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My 26th Birthday: A Paddling Extravaganza

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Well, I said I was going to finish, and that is what I did. For my 26th birthday it was my wish to walk away with the 11-city cross.

Let me intro by saying, if you ever want to paddle in Holland, you should do this event. The event takes you through the countryside of Friesland, and stops in the most adorable little towns along the way. You will not regret it. There are two options: the tour and the competition. You don’t have to paddle hard for 5 days, you can take your time and enjoy the scenery and stop to take photos. However, if you decide to do the tour, I wouldn’t suggest taking your super-sweet time because you end up paddling for a lot longer. I would also recommend doing some sort of training for the event.

I didn’t know what to expect, the furthest I had ever paddled was 12 miles in Key West. At the start of the race on day one, I went hard, sprinting off the line. Everyone was moving fast, and I slowly dropped back into my pace. I hadn’t paddled for the last 30 days, having been stranded in Pune, India, but I was happy to be out on the water. It felt amazing. I don’t wear a GPS or heart rate monitor or any sort of expensive equipment, so when I felt tired I slowed down and when I felt like I could paddle harder – I did. I was here to paddle, I didn’t care how fast. Ever since I had moved to India, my mission to find paddling places had been keeping me busy, but was rarely rewarded with success. Signing up for the 11-City tour was my birthday present and an excuse for me to see Holland from the water. About half way through day one, I started to second guess myself. Immediately, I had to stop that kind of thinking. Long events such as this are just as much about mental endurance as they are physical strength. In the long run, not having a GPS was probably a blessing, because ignorance was bliss. I didn’t ever know how much further I had to go, I just went. Luckily, I attached to a few groups during the week to draft. This made a world of difference, not just to aid in paddling, but to have someone to chat with. Whether you use GPS, heart rate monitors, do negative splits, alternating cadences, draft others, or just paddle to finish, my first tip for a race such as this is: know your strategy.

By the end of day three, the days started to blur together. I was without internet access or phone to the outside world. At times it felt like a weird prison sentence that I voluntarily paid to be a part of rather than a holiday. The boat accommodations were nice in that each day you are finished your things were there waiting on you. However, the berths were incredibly small, fitting four into a 6x6ft space with no place to store luggage or personal effects. Toilet/shower facilities were equally small. Although, I think you may miss out on some of the social aspect if you don’t stay on the boat. A few other veteran 11-city paddlers booked a bed and breakfast in each town, and sometimes their rooms were closer than the boats. Each place they stayed in was very pleasant, so there is always an alternative to the boat accommodation if you ever sign up and don’t want to go that route. Rest and recovery are extremely important when traveling overseas or doing an event that is rough on the body, so that is why you should know your lodging.

Aside from being a bit sick from the airplane ride over, and being incredibly sore from paddling (my body moved as if it were inhabited by a 102 year old retired stunt double), I had a serious sense of peace and satisfaction at the end of day three when I knew that over half of the journey was complete; that the bulk of the mileage was behind me. With only 75km to go, and 145km done, it didn’t seem so bad and I knew I could finish! Know you can finish!

The race participants were in agreement that it was a bit sad that we were all extremely excited for the last day because the distance was so “short,” but it was still 31km! The fact that we were considering 31km short is just odd. The distance is a bit daunting no matter how much you train, and you will have moments of both strength and weakness. It helps if you know the board you are on well, and like it. I’m a firm believer that boards are as diverse as people, and a board that is amazing for one person may be terrible for another. That being said, I don’t think that my board and I were a good match. I appreciated the board, and was sad when I put a hole through the hull (and was lucky to have a quick patch job handy), but I appreciated it for its resemblance to a clog not its gliding abilities. I thought it was cute that I was paddling a clog through the Dutch countryside. But, if your board is hollow, and you put a hole in it, it is extremely important to have a means to patch it immediately so that it doesn’t take on any water. Also, it is sometimes difficult to secure a board you know and love in a foreign country if you are not a sponsored athlete. So, take some time to do research before you head over. Figure out which board you are going to have, and see if you can secure some quality time with its twin on your home turf. If you absolutely hate it, then maybe you’ll have time to make other arrangements. (If not, just suck it up and finish the race. Be happy you’re paddling.) This sums up another tip for racing abroad (and seems to be a recurring theme for all SUP racing): know your board.

The majority of foods provided by the race organizers were carbohydrates in the form of breads, pastas, and candy bars. For many racers, that is fine, and that is what was needed. I like to have a little more protein and some vegetables. It is what my body is used to. On the first day at lunch I looked across the catering table to a woman to ask her where the meat was to put into the sandwich I had just picked up, at which point I was informed that a HUGE white kaiser roll with a generous smear of butter and a slice of cheese was considered a complete sandwich here. Although they were extremely fantastic and made me a sandwich with turkey for the remaining days, I still wish I had some other food options with a little less sugar, more whole wheat; just items my body was used to. If you’re not used to the food then your body doesn’t know how to work with it, or if it makes you feel off, then you will have more moments of weakness than you have of strength. Which brings me to another point: know your food source.

I think it was on day two when I bonked. I’m still getting the hang of this nutrition thing, so everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. I was getting sick of the sugary bars that were provided so I didn’t eat anything for 3 hours. During that three hours, I was really pushing. I was heading into the wind in the clog at a decent cadence across long lakes, constantly trying extremely hard to keep up with others and I thought that if I stopped to snack I would lose the person I was drafting. Right at three hours, I lost all of my energy. I felt like I couldn’t keep going, but I could see the lunch stop, so I kept on paddling. When I finally pulled into the rest area I was pale, light headed, clammy, and downright sick. I even stayed longer than the 15 minute mandatory break because I just couldn’t get up. At 18 minutes I finally stood on my board like a newborn calf and paddled off slowly. Within 20 minutes I felt revived, and had enough energy to pick up the pace slightly. I only slowed down about 5 minutes total from the day prior. So working hard and bonking and feeling like crap lost me 5 minutes, compared to snacking consistently and listening to my body and going at a comfortable pace. Which brings me to my final point: know your body.

My 11-City SUP tour cross is officially the best birthday present that I had to work my butt off for!!!

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