molokai 2014 world surfski championships

Molokai 2014 Surfski World Championship –  “Flat”  is a very relative term

The race is over,  but the marathon is not.   As I sit down to write this I’m still working my way home,  currently on a flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, then on to Traverse City for an 11:00 pm arrival home.      I went from the finish celebration straight to the airport for a red eye flight, not ideal, but my family has made a big sacrifice allowing me to be gone for 10 days, so time to get back.     I had a great week in Hawaii and of course lots to write about,  so my plan is to break the week down into three blogs.  This blog will cover the race, because I know everyone is anxious to get all the gory details.   I will plan to write two or three more blogs one describing the week in general, one highlighting everything I learned and want to pass on, and perhaps a third blog reflecting on the diet and training changes I made in preparation for Molokai evaluating  what worked and what didn’t.

An Early Wake-Up Call

Race day started with a 3:30 AM wakeup call from the local neighborhood rooster who was hanging out just outside our rented house.    He usually started his antics at 4:30,  so I was a bit thrown off when I first heard him.   I jumped out of bed only to realize I had  a bit more time before my 4:30 wakeup.    At 4:30 it was time to get up and make some breakfast.   I’ve been consistently eating a large omelet for breakfast on my big training and race days and it has worked really well so I wanted to continue with that fueling approach.   The challenge with Molokai was that I wouldn’t start the race until 9:40,  so that left 5 hours from breakfast to race start, which is quite a long time.   I struggled to come up with something that I could easily pack to eat before the race and in the end went with a high protein Cliff bar that I ate about an hour before the start.

The Flight to Molokai

After breakfast we departed for the airport to catch our 6:30 am flight over to Molokai.   It was a neat flight on a small 8 passenger turbo prop plane.   It has been a while since I’ve road around in small airplanes and it brought back some great memories of my small aircraft rides that always had an open door, and resulted in a free fall from 13000 feet.     The majority of the paddlers were flying in on a handful of morning flights and the tiny airport was quickly abuzz with paddlers.   After a 25 minute cab right along the very beautiful and quite island roads we reached the resort that serves as the race starting point.    The start is an amazing beach, quite possibly the most spectacular I’ve seen in Hawaii.   It just felt very private, serene and untouched.

The paddlers quickly took to prepping their boats, loading their hydration systems, and trying to stay out of the sun which was already fiercely hot at only 9:00 AM in the morning.   Thankfully the shore break was pretty tame for Molokai standards and it looked like it would be pretty easy to launch without fraying the nerves right from the start.   I tried to get in touch with my escort boat,  who was anchored up north of the starting area,  but for some reason either his phone or my phone wasn’t working and I was unsuccessful.   Most paddlers were swimming gear out to their escort boats,  thankfully I hadn’t planned on doing that,  but in hindsight I really wish I would have had escort boat take my Go Pro to get some good footage  and I should have loaded an extra hydration bladder on the boat.

Permission to start early

Charles Brand and I had asked for and received permission from the race director to start in the early wave with the SUP and Prone divisions.    We both expected to be around the 5 hour + mark,  but wanted to finish around more of the action.   In the end this worked out extremely well and hopefully the race directors will consider an official handicap start for future years.   In many ways it condenses the field, making things safer and easier to manage.   Additionally it was really neat to see the helicopter flying around China Wall, experience all the chaos as the top racers converged on China Wall,  and then have the chance  to sprint it out at the finish with guys like Greg Barton.

Shortly after we all gathered for a prayer,  it was time to hit the water.   Charles and I actually missed our start as we were just getting our boats in the water when the gun went off.    It was a quick dash out through the buoys that marked the start, then race on.   There was only one SUP and one prone board.     I quickly passed the SUP then caught up to the prone board and followed their direction for about 1/2 mile.   Once I overtook the prone board I was on my own to navigate the channel with no one in front of me and my escort boat yet to be found.    This was a little daunting as I thought I could make out Oahu,  but wasn’t 100% certain I had the best line.    After about 2 miles the race director boat pulled up along side me to ask if I was warming up or racing and if I was racing, where was my escort?   They took down my number, radioed for the escort, and he quickly caught up to me and stayed right by my side for the rest of the race.

First 15 miles felt effortless

I didn’t see another boat for  the next 18 miles and had the chance to hallucinate and pretend that I was leading the race  🙂     The first 15 miles seemed to absolutely fly by.   I think there was just so much excitement and adrenaline to be crossing the channel, that I didn’t even bother to glance at my GPS until I was at about 15 miles.   Although I haven’t been drinking anything on paddles 14 miles and shorter,  I knew this was going to be a very long and hot day, and while I’m not convinced dehydration leads to all the problems people think it does (will expand on this in another blog), I did want to stay well hydrated.   I packed a 100 ounce hydration bladder with a Hammer Electrolyte solution.   A nice unexpected perk of all the nasal breathing I had worked on through the off season, was that I could grab the bite valve and just hold it in my mouth for extended periods of time, breathing comfortably through my nose.

Joined by a pod of dolphins mid channel

At around mile 16 a pod of dolphins decided I looked a bit lonely out in that massive channel so they came over to play.   I’ll admit that when I first saw them surface it caught me off guard and freaked me out a bit.  I’m not used to seeing creatures in the water.  The escort captain quickly settled any nerves explaining they were just playful dolphins.    It was pretty amazing,  as they were breaching 10 feet off my boat and then two of them came over and swam a foot off my bow and about 2-3 feet below the surface.  The water in Hawaii is so clear you could see them perfectly.   Quite an experience to drop in and catch a swell with the dolphins right underneath  you joining your run.   The picture below was taken by my escort boat driver using his flip phone.

molokai 2014

By mile 18 I was starting to feel a bit hungry but wanted to try and push to mile 20, so I could stop to eat once and then try to finish the race from there.     Eventually I realized there was no point in pushing to mile 20 and I should just stop and eat.   I threw my legs out to stabilize and managed to shove some Cliff Blocks down without falling out of the boat.  I also had my escort driver throw me a bottle of cold water which I dumped over my head to cool off.     The cool off in combination with glucose and caffeine gave me a good boost and I felt really strong for the next 5-6 miles.   You can see this on my GPS track as well,  in hindsight I waited a little too long to fuel and you can see that as my pace drops off, then picks back up after the fueling.   The drink I was using did not have any calories so I think an optimal strategy would have been to fuel at around mile 13 and then again at 23/24.     But the good news is that the combination of Cliff blocks and zero calorie electrolyte drink worked extremely well for my digestive system.

 Flat is a relative term

While there wasn’t much wind and very little white capping out in the channel,  I found it to be far from flat.    Maybe it is just that flat is a relative term,  but for those of us to don’t come from big ocean environments,   the race was anything but flat.   In the beginning it felt “soupy”,  then as we got further out in the channel the south swell was really building.  There were huge sets that would roll through then subside.   I felt that every 3-4 miles the conditions changed somewhat,  but to me it felt like mostly confused stuff with a fairly consistent swell coming from the right side.   It was difficult to see the large swell and not feel like you should be riding it.   I made a decision early on in the race that I would focus on paddling steady and when easy rides came along I would jump on them, but I knew my skill in these conditions wasn’t good enough to catch the big rides without expending a lot of effort.   I’m sure the more ocean savvy paddlers milked them pretty well, but I heard from some seasoned paddlers that the runs were tough to link and that was my experience as well.

The Real Molokai Challenge begins

At about 5 miles out from the China Wall we started picking up some pretty serious rebound action.   Conditions quickly got much more challenging as we now had the south swell, plus rebound chop coming off the wall, plus boat wakes, and everything else that happens when a very large open sea doesn’t have a solid wind to get it in line.      Shortly after getting into the chop,  Dorian Wolter went flying past me in his Epic V14 on his way to a top ten finish, and seemingly un-phased by the conditions.    My speed slowed considerably as “chop fatigue” set in.   All i wanted to do was get around the point at China Wall and into some flat water.  I was feeling pretty hot and my hydration bladder had run dry, but I didn’t want to stop out in the chop to try and coordinate getting more fluids or fuel.

Eventually I reached the point and it was utter chaos.  There were 5 or 6 escort boats and safety boats all buzzing around adding boat wakes to the already  confused chop.   If that wasn’t enough,  the south swell was smashing into the rocks at China Wall and breaking quite far out.    Thankfully my escort boat knew I didn’t have the condition and experience to try and catch one of the big breaking waves and he took the lead to navigate me over to the channel.   It was exactly what I needed, and I was very thankful, but it was tough breathing the boat exhaust on top of all the heat.    Once safely in the channel,  although less than a mile from the finish, I stopped  to drink some water and pour it over my head to cool down.  It worked very well and I was so thankful to be in truly flat water,  I felt strong and held 7.5+ mph through to the finish.     About 50 yards from the finish another paddler pulled up along side me and I recognized it was Greg Barton.   He didn’t know I had started early and was putting in an all out effort to get up one more place in the ranking.  I pushed hard and tried to respond, but in the end he got me by a boat length.

Finished relatively unscathed

Aside from sore sit bones, particularly on my right side,  I finished the race in solid condition and feeling really good.   I felt like I could have easily paddled another 4-5 miles on flat water or downwind,  but I was definitely spent on the chop and side swell.    The after race party was a lot of fun and the cold beers tasted really good after a 5 hour +, 33 mile grind in the heat.    Lots more to write about, but I’m conscious of not going too long on any single blog, so will plan to write more over the next week.