By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
This was the fifth year that Vlad and I raced in the Blackburn Challenge, the 20-mile circumnavigation of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The race is named for Howard Blackburn, a 19th-century mariner of uncommon grit. (You can read about him here.) Any human-powered watercraft can participate, and there is usually a wide range, from paddleboards to rowing shells, dories, and dragonboats—plus several flavors of kayaks.
Thus far, I’d placed every time, helped out by the relative smallness of the field of women sea kayakers—there are typically only half a dozen or so in my class.
After collecting two third-place and two second-place finishes, I yearned for a first. Last year I missed it by a mere six minutes. And I just knew I’d gotten faster this year. I’d trained hard—though not as consistently as I’d liked—and still had some stamina left over from completing the Everglades Challenge earlier this year.
So I was pretty sure that this would be my year.
You can imagine my reaction when I checked in at 6 AM the morning of the race and heard, “Congratulations! You’re the only woman in the sea kayak category.”
On the one hand, if I managed to complete the race, I’d get my first place medal. Yay, me.
On the other hand… if you don’t beat anyone, what does it mean to “win”? I’d have a medal, sure, but would it really count?
Then and there, I decided to reset my goal. Since coming in first was (almost) a given, I’d shoot for something else: to finish in under four hours.
It was an ambitious goal, but eminently reachable. Other female sea kayakers had done it. And it represented shaving less than 4% off my previous times (the past few times I’d finished in around four hours and 10-12 minutes). If there was nobody else to race… I’d race myself.
So as I waited in the Annisquam River to be called to the starting line, I recalled the advice my friend John, an accomplished racer, had given me a few days before: “Locate your competition. Stay with them—but not ahead of them–the first half of the race. Then pull away from them in the second half.”
The male sea kayakers and I all started together, and I followed John’s advice. I started fast, but managed to avoid the urge to push ahead at an unsustainable speed.
Conditions were fine: temperature in the high sixties, with plenty of cloud cover, but very little wind. And the current was with us as we paddled down the river.
I pulled ahead of some of the slightly slower boats, including a yellow-and-white kayak, and settled behind a paddler in a white kayak. More specifically, I “drafted” him: paddled in his wake, which takes less effort. Drafting is an important part of racing strategy, since it allows you to conserve your strength for the final push. Some races prohibit it, but in the Blackburn Challenge, you’re allowed to draft—but only another boat in your own class.
I kept that up until we came up to the Annisquam Lighthouse. Last year I’d nearly capsized on some rocks at its base (the rocks took a nice chunk out of the gel coat of my then-new Tiderace). So this year I gave the lighthouse and its rocks a wide berth, and headed farther out into the open ocean, passing the white kayak (and a few others) with ease.
Off in the distance ahead of me, I could see Vlad paddling along, his yellow hat at a jaunty angle. Behind me, somewhere, was the yellow-and-white kayak. And all around us were arrayed the other boats, colorful in the peekaboo sunshine.
I felt good, and paddled strongly. But I remembered from previous races that the course is deceiving: the current stays with you almost until the halfway checkpoint. Then it turns against you, and everything slows down. The second half of the race is grueling—and the hardest part is the very last mile.
So my optimism was somewhat tempered when I caught sight of the halfway checkpoint a few miles off. But still, things looked good. If I could make it to the halfway point in under two hours, I’d have a decent shot at finishing in under four.
Sure enough, I passed the halfway point with five minutes to spare, well in the lead of my cluster of chosen competitors.
As I shouted out my race number, 173, I felt a blaze of hope. Maybe this would be the year I’d break four hours!
And then it happened: I “bonked”. I’d heard the phenomenon described, but never felt it happen. My limbs went weak and shaky, and my pace dropped precipitously, from just under five knots to just over three.
Maybe it was the heat. The sun had suddenly broken free of the clouds, and sweat was trickling down my nose.
Or maybe it was something else—something I’d eaten, or failed to eat. The caffeine from this morning wearing off. Who knew? But at this rate, I’d be lucky to make it in four-and-a-half hours, never mind four!
I stopped to drink some water and eat some Kendal Mint Cake, hoping I’d revive.
In the few minutes that took, boats began to pass me by. First Vlad, then the yellow-and-white kayak, pulled ahead. I felt everything I’d accomplished thus far begin to slip away. (I felt only marginally better when I noticed that the yellow-and-white kayak was also a Tiderace—one of only three of us in the race.)
I started paddling again, hoping I’d speed up. And slowly, slowly, the numbers on my GPS began to inch up. I still felt weak and shaky (and slightly ill), but at least I was paddling faster.
A few minutes later, the sun went back in, and I was suddenly surprisingly cold. The air grew misty, and the water felt downright chilly on my hands. I thought maybe my metabolism had gone haywire—but later Vlad told me he’d felt the same thing.
I kept paddling. Long, slow, swells rolled in from the left, crashing against the rocks on the right in a swirl of green and white. As always, the coastline was spectacularly beautiful… but I didn’t have much time to appreciate the beauty. I just kept focusing on each stroke… stroke… stroke…
Slowly, slowly, we crawled along the coastline towards the rocky point that marked the last part of the race. I passed a paddleboarder, then another. Then a dory or two. Everyone looked exhausted. We were all pushing as hard as we could, and it didn’t seem like we were moving at all.
Ahead of me, tantalizingly close, I could see “my” cluster of kayaks, including the yellow-and-white Tiderace. I focused on that paddler, willing myself to get closer… and closer…
We turned the corner and raced along the breakwater, riding the swells that rolled in from behind us. I caught up with Vlad, close enough for us to talk for a bit. Then he pulled ahead once more. And once again, I focused on paddling. Stroke… stroke… stroke…
Then we rounded the tip of the breakwater. We were in the home stretch: all we had to do was cross Gloucester Harbor, and we’d be there.
But that “all” was the hardest part.
The harbor was relatively calm; the only waves were the wakes of the lobster boats that zoomed busily in and out through the channel.
Ahead—far, far ahead—I could see Vlad in the red Feathercraft. And there was the yellow-and-white Tiderace. And far ahead, off in the distance… was that the finish line?
I pushed harder. And then I glanced down at my watch. I’d been going for… about three hours and 40 minutes. If I could make it to the finish line in under 20 minutes—I’d make it! But it looked at least a mile away, maybe a mile and a half. At a four-to-five knot pace, it would take me maybe 12 minutes per mile. This was going to be tight!
Out of nowhere, my pace began to pick up. I was paddling strongly, with a strength I didn’t know I had. But would it be enough?
The minutes ticked by. The shore drew closer. I could see the Greasy Pole that marked the finish line, and beyond it, the beach, where a white tent covered the post-race buffet.
I could see people on the beach, and kayaks. And I could hear occasional shouts of laughter, and some strains of music from the live band.
Up ahead of me, the yellow-and-white kayak passed the finish line. Next up was Vlad. I heard him shout out his number—146—and glanced down at my watch. Three hours and 56 minutes. If I could make it to the finish line in the next couple of minutes… I’d make it!
I paddled harder. Stroke… stroke… stroke…
And suddenly I was there, shouting out my number. I could stop paddling. But had I made it?
By my watch, I had a minute to spare, maybe two. But I’d have to wait for the official results to know for sure.
For the next couple of hours, we enjoyed barbecue and beer, and chatting with other paddlers—including Billy, the paddler of the yellow-and-white Tiderace. It turned out this was his first Blackburn, and he’d been delighted to follow me for the first half of the race. (I advised him that I hadn’t been quite as thrilled to be following him for the second half—especially as I never quite managed to catch up!)
Then it was time for the awards ceremony.
I knew what was coming—half of it, anyway. But still, when the announcer said, “In first place, Johna Till Johnson…”, I felt a thrill.
She went on: “With a time of…”
The pause seemed infinite.
“Three hours, 58 minutes, and four seconds.” WOOHOO!!! I did it!!!
And as I shook hands with the organizers, and smiled for Vlad’s photo, I realized: the hardest race I’ve ever paddled was against myself.
And I did it!