This past weekend, Melissa and I participated in The Dam Challenge, a paddle-bike-run triathlon in the beautiful and hilly Kickapoo Valley Reserve in Wisconsin. The Dam Challenge has become one of the most competitive events of its nature in the Midwest, albeit there aren’t a lot of paddling triathlons compared to the more popular swimming variety. Like myself, I know the other participants relish the solitude of paddling winding streams, running through forested hills and biking country roads and trails. I’m going into this event knowing I’m in good shape and I have a goal; I want to finish 2nd. Second place may seem like an odd position to aspire to, but my friend, former co-worker, Mike’s Mix ambassador and many time Dam Challenge winner, Dan Goltz of Driftless Endurance, is competing. Dan, is a Kowa Ironman and an elite paddler. Additionally, he just came off a very impressive finish at the Madison Ironman. I know Dan is on a level above me and it’s a lofty goal to approach his time and try to best the other 499 competitors. However, I’m prepared to give everything I have and I feel up for the challenge. This is my 4th time competing in this event and the weather is always an enigma. Seven years previous the heat and humidity where almost unbearable and the following year had everyone bundling up and wishing for the heat.
About the yellow boat
In previous competitions, I paddled my perception sea kayak and found myself lagging the competition that paddled solo racing canoes, surf skis or flat-water racing kayaks. For years, I searched for a faster boat that fit my price range but my hunt was proving difficult as I couldn’t justify the investment of $2,000-$5,000 for a new boat. Then I met Canoe Carl. I found Carl on a whim when I drove by his shop returning from a paddle trip on the Wisconsin River and couldn’t help but notice the hundreds (maybe thousands) of boats over-flowing from his building on Hwy 14 in Lone Rock, WI. I stopped in and was greeted by the most extensive and eclectic paddling shop I had ever seen. A well-equipped outdoor store may have a solo canoe or two but Carl literally had more than I could count! Meeting him, I quickly grew fond of the man that has spent the last 40 plus years of his life following his passion of paddling. Each of his custom, high quality boats seemed to have a story associated with it.
As Carl reminisced about individual boats and educated me on their design I quickly learned that Carl knew more about paddling and racing than anyone I had previously met and that he had narrowly missed the Olympic team in the 80’s for flat-water kayak racing. But, did he have a boat for me? I told him what I was looking for and after a minute’s thought he flashed a smile and told me he might have just the thing, “She’s fast, but she’s a bit lively”! For those of you unfamiliar with canoeing, lively means unstable. Carl introduced me to my machine of speed, a bright yellow custom fiberglass kayak, based on the dimensions of the Olympic flat-water boats of the late 70’s. For only $400 I was on my way and psyched that I had a boat that I was confident would allow me to be more competitive in the Dam Challenge. The next time you are in the market for a boat to paddle, do yourself a favor and keep Carl in mind. The experience of visiting his store is awesome and I’m pretty sure he will have a boat that is perfect for you: Carl’s Paddlin’.
The damn Dam Challenge
At some point early in the morning, long before dawn, I rouse from sleep just long enough to perceive that the pitch of rain drops hitting the tent had changed to a soft crunch. A few hours later, I drag myself from my warm sleeping bag and am alerted from the sagging rain tarp that a surprise awaits outside; October 4th and there are 2 inches of snow in southern Wisconsin. I desperately want to remain in the tent and postpone the chore of making breakfast and packing up a snow covered camp, but in a couple of hours I have a triathlon to participate in. Melissa and I are camped with about 100 other participants, many from out of state, and am amused by their reactions as they open their tents and RV’s: “oh my God”, “will they have the race”, and “the hell with this”. The weather has dampened my enthusiasm for hopping on my bike, but the excitement of the competition gives me strength to face the snow, rain and the 35 mph winds.
I paddle strong and my boat slices through the wind, current and winding stream like a dream. I pass many paddlers, even those in C1 racing canoes which seems to be the preferred boat for this competition. I wonder what others think when they see my rather unsightly bright yellow homemade kayak from 1980 tipped with an alligator. I exit the water strong and confident, I haven’t capsized and I know from my watch that I have pulled 7 minutes off my previous best time in the paddle.
On to the bike!
Less than a quarter mile in, I notice a noise from the back tire: a flat! With Kevlar tires, I avoided this scenario all season. As I jump off my bike I know my chances of finishing competitively are quickly sliding away. However, I’m prepared with another tube and a CO2 cartridge pump to inflate it. I hadn’t closely examined the tube previously and only notice when trying to inflate it how short the inflation stem is (Amazon purchase, can’t wait to write the review). The stem is so short that I can’t get the CO2 cartridge pump to function. A spectator brings a pump and still no luck! It then hits me like a brick: The summer of training, the multiple visits Melissa and I gave the course in preparation, the boat investment are all a waste. I had come to compete and had set my expectations to finish with the leaders. In a matter of minutes I go from flying high to about as low as one can feel. As I walk back to the transition area, a number of spectators give a collective “ohhhhh” in a show of sympathy as I walk past with my head down. Boiling inside and without looking up I say, “That doesn’t help”. I instantly regret my outburst. These folks are standing in the rain on a 30 degree day with 35 mile hour winds, to cheer for me and the other competitors and I am low enough to lash out at them. Dejected, furious and ashamed I make it back to the transition area where someone directs me to a mechanic’s tent. The experienced mechanic efficiently addresses my wheel. He works with the tube I have in but quickly gives up and throws it to the ground with a “useless”. He pulls out a new tube, has it on in no time and tells me to “Get after it”. Yes, I think I will!
At this point, I know I will not place, but I keep track of my bike time and know by subtracting out the time allotted to the tire issue I can get a reasonably accurate “what if” finish time. Passing the same spectators that I recently chided, I yell, “Sorry for being a jerk and thanks for being out here”. How quickly my emotions swing again, this time gratitude, as the crowd erupts in clapping. Every spectator or race aid that I pass from this moment on gets a sincere thank you from me. Throughout the bike, I battle with the wind, rain and slippery steep hills, and although conditions are certainly unpleasant, I am enjoying the race again and my conditioning feels solid. The following transition and the run go without a hitch. In fact, running in the cool damp conditions are rather comfortable and the beauty of the rolling forested hill of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve does not escape me. I sprint to the finish with a smile and feel that in many ways I have run a perfect race. When I get home I am able to calculate a “what if I never got a flat” time for myself. Surprisingly, upon calculation, what had felt like an hour delay ended up being only 15 minutes. With the calculated time, I would have taken 2nd in my division and 8th overall and still been bested by Dan by 23 minutes! It is a great race for me, but clearly I still have some work ahead to be truly competitive.
At the finish, I catch up with Melissa, Dan and briefly get to meet Jason Mowery, another Mike’s Mix ambassador with Driftless Endurance. This was Melissa’s first Dam Challenge and she pulled off a 4th place finish in her division. Even after the horrid conditions I think she was enchanted by the event and is planning on a return visit.
In recollection, many things were memorable about this race:
• For the past five years, I have been completely preoccupied with rock climbing, which for me has manifested as a non-competitive, individual pursuit. I haven’t done any sort of endurance competition during this time. Revisiting a competition, I realized how alive a race can make me feel. Experiencing a gamut of emotions; the nervousness and anxiety before the race, the exhilaration, despair, annoyance, guilt and gratitude during the race, and the fulfillment post-race, I have never felt more human.
• The down side to this competition was how I allowed this single event to dictate and define my perception of accomplishment for the season. Although I understand the difficulty in not allowing my race finishes to define me as an endurance athlete (you know everyone’s first question when they hear you did an event is what was your time or how did you finish) I see the importance of dissociating from their outcome.
• If I get the competitive bug next season I will make sure to participate in more events. This race clearly demonstrated that sometimes circumstances, outside of my control, will dictate how I finish. I guess, just like in life, you have to take the good, roll with the bad and always keep your psych high.