I am a little late posting this , but I wanted to make sure I took a few minutes to write about my first paddle board race – the 1st Annual Bay Bridge Paddle. The race took place on May 14th, 2016, at Sandy Point Beach near Annapolis, Maryland. Brian Meyer of Capital SUP had been helping me learn the ropes of competitive paddle boarding and had recommended the Bay Bridge Paddle as a great first race. Heeding Brian’s advice, I headed over to Paddle Guru and signed up for the beginners’ 1.5k race, as well as the pre-race beginners’ clinic with Dawn Ehman.
I was unsure of what to expect from the SUP race scene. I thought I knew how to paddle before taking lessons with Capital SUP, but I eventually realized that I knew nothing. I thought I would stand out at the race as a complete noob, sitting awkwardly in the corner while the real racers and teams paraded around in their board shorts and 6 pack abs. I started to feel embarrassed about signing up for the 1.5k race, thinking people would mock me for calling such a short distance paddle a “race,” after all, the elite racers were doing almost 10 times the distance I was. I struggled with the pressure and ambition of signing up for the longer race, as well as with the fear and uncertainty that urged me to stay in the shorter race. I did not make my final decision until the morning of the race.
The pre-race clinics were held the afternoon before the race, with one at Captial SUP and one at Sandy Point Beach. Unknowingly, I had double booked myself that day. I signed up for Capital SUP’s clinic with Tommy Buday months ago. It was not until a few days before the race that I realized Capital SUP’s clinic was the same day as the race clinic. Capital SUP’s clinic was a few hours before the race clinic, so I attended both, which I soon realized was a critical mistake. Capital SUP’s clinic with Tommy was great. Tommy talked about proper technique, taught us a few drills to practice and evaluated our strokes. As it always seems to happen, the calm, relaxed paddle session turned mildly competitive, and each of us seemed to push ourselves a little harder with each drill. Tommy was so helpful and friendly (he is Canadian, after all). He is also an Olympian! I was sad to see the clinic end, but I was very contentious of the time… I only had an hour to pack up and head over to Sandy Point Beach for the race clinic!
I arrived at Sandy Point Beach with a few minutes to spare and there I met Dawn Ehman for the first time. Dawn was leading the beginner’s race clinic and is a well known competitor on the SUP scene. Once everyone arrived, we grabbed our boards and headed down to the water. Sandy Point Beach is located on the Chesapeake Bay, right next to the Bay Bridge. There is a huge shipping channel and a ton of boat and tanker traffic in the area. According to Dawn, the water was unusually calm. To me, the water looked pretty damn choppy! I broke off into a small group with Dawn and another racer to try our hands at the 5k course, which paddled out to and under the Bay Bridge and back. The water was a little choppy, but manageable. Dawn taught me how to turn more efficiently, how to “choke up” my paddle grip, how to draft, and how to add a bit of competitive flare to the race start. All of the info was incredibly helpful and made me feel substantially less anxious about the next day’s race, however, half way through the clinic I started to realize the terrible mistake that I had made by doing two clinics in one day. My right arm started to cramp up as my muscles became exhausted after 5 hours of somewhat strenuous paddling.
Dawn encouraged me to sign up for the 5k race instead of the 1.5k, as we had paddled the course at the clinic, and it was not as terrible as I thought it would be. I was still nervous about doing the intermediate race, as I was very anxious about my first race and still quite unsure of what to expect, but Dawn was right – I could do it. I told her I would wait until the morning to decide, as my arms were very sore, particularly my right arm.
The next morning, my arms were still a bit sore, but felt better overall. I still had not made up my mind about which race to do. Another important detail to consider is that I signed up with a friend, who was also doing the 1.5k race. Would she be upset if I changed races at the last minute? It wouldn’t matter, as when I arrived at registration, the line for the 5k race was quite long, and the 1.5k line was nonexistent. That settles it! 1.5k it is! I grabbed my number, t-shirt, and carb loaded breakfast from the registration tent and headed down to the beach. I was right to be nervous… 400 + participants showed up to the event and the beach was covered in paddle boards and very athletic bodies.
The event moved quickly. Just as soon as I registered, it was time for the racer’s briefing. Shortly after the briefing, the elite 9 mile race kicked off, followed by the 5k, and then the 1.5k. There were so many bodies and boards sprinting into the water that the bay looked like the wave pool at Hershey Park. Splashing. Flailing. People falling into the water. The start was exhausting to watch, but the racers quickly found their place and their strides as they passed the first buoy and headed for the Bay Bridge. When the 1.5k race siren sounded, I booked it for the water and threw myself onto my board. I remember being surprised at myself when I leapt onto my board… hey, I didn’t screw it up! I stood up and tried to remember all the things that Brian and Dawn had taught me. Choke up, pump the board, strong strokes, fast cadence. My thoughts sounded more like panic. The first 60 seconds were chaos as I tried to figure out what to do, how fast I could go, and where the competitors were. I didn’t even reach the first buoy before my right tricep cramped up and turned into a brick. All I could think about was how badly my arm hurt. At some point I realized that I was in the front of the pack, and just as soon as that thought entered my head, a kid that couldn’t have been older than 12 flew past me like I was standing still (on a surf board no less). I kept paddling, as best as I could. With each person that passed me, I felt like just letting the pain take over and falling back to a very slow pace, but I kept pushing through the pain, telling myself it is only another half a mile!
As I rounded the last buoy, I spotted my husband on the shore. I could see him mouth “come on Nat!” He looked a little disappointed, like I had given up, mixed with a touch of amusement. Based on his expression, I thought I was doing awful and everyone could see it. I definitely felt awful. I paddled up to the beach, jumped off my board and ran to the finish line. My legs were wobbly as if I were still on my board. My arm was incredibly sore. I told my husband how thankful I was that I did not sign up for the 5k, as I would not have been able to finish it due to the pain in my arm. I definitely learned an important lesson: Don’t over do it the day before a race!!!
After I regained my senses, and my sea legs, I started to take in the event. The atmosphere was extremely fun. There was great food, drinks, music, and lots of vendors. All of the vendors had boards and paddles that you could demo. The people were pretty amazing, as well, and extremely supportive. I got a little choked up at one point, when I noticed that Brian and some of the other elite racers stayed at the finish line after completing their race to cheer on each and every competitor as they crossed the finish line. My anxiety and fears were so unfounded. This group of people is filled with the most supportive and friendly people I have ever met. One of the men who passed me found me and introduced himself, and made conversation with me about our race and competition. Brian chased me down to get in on a Capital SUP team photo. Rich Price, from Solace SUP, recognized me and asked me how I made out in the race on my new Solace SUP race board. I bumped into Dawn and Tommy Buday, who immediately recognized me and asked me how my race went (they both podiumed in their races). I felt like I was amongst 400 of my friends.
The complete race results were released a few days after the event, and I was surprised and excited to see that I had placed first in my division and race (1/21), and 13th overall, out of 100 participants, both men and women, on both paddle boards and kayaks. My buddy placed first in her division, too! What a great first experience the Bay Bridge Paddle turned out to be. I am so excited to have found a new passion that I can share with so many new friends. I cannot wait until next year, and I will definitely be doing the 5k!