At some point near the end of 2003 I will pass the 3000-mile mark for lifetime paddling. The 8.5 miles of the Toms River race will always stand out as a highlight of those lifetime miles. I failed to accomplish all that I set out to do but I tried and would not wish to trade this experience for anything else in paddling.
Previously I finished 4 other races including the Toms River race in 1999 and 2000. Jim Hoyt and I finished the 1999 event in 2 hours-24 minutes and spilled twice. The 2000 version had an over 60's division that I entered with a paddler from Newark named Charlie (can't recall his last name). I never met him before or have seen him since. He answered an e-mail ad I sent to the Hunterdon Canoe Club asking for over 60's partners. He was good and we placed 3rd in our division clocking 2hrs-17min-24sec. as he came up with leg cramps while I pulled my arm muscle. We limped in and gave up 2nd place in our division right at the end.
I decided to give up racing so volunteered for the Toms River 2001 race. The excitement was overwhelming and I thought about trying just one more time. This time I would train hard and go solo. They dropped the Masters Division so at 67 years old I entered in the over 45 age division. My goal for the race was to finish, not get hurt and complete in under 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Bob LeDuc is an accomplished paddler who once paddled 71 miles in one day and 202 miles down the Delaware in 3 days. He volunteered to take training runs down the Toms with me and help me figure out the pitfalls of the river. During the summer months I went on several over 20-mile trips with George and Leona Fluck, Bob Leduc and Frank Freestone. The 530 miles logged during the 9 months preceding the race had given me an endurance level that I had never reached before. I learned much from these paddling friends and used the knowledge toward my own style. I felt at this point in time I was physically ready and skillful enough to post a respectable time.
The Fluck’s are technically the best paddlers I know. Frank Freestone is the best sit and switch paddler around and he advocated this style to me as it eliminates most of the correction strokes. Bob LeDuc is a master of seeking deep water and reading a river. His free spirit and quick decisions in handling obstacles is truly amazing at times. These 4 people helped improve my skills so much that I actually felt confident in being able to accomplish my 2 1/2 hour goal. It would take a perfect run and some help from Mother Nature.
The course record is 1 hour flat and usually first place is around 1 hour 10 minutes. The last finishers are usually well over 3 hours and sometimes even 4 hours. I just wanted to be middle of the pack as this is all I could ever hope to do.
In early September Bob and I went down the river at full speed finishing in 2 hours and 30 minutes. I beached on shoals 4 times and hung up on logs twice. I nearly spun out several times and was wobbling in the turns. Bob suggested more leaning into turns and memorizing the tight turns, dead falls, logs and strainers. We went over everything and I started taking notes and memorizing as much as I could.
A week later we did it again and it took 10 minutes longer. I tried to pace the first part of this run but never got in a groove even though I managed to do better on the turns and missed most of the obstacles. I knew now that I would have to sprint at every opportunity and rest in the turns where you are forced to slow up.
We tried again one week later but this was a club trip so we just observed the obstacles and again took notes. I had the river figured out by now and felt sure that mistakes would not be a problem. We planned one more all out training run and asked Valerie Nash if she wanted to come along. She placed 3rd in the women's kayak division in 2001 and was thinking about doing the race again but at the last minute she changed her mind.
The last and final run was the best ever as we did it in 2 hours and 22 minutes. I beached on one sand bar and hung up on one log. I felt a little tired after this run and decided not to paddle again until race day. I did 3 mile walks around my neighborhood all week but nothing with my arms. On Wednesday I woke up with some back stiffness but felt it would go away by race day. It persisted until Saturday but wasn't too bad on Sunday morning.
I checked the tides and weather and knew the predicted high tide would be at 12:17PM and winds would be gusting up to 10 knots. This would be a factor as I expected to be finishing around noon.
Driving to the race I continually thought about the things I should do. Stay concentrated on the obstacles, let it all out on the straight runs, rest in the turns, don't get sloppy with paddling and make early decisions on problems while acting immediately. Again and again I went over the plan and felt very good about paddling a fast race and I even thought I might get in around 2 hours 15 minutes.
Arriving at the staging area I noticed the out of state license plates (8 states were represented). As always the boats you see here are of all sizes, colors and designs. It was very exciting and I was feeling a good race coming on. I did not recognize anyone until Nate Melnick and Bill Mallack came walking over (both are Mohawk members).
I unloaded my boat and equipment and registered at the table. They gave me a tee shirt, my racing number of 802 and I was told to past it on my canoe. I was on the first shuttle at 8:30AM as we piled in a bus towing the boats & equipment on a rack trailer. I struck up a conversation with a new friend Steve. Arriving at the starting area 25 minutes later we unloaded our gear and put our boats in the water.
Jackson Township is upstream 6 miles and they have a golf course that uses water from the Toms River to wet their greens. The river was extremely low and I knew they were at it again. Recently the DEP fined them $20,000.00 for over use but I have been told they consider this the cost of doing business and continue to abuse their permitted limits. We paddlers would pay the price for their abuse today!
We were told to paddle upstream and wait for our number to be called. We would then paddle downstream to the start area and face our boat upstream. We would be sent downriver in 2-minute intervals. There were about 15 boats in my shuttle and I would go off 7th. While waiting I saw the 2nd shuttle pull in and start unloading.
I heard a voice yell 802 on deck! I paddled downstream, pausing just before the start area. The boat in front of me went off and the starter signaled me up and said point your boat upstream. I did so and waited. In a calm voice he said “one minute”. Then I heard him start counting 10, 9, 8, 7 and at 1 he shouted in an army sergeants voice GO.
My heart jumped and I made a wide backward “C” stroke to start my boat downstream. Pulling my paddle over the bow I drove it hard into the water as the boat turned perfectly downstream. Two strokes to turn, was this an omen? I was paddling like crazy for the first few seconds and on the first turn I bounced off a sunken log and went wobbling 4 feet sideways. What was I thinking? I had to calm down and immediately thought of the Fluck’s and their technical skills. Hand over hand, vertical quick strokes, pulling the paddle out flat to decrease wind resistance.
I was only 2 minutes into the race when I felt tightness in my lower back. Hoping it would not worsen I continued on and it seemed to loosen up. I was cutting the corners, missing the logs, and gliding right by the strainers. Feeling good at this point and under control I started going over the problems ahead, just to be ready. Suddenly I saw a tandem canoe in front and noted their slow pace and limited skills. I would have to pass them and hoped it would not be difficult. Approaching within 30 feet I heard a paddler coming up and knew that he would need to get by so that all 3 of us would be together at one time. I caught the boat in front on a wide turn and cut inside, making a smooth pass only to see the trail boat 3 feet behind me. Around the next turn he came up again and I yelled for him to pass. He said I can't make the turns the way you do so will just clog up the river for you but on a straight away I might try to get by. He was paddling a Kruger racing boat that is extremely fast on the straight-a-ways but tipsy on the turns. I recognized his voice as my new friend Steve.
We began exchanging information, telling me this was his first time on the Toms. He was a Delaware River paddler and was having fits with the twisty turns of the Toms River. He followed me close on turns but just could not cut short. Once we went through a series of switchbacks and I lost him for 20 minutes. Coming up he said he hit every bank.
Throughout the race one other canoe and 5 kayaks passed us as we passed one other canoe ourselves. The confusion of passing and trying to talk with Steve made me forget my back but it was acting up again. What could I do? I considered pulling out of the race but then decided to finish, even if I had to paddle slowly. I would go at top speed as long as I could and face the problem when and if it came up.
At the halfway mark there is a 14-inch drop off created by an outcropping of shale rock with two large 6 feet diameter submerged boulders 30 feet downstream. The current pulls hard river left here. Bob suggested I take river right and paddle on the left of my canoe and this I did. Riding right through I thought of Bob and his many suggestions. Thank you, Bob!
Past the drop off there is a large oak grove with numerous strainers blocking the way. The river widens a little here but I consider this the most difficult part of the race. Steve just fell apart here and was forced to go very slow as I dodged everything in fine fashion and felt that I was going to get a good race result time.
Coming out of the Oak area the river continues to widen as you are now getting nearer to the Barnegat Bay and 1.5 miles of wind and tide. I came into the open bay and felt the wind and tide immediately. My back was still not at a point where I would have to quit so I started my final sprint. I looked back and saw Steve about 300 or 400 feet back. It seemed like only minutes before he caught up and passed me. We were blasted 4 times by the wind and each time we were pushed halfway across the river before recovering. Steve seemed to be having more trouble with the wind than I was and every time he pulled ahead the wind would knock him back. We were paddling with all we had at this point and I honestly believed I might beat him. We hit a calm spell and he went ahead like a flash and did beat me by several minutes at the end.
Near the end of the race we had to circle Huddy Park, a small island, thus passing through downtown Toms River. Coming around the island and into the final stretch of 400 feet I pushed with everything I had left and then in an instant it was over. I felt certain of 2 hours 30 minutes and was really disappointed upon learning of my 2 hours, 36 minutes, 9 seconds finishing time. It was hard to believe after all that effort. My back was so stiff I could hardly get out of the boat so my son Brian and friend Steve carried my canoe up to the van and loaded it. I sat in a chair for an hour just gathering my strength.
Talking with others I learned that everyone was 10 to 15 minutes slower as this was one of the slowest races in the Toms 30-year history. The extremely low water robbed the river of any flow and forced the paddlers to supply their own power, much like paddling in a lake. All the submerged logs and shoals were exposed causing a greater effort to pass the obstacles. The wind and tide slowed the final stretch runs to a crawl. The poor conditions left us all exhausted and with terrible times.
I began rationalizing that I should be satisfied as I did land in the middle of the pack, did finish and enjoyed it all in spite of my stiff back. Driving home and thinking back on the race I knew it would be a day I would never forget. In spite of all the problems I would do it all again the following week. Monday morning my back was so tight I used a walker to get around the house but by Tuesday I was already planning next year’s strategy. I'm going to train with sprints as well as endurance trips.
Nate Melnick took 3rd in his Kayak division, Eileen and Bob Feder came in 3rd in their Tandem division and Bill Mallack won a paddle in a consolation prize. I received one of the best experiences of my life and was gratified to have finished at all. Next year will be different, I will be back and do much better, just you wait and see.