From Wreck to Redemption:
The Joy & Pain of Extreme Racing
by: Bobby Miller
Fall is a busy time on the East Coast for the Class 5 extreme racer. There are a multitude of challenging races to hit, starting with the King of New York series on Labor Day weekend and culminating with perhaps the most challenging whitewater race in the world, the Green Narrows Race in North Carolina. This mile-long course is stacked with rapids, like Gorilla and Go Left, that will beat down paddlers, even when they aren’t exhausted from racing. The standard time to shoot for to achieve greatness is under 5 minutes, and those that accomplish this feat receive their “Class 5 certification.” This was certainly my goal when I went down for the race in 2015. However, I fell victim to the menacing consequences of an error in Hot Left (the race line at Go Left). This beat down caused me to swim and thus sent me on a long journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. I was left with a year to wonder about what could have been before I could test those waters again.
2016 brought a lot of promise for me and my racing. I was focused on the Green Race and had a bunch of strong finishes in other races to my credit. I had logged countless attainments, even going out at 4 a.m. on a regular basis to paddle upstream in the darkness, when paddling didn’t fit into my schedule during daylight hours. All of the time spent carrying a log on my shoulders through the snow and chasing a chicken around my backyard was paying off, and I was feeling fast enough to catch greased lightning! Just a few weeks before the Green Race, I won the Ohiopyle Falls Race, so I was riding a wave of confidence that I expected to carry me not only to a sub 5 minute run, but also a top 20 finish.
With race day finally here, around 2:30, I was in the starting gate. There was one question on my mind, “Would I risk it again and go for Hot Left or run the higher percentage but slower standard line at Go Left?” I knew in my heart of hearts that I could play it conservative at Go Left and still easily make the sub 5 mark. However, I also know that I am more than capable of nailing that line and taking the conservative line would be admitting that I was not good enough. I knew there was no choice to be made. It was my destiny, I had to ace Hot Left or go down in a dumpster fire trying!
It was my turn, I headed out paddling hard and poised to methodically dissect this intricate maze drop by drop. All was going well until I reached Go Left. I was determined to fix my line from last year’s race so I boofed extra hard off the approach drop. This well timed boof lined me up to hit the line as I dropped over the log and into the meat of the rapid. I was happy that I had hit the line but before I knew it, my upstream blade was caught by a paddlesnake and I rolled upstream as I fell off the drop. When I tried to set up to roll, I hit my head and it knocked me back out of position. With a lack of oxygen and the feeling of being sidesurfed above the slot, I decided my only recourse was to yet again pull my skirt. As I started to pull, I realize that I had given up too soon because my boat was already accelerating downstream. I swam to shore, embarrassed and heartbroken. I eventually retrieved my boat and finished the race. The paddle out was a lonely one, even with over a thousand spectators and hundreds of boaters on the river that day. A million thoughts ran through my mind. I knew the conservative line would likely have yielded better results but how could I ever truly claim success in the Green Race without succeeding where I had failed before. The age old philosophical question begged to be asked, “Is it nobler to beater the hero line or hero the beater line?”
Devastated with the only way to describe how I felt. I had come up short and I wanted nothing more than to go find a “safe space” to help me hide from my troubles. I found this solace in a fifth of George Dickel and a wild evening of partying with the lot lizards down at the Flying J. Just kidding. Actually I spent the evening the best way that I could have, by playing a fun game of Hide and Seek with my wife, Melissa, and daughter, Sahalie, along the beautiful banks of Lake Lure. One lesson I have learned in life is that placing well in a race is a temporary thrill, but time spent with my family is where the real winning occurs.
Although family time certainly lifted my spirits overall, I felt morose whenever I thought about paddling. I am not used to failing at kayaking, much less blowing it at the same spot two years in a row on the biggest stage in racing. I had heard utterings of phrases from friends made in jest like “Go Left is your nemesis”, “Out of control beater in a long boat”, and “You might want to quit kayaking.” I can appreciate a good ribbing as much as the next person. Still, in that moment, I was no daisy. I was no daisy at all. I knew that the one thing I had to do was go back out on the river as soon as possible to regain the joy of paddling. Luckily, my friends Dave Collins and Eric Ireland joined me on a fun attainment that Tuesday. I spent the time enjoying the flow of the river and the company of friends. It was nice to not be in a hurry or worried about making the attainment course within some time frame. All my troubles just drifted away and I was able to feel happiness just being on the river.
The first ever race on the Tallulah River in Georgia was the weekend after the Green and the organizers were accepting applications and taking only the top 35 racers. I submitted my application a couple weeks earlier and felt that a good showing in the Green Race would get me on the list. After the disaster that befell me on the Green, I harbored little hope that I would make the cut, but I still checked each day anyway. On Wednesday, when I checked, I saw my name on the list and was ecstatic! When I told Melissa, she was excited for me to compete in this race and, although she didn’t want to make the trip to the Southeast two weeks in a row, she was fully supportive of me going. Here was my chance, not only to be a part of a historic event, but also to redeem myself. Scanning the list, I saw many top notch racers were signed up, which elevated this event higher on the Boone and Crockett score sheet! With names like Keller, McMillan, Levknecht, Jennings, and many other fast racers, I knew this was going to be a challenging competition to place well in. Now that I was in, the next question was would I make the long drive to compete? Does a bear make brown in the woods? This was the opportunity I had been praying for! There was no way I was going to pass up a chance for redemption! Plus, not only was this the first ever race on the Tallulah, but I was honored to have been selected as one of an elite group of racers! No matter the distance, if there is a race going on then I’m your huckleberry!
I put in a spirited attainment on Thursday to get one last workout before the race, but I still needed to do something to regain my edge. Doubt had entered my mind after the Green Race, and there was no room for that feeling to remain. The next morning, I got up long before the sun came up and free-climbed several hundred feet up the local cliff called Maryland Heights in the dark. As the sun was appearing, I quietly and cautiously crept up to the eagle’s nest on the west side of the cliff. I lunged into the nest, seizing the eagle by its talons and plucking out a single tail feather with my teeth! I would carry this feather with me on my journey to the Tallulah as a reminder that all things are possible when you set your mind to them!
I made the drive on Friday night/Saturday morning and arrived at the Tallulah a little after 10, ready for some practice laps. During the day on Saturday, I took two practice runs and felt that I had a pretty good handle on where I needed to go during the race. There were a couple of question marks but I was feeling prepared overall. The next morning greeted me with cold temperatures and drizzle, not exactly the most pleasant conditions given the fact that all of the racers were going to have to wait out in the elements for a long period of time for the race to start. Around 9, we started down the long staircase leading to the bottom of the Tallulah Gorge and the start of the race. By 10:30, the water level had stabilized and the first racer, Pat Keller, took off out of the starting gate!
Soon, it was my turn to go and I darted out of the start like a scalded dog! The first rapid went well and I move quickly out toward the big boof in the second drop. As I sailed onward, I was approaching Oceana, a 60 foot drop down a steep slope with a gnarly shelf called The Thing that creates a huge explosion to punish those who don’t hit their line. This was by far the largest individual drop that I have ever encountered in a race, and was a crucial spot for having a fast time. A blown line could result in a piton or a surf, costing you a cluster of valuable seconds to ruin your day. I went far left, which allowed a straight line to avoid The Thing. I flew down the slide at Mach 10 and my bow skipped right over the hole at the bottom, sending me cruising downstream with my hair on fire! Continuing down the course, I was faced with a continuous series of rapids dropping out of sight, with me trying to remember where I went the day before. Bridal Veil appeared in sight, and I had a decision to make. I could go down the middle for the fast line, which I hadn’t practiced, or take the guaranteed line down the left, which was slower. The hole at the bottom of this slide is notorious for dishing out beatdowns, and was all the hungrier with the extra 200 cfs that they release on Sundays. I decided to take the left line since it was predictable and reliable, like a Ford F150! After clearing the hole with ease, I headed into a fast series of slides. This was one of the most exhilarating parts of the course as I flew through this area. The next rapid is Amplitheater and starts with a 5 foot ledge into a munchy hole followed by more offset ledges and powerful holes. I found this to be the most difficult rapid to run during the race. I battled the holes all the way and the last one grabbed my edge and I had to roll. I hammered harder and got back up to speed, sailing cleanly through rapid after rapid, each slide and boulder drop wizzing by in a blur! Soon, the powerhouse came into sight and I knew I was close to the finish. I punched one more big, angled hole and charged toward the end of the rapids and the finish line.
Paddling across the lake, I was grinning ear to ear, pleased with my race run. It wasn’t perfect, but I knew I had put forth a strong time. I had accomplished what I came to do, end my race season on a positive note. When the dust had settled, I finished in a three way tie for 6th place with a time of 11 minutes even (Full Results). This feeling of accomplishment, the thrill of going fast, and the excitement of racing challenging whitewater filled my thoughts on the long drive home. I hadn’t felt such satisfaction since that time I tricked a group of hipsters into drilling into their iPhone 7’s to find the “secret” headphone jack! I was able to reflect on what was ultimately a great race season in 2016 and I can’t wait for next year! I will definitely be back at the Green to try once again to get my “Class 5 Certification.” The Tallulah was a ton of fun, and that race will be on my radar to go to again. Racing has brought me more Joy & Pain than Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. I yearn for the next challenge, the next battle!
To all my racer friends; enjoy the winter and I’ll see you in the spring when starting pistols fire, the timers begin counting, and the long boaters start charging!