2021 RAINBOW RIVER RACE, FLORIDA
My first important surfski race of 2021 had me returning to the Rainbow River in Florida, to line up along side some of Florida’s best for a 12 mile up and back down this magnificently beautiful spring fed river.
Most surfski races tend to be a battle of attrition. A lead group would establish early and then over the course of the race, folks would pop off the back due to the accumulated effort. I really didn’t expect the Rainbow Race to be very different, especially once it was clear that a few high caliber racers would also be competing. I know most of the race course quite well, however I’d only seen the first mile from the race start on the Withlachoochee to the mouth of the Rainbow twice in the days before the race. A narrow gap thru some cypress knees early in the race, would force the lead group into single file creating opportunity and risk. From there to familiar ground on the main river, there were several options all with potential risks and rewards.
So my plan was to go out hard enough to stay with the lead group, but not lead, so I could follow their line choice and defend my position, then once in the main river, push the pace and hopefully break away or at the least, narrow down the lead group. Selfishly, I also hoped to time trial the US-484 bridge to KP Hole section, as this was one of the few Strava segments I hadn’t snagged on the Rainbow River.
So the gun goes off and predictably the lead group got established quickly with myself, Flavio Costa, Chad Siple and Justin Digiorgio allowing local Robert Norman to pull us to the first bottle neck. As we approached said bottle neck I pulled up the outside of the group and into the lead, forcing everyone into single file behind me. Clearing the other side, I had planned to slow down and reestablish contact with the group, but looking over my shoulder I could only see Robert close by. I heard later that Flavio had to clear his rudder at this point but didn’t know it at the time. With a splintered lead group, my plan for the first mile immediately went from a defensive one to an offensive one. I dropped into the shorter but very shallow line choice up close to the boat docks on the north side of the river, picked up my stroke rate and sprinted hard as I watched Robert take the deeper but slightly longer line to my right. My Epic V14 felt like it was planning out in the shallow water as I watched my heart rate climb to its high point for the entire race. I merged back into the main river and could see I had put 100ft or more on Robert. More to the point, he was alone and I was now in the main river and on familiar ground.
Approaching the US-484 bridge I settled down for the 30 minute time trial up to KP Hole in hopes of snagging the Strava segment. I tried to maintained a heart rate 6-10 beats below my threshold while hitting all the good lines and ensuring every stroke counted. River traffic was getting heavier and heavier with tubers and other recreational paddlers as I moved upstream, but for the most part, no one was in the way. I saw familiar faces on the bank a few times and asked if they could see anyone and every time they reported that no one was close.
Passing KP Hole and successfully grabbing the Strava KOM for that segment, I continued upstream to the turn around and got to look downstream for the first time and no one was immediately in sight, but the race was only half over at this point, so far from over. Coming around the first downstream corner I saw Flavio pushing hard and looking determined as he paddled past Robert and I was honestly scared. Flavio and I have had a lot of fun race battles and he normally edges me out. He’s an incredible athlete, and seeing him charging so hard to close to gap between us, motivated me to keep pushing and not take my lead for granted. I could feel him breathing down my neck. I’d heard Robert was also going fast in a ski and the fact he was next to Flavio just reinforced that. So it was two against one for the return leg.
Keeping a close eye on my heart rate monitor to control the effort in the later stages of the race, I motored downstream negotiating the mass of tubers and other river users, only having to have “words” with one boat that was about to play bumper boats with me. I could still feel Flavio and Robert breathing down my neck. I was sure I would see a bow pull up next to me any minute, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t look back, instead staying focused on the river ahead and pushing for the finish line. As I passed under the US-484 bridge again, the race effort was starting take its toll with my stroke no longer feeling smooth and my speed not was fast as I wanted. But it was only a mile or so to the finish. No time to back down now.
Passing back thru the bottle neck that initially mixed up the lead group, I glanced over my shoulder and there was no sign of any of my pursuers and I was able to glide across the finish line and take the long course win in a time of 1:37:11
Big thanks to Florida Competition Paddlers and Robert Norman for hosting this race. I love the Rainbow River and to get to race on it with such a great group of racers was just awesome.