After waking earlier than daybreak on Catalina Island beneath an unlimited bowlful of stars, 100 elite athletes ready to cross the open ocean to Manhattan Seaside utilizing solely their arms for energy.
The race they have been about to begin, the 32-mile Catalina Traditional Paddleboard Race, is among the most grueling endurance contests on the planet — an ultra-marathon of the ocean — and an annual ceremony of passage in Southern California surf tradition.
Individuals are required to lie inclined on their bellies on surfboards, their heads cocked upward to see the place they’re going, whereas they claw by way of wave after infinite wave with their naked fingers.
For most individuals, that place, a bit just like the sphinx pose in yoga, is difficult to carry for greater than a minute on dry land. These racers have to carry it, or one other place that’s arguably extra painful, for six or seven hours within the ocean. And that’s assuming ideally suited circumstances: water flat sufficient to let their specifically designed boards glide a couple of toes with each stroke.
Which is why, because the racers gathered on the seaside nervously stretching and fidgeting with GPS trackers earlier than the 6 a.m. begin final Sunday, probably the most skilled amongst them couldn’t take their eyes off a big American flag.
It was dancing in every single place, at instances blowing practically horizontal within the stiff west breeze. If the wind was doing that to a flag within the shelter of the harbor, they shuddered to assume what it should be doing to the floor of the open sea.
Gene Rink, a former champion and present race director, took a protracted take a look at the flag, let loose a sluggish sigh and advised a reporter, “That is going to be 32 miles of torture.”
First held within the Fifties, the Catalina Traditional was born from pleasant competitors amongst ocean lifeguards within the South Bay. They dash out into the waves on lengthy, buoyant surfboards to rescue folks, so it was solely pure to race one another throughout coaching to see who was quickest.
Predictably, these brief sprints become longer contests between apparent landmarks. A two-mile race from the Manhattan Seaside Pier to the Hermosa Seaside Pier, for instance. When that obtained too simple, they picked extra distant factors alongside the coast and stored going, all the time searching for the subsequent problem.
Anybody who has sat on a surfboard off the coast of Los Angeles, scanning the western horizon for waves, is aware of the largest and most evident landmark of all is Catalina Island. Twenty-two miles off San Pedro and rising greater than 2,000 toes above the ocean, it dominates a surfer’s visual field: looming, virtually taunting.
Irrespective of how insane it appears, this race was inevitable.
Whereas there are nonetheless many lifeguards competing, immediately’s race is open to anybody who submits a “race resume” with appropriate instances from seven much less prestigious, however nonetheless brutal, competitions. Most are in California and Hawaii; virtually all are lower than half the space of the Catalina Traditional.
Venturing thus far offshore on a surfboard presents many hazards, however a query racers typically hear after they clarify to folks why they spend all yr coaching is: “What about sharks?”
They’re on the market, positively, however they present little curiosity within the paddlers. Perhaps that’s as a result of people, usually, will not be on their eating regimen. And people on 12 -to 18-foot surfboards look nothing like their regular prey.
“Sharks by no means crossed my thoughts, actually,” stated Tim Gair, an L.A. County lifeguard whose 1999 report time — 5:02:12 — nonetheless stands.
“A couple of years in the past there was a pesky mako shark that stored circling in on a couple of paddlers,” Gair recalled, “nevertheless it simply misplaced curiosity ultimately and turned away.”
A big grownup nice white cruised by way of the pack throughout a shorter race from Catalina to San Pedro earlier this summer season, stated Casey Annis, 57, from Cypress. It startled folks, however didn’t hurt anybody.
If he’s going to be eaten by a shark through the traditional, Annis joked, he hopes it occurs earlier than he suffers an excessive amount of. “Higher within the first two miles than the final two,” he stated.
Huge cargo ships are a extra critical concern. The route from Catalina to Manhattan Seaside cuts straight throughout the method to the Port of Los Angeles, one of many busiest delivery lanes on this planet. It takes these ships, a few of that are greater than 1,000 toes lengthy and as tall as an 11-story constructing, miles to show and without end to cease.
That’s an issue as a result of probably the most hard-core racers are tempted to hurry up and take their probabilities. They don’t wish to anticipate a ship to move. They wish to dash throughout its path and cruise in smug solitude whereas their opponents have to attend behind.
“We’ve had a few shut calls over time,” Gair stated, “to the purpose the place the ships have known as the race boats and stated, ‘Hey, I can’t cease!’”
However ask any of the paddlers what they worry most and so they’ll inform you it’s fatigue — the race is simply so miserably lengthy.
To alleviate the bodily pressure, racers can stand up off their bellies and onto their knees. Then they attain down and paddle with each arms on the similar time. That generates extra energy, nevertheless it’s even more durable to maintain for lengthy stretches. Some say they swap forwards and backwards between the positions simply so another a part of their physique hurts for some time.
There’s additionally the psychological battle, forcing your self by way of an occasion that’s about as a lot enjoyable as “operating up the down escalator for seven hours,” Annis stated.
His trick is compartmentalization.
“Should you’re on the market and also you’re pondering, ‘Oh, God, I’ve 5 extra hours of this,’ that’s while you’ll implode,” Annis stated. As a substitute, he tells himself, “simply final yet one more minute” or “yet one more music.”
Basically, he gaslights himself to the end line.
One other drawback — one not often confronted by athletes who compete on land, or swimmers who follow swimming pools — is the acute variability in circumstances. One yr, the course is perhaps calm and easy, permitting for report instances. The following it may be wind-blown and wild, forcing racers to paddle up and down so many swells, and blowing them thus far off beam, it’s like including 10 miles to the space.
This yr’s race was the worst anybody can bear in mind.
There’s not a lot lodging on the north finish of Catalina the place the race begins, so a lot of the opponents sleep on their escort boats — everyone seems to be required to have one for security — or in campgrounds onshore. The wind that blew all evening earlier than the race, rocking smaller vessels on their moorings and rattling the nylon partitions of tents, robbed lots of any probability at significant relaxation.
So that they already knew they have been in hassle when daybreak broke and so they waded knee-deep into the water, perched over their boards ready for the starter’s horn. That flapping American flag erased any doubt about what lay forward.
Inside minutes, as quickly because the paddlers left the sanctuary of the little cove, radios on the security boats crackled with stories from anxious boat captains who had quickly overlooked their racers within the 6-foot swell. Lower than an hour in, the primary racer waved his boat over and struggled aboard, defeated by the appalling circumstances. Six others would quickly observe.
Boat crews suffered, too.
Rink and Gair have been on one of many official race vessels, weaving slowly by way of the pack to assist monitor down stray paddlers and hold tabs on who was nonetheless within the competitors. As Gair steered the wildly pitching boat, Rink inched out to the bow, clinging to handrails and bracing himself in opposition to the cabin each step of the way in which.
At one level, Rink was shouting encouragement to some paddlers from his perch on the entrance of the boat whereas the race photographer was hanging off the again, puking. He threw up a minimum of seven instances through the race, he stated, and he didn’t paddle a single stroke.
At one other level, because the boat paralleled the 2 leaders, who have been nicely forward of the pack, Gair famous the time (late) and the way a lot distance they’d managed to cowl (surprisingly little). With no trace of the schadenfreude he might be forgiven for feeling, he acknowledged that his report would virtually actually survive its twenty fourth problem and that a fair 25 can be good.
When the winner, Scott Clausen from Seal Seaside, lastly crossed the end line in 5:46:27 — or 44 minutes slower than Gair’s report — Clausen appeared shattered. However a minimum of he might nonetheless stand.
Most of the mid-pack finishers, and people on the tail finish, wobbled ashore, red-eyed and struggling to talk. Requests to “come up and say a couple of phrases” from a pair of commentators calling the race over loudspeakers on the seaside have been routinely ignored — a minimum of till the racers obtained their bearings.
“That was depressing, that was completely depressing,” stated Scott Rusher, 55, from Manhattan Seaside, who has accomplished the race 19 instances. He completed in 7:46:07, about 90 minutes longer than he anticipated.
“Far and away, that was the worst,” Rusher stated, “From the start, to the center, to the tip.”
The shifting wind and wild swells slammed him from each path. “It was like a washer,” Rusher stated. “There was no rhythm, no method to get in a groove.”
It took Annis greater than half-hour longer than Rusher. He stated he’d spent a lot of that point being battered by swell from the left, he had to make use of his proper arm to compensate, pushing to the aspect to maintain his board on track as a substitute of utilizing it to drag himself ahead.
“I can’t elevate my proper arm now,” he texted a reporter after the race.
And all for what, precisely?
“There’s no prize cash, no accolades, no [media] protection anyplace of any sort,” Annis stated.
All you get is a gaggle picture with the opposite finishers and what he known as a “toothpick,” a miniature wood surfboard that claims, “Catalina Traditional Finisher” and the yr.
However there may be actual camaraderie. Annis trains with companions all yr, and a few have turn into shut associates, like a second household. Once you take a gaggle of like-minded folks and make them endure collectively, it creates a bond like nothing else.
So, as loopy because it sounds, Annis stated, “if my home ever catches hearth, the one issues I’m racing in to avoid wasting are these silly toothpicks.”