Canoe race tests endurance

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 16, 2012

By Derek Miller
For the Salisbury Post
Can you paddle 70 miles in one day? Well, you’d better, if you want to complete the General Clinton Canoe Regatta.
The regatta is the longest single-day flat water canoe race in the world. In fact, the race will be celebrating its 50th year next month, on Memorial Day weekend.
Canoes of all kinds compete, from 90-pound recreational canoes to 20-pound lightweight graphite canoes (within their respective classes). The start of this world championship 70-mile flat water endurance race is at the source of the Susquehanna River on Otsego Lake, Cooperstown, NY; it finishes at General Clinton Park in Bainbridge, NY.
The “General Clinton,” as most veteran canoeists refer to it, attracts top marathon paddlers from North America and Europe. It has featured world-class athletes such as Canadian Serge Corbin, a 28-time General Clinton winner, and Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Barton. It’s not unusual to see around 3,000 amateur, professional, and Olympic hopeful canoeists participate over the course of the weekend.
The weekend consists of over 50 races in one- or two-person classes, for all ages including: generation gap relay race, relay scout races, one-man 18-mile sprint, youth races, 70 mile amateur endurance races, sprint, 70- mile pro endurance races. It’s common to see thousands of spectators at every accessible point on the river offering encouragement, cheer, and support over the big four-day Memorial Day weekend.
At the finish line, paddlers and spectators alike enjoy carnival rides, fireworks, and free entertainment for kids of all ages, arts and crafts, all kinds of tasty foods, a flea market, and much more.
The General Clinton Canoe Regatta is named in honor of General James Clinton of the 1779 Revolutionary War “Sullivan-Clinton Expedition” down the Susquehanna River. The first race was held July 4, 1963 and had 45 entries. Winners finished in 11 hours 45 minutes. Today, the race record is 6 hours 34 minutes and 34 seconds. First place prize in 1963 was $200 and today’s first place prize is $3,000.
I know the race all too well, as I have competed in the regatta for 10 different years. In fact I am a proud member of the Regatta’s 700-mile club. The race is truly a grueling 70-mile test of endurance, stamina, and canoeing skills. To make it even more grueling, I completed all 10 races in a 78-pound, 18 [0xbd]- foot Alumacraft aluminum canoe. This class of canoes was listed as “recreational,” but everyone in or around canoe racing called this class the battleship division. Imagine having to paddle two strokes in the recreational boat to every one stroke of the race boats over the same amount of distance.
Plugging along down the river with one of these battleships is truly a sight to behold. For a spectator it has to be especially comical to watch, especially when one of the faster, sleeker fiberglass or carbon fiber canoes weighing less than 25 pounds streaks by. As a participant it is quite demoralizing, especially when you think, “We had a two-hour head start and here they are passing us not even halfway into the race” (recreational boats start at 6 a.m., race boats start at 8 a.m.).
Of course the aluminum canoes are not built for speed, nor are they any good for tight, precise maneuvering, but they are terrific for ramming and there is a high probability that you are going to finish in one piece. Yes there will be plenty of dents and scrapes at the end; but you feel very safe in a battleship. In fact most of the battle scars come about at the start of the race when 50 or more canoes have to funnel into a channel no wider than 20 yards. The sound of aluminum canoes clanking and grinding against each other is a common sound as each boat battles to get off the lake first. Throughout the race I would often see several lighter weight canoes (fiberglass, carbon fiber) literally split in half from smashing into trees or large boulders. After seeing such carnage I was thankful that I was paddling in such a worthy vessel.
There is a lot of drama throughout the race but nothing more dramatic than trying to haul one of these 78-pound behemoths over each of the three portages along the race course. To make it more frustrating is the fact that it is customary to yield to the professional canoeists that are carrying their Ferrari version of a canoe. It is bad enough to hear them coming up behind you but to listen to spectators yell, “get out of the way, battleships, the pros are coming” is equivalent to someone kicking dirt in your eyes while you are on the ground.
But you try to take all this in stride because you are part of something special. I would often hear from other canoeists that we were the real men paddling in the aluminum canoes and that they would not be caught dead racing in one.
Over the course of 10 races I have experienced the full spectrum of feelings and emotions that a person could ever imagine. The pre-race jitters/ nerves, fear, the adrenaline rush at the sound of the start gun, frustration at not getting off Otsego Lake in a good time — mile 1, the pain — anguish muscle spasms from mile 20 on, dehydration and cramping from mile 35, numbness in limbs from mile 50 on, headaches from mile 40 on, and the mental fatigue (the mind will play many tricks/games) from mile 40 on. But all of the above becomes moot when crossing the finish line as pure elation takes over.
Over a 70-mile race many factors come into play for determining the end result. Besides the obvious factors such as physical conditioning, skill, weather, pit crews, and equipment, the condition of the river will be the primary factor in determining overall race times. Conditions such as overhanging branches or fallen tree limbs will create bottlenecks, causing many delays. Back water, sucking or swirling water, shallow water, and excessive river debris will hamper any momentum and will slow down the best of paddlers. More importantly, the higher the volume of water in the river the faster the race times will be; a lower volume of water in the river will result in slower race times. The grid below illustrates my overall finish times of each of the 10 races.
1983 — 13:37
1984 — 11:25:10
1985 — 14:17:16
1987 — 13:31
1988 — 11:21:52
1989 — 11:50:09
1997 — 11:12
1998 — 13:10
2004 — 10:39
2005 — 12:12:23
As you can see there is quite a wide range of finishing times reflecting all of the above factors (Best time 10 hours 39 minutes. Worst time 14 hours 17 minutes and 16 seconds).
But no matter what the time or if it is too late to receive the 70- mile finisher BBQ chicken meal because the volunteers have all gone home, I can always answer my initial question: “Can you paddle 70 miles in one day?”
Yes I CAN!
Even though the last year I raced was in 2005, I have not forgotten any of the races I participated in. I have been in the race with five different partners, and we all have great memories to reflect on. I felt it was ideal to write about this since this is the 50th anniversary of the worlds’ longest single day flat water canoe race.
Derek Miller is retired from the U.S. Air Force. He lives in Salisbury with wife Kathie and their daughter Brittany.