We have been very lucky to have been blessed by another wonderful review by Mark Ceconi of the Shark Bite Challenge. Once again, his 2015 experience was a wonderful one. Thanks, Mark, for the love!
Legend has it that Ponce de Leon’s eternal fountain of youth lies somewhere among the east coast real estate of St. Augustine, Florida. Well, the face that had recently been staring back at me from the morning mirror in recent weeks might well have been Old Man Winter himself well in need of some Floridian turning back of the clock. This time last year, I do believe I voiced a complaint about the oppressive winter we northeasterners had experienced, framing how our pilgrimage down to our first Shark Bite Challenge was welcome respite. This past season trumped the previous one in spades. Relentless snowstorm after snowstorm would have Inuits trading mukluks for flip flops and setting a course due south. At one point this February, it was warmer in Antarctica than it was in Connecticut. Every Monday brought more of the white stuff. In fact, every day that ended in a ‘y’ was bound to result in some degree of accumulation. Our training regimen consisted of modified triathlon format: snow blow, snow rake, snow shovel, as all our usual launches were completely iced-in.
Once again, Team Sea Cow (“Swims all day, eats nothing but sea lettuce: still fat. Moooo!”), and three fourths of Ocean Paddlesports East, Jim, Steve, and I, set our sights on the trip to Dunedin. And once again, we were assisted by that good man, Gary Williams, and Team Achilles, who transported our skis down. Departing a misty and foggy 39 degree New York, our trio hopped a JetBlue flight for a rendezvous and accompanying reunion with our watermen and women south of the Mason-Dixon line. Arriving in sunny Tampa, chauffeured by Tommy ‘Kahuna’ Kerr and Doug McCarthy, who had arrived the night before, we beelined for the nearest waterfront restaurant to engage in some seafood, and hydration that may or may not have contained just fruit juices. Our hotel was a huge disappointment, our accommodations comprising only the entire top fourth floor-the presidential suite. I believe the first words out of my mouth upon entering may have been something along the lines of: “I can’t believe this is my life.” We took turns reenacting the Fountain of Trevi with the bidets, and calling one another ‘el Presidente,’ then suited up to meet Gary and the Team Achilles crew off the causeway for a shakedown late afternoon cruise to test the waters, so to speak.
Our race directors and Dunedin hosts, Rob and Karen Mirlenbrink, must have checked the scenery option box marked ‘dolphins.’ It was like a Flipper convention out there. Up north, we’ve never even glimpsed a fin. Our first reaction was to adopt the strong Boston accent of our hard ‘pahtyin’ Boston firefighter pal, Timmy Shields, who was down there as well, shrieking: “Shahk! Shahk! Shahk!” Eventually though, we settled in to enjoy the occasional sighting, while we worked out the kinks and synchronized our strokes. Steve and I would pilot a carbon Fenn Elite double, as would our two crossfit action figure friends, Tom and Doug. Jim would fly solo in his Fenn Elite Glide. Like periodic cicadas shedding their skins, what an absolute delight it was to be once again completely unencumbered by multiple layers of neoprene, booties, and drysuit. After frolicking in the riffles for a bit in some seventy something degree water, we returned to the hotel to freshen up, don our party dresses, and pick up our race packets at Blur nightclub in downtown Dunedin. Most of the racers had come and gone, so we chatted for a bit with Gary, Robin, and the rest of Team Achilles, as well as Rob and Karen.
Dunedin itself is a lovely little town. It’s hard not to adore a locale with not one, but two (Count ‘em.) microbreweries, and a Mexican restaurant, Casa Tina, that not only features outstanding enchiladas en salsa rojas, but also entertains diners with an illuminated Hula Hoop spinning act during the dinner service? A child of the late sixties/early seventies, had they whipped out a Footsie and Click –Clacks, I would have leaped right up there for a duet performance. At Rob’s recommendation, Casa Tina was an obvious choice-what die-hard racer doesn’t sow the fields of athletic performance with a spicy Mexican meal the night before? Delicious, but the old Taco Bell ad slogan: “Run for the Border,” could take on a whole new meaning. Competitors we are, though, so by the clock strike of midnight, all the Whos were a-snooze in their four-poster beds, velvet sleep masks comfortably in place.
Race day dawned hot…and flat. Not much wind to be had, unfortunately, but the skies were blue, and there was a bit of cloud cover, a welcome respite from the sun. Piling into the Ford Behemoth Tom had rented (Seats 12!), we hightailed it over to scenic Honeymoon Island State Park, locating Gary and the rest of Team Achilles to grab our gear, and have race numbers scribed on our arms with a Sharpie permanent marker, that I was sure I’d retain the ghostly afterimage of until some time in June. Immediately, we reunited with our friends from EliteOceanSports, the Marks-Mackenzie and Smith. Side by side, they might be referred to as ‘Mark to the second power,’ or ‘Mark squared.’ Add in my arrival, and standing together, we became three-dimensional- ‘Mark cubed,’ harkening back to the old Monty Python Australian University of Woolloomooloo sketch with the Bruces. To this northeasterner, it certainly was ‘hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum.’ The Epic crew was well represented by Brian Houston, Waylon Willis, and Vince Bechet. Eric Mims did double duty as well, manning the Epic tent and kicking booty out on the race course.
The beach was hopping with a wide variety of paddlecraft and their pilots. This year’s registration hit an all time high. Due to insurance stipulations, the number of race entrants had to be capped at 250. Bigger, better, but losing none of the charm from the previous year, for 2015, the event featured a multitude of races, from a fishing tournament to the ‘Surf n’ Turf Kids’ Challenge,’ to 1,4, and 8 mile venues. There was even a ‘Waterman’s Challenge,’ where enchilada style, ambidextrous competitors could select any two manner of watercraft to complete the course. Our very own Maine boy, Eric McNett, would actually don a shirt to win the whole shebang, first paddling an OC-1, then switching to a modified pair of inflatable swimmies to bring home the bacon, or in this case, a vicious-looking, shark tooth-festooned, Hawaiian war club.
The talent pool in the surfski division was quite deep this ‘go round. Watching the race entries amass on PaddleGuru, my friends and I continually reassessed our potential downward slide in podium positions. Evidently, the ‘Field of Dreams’ “If you build it, they will come,” adage rang crystalline across social media this year. Rob and Karen built it, and come they did. It was bound to be a dogfight between Jesse Lishchuck, U.S. National Team member, and Reid Hyle, resident Floridian go-fast guy. In the mix were the aforementioned Eric Mims, U.S. National Team paddler, Chris Hipgrave, Team Epic sponsored Craig ‘Impy’ Impens, former east coast raised, now resident Sunshine stater, Randy Taylor, and host of other names known to us north of the Mason Dixon line only by their repeated top standings in published race results. Transplanted snow birds from up our neck o’ the woods via Poland and Portugal, Jan Lupinski and Flavio Costa, also showed. With nary a ripple in the water’s surface, save an errant boat wake or two, it would be an 8 mile, pedal to the metal (or medal), drag race.
At the captain’s meeting debriefing, it was readily apparent that even Borys Markin could not confuse the course format (smile). It comprised two simple up and back laps circling a pair of giant Szechuan-style inflatable dumpling buoys. Steve and I did a few warm up laps to loosen up. Having paired for years in a double ski with my friend Sean, brilliant conversationalist that he is, I attempted to regale Steve with a rousing rendition of Walt Whitman’s ‘Oh Captain, My Captain,’ but Steve was having none of it. When drinking, we were there to drink, when racing, well, we were there to not drink. We could almost decipher the garbled race announcer’s cues to come to the start line as we attempted to find a slot somewhere close to Doug and Tom to mark our rabbits. Hence, when our race started, as we jockeyed for a starting position, we found ourselves exactly perpendicular to the furiously sprinting field. Of this, I’m sure, as in the time it took to swing 25’ of Fenn Elite amidships, I had time to pull a protractor out of my pfd, and determine our exact right angle measure.
Jesse, Reid, Craig, and several others shot high, arcing roostertails of wash as they exploded off the line. I was reminded of the water rockets we had as kids that you pumped up with hand pumps. Seriously, it was like watching the geysers at Yosemite (pronounced ‘Yo-zeh-might’) erupt, replete with sound effects. “FWOOOOOOOOOOOOSH!!” It required a Herculean effort to not lose ground too rapidly at 8-8.5 mph. Almost immediately, the field cleaved into two separate packs: one we could no longer see, and the rest of us. Running the back stoker position in a tandem surfski is totally unlike riding shotgun in the passenger seat of a car. One, you’re rarely at anaerobic threshold when looking out the window at the scenery, and… Two, the most scenery you do see is limited to your captain’s back muscles contracting under his wicking fiber jersey, synchronized with the rapidly windmilling wing blades you’re trying to match cadence with.
Big Jim, flanked by Tom and Doug, had about six boat lengths on us, forward to starboard (Note nautical terminology here.), but we were stealthily closing on them with the blinding speed of a manatee grazing on Widgeon grass. Having spent years bicycle racing, in which passing happens relatively speedily, kayak racing is anything but. “I’m passing you now! Still passing… I feel it; it’s happening any time now…” One accrues not only character-building patience, but a deeply-seated understanding of the long range future. Slowly, inexorably, we worked our way through single skis, past Chuck Conley’s oh-so-spectacular airbrushed dragon Stellar, among others. At this point, Steve’s Mocke pfd tore loose from its duct-taped moorings, and attempted to defect to Cuba. Chuck witnessed Steve’s vest going AWOL, informing us of such, but it was gone, baby, gone.
We reached our good friends and, for this race, doubles category arch-rivals, Tom and Doug. Tom had ferried from home his waterproof speaker system nestled neatly in the front footwell of his Fenn. Unlike our circumnavigation of Shelter Island in the Great Peconic Race, where Tom and I rocked the house the whole way ‘round, he had the volume turned down. I could barely make out his chosen playlist, which I do believe contained both Milli Vanilli’s ‘Girl, You Know It’s True,’ and the Captain and Tennille’s ‘Muskrat Love.’ We surged a bit, gapping, then dropping them. When we could no longer hear Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,’ we knew it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Keep it smooth, Mark!” Steve would call back at least thrice. Seems I have a habit when overtaking another ski to uncork a mild sprint, quickening my cadence, seemingly in an effort to overtake Steve as well. “Hey, Sparky, it doesn’t work that way!” he’d yell, over one shoulder. Since I captain most of the time in my own double, I’ll admit it’s hard to relinquish the captain’s hat. I also prefer to lead when ballroom dancing. Despite the occasional foible, we were putting the power down efficiently. Steve is a formidable engine with a high threshold of pain, and I well knew what lay ahead on the final half lap, when he’d inevitably ‘smell the barn.’ When you get it right in a double, it’s pure poetry-punching the whole of one into the air with the power of two. There exists beauty in synchronicity.
We surged a bit, pulling even, then passing, another Northeasterner, Eric Costanzo, in his yellowjacket-colored Stellar. Eric plies the lifeguard surfski competitions as well, so if there’s bump, he’s on it. In our favor, it was flat, aside from the occasional boat wake. Still, he’d gap us on every buoy turn, and we’d slowly reel him in on the straight slogs. By our final lap around the big wonton, the heat was taking its toll. Once again, Eric gapped us, pirouetting around the buoy like he’d done this once or twice before. Once again, we busted hump trying to reel him back in. Any spectacular visions evoking the final sprint scene from ‘Chariots of Fire’ were fading fast, though; my heat index needle was firmly pegged in the red zone. Turns out, in our post race debriefing, whereupon you recount for hours events that took mere seconds to unfold, Steve had also entertained spectacular thoughts of a Cinderella story, come from behind, victory. Never you mind that Eric was in a completely different class, both single ski, and a non-AARP member. We were racing anything that moved. Somewhere behind us, Tom and Doug were moving too. We could not let them beat us.
Until about the last eighth of a mile, where aspiration and motivation pretty much went out the window, attempting to beat back a combined attitude of: “Maybe we’ll just back off and conserve our energy, in hopes Eric will be smote by the hand of God, or run into a manatee in the final stretch.” Alas, it was not to be-we pulled close, but couldn’t manage to come by. Thankfully, neither did Tom and Doug-score one for the old guys.
Stick a fork in us and turn us over, we were baked, flopping into the water to cool off, with a sizzling hiss, like a skillet of fajitas coming to your table. A SUPer paddling by, suddenly gestured somewhere beyond us, excitedly shouting, “A manatee, right there! Do you see it?” Wearily, I shot back, “No, no, I’m sorry-that’s just me.” Comically, Steve and I attempted some pretty hilarious exhausted attempts at a deep water remount, not realizing that a sand bar where we could easily stand, was perhaps 4 feet to our right. Race ended, our big Fenn somehow beached itself, freeing us to cheer in the rest of our peeps from the beach.
Returning to our hovel, we freshened up a bit, looking forward to joining everyone at the post race festivities. As always, the after party, this time at the Dunedin Brewery, was outstanding, with no shortage of food and microbrews. It was a high point to chat and laugh with paddlers I’d come to know via the wonders of the Internet and social media. Theo Burn, Eric Stanton, Renee Humbert, Joseph DiChiacchio, David Tebera, Tim Milligan…the list goes on. Great folks. To my great surprise, Rob and Karen bestowed upon me a special recognition, and accompanying ‘oh so very cool’ Shark Bite Challenge hoodie (Not sold in stores!), for penning an article for surfskiracing.com that assisted in bringing others to their Field of Dreams. Gifted, I was, and filled with gratitude-thank you again, for such an exceptional experience. Once bitten…