Austin Kieffer – Team OPS/Fenn Athlete Reports the Skinny on his Phatwater Race Win
Mississippi Phatwater Race Report by Austin Kieffer
When I first heard of the Mississippi Phatwater Race from Pat and DeAnne Hemmens, they told me it was a race any East Coast surfski paddler should check out.
Naturally, I did a little research to learn a bit more about it. What I eventually came to discover was, the race is a 42-mile, flat-water grind in the humidity of the Deep South, with a mandatory 4:30am morning shuttle to the race start.
So obviously, I had the same reaction anyone would in my position … “Oh, this kid is so down!”
Thanks to Ocean Paddle Sports and the race director Keith Benoist, I was able to hitch a ride with some Carolina paddlers to Natchez, Mississippi, the cultural hub and finish-line for the Phatwater race.
I don’t remember much about the race morning, I tried to suppress the memory mostly. A 3:45am wake up does not sit well with a college bedtime sleep schedule and the experience was nothing if not painful. I do, however, remember about 200 paddlers pouring into 5 yellow school busses, dressed in everything from full race gear, to comfy PJs. I should have worn PJs. I have brief flashes of a two-hour drive covered in lycra and vaseline (to prevent chaffing) in the pitch black. Ending at the race start at dawn with a mad stampede to the five port-a-potties.
We are truly out in the wilderness and once everyone’s morning business was out of the way, the day began in earnest. I took my boat down to the water, a Millenium 6 lent to me by the race director, and before I knew, it I had downed a Gu and was lining up at the start. My strategy was simple. Don’t go out too hard, find a rhythm, and don’t race like an idiot (a habit I will claim and hopefully mature out of someday).
The morning was serene and still until Keith’s horn went off and the racers jumped off the line. The leaders quickly broke away from the pack and I got an idea of who I would be spending the next four and a half hours with. I stuck to my plan and hung a touch back as people took turns flaring their start energy, pushing the pace. After about 15 minutes, the pace settled and I found my rhythm. Jack Van Dorp, a Canadian ultra-distance athlete, with a stroke rate like a humming bird, took an early lead. About 50 meters back, I lined up with Joe Glickman, Eric Mims and Erik Borgnes, paddling in a charging cavalry line up.
Then the playful shit-talking began and I knew there was truly a race afoot. I felt strong, but I was reluctant to trust my body. After all, I still had four full hours of racing ahead of me and my longest race up to that point was two hours. Today with the low water and an early headwind, I really didn’t know how I would hold up. Our pacing was strong, but Jack was still maintaining his 50 meter lead. Initially, I was confident we would slowly grind him down, but after an hour of rabbiting ahead, Jack was still maintaining his lead. The other guys told me not to worry, but over the next half hour, instead of slowly gaining, he started to slowly build on his lead. At the hour and a half mark, I decided I had had enough of follow the leader. I told the group that we should take turns pulling to catch Jack and I would start with a five-minute pull. The group agreed and I took off. I think I was a bit too excited and heard Borgnes yell that we didn’t have to catch him in five minutes, we had 30 more miles after all. He had a point so I slowed down a bit, but Borgnes and I were the only two able to bump the pace and we dropped the others. We worked together to reign Jack in over the next ten fifteen minutes and around the two hour mark we caught him. Once there, however, none of us wanted to take the lead, so our pace dropped dramatically. I didn’t mind, I was now at the front of the race and had no one to chase. Plus, I had been neglecting the aerobic side of my training, mid race was as good a time as any to work on my stroke technique. I didn’t want to make a move till I could see the finish line. I had to make sure I avoided any line choice errors out in front that the others could capitalize on. So I waited and cruised, biding my time.
Amazingly, Glickman singlehandedly scrapped his way back to the lead pack and caught us around the three-hour mark. And it was just about then that the wind started to pick up and blow a decent chop in our faces. I started putting a little more in each stroke around 3 hours and 20 minutes into the race and the pack slowly lined up behind me. For a good fifteen minutes I was the head of the arrow as we pierced through the wind and waves. But then, around a bend, there it was: Natchez and the finish line. I took off. Only six miles to go … As the DJ once told me, in a quote I have loved ever since, it was time to “sacrifice a little of my soul”. For fifteen minutes, I broke myself. When I finally looked back, I knew I had it. The group had fractured and they were a ways back. I dialed my pace back a touch and grinded my way to the finish.
The last forty minutes were brutal and the finish line felt amazing. 4 hours 20 minutes and 42 miles later, I had won! Borgnes and Glickman came in about two and a half minutes back, in second and third place respectively, and Jack finished in fourth place.
I would have run up the hill in excitement, but upon exiting the boat, my butt cheeks both cramped and it was all I could do to hobble up the hill and maintain a shred of dignity.
All in all, it was an amazing race, with great competition, and certainly worth the trip to Natchez.