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10 Years for 10 Minutes: My 2021 Carolina Cup Reflection

I haven’t always kept the best records of my training, but since 2016 I’ve been tracking things a little more closely. I’ve also been taking my training and paddling more seriously. As with many things in life, I underestimated the amount of effort and time it would take to get to my goal.

These days, I train about 700 hours a year. That means that on average, I train about two hours every day. Some days more, some less. I certainly didn’t train this much when I started out 10 years ago. If I had, then I’d still only be at 7,000 training hours… 3,000 shy of the somewhat “accepted” metric of 10,000 hours popularized by Anders Ericsson in his landmark study about Peak Performance. He summarizes that study and elaborates on the nuances of the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule,” in his book, PEAK.. which is one of my all-time favorites.

Being 3k short of full mastery, I figured I had some more work to do in this life before I was going to achieve my Carolina Cup aspirations. Even though this year was the 10th annual Carolina Cup and everyone I talked to tried to pump me up before the race with sentiments like,

“It’s your year!… You’re going to win this; I just know it.”

I knew I was more than three thousand hours short of having it in the bag… and even then, SUP racing is fickle. Race strategy, course conditions, and an incredibly strong talent pool of women ensure that no race is in the bag… ever. Anything could happen, but that’s also one thing that makes my beloved sport so exciting!

But I digress. Everyone’s seemingly solid confidence in my abilities leading up to the Cup seriously rattled me.

I used to just show up and race at the Carolina Cup. I would spend the days before the race running around socializing with all of my paddle friends, catching up, griping about the weather or the conditions, and trying to develop some semblance of a race strategy.

I would hop on social media and look at the selfies I had just taken with my friends, share them, and comment even more. I would tell friends that weren’t able to make it that we missed them, and encourage those who were nervous or second guessing their decision to race.

My, how things have changed. I made the mistake of checking instagram the morning before the race. I figured there were some paddlers that would need some encouragement with those conditions raging. Before I could find anyone needing a kind word - I found someone trolling me with their 37 followers and a private account.

Evelyn of Stand Up Journal had posted a video of me warming up with beach starts. In the video, I had run to the waves… and BAM! I’d sunk knee deep in soft sand. I had tried to continue to gallop out to the surf break, but when I’d tried to jump on the wave, my feet sank again. I had actually got out pretty clean all things considered! I was proud of that. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it out through the surf and had been in control the whole time.

She’s since deleted the comment (thanks Evelyn) but it said something along the lines of, “You think with all of her ‘experience’ she’d be able to time that better.” He essentially told me how much my start had sucked without knowing any of the conditions! People can be pretty mean sometimes.

That guy wanted to bother me, but it didn’t work. It just made me realize how hard it was to put yourself out there in the public eye sometimes.

On the other hand, some people were trying to provide words of encouragement but ended up saying things that devalued me and the other women. At the race, people made comments on the small women’s field among other things and that got under my skin.

I always say that we’re only as strong as our competition… and although small, the Carolina Cup brought great competition. It had some incredible women’s competition this year, both in the distance and the sprints.

In the distance race, Kim Barnes is one of the best paddle racers OF ALL TIME, but she’s never received the credit she deserves. I know how she feels, because we’ve both been there. She’s always been overlooked by the SUP blogs, predictions, and overshadowed by top racers from her region, even though she’s one of the fastest distance racers on the planet with good strategy and mettle.

Juliette and Rika are also top contenders. Juliette being coached by none other than the G.O.A.T Candace Appleby and Rika training with the top coaches in Japan.

In the sprint races on Sunday, Caroline and Giannesa, are two I had my eye on for top competition. They are paving the way for women to specialize in one SUP discipline - which takes a ton of courage! As the sport grows, there is more room to specialize. I think the days where one female paddler went and competed in every event from 200m to 18k are gone. The sport has grown up enough for women to concentrate on what they are good at and what their unique body is built to do.

I’m excited to see where the sport goes from here.

I didn’t go to the Carolina Cup to fulfill anyone else’s expectations, get trolled and judged, or get compared to other women. I went to the Carolina Cup to support the race and to race my race. I wanted to practice avoiding some of the same mistakes I’ve made over and over throughout my paddling career… and to have a good time with my friends.

It was a tad hard to do that when everywhere I went people were speculating and making predictions with absolutely no clue what my goals or aspirations were, or what I or the other top women were there to do. In hindsight, I guess it was great practice in keeping myself focused and centered.

In the end, I rationalized my reactions with a metaphor: mosquitos. Comments and commenters are like mosquitos. They’re buzzing, annoying, and sometimes leave a little itchy bite. They’re not anything you’ll remember in a few days. If you catch one in the act of a bite, you’re allowed to slap it… but it’s not so with humans. One or two mosquitos are a minor annoyance, no big deal, but when you’re inundated or have been sucked dry, it’s best to apply repellant or get away from them!

I decided to shrug off any expectations and tried to work on my calm and relaxed demeanor. I lined up for the 10th annual Carolina Cup… ten years after my first race ever, which also happened to be the Carolina Cup.

That first year, I’d had expectations, and they’d been the source of huge disappointment when I hadn’t even completed the 6 mile course. I’d been on a rec board holding my paddle backwards; I can’t imagine why I went so slow. I’d been overwhelmed with gratitude to just be there.

I stood there ten years later as a new human. Although my name was still the same, I felt like my mind and body weren’t. I figured that there were very few cells left in my body that were there 10 years ago, and the neural network that controls my thoughts had also been completely rewired. I had 7000 hours of training and competition! I’ve literally made every mistake in the book over the last decade. Finally, it was my chance to see what I could do with that knowledge.

I led the first mile of the race, as I so often do, then was passed, as I so often am. This time instead of surging when the other women made their move, I physically couldn’t. They made the move, and mother nature smacked a giant glob of reeds right on my fin. I knew that if I tried to keep up while dragging the loch ness monster, I would burn out very quickly.

In hindsight, I wonder if this was Mother Nature’s way of putting the brakes on me at a pivotal moment where I would have made the same “mistake” I always make. In the moment, though, it was pretty defeating.

I watched the other three competitors slowly put a gap on me, as Kim and Juliette battled bump for bump in the downwind leg. Rika also slowly put a few board lengths on me in that section. With each passing moment, my hopes of ever winning the Carolina Cup slowly faded.

My self-talk was pretty despicable.

“Good job April… How many big races did you have in 2021?"

“Two,” I answered myself.

The little red guy on my shoulder continued, “How many did you make THE EXACT SAME MISTAKE AT?”

“Two… obviously.”

“How many more times are you going to make the same mistake before you learn something? What’s wrong with you? Why do you keep making these rookie mistakes?”

“Because I like this fin. And I don’t want to do anything different on race day.”

Even though I was a little mad at myself, I opted to NOT jump off my board to clean my fin of the reeds. I just kept trying to burst them off with little sprints onto bumps and swooshing the board side to side a lot. Looking around, I realized that if I cleaned them off, I’d probably just get more. Depending on where I stopped to clean them off, I would just move backwards if I stopped paddling for too long.

I continued to watch the other ladies duke it out. Sometimes I felt like I was holding the same speed. Other times I felt like they were increasing the gap.

Approaching the south end of the course, my board was sliding out on the bumps, a clear indication that there was a lot of crap on my fin. I knew there was a little sandbar poking out there. I used it to hop off in knee deep water, remove the junk from my fin, and hop right back on without losing hardly any time at all. But the damage was already done. I was over 10 board lengths behind Rika and Kim and Juliette were little specs in the distance.

As we neared the intersection of Shinn’s creek, Masonboro inlet, and Bank’s channel, I saw Brad Howard, long time paddle friend and one of the original founders of The Carolina Cup driving a safety boat by himself in the wind and rain. I debated waving him over and telling him to give me a ride back, we’d both be stoked to head back, I’d be doing us both a favor! I had just seen my GPS pop up a 30 minute mile during one of the 38mph gusts of wind and I was over it.

Instead, I smiled big, waved at him like a kook, and asked if we were having fun yet?? We chatted for a minute, I was barely moving even though I was still paddling. We talked about the king high tide being crazy, the wind being crazier, and I told him I was going to cruise left as I crossed the inlet. He smiled like that was a good idea and said there were 2ft wind swells out there.

I didn’t get in the boat, obviously. I didn’t need to. The boat is for people that need it, so I decided it would be selfish and irresponsible to just hop in a boat because I was being a wimp.

As I got to the intersection, I noticed the other ladies getting washed out with the tide, and fighting the wind and the current just to stay in one place.

I knew what that felt like having been in that exact same position many times before in practice paddles. I didn’t want to do that, so I took a hard left up Shinn’s creek riding an eddy, before letting the current pull me east just a hair, into another eddy. It was a subtle move, but it required very little energy on my part. After that, I was in a very narrow eddy of reduced current heading up Banks channel.

To my surprise, I was gaining on the top three women. It dawned on me that they were probably exhausted from their uphill battle. I started to push a little harder and passed Rika from Japan, then Juliette from Argentina. I pulled in for about a minute behind Kim assessing if I should make a move.

I was a little in disbelief… I had just gone from shooting the shit with Brad and having accepted that the ladies were too far, too fast. Now I was going from 4th place to actually being in contention. I’m always scared of Kim Barnes on the race course. I knew that if I made my move too soon, she’d burn me out and I would risk winding back up in 4th. The other two ladies weren’t that far back.

But then, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I had just paddled on the endless treadmill of current and wind that she had just experienced… after battling on bumps with Juliette for a few miles. I realized I had been cruising, not easy, but also not pushing, due to the reeds in tow. I was probably really well rested, comparatively, while she was most likely exhausted. So I went for it. It worked.

With no more than 10 minutes left in the race, I pulled ahead with the longest and strongest paddle stroke I could muster.

“I paddle in conditions like this all the time,” I thought as my self-talk started vastly improving. “I have plenty of energy.” I continued to push to my absolute maximum until the very end, just imagining I’d be caught at any moment. But I wasn’t, and I stepped off my board calm and in control as I crossed the finish line in first place. Ten years after not crossing any finish lines at all. My eyes were all teary; I could blame the frigid 30+mph headwind, but it was really because I felt so relieved.

I felt like a weight had been lifted. Something that I set out to do, that I was losing hope that I could ever do, happened. When I started paddling, I had this crazy idea that if I could go from who I was to one of the top paddlers in the world, then the human mind and body really are capable of more than we think. Maybe it was possible to set out on a path and create your own reality.

It wasn’t because of the conditions, training, nutrition, or any external factor; although all of those are a part of it. It was because I didn’t give up. My first race in 2011, I was in over my head. I gave up, but I don’t feel like there was any other good choice that day. I did what I had to do.

I guess that’s what Kenny Rogers meant when he said “you gotta know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em”

Sometimes it’s OK to quit something. Sometimes it’s OK to walk away… or run. When you give up or quit for legitimate safety concerns that’s not quitting, that’s self-preservation. Only you know the difference, and sometimes when you’re pushing yourself to the next level, it’s a blurry line (but that’s a topic for another day). Personally, paddling has given me the wisdom to see the difference.

My tears had nothing to do with the win, and everything to do with realizing that I could never be in that exact moment crossing that finish line if I had given up anywhere along the journey. For the last decade I didn’t give up on my training every day. My nutrition, every day. Paddling in crazy conditions, continuously pushing myself. Building a life around doing what I love. Ignoring hurtful comments and trolls. There have been dozens of opportunities to give up along the way, least of all hopping in a safety boat on Saturday. It had nothing to do with competition, the crowd, or closure… It was solely because I felt so alive and so present for the last 10 years of my life. Well, at least for 7,000 hours of it.

When I set out with the goal to win the Carolina Cup, I certainly didn’t think it would take a decade! It also never occurred to me that you can be a great racer and not be the fastest paddler on the course on any given day. Somewhere along the way, I learned that strategy can be more important than fitness when it comes to racing some days. To win a race is to play a game and I love playing it. I imagine the next 3,000 hours will fly by - time and effort are fleeting when you’re doing something you love.

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