What happens in Ohiopyle after the Falls Race
It was 6 pm on the day of the Over the Falls event and the crowd had thinned to only a few spectators meandering about fewer exhausted falls runners still left packing up their cars. The Falls City Pub was probably overflowing. As Gary McCormick irritated Barry Adams while he attempted to dismantle the registration booth, a few barefoot athletes quietly carried boats half as light and twice as long as those taking gravity-assisted thrill rides over the falls across the trampled grass on their way to the Lower Yough launch site. One by one they launched into the calm river below the powerful falls and festival site. The sun was low in the sky making the river canyon dark with shade.
With strong disgust, a few of the lesser accomplished recognized the likes of Geoff Calhoun, Rodney Rice, and other nationally ranked downriver racers. Others, like myself, simply watched as the race achieved more and more cumulative intimidation with each boater’s arrival. As I’d announced to friends earlier in the day, it would be remarkable if I finished the 2007 Attainment Race; it would be a miracle if I didn’t finish dead last. A total of twelve men started the attainment race. No women entered and eleven boats would ceremoniously take the finish rock to their bow in a grand thud.
At approximately 6:45 – a casual thirty minutes past the arranged start time – all but one of the boats were lined up awaiting the starting shout (there’d be no gun, no physical starting line, no walkie-talkies, and no local legend starters like Barry Tuscano calling the shots). My bow was sheepishly sitting about six feet behind the others because I was certain that at once I’d be in the rear; I was floating only one of the three boats under twelve feet long. The starter made it clear that she was waiting for me, and so I even more sheepishly drifted in between two of my competitors. But I use this term loosely; my competitor was Entrance Rapid. I could care no less of the threat from the boaters surrounding me.
“Don’t burn out on the way down,” I was advised by one of the veterans before the race, and so as the starter shouted, “Go!”, I took my best crack at slow, firm, and technically sound forward strokes into the wake of the other racers. I wasn’t dead last yet, and even found the courage and strength to slip into the next-to-dead-last position as the race field narrowed to a single file through the tight race lines of Entrance. Bobby Miller had told me that the turn-around point was “right before the big drop in Cucumber,” so I was relieved when I saw Geoff and Rodney take big, sweeping turns around an exposed rock in the pool at the bottom of Entrance. With that turn, the race had become a two-dimensional competition; beating other competitors was only a bit more of a priority to fighting the Yough’s current. In my case, however, the latter was all I was thinking of.
Within a few yards of the turn around, I watched Rodney smack a big rock hard, giving Geoff a bit more of a lead that he maintained for the remainder of the race. Shortly after watching the collision, I was coming around the turn-around rock and was able to see that I was comfortably ahead of the last paddler. I felt a surge of confidence until I looked further upstream and saw that the line of boats extended from where I was to a point halfway through the rapid. Eddy to eddy the race hopped, each boater taking slightly weaker strokes in the eddies to save strength for the maneuvers through the strongest current. Somehow I hadn’t noticed that there was a crowd of several dozen spectators on the large rock island in the middle of the rapid. And, for added effect, a local legend had come to witness the race; towering over the majority of the crowd was Charlie Walbridge, shouting encouragement to the races under his beret.
At the small surf hole known to playboaters as Nemo, my break came. The paddler who I had been closely following missed the wave that initiated trajectory to the next eddy and subsequently slipped behind into a lower eddy. In a blast of previously unnoticed strength, I quickly jumped into the service eddy for Nemo and looked to the move. I now knew what not to do and would do everything I could to make sure that I used that to do what I had to do to advance my standing in the race. It failed. I missed the wave as well. But, as the other racer struggled (he later introduced himself as Max), I was able to find my way back in the service eddy, still ahead of him! I had a second chance!
I’d love to report that I took my opportunity to pass a fellow racer. I’d similarly love to report that I decided against passing Max in a display of gentlemanly courtesy by slipping aside and allowing him to take his second chance before I’d taken mine. However, all I can report is that I selfishly tried and genuinely failed again. But, my third attempt was successful and I continued to gain elevation behind Max. A few more moves and I was in a large eddy looking at a river-right-to-river-left move across the strongest bit of current I would encounter. Adding to the intimidation was the crowd on the rock island. The dynamic feeling of looking across the long and difficult ferry at friends and strangers all collectively screaming back at me reminding me that I can do it was a profound feeling. If Hollywood were involved, the next moment would come in slow motion.
Holding my angle and driving for a hole to give me a shove in the right direction, I launched into the current and dug in hard. A dozen quick, hard strokes later, I found myself against the island, literally inches from the shouting crowd. The encouragement provided by them, which I later determined to be inspired by my being the last racer to pass them, was sufficient to push me through the remainder of the race via several more hard ferries.
Once in the flat water, I put together a final valiant but insufficient effort to overcome Max before the finish line. The effort did little more than shave off a second or two from both of our overall times, and after tapping the rock by the stick gauge with my bow, the timer shouted, “Fourteen forty-seven!” I’d finished the race, and what felt like a half hour of excruciatingly hard paddling was less than half that. I turned around, looked downstream, and the final boater was nowhere to be seen. I then noticed that the miracle of finishing somewhere ahead of dead last would not be realized as I spotted him in the crowd of spectators slowly walk up the trail away from the river. He walked with them, carrying the only plastic boat to be entered in the race, leaving me in last place.
Just like my humbling experience paddling a Wavehopper on the Lower Yough and Casselman in March, the experience in finishing last has left me thirsty for more racing. I joined over 200 paddlers in braving the falls only hours before, but only eleven others had elected to line up at the stick gauge that night. Ten beat me, but crossing the finish line to find several of the fastest whitewater racers on the planet encouraging me to finish strongly will remain inspirational.