October 16, 2004 -- Bryson City, NC
I've always wanted to try a long distance race. In October 2004 I had my opportunity
at the Suwannee Challenge, a 52-mile (or 83-km) downriver race on the Suwannee River
that drains the vast Okefenokee Swamp Wildlife Refuge in South Georgia. The event
starts in Fargo and ends in White Springs, Florida.
Due to four back-to-back hurricanes in the area, the river was running 6 feet above
flood stage, which to my wildwater mindset, indicated it would be a fast race with
abundant current. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. 46 people
registered for the race and would paddle anything from a 12 ft recreational kayak to
a 22 ft surf ski, to me, the sole competitor in a downriver kayak.
At dawn the race started in Fargo. It immediately became apparent that this was going
to be a long day. Around the first corner we were already ducking under cypress trees
and assorted deadfall and having to look carefully to identify the river channel. Any
current also rapidly disappeared. Fargo is only 80ft above sea level but 200+ miles
from the coast where the Suwannee finally dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. That's not
a lot of gradient by wildwater standards. To compound the issue, the river was so high
that it had inundated the surrounding countryside, displacing some homeowners and
making the flooded plain miles wide. Water was moving in all directions.
For the next 12 miles there was little to no current and a large number of twists and
turns. My GPS kept beeping at me as we feel below 6.5 mph, my anticipated minimum,
while my heart rate monitor kept beeping at me for exceeding my pre-planned max.
Finally the current started picking up as the turns fell behind and the river
channelized a little. Speeds started to creep up in excess of 7 mph. At the half way
point, Route 6 crosses the river giving racers their only opportunity to re-supply or
even abandon the race all together. My support crew of Lincoln Williams was there as
expected to help me along and get me ready for the next half. The first twenty-five
miles had been tough. The second half would be tougher. After Route 6 my GPS
consistently read over 8 mph and above. As we paddled over Big Shoals, reportedly the
largest rapid in Florida, speeds even crept up over 9 mph. Close to mile 35 a mental
roller coaster of highs and lows set in. One minute I was elated to be there and
feeling good about my boat speed, technique and the race, the next minute I would
have happily pulled over, curled up and quit. I had to turn my attention away from
my GPS and heart rate monitor and just focus on moving forward. Then at mile 48 the
cramps set in. I had had a well researched eating and drinking plan, which I had
followed to the letter, but things had clearly fallen to pieces a few miles early,
perhaps due to the higher intensity in effort in the first quarter. The final 4 miles
were the single hardest thing I have ever done in a kayak in my 25 years of paddling.
I have never been so happy to see a finish line in my life, 6 hours 44 minutes and
52.1 miles after starting. After the awards ceremony we rolled out of White Springs
12 hours after starting the race while some racers still had not finished!
They truly deserved the awards.
As a wildwater racer more accustomed to racing half an hour rather than half a day,
I found that I had learned a great deal about paddling, race preparation, mental
toughness and fueling. In a race lasting only 30 minutes, you may not see the benefits
of eating right, practicing solid technique to minimize muscle fatigue or even
practicing mental imagery. However, in a 400-minute race all these things add up and
become compounded. When you're training for a race, whether it's a few minutes or a
multi day adventure race, do your research and focus on the priority elements of
fitness, nutrition and technique and success may follow.
I'd like to thank American Canoe Adventures of White Springs Florida and all the race
volunteers for hosting such an awesome event. For 2004 race results and information
concerning the 2005 Suwannee Challenge, visit
Chris Hipgrave is Tresurer of the U.S. Wildwater Committee and a K-1
Wildwater racer living near Bryson City, NC. You can reach him at