I was quoted last week as saying “to win once is hard”, “to win consistently is just plain tough”.
Life is cyclical and throws many curve balls at us when we least expect them.
In Olympic sports, athletes peak mentally and physically in a four year cycle, allowing a period of recovery at the end of each cycle before gathering themselves towards the next olympiad.
When you compete in non-Olympic sports which don’t operate on a four cycle, we don’t have the same space to recover and recharge. Everything is condensed and the expectation of delivering year upon year is real and it’s tough.
This past week was my fifth trip to the island of Wrightsville Beach on the coast of North Carolina.
For the past 5 years every Easter has signalled the end of the kiwi summer and flying half way around the world on countless flights bound to kick off my international season at the Carolina Cup.
How this small outpost on the Atlantic Coast came to be home to the largest annual gathering of stand up paddling is testimony to a small group of passionate locals who decided to invite the world to their waters to test them on what is possibly the toughest and most technically demanding course of the year.
The end of April signals the start of Spring in the northern hemisphere, but if the north winds are blowing the winds are chilling and the waters still frigid. If the south winds have been prominent the weather is considerable more temperate.
In my five trips to North Carolina, I think I’ve now experienced every possible mood of weather and as such come prepared for anything and everything.
If it’s your first year at ‘the Cup’, you have next to know idea what to expect other than the stories you’ve been told, the footage you’ve seen and what you’ve read, but nothing really prepares you for that first experience.
Unless you’re a local who boats, surfs and paddles these waters year round it’s nigh on impossible to truly understand the course and the affects of the weather in this part of the world.
The wind is fickle, Masonborough Inlet is notorious, the currents are strong and well….let’s just say that you’re going to quickly love to hate the grind of Intra Coastal Waterways (ICWW).
In all five editions that I’ve done, each year has been different. The first two years went South first meaning that we had to punch out through an incoming inlet to get the open ocean, the past three years we’ve gone north and surfed our way through.
But if I’m to make a call on what year the conditions have been the hardest, it would likely be 2017.
Saturday morning greeted us with a howling southerly blowing up the beach. As is the case with this race, they will send you in the direction that the wind is blowing on the ocean side to maximise a downwind portion of the race. While this might seem fun, the stronger the wind blows, the stronger that wind is to bash into up the back waters of the ICWW.
It’s the type of course that the conditions dictate how your going to play out your race. Regardless of if you’re starting to finish, to starting with the aim of finishing at the pointy end, the conditions will dictate how the race will play out. And this year, as I suspected, that is exactly what happened.
Coming into a race, I don’t think I’ve ever been so relaxed. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I was overcome with a sense of calm.
I’d arrived a couple of days early to catch up with good friends, to share laughter and reminisce. I had little expectation other than to have funned to enjoy.
As the first major of the international season this event comes with a lot of external expectations for many from supporters, sponsors and an industry.
Having paid my way, I felt significantly lightened from some of the burden of expectations to deliver what has become an expected result in previous years.
Walking the beach early on Saturday morning, I could feel the wind building and the intensity of the weather increasing.
No one could ever call a year at Carolina Cup ‘normal’, but these conditions were definitely the most extreme that I’d experienced and I knew that this would play a significant factor into how the race played out.
As the outriggers and surf skis, prone paddlers and elite men tore downwind, I quickly changed my position on the start line sighting what I saw was a more direct route to the turning buoy sitting just past the breakers.
If there was a day that playing your game to the conditions would reign, this year was it.
The end of the outgoing tide made getting in through the inlet far slower than previous years and based on my calculations, I knew that we were going to get slammed head on against the incoming tide as we made our way up the ICWW.
20-25 knots on the nose against the tide for the best part of 7-8 miles is probably not your idea of weekend fun. Judging by the failing form of the draft trains of guys I made ground on and passed, they weren’t finding it much fun either (as girls we paddle a shorter board than the men).
There was the odd moment of reprieve from the wind as the course wound around the waterways, but never from the incoming tide.
If the first part of the ICWW broke people, the second half destroyed them. Making our way past the Sound side of the Blocade Runner Hotel and past the welcome cheers of everyone watching from bridges and docks the wind and currents intensified.
Being shown the footage of what it looked like from a drone, it looked like we were creeping against an escalator moving in the opposite direction.
Having towed talented young hitter Fiona Wylde past trains of men for over an hour with a couple of moments of reprieve, I knew that I wanted to keep the pace on as I didn’t have a time gap as to where the next girls were behind us.
Having bided my time, just past the crowds I decided it was time to go. Within moments I’d broken, blown past the men in front and put daylight on them.
But this is where this race gets interesting and likely acquired it’s name ‘The Graveyard’. This is a race which breaks people in ways which they least expect it. People cramp, they drop their gels, the run out of water. It will usually happen when you get into the later stages of this race. From that point on, it’s no longer a race, but a battle of survival to make it to the finish as many of the pre-race favourites in the men’s event will attest to.
Coming into the 2017 edition of Carolina Cup, I had little idea of where my form was. It’s been a pretty disrupted off season, particularly in the past couple of months. A couple of nasty stacks landing on my shoulder racing my mountain bike, some badly banged up ribs and the most horrific summer weather on record my pre-season preparation on the water was limited and life on a day to day basis was summed up as being ‘suck-it-up-buttercup’ painful. To be able to do what I wanted to when I wanted to was extremely satisfying.
I’m not lying when I say that my pursuits were without a paddle. It was a case of making the most of what I had on my doorstep and kicking some life goals in the process.
While the post event headlines have been about five-in-a-row, this past weekend signifies so much more.
I’ve been challenged in many ways the past few months, but I still turned up and still did what I knew I was capable of.
It’s been unconventional and far from ideal, but it’s dealing with the curve balls that keeps you on your toes while building tenacity and resilience. It’s not about delivering when the times are easy, it’s being able to get it done when currents of life get a bit turbulent.
What I do know is that I had a truck load of fun this past week and that the fun train will be in full force and rolling for the months to come.
Five consecutive wins at Carolina Cup is no accident and a lot of people have been a part of helping make this happen.
Number 5 is for you, thank you for your continued support.
To those that helped this weekend – thank you. Without your help, this would have been considerably harder
A few to mention:
- Mahiku Activewear – I’ve worn my Black Mamba tights religiously at this event since 2014
- Betty Designs – for always channelling one’s inner bad ass
- Running Skirts – the most epic long sleeve crops to keep the sun off and chafing at bay
- CamelBak – always ensuring I have fail safe hydration systems that stand up to the task
- Brian Szymanski – creating boards that are more works of art than pieces of foam and fibre glass
- ZRE – the paddles I’ve used since the very beginning
- NSP – for making me welcome and part of your posse all weekend long, it was a lot of fun!
- The Blocade Runner Hotel – incredible hospitality
- Katie & Patty – it just wouldn’t be the Carolina Cup with out you two!
- On It Pro – always ensuring that my boards make it to the line in ship shape and looking pristine
- Chris from Carolina Paddleboard Co – thank you so much for your help with logistics
- Spencer, SUP ATX – coordinating shipping and making sure everything arrived on time
- Greg Panas – always there to capture the shot and shoot the shit on the problems of the world
- Countless others no doubt.