paddling the river for a timed race lap after a brutal Crossfit gym workout. My body was already spent, but my desire to train as hard as possible for the race prevailed.  As I approached the midway rapid, Go Left and Die, I realized that I had nothing left, but I kept paddling through the rapid. I entered the rapid’s first drop, misjudged my angle, and suddenly I was flailing off the cascade in completely the wrong place. I slammed into the rock, flipped, and entered the spin cycle that every kayaker dreads. Go Left is notorious for holding paddlers for severe beatings if they don’t stick the line, and this experience is exacerbated when you are lactic, exhausted, and your lungs are screaming.

As I gasped for oxygen, I did barrel rolls, backflips, and cartwheels, desperately trying to escape the hole. As the beating intensified, I realized that it was time to surrender. I let go of my paddle while upside down in the maelstrom, pulled my sprayskirt, and swam out of my boat, deep into the chaos. Everything got dark around me, and I was slammed to the bottom of the river. I rounded a big boulder underwater, and finally popped up 40 feet downstream of the rapid, too weak to do anything but float. A friend pulled me to safety above the next rapid.

We never found my boat that day. It stayed pinned underwater, and pieces of it were recovered downstream during the following weeks as the river pounded it to shreds. The three-mile hike out of the gorge that day was a lonely, demoralizing slog.  As fear and self-doubt overtook me, I didn’t know if I had it in me to jump back in and race three weeks later.

Fortunately, the Green Race paddling community epitomizes camaraderie. As race day approached, my paddling friends rallied behind me and helped me to work through my reservations about bombing into that gorge once again, with 1,000 spectators watching. My next lap down the river was with paddling legend and two-time Green Race winner, Andrew Holcombe. Even though I was a fellow competitor, Andrew gladly shared some experimental race lines with me. Flying down the river close behind him enabled me to push the negative thoughts aside. I was making progress, but Go Left continued to haunt my consciousness.

Even after hundreds of practice runs, race day is always full of queasy nervous energy. It doesn’t matter how smooth I was yesterday, or how I placed last year, or how bad my swim was. It is just me, a river, and a clock. One run per year is what I get. I start one minute behind the person in front of me, and one minute in front of the person behind me. That is my slot in which I put everything that I know and am capable of on the table. It is the perfect test of physical endurance, skill, and mental fortitude.

I had been thinking about Go Left all morning, but I forced myself to visualize only good lines as the start timer counts down: 3…2…1…0. I heard my friends cheering as I took off from the starting line, but my focus was downstream.  Breath, heartbeat, whitewater. There was nothing else in the world. The energy and noise of the starting line was quickly replaced by the quiet of the river.

It is often said that the Green Race is won in these easier early rapids and lost in the crux rapids downstream, Go Left and Die and Gorilla. The challenge is always balancing your fatigue with the fact that the most difficult race moves are at the end of the course. It is the ragged edge of control, and sometimes the best paddlers are the ones in the most danger, because they are putting every last energy reserve into their run.

Whitewater is a funny thing, because confidence is absolutely mandatory. If you hesitate the slightest bit at a crucial time, a class V rapid will toss you off line. As I approached Go Left, I commited myself completely to the moment and set my angle for the main drop.

Two powerful strokes, and my kayak slid across the face of the seven-foot cascade, around the hydraulic that beat the living daylights out of me, and out of the exit slot to safety.  Relief and adrenaline flooded my body.

My reprieve was short-lived, however, as the toughest rapid of the Green Race, Gorilla, waited just downstream. I was gasping for air between the rapids.

Despite my tunnel vision on the whitewater ahead, I caught a quick glimpse of the entire side of the gorge engulfed with spectators. The roar of the rapids was matched by the roar of the crowd.

I charged into the 30-foot waterfall, experiencing complete lactic fatigue. But I also felt another powerful force of nature: the positive energy from my friends and family on the bank. As I flew off the launch pad of the beast, I embraced the clarity that only comes in such moments: the realization that we are all in this together, that we owe everything to everyone, and that shared experience is the only catalyst of a life worth living.

I bounced safely out of the Gorilla’s grasp, and, as if on cue, the final four rapids were bathed in sunshine. Moments later, I was sitting on the finish line rock trying to catch my breath. After one of the more intense gut checks of my paddling career, I was elated to be finished and in a respectable fourth place position.

Battling personal demons. Pushing self-imposed limits. Developing lifelong friends through shared experiences. These are things that we all strive for in life, and they happen every single year, to every single paddler who dares to paddle the Green River.Blue Ridge Outdoors: Green River narrows.

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