By Johna Till Johnson
Sometimes winning is just about showing up.
“I don’t think I’ll ever do the Blackburn Challenge again,” I said to my friend Jean.
I meant it. The race was too intimately connected to Vlad. It was the first race we’d ever done together, and the only one we’d done repeatedly.
No, I couldn’t do another Blackburn.
A year went by, and another.
And to my surprise, I heard myself asking Jean, “Are you thinking of doing Blackburn this year?”
She was. Along with her friend B.
So I blocked time on my calendar… and forgot about it.
That is, until B. sent me an email asking for advice. Although she was an accomplished marathoner, Blackburn would be the longest kayak race she’d done, and she had questions: Would conditions be overwhelming? What happens if you bonk midrace? What did I recommend for hydration and food?
It wasn’t until after I’d explained my thoughts on the above that I realized I really would be doing the race, my sixth time.
As I planned and prepped for the race, everything was achingly familiar… yet totally different:
The drive up from NYC. As always, I left later than planned (Vlad and I had had many a tension-spat en route north, thanks to the added time pressure.) But this time I was leaving on Thursday, giving myself time and energy to recover on Friday before the race. And of course, there was no one to have a spat with.
The lovely little hotel that Jean had found. Vlad and I had always stayed at The Inn at Babson Court, right downtown; they were full up by the time I committed to go, but the Castle Manor Inn was just as lovely, if less idiosyncratic. And we met up with some Blackburn Challenge competitors, who went out with Jean on a pre-race paddle (I had to stay back at the hotel to get work done).
The early-morning start in the gym at Gloucester High School. The boats had been loaded and were in place. We were at the captain’s meeting at Gloucester High School, edgy and nervous about the day ahead. But there was plenty of “hurry-up-and-wait” time to chat with fellow contestants, sip coffee, and worry…
And then the start…
Before long we paddled out to the starting line, waiting for our groups to be called up. B. and I were in the same group (Sea Kayaks); Jean was in the surfski class.
They called our numbers, and we each shouted out “here”. Then the horn sounded and we were off.
Somewhat to my surprise, B. pulled ahead of me early on. She’d been so worried about her inexperience that I’d assumed she’d be slower.
Well, no matter. I’m known for finishing strong; I’d likely pull ahead towards the end of the race.
The paddle down the Annisquam River was surprisingly challenging; I’d only realize later that I’d gotten the currents mixed up, and we were paddling against the current in the early part of the race.
Like all races, it was both infinitely long and over in the blink of an eye. My memory is a jumbled mix of sunshine and waves… watching (from behind) the strategy of one of my top competitors in the sea kayak class as she paddled out to sea to catch the currents, then rode the currents parallel to the seawall, pulling well ahead of me, propelled by the sea (green line in the course chart.)
Somewhere close to the end I realized I wasn’t going to pull ahead of either B. or my other competitor, and I slowed way down, finishing in a disappointing 4 hours and 23 minutes, my worst time by far, and well below my most recent sub-4-hours.
So it was with decidedly mixed emotions that I pulled up to the colorful beach. I wasn’t happy with my performance, but more than that, two things hit me hard: Vlad wasn’t there to greet me, and a memory stuffed away suddenly surfaced.
On the cold December evening right after he’d died, I’d changed his body into a shirt that reminded me of happier days… And I realized with a shock, for the first time, that it had been his Blackburn Challenge 2102 shirt. Tears filled my eyes and the beach blurred.
Suddenly someone appeared. It was B. “Let me help you with your boat,” she said. Together we hauled it up on the sand.
A few minutes later, Jean appeared. “Look, you got bling!” she said. It was true. I’d come in third, despite my poor time. B. had won our class (with a brilliant time around three hours and forty minutes!) and Jean had won hers.
And so had another woman, Melissa, who joined us on the beach and who I vaguely remembered.
“Didn’t you compete in 2013? In a plastic boat of some sort?” I asked her. She had, and done well, coming in third. Six years later she’d graduated to a high-performance sea kayak (Surfski) and had finished at the top of her class.
Melissa was just one of several people I recognized.
As we went through the lunch buffet and gathered for the awards ceremony, I caught up with several others, including Roger, one of my kayaking heroes.
Roger was a good kayaker until he retired from his job as a university professor when he was somewhere in his 60s. Then he became a great kayaker, routinely beating men who were nearly a half-century younger.
I was delighted to spend a few minutes catching up with him, reminiscing about past races and commiserating over this one (he, too, had done less well than he’d hoped.)
“You and Jean seem to know everybody!” B. exclaimed.
She had a point. And it was a happy reminder of one of the things that Vlad and I both loved about the race: the diverse participants. We human-powered boaters are an odd breed, and the people who take delight in seemingly pointless tests of endurance form our own community. (Blackburn would have been pleased!)
Vlad is gone, and we will never share another race.
But there will be other Blackburns, other opportunities to connect with my crazy endurance-boater kindred spirits… and maybe to improve on that 4:23 pace.
For now, it’s enough to be back.