Finally managed to vanquish my start demons, and pull off a win at the Lake Whatcom classic this weekend. The race is a 12.5 mile out and back on Lake Whatcom, and is more or less a flatwater hammerfest with a mass start mix of roughly 70 people in Surfski, Outrigger and Rowing disciplines.
The start was fast. Our lead group averaged 9.2 mph for the first kilometer, and just over 8.5 mph down to the far end of the lake. Our speed benefited by a mild tailwind on the way down the lake, which stiffened a bit as the race unfolded.
Once the pace settled down and everyone found their rhythm, our lead group of five surfski paddlers pulled away from the pack with Jamie Klein setting the pace, then Steve Scoggins, Kevin Olney, Kirk Christianson and myself in the tail gunner spot.
My race strategy was to try to cover any early moves, and be as patient as I possible and wait for the deciding moment to emerge. Deciding moments are typically when the race breaks open in a way that makes it very hard to undo. You miss it, and your odds of winning are slim to none. I typically know that moment because it feels like the worst possible time to attack. When you and everyone else is hurting and the natural instinct is to revert to survival mode. More often then not, that's the exact moment to turn the pain dial up to 11 and see just see what happens.
A few minutes after the turn around at the island Alan Lipp's four man outrigger canoe made contact with us. These guys go great upwind, and as they went by, all five of us attempted to ride their wash. Which is a very bumpy ride but a good draft out of the direct headwind, so worth it for the most part (drafting out of category is allowed at this race) other then the jeering from coming from the bleachers of the green beast.
As we churned up lake, Olney decided it was time to make his move and surged left into the wind. I instinctively covered this move, but the timing felt a bit too early as we still had three miles to go so I let him go. But Klein reacted a bit more and jumped on his wash, but when the canoe found another gear he attempted to switch back and ended up colliding with Christianson in the bumpy wash who managed to stay upright. Klein was less fortunate and took a swim that sent his ski sideways directly back into myself and Scoggins.
Klein quickly remounted, and Olney and Scoggins paused and dogged his ski while he did so. But the damage was done and Christianson and I were now 20 seconds upwind and within two miles of the finish. Kirk and I let up a little bit on the pace and let the canoe wash slip away as we eyed each other. A nerve wracking thing to do as you risk the other two or three racers coming back into contact, but at the same time who wants to tow someone else to the line? It reminded me of the cat and mouse end game so common from my cycling days.
There is absolutely nothing worse then mishandling an opportunity to win, so when I glanced back and saw them closing fast, I decided to throttle up and see what Kirk and the others had.
It turns out they had a lot of fight left in them and they immediately gave chase. Making the most of a deciding moment is a delicate game that takes good judgement, steady nerves and a deep desire to suffer. A good friend and competitive marathon runner once described it as "eating pain". Go too hot, and you won't be able to hold the chasers off at the finish, much less contest a sprint. On the other hand, make your move too timidly and you won't create enough separation from your chasers, who have a tremendous benefit if they can grab your draft.
One way to think about deciding moves is that they often need a very long fuse, and the goal is to hide the dynamite one foot on the other side of the finish line. As any kid on the 4th of July can tell you, once you light that fuse, there is no unlighting it so you better run away fast if you don't want to get caught! In this instance, I was able to time my reserves perfectly, running out of gas just a few feet after the finish line.