April 26th, 2015 - Beautiful, calm day in Bellingham Bay for the 11th annual Dan Harris race, part of the Think International Challenge. American racers square off against our Canadian brethren for a race using the cumulative point total of all the racers. The race is structured around participation (great idea!), and the nation with the lowest score wins.
I was able to salvage yet another bad race start for 4th place finish. Disappointing, because it could have been a much different story with a better start, as I found myself chasing the lead group of three for the better part of nine miles, just twenty seconds behind but unable to close the gap (and wow did I try!). On the bright side, I had the best seats in the house to watch the sprint finish unfold between Jamie Klein (3rd), Kirk Christianson (2nd) and Don Kiesling (1st).
For myself as a new surfski paddler, it underscores the critical nature of having an effective race start. Surfski racing is unique from other endurance sports in that it's often just explosive off the line. If you don't get off the line in just the right way, you will likely be in damage control mode for the remainder of the race. I've really struggled with my race starts this season so far, and it's cost me over and over again.
A few thoughts gleaned from talking with other, more experienced racers and my own observations:
1) Make the start your first attack. When the horn sounds, I try not to do much... I use my arms for the first two or three strokes the break the cohesive grip of the water. Once the boat is moving, I give the first 20 seconds everything I've got, as I am in somewhat of a lactic acid free zone. When I start well, I am typically in the 10 mph range by the end of the 20 seconds. To put that in perspective, that can be three boat lengths on a competitor who now has to make up that distance. How to time 20 seconds? Don't, your body will tell you. At the first sign of blowing up, I feel a tightness in my chest and a slight pump in my arms. If the check engine light comes on, I've gone over. Despite the desire to take the foot off the gas pedal, I try to ease back into my regular race pace and get my heart-rate back down into the 170's range.
2) Find clean water first, then a fast wake. The main objective in developing a fast start is to create separation and get in control of your race as quickly as possible. Simply being in front of another racer often has a tremendous psychological impact, especially if they are prone to doubting themselves. I like to explode of the line, find clean / flat water (if it's available) and then ease up ever so slightly and have a quick look around to see who else has gotten of the line quickly, and if there is another group that needs to be joined or chased.
3) Power means control. You may be outgunned, outsmarted, or just out of shape, but having a fast start gives you option to at least be in the race. I have noticed that after the first mile, the pace between the first 20 or so racers is relatively the same, and closing the gap between groups in exceedingly hard to do. Especially by yourself.
4) Don't panic and don't give up. After having several bad starts this year, I have found myself having to stay in the red zone for much longer then I would prefer in order to get back into touch with the race leaders. When you find yourself just out of reach of the leaders, stay calm, but give yourself a goal to make contact quickly and decisively. Don't hesitate, and do whatever it takes to get on a wash before you fade much more. And whatever you do, don't let go of the wash in front of you. It will only make things worse.
On a few occasions when I have won races, I felt better as the race unfolded while seemingly invincible competitors have faded or lacked the will power to keep suffering late into the game. If someone asked me in the first mile if I thought I had a win in me, I would have politely declined to answer. Well, maybe not politely. The reason isn't that I may not have believed at that moment I would win, but rather that I didn't know what might happen. And that is the beauty of racing. You never know what you are capable of if you don't go find out.