La Ruta Maya – 3 The Race

Colleen McCarthy – Jericho

Race is over, we learned a ton, had a blast and don’t even hurt that much. Cytomax and handfuls of Ibuprofen may have had something to do with that no doubt. Except our hands and butts that is. Sabrina has serious paddle butt and 11 blisters on her hands. A record!

For all those anticipating results, the final word is 1st place on the last day, but 2nd overall – women’s division. We think we were around 24th out of a total of 86 canoes that started the race. Crews from the UK, Texas, Portland, and even 7 crews from Japan. But that doesn’t really tell the story.

Last race email we spoke of the race start. Well that’s just the way it is. Once we realized that it actually became quite a rush. Everyone just goes for it. Canoes flip, canoes get t-boned, sometimes you just hold your paddle in the air, keep your boat balanced and go along for the ride. One day we were beside our competition in the pile up and their steers woman looked at me and said “don’t worry, you won’t flip” with a big smile. Sabrina heard another of their crew member say “we get up this early for this?” as the big guys with little paddling experience all around us were creating huge wake and lots of chaos. By the time we escaped the pack, rode all the wash and started passing those guys the first hour of the day would be done.

Speaking of hours, here’s the count.
Day 1: 50 miles – 7 hours
Day 2: 60 miles – 8.5 hours
Day 3: 36 miles – 5 hours
Day 4: 25 miles – 3 hours

Approximate total: 23.5 hours racing in 4 days. We were some of the lucky ones, there were crews out there for well over 33 hours.

The slogan for La Ruta Maya is “it’s more than just a race” and boy did we learn to appreciate the truth in this. The river this year was the lowest it’s ever been. Even though they let water from the dam, significantly covering lots of rocks, we still managed to punch a hole or two in the hull early on the first day. The biggest hole (the boat was already weak here) was 1.5 inches long and .25 inch thick, under the front bulkhead along the spine. Although we tried patching it the first night, we ended up paddling two days (15.5 hours – 110 miles!) with a bulkhead full of water. I mean full. So full it was overflowing from the top into the canoe. My bailing related injuries (BRI) include one smashed knuckle and wrist tendonitis. Okay so it took me a day and a half to learn that I can always bail with the other hand. Ingrained outrigger techniques are hard to break. Besides, I thought the knuckle bash was a result of one of our many spills into the river.

With a bulkhead full of water, our beautiful Baracuda became a bit unmanageable. The swims were refreshing though, especially the deep water ones. The water is so warm and just stretching our whole bodies was a treat. The problem was, we had to get the canoe to the side of the river bank and figure out how to get back in.

On our star tour last week Allie spoke of Atlas and Hercules, Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders – well, we designated a self appointed “Atlas division”. A class for paddlers carrying canoes with bulkheads full of water. There’s lots of ways to pass the time in a canoe when things aren’t going as planned. Once we figured out what was going on, we were able to leave the frustration behind and realize, “it’s more than just a race”. Allie was a champ leading us in gospel songs loaded with Hallelujahs. I tried a round of “If you’re happy and you know” but when we got to the it “clap your hands” part … .

Our boat was patched for us by a well meaning fellow paddler the first night. Unfortunately it didn’t hold. When we figured that out on the second day, we tried to help the trim somewhat by putting the lighter Allie in front. Sabrina gallantly took the stern. Or in her words “sacrificed her nerves”. She did an amazing job, and the trim was a little better. As a matter of fact, she was so amazing that we left her back there for the rest of the race. She learned very quickly how to read the rapids and eddies. In the end we found them a nice break both physically and mentally. It sure broke up the monotony.

By day three the canoe was fixed. Our bodies were exhausted, but we were stoked. Finally an even playing field, although we had no chance left to win the race. We were already almost an hour behind our competition. The race start was good, we were relaxed and rolled with it. They came out ahead but we caught them 20 minutes into the race. Here’s where our river inexperience shows. The girls came up beside us as we were passing on the inside and gave us a bump. No problem, bumps happen on the river. But when they engaged our canoe and kept forcing us inside things got a bit hot. We were ahead slightly and weren’t going to give way. The only place we had to go anyway was backwards. Anytime we could get space between the canoes we ended up with paddle loads full of water in ours. There was a big wide river on their other side. By the time we were disengaged, after what felt like forever but was probably around 3 minutes, we were left with a canoe full of water. We were bumped by another crew before we had a chance to bail and ended up swimming again. By the time we swam the boat to shore and got back in, the day’s race was over – and it was only the first half hour.

We spent the next 4.5 hours passing 15 canoes and had a great day after all. This was the day of the howling monkeys. We didn’t see any while we were racing but they sounded like a stadium full of football fans. Their roar was as big as a lion but these cute little guys were about the size of a beagle.

The people of Belize love this race. It’s the photo on the front of their phonebooks, it’s a place to take your kids, cheering the paddlers and providing local heros and role models. When we came to the finish for the third day we could hear the music escorting us in from down the river. The banks were lined with people and vendors in their throw together grass huts selling local food and drink. Cameras flashed, mothers wanted to introduce us to their daughters, and everyone shook our hands.

But the forth day was out of this world. Our competitors are called Cayo Gial and they’ve been the defending champs for years. This day we left them 4 minutes behind. The river was lined with fans shouting for the Barracudas but we heard their name more than ours. “Cayo Gial behind?!” was our favorite expression of the day. We sprinted them to the first station prize, took it by a nose and never looked back. Well, we looked to the side once – a huge splash scared the hell out of us. We didn’t see it, but it was a crocodile big enough that we surfed his huge wake as he disappeared. We won four or five station prizes that day (they seemed to save them all for the city) totaling about $400 belize. It was three hours of magic paddling. Everything clicked. Even the dead water of the mangrove canal felt good. And when we burst out of it, back to the open river lined with fans all the way to the finish line, we just got stronger. The media were on the finish line, hauling us over for both radio and T.V. interviews. It was something else. Those who couldn’t be there to watch the race, were following it at home on their radios.

Another beautiful story we want to add happened in the mens division, where the top three teams were within a minute (top two with in seconds) after four days. The top canoe bumped the second canoe, causing them to flip. These guys epitomized the words “good sportsmanship” when they stopped their canoe and helped right the second canoe to get them racing again. It’s more than just a race.

It’s been a trip of a lifetime. Again, we can’t thank Allie, Joe, and our sponsor Wendy of Auxillou Beach Suites enough.

See you on the water,
Colleen McCarthy and Sabrina Schwanebeck.

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