Racer’s Perspective: 2017 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge
The race looked like the opposite of fun. Windswell rolled under the yellow buoys of the course race at the 2017 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge and sent them jerking to the east. The groms had just pounded out two laps in the nasty Sunday morning conditions and the open women were slogging out four against the ever-increasing wind. The open men, which included me, were up next.
I had my board shorts on but not my race jersey. There was still time to back out. But I took a deep breath, pulled my number on and went to grad my board and paddle.
When I arrived in The Gorge on Thursday, downwind lines danced up the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. I’d never paddled there before and the groomed windswell pulled me out there only a half hour after I pulled into town. It was a joyous experience, figuring out the lines, enjoying the scenery and catching some amazing, murky bumps. Friday was even better and I was even more deeply entranced by the voodoo of the Viento Run.
The wind looked the most consistent for Saturday so event organizers made the call to have all the downwind racing on that day. I couldn’t wait to race. Downwind paddling is my favorite discipline of SUP when it’s good and it looked like it would be that way.
I slipped into position along the rocky shoreline at Viento State Park among all the other open men. The vibe was as relaxed as a starting line can be. The wind was up and although it didn’t look as the few days previous, it was still good. All we had to do was chase bumps for under eight miles downwind, upriver.
It wasn’t as easy as I’d anticipated. I split the difference between the lines I’d taken the two days previous, one way over near the Washington side of the Columbia River and one hugging the Oregon shore. But on race day I couldn’t seem to get in a good rhythm with the glides. I caught plenty but missed out on the big troughs I’d mined the days before. I chased as many smaller runners as I could but my watch kept telling me I was moving much more slowly. I tried out different sections of the river to see if they were faster to no avail. I put my head down and chased the finish line.
Racing for two days in a row is as mental as it is physical. I want to pause here for a moment and say what amazing athletes the professionals in this sport are. At the Gorge Paddle Challenge the racers had to do not one but two downwinders for a total of over 15 miles of downwinding on Saturday. On Sunday, the men had to race in qualifier heats and those that made it through had to race again in the finals (women just had a final heat because of the smaller field).
One course race was more than enough for me. The buoys were set up directly in front of the Hood River Waterfront Park and the west wind ripped through the course, guaranteeing plenty of upwind, sidewind and a small tease of downwind paddling. It was overcast, I was sore and would have much rather done another downwinder but I wanted to participate in what had so far been a great weekend of racing.
Even though the race only lasted about half as long as the downwinder, it was twice as hard. The upwind legs were toiling, the buoy turns were packed and the interior “W” shape near shore put my heart rate through the roof each of the times I had to weave through it. I was beyond happy to hit the shore and get some water into my throat and doubly happy when I could drink a celebratory beer with some of the other racers.
That’s the thing with SUP racing: once the pain is over all that’s left is a noodle of a body and a feeling of accomplishment. A feeling that you overcame something within yourself, the harder the better. I drove away from 2017 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge with a satisfied feeling in the pit of my stomach and lactic acid settling in my muscles, already planning to come back and do it again next year.