River runs high for paddling events
VAIL — What a difference a year and some late-season snowfall makes.
The Gore Creek events at the GoPro Mountain Games on Saturday morning were fast and athletes couldn’t have been more pleased, especially after last year’s water levels were so dangerously low that the stand-up paddling events were cancelled.
The only hitch during the Down River Kayak Sprint and the SUP Surf Sprint was that the events started about half-an-hour late. Otherwise, it was game on.
“I think we’re pretty fortunate to have gotten that late-season snow — our rivers are looking really good,” said Brent Redden, who finished third in the stand-up paddle surf sprint. “I think it was about 700 (cubic feet per second) for the race today. We couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The kayakers kicked off the morning with their three-mile race from East Vail to the Covered Bridge in Vail Village. It’s a long race for kayakers — especially for the low-landers.
“Especially with the high altitude, it’s so hard to breathe,” said Martina Wegman, the Dutch paddler who won Thursday’s Steep Creek Championship for the women and also picked up the win in Saturday’s kayak sprint. “Just to go fast and keep paddling, you’re just exhausted.”
It’s also tough for many Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitors who have to complete a variety of sports but know everything isn’t going to be their strong point. Josiah Middaugh, of Vail, finished fourth among the professional Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitors, but he was nearly 2 minutes behind the top overall finisher Mike Dawson.
Middaugh said he knew the kayak event would be his weakest event, but he still sported a smile after the race as he sat and tried to catch his breath.
The racers in both stand-up paddle and the kayak sprint had generally the same strategy: to find the fastest line via help from the current, and also find the perfect pace and not get worn out too quickly.
Mike Dawson won the kayak sprint for the men, and like Wegman, was also Thursday’s Steep Creek Champion. His pal Nick Troutman started ahead of him, keeping Dawson motivated throughout the race, he said.
“I had someone to aim for,” Dawson said. “So it was good incentive, good motivation.”
Three miles on the Gore Creek at near-optimum flows, however, is hard work.
“It hurts my hands,” Dawson said. “I have claw hands — can’t hold my paddle anymore, but it was good fun — a good way to start the day.”
Troutman called the water levels “awesome,” but perhaps what was even more awesome was his wife, Emily Jackson, who competed in both the kayak sprint and the kayak freestyle finals Saturday while 8 1/2 months pregnant.
Jackson, whose father Eric Jackson finished fourth in Saturday’s kayak sprint, had never paddled Gore Creek before. The bigger challenge, she said, was not going for it as hard as she typically would.
“I’m not allowed to get my heart rate up very high because I’m 8 1/2 months pregnant,” she said. “So I was just trying to pace myself, for sure, and try to keep my breath under control and everything. But either way, it’s just getting out on the river any ways — that was the whole point.”
On the SUP side, athletes not yet acclimated had no choice but to let their heart rates soar. Masayuki Takahata, of Japan, couldn’t believe how tiring the race was. “I run a (SUP) tour in Japan and it’s about the same class as here, so it’s really familiar for me, but it’s so hard to breathe — it’s like running upward all the way, the whole time,” Takahata said.
He liked that Gore Creek offered many lines to choose from and said just choosing the right line added to the adventure. Takahata ended up finishing fourth in the race.
The first-place stand-up paddler was no surprise to anyone in the field, though. Dan Gavere, of Hood River, Ore., has dominated the stand-up paddle events at the Mountain Games ever since the sport was introduced. Gavere is the white water specialist for the Mountain Games and has organized the courses and events for the last 10 years.
“The water level was perfect — really good,” Gavere said. “It’s a sprint the whole way. My average heart rate was like 167, and it peaked at 185.”
Gavere likes knowing that sort of thing — it helps him determine how well he did. Before he knew he won, he was pleased regardless.
“I had a great run so I’m really excited for myself,” Gavere said, adding that he clocked himself at just over 19 minutes and knew it was good, but he also knew it was a bit slower than his personal best. “I’ve done 18 1/2 (minutes) before.”
As a former professional kayaker, Gavere also knows the differences each athlete faced on Gore Creek Saturday. The kayakers, he said, definitely had the advantage.
“You’re not getting as much wind in your chest on a kayak,” Gavere said. “Wind is a big factor for stand-up paddlers, cause it hits you in the chest — it’s a lot (of resistance). Kayakers have the advantage there, and they’re getting more blades in the water so they’re usually like 20 percent faster.”
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2983.