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Going Fast and Taking Chances

When I first started kayaking, one of the things I enjoyed most was that it was not a competitive sport for me. I had competed in several sports as a teenager and college student, both individually and as part of a team. I am only moderately competitive, but I am very much a perfectionist and have a tendency to be hard on myself. These personality traits often led to a lot of stress during competitions, which took all the fun out of what I was supposed to be doing for fun.

Old habits die hard, however, and several years into kayaking, I found myself itching to race. At first, I bit off some local unofficial races, some girls-only races, and some multisport races. I especially liked the multi-sport races, as these gave me a chance to go a bit slower in my kayak, but still be competitive by shaving off time in a run or bike leg. Racing still made me nervous and I still felt bad when I didn’t do well, but I made one major change that has made all the difference.

Instead of racing to win, I chose to race to make myself a better kayaker. By making this conscious decision, I made the goal not about the race day itself, but about what racing would do for my kayaking in the long run. Not only did an upcoming race motivate me to paddle faster and harder on a day-to-day basis, it also gave me a perfect chance to practice managing fear and stress. I could take a run I was very familiar with, and therefore not nervous about, and really up its difficulty by trying to paddle it as quickly and cleanly as I could, more or less by myself during a race. Several years into racing now, not only am I much faster than I used to be, but I’m also much better at controlling my mental game.

This year, I’ve taken on several new, more competitive races. At times, I’ve been concerned that I’m falling into my old trap of taking competition too seriously, but after last weekend, I’d say I’m still on track.

Erin Savage racing the Eagle Section of the Beaver. Photos: and Mark Zakutansky.
Erin Savage racing the Eagle Section of the Beaver. Photos: and Mark Zakutansky.

Over Labor Day weekend, I headed to upstate New York with a carload of people, including my DC area friend, Margaret Williams. Kenny, who organizes the Whitewater King of New York race series had been bugging both Margaret and me to come up for the races. He really wanted more ladies to race, and had done a lot of work toward making that happen.  In this year’s series, he included great prizes that will be raffled off to everyone who enters a race. Werner Paddles is also sponsoring a women’s-only prize – a new paddle raffled to any lady who competes. Getting more ladies to race has also become a goal of mine – I hope that by just getting out there, I encourage other ladies to race too.

The first race of the weekend was on the Stone Valley section of the Raquette. This river has typical Adirondack steep slides with sharp rocks, but shorter pools than most other runs in the area. I had run it once before and had good lines. Saturday morning, Margaret and I got in two practice laps with clean lines. I was feeling pretty good, given my lack of familiarity with the run, going into the race. Unfortunately, this ended up being my worst race so far this year.

Sometimes you have races that start out poorly, and just go downhill from there. This was one of those races for me. I think I was overly concerned about having a bad line through Colton Falls, a complex 60-foot slide. I accidently surfed across a hole I meant to punch at the very beginning of the race, then overpowered myself through a hole at the top of Colton, sending me down a channel I didn’t intend to take. I caught an eddy and reset my line, as I watched Margaret pass me. At this point, I knew I was the last racer on the course, with the two other ladies right in front of me. I decided to try to catch Margaret, mostly for the practice, as I was pretty sure I couldn’t make up the lead she now had on me. The rest of the run went pretty well and I began to gain on Margaret.

I came into the last rapid, Particle Accelerator, pretty hot, despite knowing this rapid can dish out a beating. A bit tired, I misjudged a curler and got shot into the right wall. I managed to keep it together bouncing off the wall, but was then shooting down the broken slide pretty much sideways. Just as the hole at the bottom was coming into view, I power flipped downstream. As I finished the rapid upside down, I could feel the sharp rock ripping through my shirt, shoulders and knuckles, and ripping the paddle out of my hand.

Hitting the pool below, I felt myself in the eddy. I really hate swimming and I generally believe that if your boat is still moving, you are better off in it than out of it. In this case though, I knew exactly where I was (flat moving water, bleeding profusely, in front of every other racer there) but was less sure of how much damage I may have just done to myself. I pulled my skirt, checked out my face, hands and shoulders quickly, then swam my boat and paddle to the finish marker.

I was a bit disappointed with my poor performance, but nowhere near as bummed as I would have been even just a couple of years ago. Instead of ruining my confidence for Sunday’s race on the Eagle section of the Beaver, I was looking forward to a chance at redemption. On Sunday, we ran the Mosher section of the Beaver, then head to the Eagle for the race. I got one clean practice lap in on an awesome stretch of river that is less than 1 mile long and drops 475 feet per mile. I then laid down two race laps. My first race lap was very clean – I couldn’t have asked for more considering I’d never run the river before. I did a second race lap for fun, finished up a dry-head day, and tied Daphnee Tuzlak for first place in the women’s division.

While I wouldn’t call last weekend my most successful race weekend in terms of being competitive, I came away feeling like I really succeeded in both challenging myself, and having a good time. Margaret and I got a ton of kayaking in, largely as a two-woman (no man) crew with clean lines. We did get a lot of help from the guys with everything else, including driving, cooking and encouragement!  So, if you’ve been thinking about creek racing, I’d wholeheartedly suggest that you give it shot. Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.



I started kayaking in Wisconsin of all places, because this is where I am from. I then moved to San Diego and took on kayak surfing along with heading to the Kern River when water was available. I then made the move to Asheville, NC and have been hooked on this sport since my Wisconsin days. With whatever it is that you do, do it because you love it, not because society tells you should or for other outside factors. Don't simply exist, live!