26 Miles of River: Plenty of time for an attitude change


A few weeks ago at FIBArk in Salida, Colorado, Em and I decided the night before the 26 mile down river race (a marathon!!) over a couple of beers to sign up and go for the gold. I thought, sure how hard can that be, the water’s moving and if it takes me all day, who cares, it ‘ll be a great experience. I don’t have to win, I can just check it off my list of things I’ve done. Plus Em and I decided we would stick together, chatting and support each other the whole way down. The next morning, I woke up, tired from paddling every day and feeling the effects of the few Fat Tires I had polished off the previous night. I thought, oh no, 26 miles no way. But Em was ready to go and I didn’t want to back down now and we had to register right away. We rushed to the registration table, where we were the last to sign up. I was dreading it- my confidence was low, it was hot and I felt tired and dehydrated.

Em was pumped up and I could tell she was up for the competition. During our previous two weeks, I had gotten to know her, and knew she couldn’t hold back her competitive nature. We geared up, filling our pfds with luna bars, lara bars, snickers. I packed tons of water in my boat and even a red bull, just because that what Em was doing. I don’t even like Red Bull but I thought who knows, I might need it to get through. Ok, I took the Red Bull out. What was I thinking.

Em finally made it clear that she was in it to win, and wasn’t really up for hanging back and just having fun. This didn’t surprise me one bit. Oh, man my nerves began to jump even more and my head continued to spin in a mess. My confidence was low and I had a 26 mile stretch of river completely new to me. Only a few minutes before, I learned that there would be class III and IV rapids on down the river. Hmmm, I had been doing great reading and running this level, but with this huge Colorado water I still never knew what to expect.

So, I kept moving through the motions, carrying my boat now to the starting eddy, that was filling up quickly with other racers in all sizes and shapes of crafts, looking pumped and ready to go. What had I gotten myself into.

We all started, shoving out of the eddy in Salida and down the Arkansas River to Cotapaxi 26 miles away. My head was still down, “Why did I do this, I’m not ready for this, these people are all so much better than me and know what they are doing…” I started to make excuses and tell myself it would be ok to get out early and hitch a ride, “whatever it would be ok if I didn’t finish.” The pack thinned out and Em was out of my sight within a few minutes. I paddled hard, remembering to take good strokes. So far so good, but my head was still filling with negative thoughts. The negative thought patterns continued for probably the first ten miles, until I recognized what I was doing to myself. Why was I beating myself up so much? I was on an incredible river in Colorado, at FIBArk, competing in a very special race that very few people can say they have participated. I was paddling hard, doing an awesome job on the rapids. Then I started to remember something I had heard before “That thinking positive thoughts, and repeating positive affirmations while you’re exercising, is great for your mental game and the exercising really reinforces their positive nature. So, that’s when I started telling myself I’m awesome. I’m doing awesome. It was a simple saying but it was better than what I had been thinking to myself. I kept saying it to myself, and talking to myself about how great my run was going, and how beautiful this place was.

Things started to change, I knew I could do it. I then found out from another woman racer that there was a tougher drop approaching. I could see ahead a horizon line and then the river taking a turn to the right. Alright, if I could handle this, I would be golden! I approached the top of the rapid and could see below the water making a V into a gigantic wave train. Awesome! just power through it, throw your wait into those waves! I did it, and once I started around the corner, shouted out a cheer, expressing the joy and satisfaction I felt! Behind me, I heard a man, make it through the rapid with a shout of accomplishment as well. I looked at him and cheered, sharing the adrenaline rush.

I kept paddling. My watch had been stolen a couple of weeks before so I didn’t have a clue how long I’d been on the river and therefore had no clue how long to go- hours or minutes?

There were only a few other paddlers around, two men in front of me and the other woman behind. In another half hour or so I noticed the men in front of me start to discuss a game plan for the upcoming section. Uh-oh, what would this be? I was feeling good, a little fatigued but powering through and enjoying it more and more. The last rapid had given me a confidence boost.

I paddled a little faster to try and catch the men ahead and ask them if there was a rapid ahead and what it was like. They gave me the beta, it was the biggest class IV on the river and they were punching the three laterals coming at you from the right. So paddle hard, with a right angle. Ok, so here I go, sounds good. Once I got to the horizon line, I saw them, enormous waves! The biggest I thought I had ever seen. I started right but then got pushed center. I saw the biggest of the waves starting to crash towards me. And as I approached it I hear the folks on the bank watching, cheer. The wave flipped me, I was now upside down feeling my boat move down the wave and then up the next one. “Just roll up, is what I thought, roll up… and I did!” I shouted with joy for myself. The safety boater was on the wave with me, there just in case I had decided to bail out of my boat. Wooohoo! I shouted at him. He wasn’t quite as excited as me, but that didn’t phase me. Wow, if I can roll in that, I can roll in anything! I saw the two men ahead of me cheering too. We told our stories of how it all went and gave each other high fives. We had to finish the race now. They said the rest was read and run, we weren’t too far from the finish.

I made it across the finish line in 3rd place, one second behind the 2nd place woman. Emily met me there, thrilled. We both congratulated each other and talked about the things going through our heads and how our 26 miles on the river had been.

I felt great that I had accomplished this and finished this race in less than 3 hours. I had overcome a lot of challenges along the way. I had read and run several new class III and IV rapids on my own, using my skills to make it through. I felt my greatest challenge to overcome was the mental game. If I hadn’t switched from the negative outlook, to positive, there is no way I could have made it, and made it with a smile, happy for myself and happy for the others. So, now I know for sure that if I change my thought process to positive, instead of dragging myself down with the negative thought processes, I could make it. So, if you find yourself in a situation where your bring yourself down, start to think positive messages. They can be very simple phrases. And when your mind goes back to the negative, recognize it, and try again. Things will change, I just know it!

If  you’re interested in paddling with us when we’re not travelling out west, check out our clinics in North Carolina!  Or if you’re intrigued by our love for kayaking AND travel, check out our paddling getaways in Mexico!