Learning new skills on the Nantahala River!
How my training looks different & a recap of the intro to whitewater kayaking course at the Nantahala Outdoor Center
Paddling, mountain biking, and trail running. Those were the keywords I heard when I first learned about adventure races, and I thought to myself – ok sounds like an alternative form of a triathlon. But the more I learned, the more I realized that adventure racing is truly in a category of its own. Orienteering is a key component as there is no set course. You use a map(s) and compass to navigate to various checkpoints. No GPS units / watches are allowed, and you only receive the maps with anywhere from no time before the race start to the night before. Races can be anywhere from just a few hours to several days! I was intrigued to say the least.
As with many things in life, signing up for my first adventure race involved some serendipity. I had spent the good part of two years dealing with various chronic injuries that kept me out of ultrarunning races. Also, after what felt like 500 years of grad school I finally had more disposable income to buy more outdoor equipment than running shoes – yay! Finally, my husband had rekindled his love for cycling, and if I wanted to see him, I needed to hop on a bike as well.
So here I am, training for the 8-hour Shenandoah River Adventure Race
. The training is unlike anything I’ve ever done before and has expanded my skill set as an outdoorswoman, athlete, and coach. Three major changes to my training include:
Training by time vs. distance.
From a weekly training perspective, I simply aim for approximately 10 – 12 hours of training per week. I quickly realized that trying to chase certain mileage within each discipline every week left me feeling overtrained and flat. There are simply too many disciplines in my training right now to hit any sort of big weekly mileage within each one. Disciplines right now include swimming, mountain biking, paddling, running, hiking, strength training, and mobility / yoga. Each week I will have a few goals besides the overall time per week. For example, one key session may be working on skills on the mountain bike such as feeling more comfortable using the dropper post or doing a long technical climb. The other key session is usually a longer weekend session such as a 2-hour trek / trail run followed by a 1-hour paddle.
Putting equal emphasis on skill development and aerobic fitness
Teams who excel at adventure racing have both great fitness as well as skills such as orienteering, technical knowledge across a range of sports, and teamwork. I have had to include many skills sessions within my training to learn how to travel with map and compass, how to mountain bike, how to paddle in whitewater, carrying all required gear, and more!
working on those mountain bike skills!
More variety in training.
There is so much variety in adventure race training which makes it interesting and fun. However, it is also challenging to feel like you are making significant progress in any one discipline. Particularly, being new to both paddling and mountain biking this has been a bit of a struggle. I think with more years of experience this feeling will improve.
Calley gets to enjoy the variety in training as well!
One skillset I needed to develop was learning how to whitewater kayak. I signed up for an intro to whitewater kayaking course
through the Nantahala Outdoor Center
in Bryson City, North Carolina. Adventure sports require a healthy amount of respect. There is so much to learn about gear, technique, where the beginners should start out, and how to minimize risk of injury or death. If you want to get into adventure sports, I highly recommend paying for skilled instruction! Why make the learning curve harder or riskier than it needs to be?
The beautiful Nantahala River!
Our one-day intro course started with introductions and gear set up. Our teachers, Ryland and Michael were the epitome of outdoorsy and their love of paddling was obvious from the word go. Coming from a running and swimming background, I was a bit overwhelmed with all the equipment! It was like digging through Mary Poppins’ bag! We started with pulling the spray skirt on up to sit just below our chest line. I had always wondered how this worked when you see the kayakers stuck into their boats, so this was a nice mystery to have solved! We then learned how to fit our PFDs (personal flotation device) properly, so it does not come over your head if you fell into the moving water. There was also the ‘heavy metal’ test to ensure your helmet is on tight enough which involved ‘rocking out’ with your head. Finally, the river water temperature is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit so some warm gear such as a dry shirt, waterproof long sleeve, and leggings may be required. The final and most important pieces of equipment were the kayaks and paddles.
The body position when sitting in the kayak was a surprise to me but made sense once out on the water. Your knees are bent quite a lot and your feet are turned outward. The outside of your knees should make contact with the sides of the boat to give you more stability and control. After we were set with gear, we loaded up into a shuttle to head to nearby Fontana Lake to practice skills in a calm water setting before heading into a whitewater situation.
The very first exercise we had to do was a water exit out of the kayak. Although it made sense that this was the first thing we needed to know how to do, it made it no less scary. All you have to do is be locked into this kayak, flip upside down, and get yourself out… no big deal 😉 This was a phobia for me despite having spent 30+ years swimming and being very comfortable in open water. I think it was feeling like I was locked into the kayak with the spray skirt. The technique that they taught, however, made me feel a lot more comfortable doing it.
Tuck, pull, push! When you realize you are going to flip over, tuck in to avoid hitting obstacles such as rocks. You then pull a tab to get your spray skirt off the kayak. Finally, you push yourself out and back to get out of the kayak. We learned if a water exit is necessary in whitewater, we should roll onto our back and use our feet to help avoid rocks if possible. Once you get to a calmer water section you then swim like hell to get to the side. Worry about fishing out your kayak and paddle only after saving yourself. More experienced paddlers can often roll themselves back upright, but it is always recommended to paddle with others who may also be able to provide a rescue to help get you upright. We also discussed the importance of avoiding obstacles that can pin you if you rolled – this was perhaps the scariest discussion and I had to do some deep breathing and mental talk to get past this worry.
On to the more fun stuff like learning about paddle strokes, edging, and turns! The whitewater kayaks were really fun to be in. It was so easy to turn and navigate compared to the clunky tandem flatwater kayaks we rent on our local lake. I also realized what a difference a nice paddle makes with regards to comfort and control. Before investing in buying my own kayak or packraft, I will definitely be investing in a high-quality paddle!
After a few hours on Fontana Lake, we took a lunch break before heading out to the Nantahala river for our afternoon session! First putting into the river was intimidating. The energy of the river was intense and something I had never experienced before. It brings to the forefront how small we really are as humans. Mother nature is the boss, we are simply guests hoping for a good day in her playground.
We hung out in the eddy for quite a while getting our bearings. Michael and Ryland showed us how to get into the current properly from the eddy and they also coached us through each rapid. They gave us pointers on the line to take through each one, and signaled when we should regroup in an eddy after each rapid.
It is crucial to know where you need to exit the river. There are several take-out points along the river, and if you miss your planned one you may end up farther downriver paddling rapids that are beyond your skill level and can be dangerous. Learning the turns in the lake really paid off when we needed to get into the eddy where our takeout point was. I was not keen on taking on any Class III rapids on my first (or possibly any) trip, so I was paddling for dear life to get out!
There were so many lessons learned in this one-day course. Just like mountain trail runners study topo maps to understand a running route, whitewater kayakers study rivers to understand lines they should take, rapids they will do or walk around, where they should put-in and take out, etc. River conditions also vary considerably depending on how high the water level is. My favorite thing about adventure sports thus far is how intensely it brings you into the moment. Your brain literally has no room to think about anything besides what you are doing in the moment. It is life elevated. A communion with nature and God. A connection with my inner spirit. The day was life-changing, and I owe it to the expert instructors at the NOC. Their knowledge in safety, technique, and how to have fun were outstanding. We will definitely be back to the magic of the Nantahala River!