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The Performance Life

The Ultimate Kayaking Challenge

Warren Richey insists anyone can travel 1,200 miles around Florida by kayak, including a 40-mile portage between bodies of water. The challenge, says the author of the new book Without a Paddle, which chronicles the Ultimate Florida Challenge race, is completing the race within the allotted 30 days.

Richey, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor who has spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent, embarked on the trip in 2006, not long after a divorce. One of 10 athletes to depart from St. Petersburg, he won the race in 19 days.

Competitors face numerous challenges, including potential encounters with bull sharks, alligators, and Burmese pythons. There’s the possibility of storms, capsizing, drifting out to sea, colliding with powerboats and barges, and dealing with cool March temperatures. There’s the exhaustion that comes with sleep deprivation; competitors typically stop on islands and parks and string hammocks for rest.

But the biggest obstacle is the isolation and mental exhaustion that can produce hallucinations and leave kayakers mumbling to themselves. Richey talked with CorePerformance.com about dealing with such an extreme mental and physical challenge.

CorePerformance:  What kind of training did you do prior to this race?

Warren Richey: I was in reasonably good shape but I injured my shoulder a month before the race, right before I was going to do some tough training. I arrived at the start of the race injured and filled with all kinds of doubts and fears. The idea of 1,200 miles I couldn’t get my head around. What I found is that you don’t want to get your head around it. You want to break it down into doable sections, thinking in terms of five, 10, or 20 miles down the course. If you keep setting goals like that—keep the goal in front of you—you won’t worry about the 1200 miles. Otherwise you’ll lose your focus.

CP: You spent up to 18 hours straight in a kayak, which literally is a pain in the butt. How did you stretch and keep your hips and back from tightening up?

WR: There’s a saying that you paddle a canoe, but you wear a kayak. They’re designed to be snug, but in long distance kayaking, you don’t want a tight fit. You want one you sit in like a canoe so you don’t have many contact points. I had room to cross and uncross my legs and I would paddle with my legs up on the deck for some distances. It looks kind of silly, but it extends your time in the boat.

CP: One of the big risks is falling asleep and drifting off. But you barely used caffeine. Why not?

WR: My plan was that I wanted to sleep every night; I just didn’t want to sleep a lot. You need some sleep to reset your inner clock and when I made my plan, it didn’t involve caffeine. When I found a place to stop, I wanted to eat a meal and go right to sleep and not have to deal with anything else that might keep me up. It worked. I had a watch with an alarm clock and didn’t use it, nor did I plan to. I would tell myself I’d want to leave early and sometimes I’d wake up in 10 minutes and feel great and look at the clock and realize I had not slept. Other times I figured I’d slept long enough.

CP: You’re burning an incredible number of calories in an event like this. What was your nutrition strategy?

WR: The key thing is to think of food as shoveling coal into a furnace of a ship. You want to keep stoking that fire. You’re shoveling carbs into your body to keep going so it’s better to have six or eight or 10 small meals than one big one. So my strategy was to have small meals during the day in the boat—nothing that required cooking. At night when I stopped to eat I’d have a big backpacker noodle meal like turkey tetrazzini or beef stroganoff. Drink as much water as you can hold.

CP: How long did it take you to recover from this and are you thinking of doing the next Ultimate Florida Challenge (in 2012)?

WR: I stayed out of the boat for several months. My butt recovered; it didn’t take very long. It took a while for my metabolism to slow down. For a while I could eat anything. As far as 2012, I’m thinking about it. My head says no, but my heart says absolutely.

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Race, Focus, Goals, Outdoor Recreation, Planning, Energy