I’ve been interested in canoe racing for several years. Before the 2018 Texas Water Safari (TWS), I had previously paddled in the Missouri River 340 (MR340) 5 different times. From this experience, I believe I knew what paddling ultra marathons were all about. I wanted to add some other large races to ones I have experienced and targeted the 2018 TWS as a goal for my 40th birthday.
Originally, I targeted my current marathon race partner, Jo Jo (the river wife). She reluctantly agreed to do the race with me. I wanted to be in the Novice division which is limited to first time participants. As time went on and conversations with close paddling friends continued, I decided it would be fun to add T to our team and convert to a 3 person team. We had access to a Spencer C3 through a friend, Jeff Moore. He allowed us to borrow the boat for the race and registration for the race was set for the three of us.
As the race got closer, Jo Jo backed out of the race. We saw it coming as Jo Jo started communicating with us less as we made plans. Not wanting to miss the race, T and I regrouped back to the Novice division and vowed to continue on with the race. There were no hard feelings about this separation as this did not have any significant negative impact on our ability to race.
The team was set at T and myself and the training began. We had a cadence of paddling twice a week with a short 20 mile mid-week paddle and a longer weekend paddle to prepare ourselves for this event. T’s mother, Sharon, provided the needed shuttling for most of our training runs. This also allowed her to get comfortable with me as somebody new to support.
It didn’t take long before it was finally race week. On Wednesday before the race began, I finished out my last day of work for the week and rode by bicycle home. There the van was 95% packed and ready to leave. I went around the house grabbing last minute items to add to the van. I did some last minute fatherly things to help with the kids before I set out for the long drive.
Originally, I had planned on taking a unicycle with me and riding somewhere along the way to break up the drive but I decided against in. Instead I drove all Wednesday including $9.50 worth of tolls on I-44 before I got on I-35 south in Oklahoma City, OK. Once full of fuel, I found a place to park for the night and slept in the back of the van.
The combination of sleeping in the van and excitement about the race gave me a restless night that had me back on the road to San Marcos, Texas. Shortly after a lunch stop at a Whataburger (a first for me), I made it to San Marcos, TX just after lunch. I used the driving directions printed for the race to start scouting out the different places we were going to paddle. I started with Rio Vista rapids that are about 3 miles into the race. Here at Rio, I found tons of happy people playing in the water. What made it interesting was a triple drop down chutes of water. While it is possible to run this feature, it would be best for T and I to portage around it and keep our boat right side up!
I spent the next 4 hours of the day driving between stops of the race and scouting different access points. My reports went from bad to worse, wondering how we would be able to get through some of the places unscathed. Several narrow chutes that came out into obstacles that needed to be avoided. The notes were not encouraging about what we were going to do. I posted a few photos on Facebook and texted some notes to T and Sharon.
Next came the most relaxing and pleasurable part of this whole trip. My cousin Leslie lives about 20 minutes from San Marcos. I made a trip out to her house to have dinner and visit with her husband John and her two cute daughters. We had a fantastic time chatting. John showed me his show car and the hard work he’s put into making it look fantastic. But the highlight of the evening might have been dancing the Pop See Ko with Ko Ko Kanga Roo
The easiest part of my trip didn’t last nearly long enough and I had to get out and re-focus on racing. I met the team back at my fancy Motel 6 room to go over our gear. There we decided that Sharon and I would shuttle my van to the finish in Seadrift, Texas starting at 6am Friday. T and Sam (T’s son) would hang out while we performed the 6 hour round trip. As they were leaving for the evening, there were flashing lights from police cars for some sort of bust. Nothing like keeping it all interesting.
It didn’t take long for 6am to roll around and the team was right on time. Sharon’s van wouldn’t hold the boat so we needed to put it somewhere safe until we got back…
Since it didn’t fit in the room, I decided to lock it to the staircase until we could figure out how to get it to the race start later. It should be noted that I put our boat number on the back of the boat, so we needed to add numbers to the front of the boat just in case.
I traded my comfy motel room to T and Sam to relax while I drove the shuttle to San Marcos. Sharon warned me that she drove slow, so I set the cruise control at 65 (5 under the limit most of the time) and went on. Once in Sedrift, we found our parking spot and placed my van in its resting spot for the next week. Then Sharon and I went to the sea wall to have a quick peek at the bay before heading back.
We had a good chat on the way back talking about life and the upcoming race. We talked about the places I scoped out. We even got to stop at Gonzalez Damn/portage to preview it. I’m glad we did as I had a better feel for it later in the race when we needed it! We got back to the Motel and all walked over to In and Out burger for lunch, another first for me.
Its also worth noting that there is a store down here we don’t have in Missouri called H*E*B. We passed a truck and I found out what it stood for… The child in me will always laugh, but the stores are awesome!
After lunch, things started to go must faster for the group. We didn’t have a vehicle at the start that could transport our boat. The motel was only 2 miles from the start and I was willing to walk it, but I was sure we could find a friend that would help us out. It didn’t take long (thanks to T’s assertiveness) to enlist the help of Jim “Shorty” Short to make the 30 minute round trip from the start to the motel and back with our boat.
When Shorty and I arrived back at the check in, I unloaded the boat and thanked him for his help. Then I met back up with T, Sharon, and Sam to load our gear into the boat. We had to organize our gear and fill out an equipment list for the race. Once this was filled out, it was all we could take with us for the rest of the race. It was important to get it right. During this time, we saw several familiar faces and talked with others filling in the time. Once the official checked us in all the way, we re-packed our valuable gear (about half of our stuff) and placed it back in the support van.
The next two hours or so were spent wondering about viewing other boats. Checking out the lake that we would be starting on the following day and trying to stay cool in the Texas heat.
The safety meeting started with lots of praise for the organizers and volunteers that help make the race possible. They threw out lots of numbers about finishers and miles paddled. The one that stuck out to me most was that finishers have paddled enough miles to get to the moon 5 times. While that is nice, I wonder why nobody ever wants to come home from the moon, only out. I would have preferred the stat of 2 round trips to the moon 🙂
During the meeting, we learned that they changed the rules and now allow 2 way communication devices (read smart phone) on the race. It would have been nice to know this when listing our equipment, but we would just swap out our sealed phone for a regular smart phone and be set for the race. And now we went off to a Mexican restaurant for dinner.
After a small round of drinks and a filling dinner we came back to the hotel for the night. Sharon went back to the RV park and T and Sam stayed at the Motel. We decided to go swimming in the pool to have fun and cool off. The water was perfect and we stayed around two hours enjoying the perfect mix of heat, water, and shade.
We settled in for what is generally a restless night before a big race. This night didn’t disappoint. We split a shot of flavored vodka in the hopes of it helping us sleep a bit better. Instead, T seemed to be up most of the night. I was up and down several times and the morning came too fast with us being somewhat rested. While I find this to be on the normal side before a big race, it doesn’t help as the day wears on!
Race morning, we loaded up the van with all of the gear as we also needed to check out of the motel. With everything out, we drove to the start of the race. I wasn’t going to miss the town of San Marcos. Texas towns tend to have the outer roads of their highways only travel one way, so we made a lot of loops around I-35 getting from one side of town to the other.
When 8am came around we were allowed to put our boats in the water and warm up. We got in around 8:10 and paddled down the lake to the first portage (3/4th mile) to check it out. T got out first and I waited as there wasn’t a great place to get out without getting soaking wet. She came back with a look and said I had to see it for myself. We swapped places and I checked it out. It was basically concrete that was not smoothed out. Not an easy walk, but it could have been worse. As I got back into the boat, I noticed other teams just jumping in and getting wet.
We got back to the start and I made one last trip to the bathroom, as it was the last place I was likely to see a civilized clean restroom until the end of the trip. When I got back, and in the boat, we waited. Its interesting to note that the TWS provides assigned starting positions for the race. Each row is 6 boats wide and there were 25 rows to handle the 146 boats. Starting position is decided by a preliminary race for in-state racers and registration date for out of state racers. We got row 2 position 6. This put us at the front of a pack of rabid wild racers. We were not excited about being in the way of other teams that we knew would be faster, but they didn’t allow us to trade positions either.
Eventually the starting gun went off and the race started. It was an unbelievable relief for T and I as we had spent the previous few days traveling and organizing to get to this point. It seemed like half the field passed us on that first 3/4 mile of the race. Several boats bumping into us trying to get around as fast as they could. We didn’t want to be in their way, but we also held our position so we didn’t have to wait too long for the first portage.
At the first portage, we jumped out waist deep like the others to get the boat on shore. A quick carry down to the water and a walk through the rocks until the water got deep enough. T got in, but I kept walking the boat. I bumped my legs on a submerged fence between two posts and took a few tries to get back into the boat. From here, the river was very narrow and had several more twists, turns, and mini-portages to get moving. Faster boats passed us and occasionally had to wait when the river got narrow and we had the better line.
Rio Vista rapids (mile 3) was upon us before we knew it. This is a 3 tier drop in the river with a chute of water blasting at each level. We decided earlier from videos and scouting that a portage was in our best interest. We clipped on our harnesses and started the carry that took us around the three drops back to a calmer river. During the portage, we saw a three man team that capsized and were having a stern discussion between team members about who screwed up and why. I’m confident that if we had run the rapids, we would have spent a lot of time getting water out of the boat and gathering gear like many other teams.
The first 16 miles to Staples flew by as we were flooded by adrenaline of the race. It amazed me how fast the field of racers spread out. Previous race experience (MR340) has the field together into the first night of racing. We were already seeing much less boats than we expected to see. The portages kept us busy and on our toes as we had not done much portage practice before the race.
Somewhere along the line, we got to cottonseed rapids. This was another portage for us, but we didn’t see anywhere obvious to do this. So we got out of the boat and walked it through the rapids, holding on and floating with the boat the few times it was too deep to stand. Once through, we hopped back in and continued paddling. We didn’t provide anybody a great show of paddling prowess or bloopers, but we liked it better on the safe side!
It didn’t take long for the day to turn into night. With the nearly non-existent current, we were not making nearly the time I thought we would on the river. That meant paddling in the dark. There were sticks everywhere in the water causing us issues of avoidance. Additionally, many of the turns had strong currents that I was not used to navigating. This meant that many turns were a panicked affair. The ones that we did hit mostly correct had a 70% chance that I would come out too early and spin the boat nearly upstream.
Fighting the current was exhausting work that didn’t help us pile on the miles like I hoped. I also didn’t test the light system, so it was inadequate, pointing into the water 10 feet in front of us. We latched onto other paddlers that seemed to know what they were doing whenever possible staying with them until we could no longer keep up.
One such paddler was a guy in his twenty’s with his shirt off, a young lady in front, and some low music playing in the middle of his boat. As we followed him, he would stand up on the back of his aluminum canoe and look at the river, then sit down and paddle with a purpose around whatever feature he was looking at. On one occasion, where we were following close, he went straight into a turn that went right against a mud bank. His boat seemed to drop a foot and bounce off the wall before going on. We were close enough to him that we couldn’t go a different way and did the same thing.
After we got around the turn, our collective hearts were pounding. I don’t think we would have done it during the day, and the night made it worse. We continued to follow as he seemed to know what he was doing. Eventually he went under some branches and got caught up on a log. We were not far behind as he gracefully freed their boat. There was nothing graceful about how I tried to free our boat from being high-centered on the log. I had to step out of the boat on the log in the night and nudge the boat forward without falling into the river. When I did get us free, the boat we were following was out of sight. We were back to fumbling our way through the night 🙁
We came into Palmetto checkpoint very fast. I was just trying to keep the boat straight, but not thinking straight. There were lights, so I was excited to know we where there, and lots of excitement. T yelled “CUT IT”. It didn’t register in my tired brain. By the time I did cut it, we ran into another boat that was pinned against some rocks. I fell out of the boat on the upstream side with just my foot in the boat. Lucky for us (me) that it was shallow water. Eventually we got the boat out of the water and were able to go up the ramp where we would call it a night.
T and family had a sign stating Happy Birthday to me. It was past midnight so it was the start of my 40th birthday. With a single candle in a Hostess cupcake, I blew it out and devoured it. Then I laid down in the grass with my PFD for a pillow. I remembered to take my shoes and socks off to let my feet dry out and I shivered. Eventually T gave me her poncho that warmed me up enough that I was nearly stayed wet the whole night from my sweat (but was happy to have it).
Shout out to T, Sharon, and Sam at this point. I’m pretty much worthless when I get tired and I shut down. So while I was sleeping they planned and took care of boat stuff while I rested. Its hard to express how awesome it is to have race partners that can pull extra weight where you’re deficient. Its what makes great teams!
I’m sure I am jumping out of order here, but there was a log jam in the river somewhere on the first or second day that completely surprised me. It must have been there for a while as there was a rope on shore tied to a tree to help. The portage around the log jam had to be over 20 feet above the water level. So we tied the front of the boat to the rope and then climbed up ourselves. With several mighty pulls, we got the loaded boat to the top of the portage. There, we had to drag it across the top and then lower it back down the other side without a rope for help. These type of things are fun if you’re not racing and fresh, but can wear you out on a long race like the TWS!
Day 2 had some serious excitement and was a turning point in the race for us. Up to this point, I wasn’t a fan of the race. Its 100% different than the MR340, the race I’m used to participating in. I wasn’t particularly good at TWS paddling which didn’t help. We had asked lots of questions and advice along the way about what to do and how to do it. It seemed that every person had a different answer and they all seemed wrong. The advice that got me is “When you get to the Gonzalez river, go right. There is an island.” I heard this advice in an exhausted state, so there is no telling what was actually said, just what I thought I heard.
So when we got to the Gonzalez river, the wind was blowing left to right, right was south (towards the Gulf of Mexico), and I got the advice to go right. We both had that moment that maybe we should check the current, but nobody else was around and we had three signs pointing us in the correct direction. So we paddled for two hours waiting to see the Gonzalez dam at every turn. Along the way we had two dead cows on opposite sides of the river stinking it up. Eventually, T got the idea that things were not right. We hadn’t seen anybody for almost 2 hours and we generally leap frogged a few teams during the day.
Out came T’s smart phone and she zoomed in on our position to see what was happening. Then she found out the bad news that we had gone upstream on the Guadalupe river. We were running tight against the cutoffs for the race and worried that we would be disqualified for missing the checkpoint. After some quick thinking, I told T that I would prefer that if we’re out of the race, we do it our way. That means that we’ll paddle a sprint to the checkpoint and miss by minutes instead of giving up. She agreed. First she needed to call her mother and let her know what happened.
There was a chance that we could still make the cutoff, but it would take some serious willpower. So we started paddling the correct direction at a higher rate so we wouldn’t miss the cutoff. It seemed to not take too long before we made it back to the confluence with the San Marcos and that we might make it.
We were both relieved when we could finally see the Gonzalez dam/portage. The clock still showed time, but the checkpoint was a mile downstream. A mile (assuming that was correct) plus a portage didn’t give much time. So when we pulled up river left, there were about 4 race officials waiting to see us. T got out first at the ramp/ladder and we tried to figure out a way to get the boat up but were having no luck. It seemed that being gentle was not going to work. So I had her hook up her harness and get me to the ladder. There I got out and then moved the boat over to the grass bank that was about 2 feet higher than the water. In a feat of strength that left me breathless for a few minutes, I faced the canoe and pulled up and pushed my body backwards on the shore.
The boat popped up out of the water and began to slide backwards. I wanted to make this effort quick and powerful so the boat didn’t turn over and spill our gear over the dam. I got the boat up and on solid ground and nearly knocked over the officials that had to back up quickly as I pulled it up. We were assured that we would make the checkpoint and could take our time at that point. We emptied out what we could from the boat and started pulling it across the grass to the other side of the dam. I have had enough advice and didn’t want to waste any time. With the boat on the downhill side of the dam, we moved it over large rocks and back into the water. We didn’t let up until we were checked in and out of the official Gonzalez checkpoint!
My memory starts to fade here for the race as it was very difficult and we just barely made a cutoff. We paddled the rest of the day doing our best to make up time and add some cushion to any upcoming checkpoint. I remember getting to a checkpoint some time after lunch. We were told that we needed to get 14 miles downstream and we wold be past the worst of the difficulties in the water. A few sets of rapids and then we would be smooth water easy to paddle. Our GPS batteries died, so I estimated that would be 4 hours of paddling and then we were in the clear. We would clearly be able to paddle this in the day time.
We had over 5 hours before night fell, so even at 3 mph, that would have put us past all of the hard paddling. But luck and advice were not on our side. We heard the telltale sign of rapids approaching. These were loud enough to tell us the drop was going to be significant. On the first night, we had a surprise rapid/drop get us by surprise. We were able to stop and scout the first one. We were always amazed by other paddlers. While we were scouting the first large rapid, one of the guys that we had been leap frogging with all day ran it sight unseen with no issues. We lined up the boat and followed his path without issue as well.
Unfortunately for us, there was a second rapid. We attempted to scout this one on the left side of the river. When I nosed the boat into a gap so we could jump out, the current took the back of the boat and turned it faster than I could react. That flipped the boat over. T was holding onto the flashlight and managed to keep that, her paddle, and hold onto the boat as she couldn’t touch the bottom. I was able to touch from my area of the boat I was holding on to. My glasses came off, but the strap kept them around my neck. We were lucky up to this point that we hadn’t turned the boat over, but our luck was over and we were soaked!
Once were settled back in the boat and paddling again, it was extremely slow going as we didn’t want any repeat flipping. Eventually, another boat came up and we followed it down the river. We came to a sweeper that we were able to pull over to a sand bar for before getting caught up in it. The other guys eventually muscled their way across the strong current and portaged over the island and kept going. T and I decided to lay up for the night and get some sleep. We would be pushing our luck a bit for the next checkpoint that was early in the morning, but wanted to be safe.
This was a fit less night of sleep and I decided to keep my shoes on to stay warmer. By the morning, around 5am, other boats were passing by and T was yelling out warnings to them so they didn’t get caught up. We eventually paddled upstream a ways so we could get to the other side of the island and miss the sweeper. We made our checkpoint before the cutoff and kept going.
We were now into the third day of paddling. I had resigned myself to the fact that we could finish the race, but would be pushing the time limit at every checkpoint. The third day was mostly uneventful paddling. We did our best to drink enough water and stay wet so we didn’t dehydrate or overheat.
I remember taking a hourish nap at the swinging bridge checkpoint. I took off my shoes and socks for the nap and my feet looked bad! Even the little bit of drying out they did made a difference to help them recover. As night time approached, we had one checkpoint to go, Saltwater Barrier” and the massive log jam to navigate.
Some time after 10pm, we got to the massive log jam. We could see a few teams taking the 1/2 mile jeep trail portage and thought we could do better. So we continued down (following Norm and Doug) to see if we could get through. The jam was HUGE, so the guys decided to take the cut and save portaging. Once we got out and scouted, it looked hopeless to me. T went first and didn’t see a way. I went second with the spot light and it looked bad. Ohh, and I saw my first alligator while scouting. They have red eyes when you shine a light into them at night.
It seemed hopeless to me and none of them wanted to go back upstream 1/4 mile to take the jeep trail portage. So I did what I do best, I slept on the ground waiting for them to figure out what we would do. In the end, I got almost 2 hours sleep while they deliberated on what to do. There were 5 boats grouped there trying to figure out the best path. We finally set out as a train of 5 boats taking the 3 O’clock cut to a back channel to paddle back to the river. It was probably 30 nerve racking minutes before we were all back in the river proper and past the log jam.
We made it to the Salt Water Barrier in the wee hours of the morning and stayed there for around an hour before pushing on. With this being the last checkpoint on the race, we unloaded all the gear we could get away with so the boat was lighter for the bay crossing to come. I remember laying on my back on the ground looking up at the stars before we left. I wish I had time to lay there for hours as there were so many stars to look at. Eventually it was our time, 3am, and we portaged to the other side and were officially on the gulf (or at least in brackish water).
We followed Doug and Norm down the river. There is a magical cut that shows up on the map but isn’t obvious to first time paddlers where the main Gonzalez river goes left, but a small arm goes straight. This cuts off a lot of distance on the bay and is easier paddling. Eventually we got to an unofficial stop at a pavilion where most boats stopped to put on spray skirts before heading into the bay. I was falling asleep at this point and told T I needed 20 minutes of sleep before I could continue. I might have slept 15 minutes before I sat up ready to make the final push.
We were about to put the boat in when a 3 foot alligator popped up at the surface in front of the pavilion to check us out. I thought it was cool, but I might have been in the minority! T didn’t want to put on our spray skirt right there, so we paddled down a bit before she started putting it on. Its worth noting that its a home made job from rip-stop nylon that Jo Jo helped us make before the race. Once it was on, there was no stopping us I hoped.
When we pulled out into the bay, there were several boats in front of us hugging the shore, but I decided that we should go for it. I set a diagonal course for a point that we needed to go around. About every tenth wave brought the front of the boat out of the water to slam back down due to its size. Our weight difference didn’t help this out any. This was T’s least favorite part of the race. I did my best to carry on a conversation with her along this stretch to keep her mind off the waves. Due to my past sailing experience, I was very comfortable out on the bay, actually enjoying it.
After we made the turn past the far point, we had a second smaller by to cross to the finish line. At this point, we were sideways to the waves, but they were not too bad. Once of the boats that went up the side passed us, but I didn’t mind. Then my paddle hit the bottom. After several times in a row, I realized that the water was very shallow where we were paddling. I suggested to T that she put her paddle in deeper. She thought I was trying to teach her a new paddle stroke at first. When she finally went for a deep push of her paddle, she also hit the bottom. From that point forward, she was calm, knowing we could step out of the boat and walk to the finish.
With 1/2 mile to go, I decided to push hard and try to catch the guys in front of us. While it wasn’t enough to beat them, it was one of the closer finishes of the whole race, we were 30 seconds behind them! The finish line was a trip with so many people cheering us on and the live streaming of the event on Facebook.
The TWS kicked my butt. I didn’t realize how complete of a paddler you need to be to compete at any level. I have a new respect for the paddlers/finishers of the TWS. T and I both want to go back and do this race again after we have more experience and training!
A video by the social media people that has every participant in the race, very cool!
Some random photos during the race week.