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It took me 18 years to forget the pain of my first Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race in 1996
By Ryan Pingree
I wanted to quit. It wouldn’t be the first time and most certainly not the last. By this point in the 1996 Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race, nearly 15 of the starting field of 64 paddlers had already given in to the channel’s merciless conditions. In the end, only 38 paddlers would finish the race. The wind, the waves, the ripping southerly current, and the unseasonably cold water…it was all just miserable. I had been paddling for over five hours and had only covered about 20 of the 32 race miles. I was in a cold-water hell.
Perhaps sensing my resignation, my dad hailed me from my accompanying escort boat. His earlier boisterous encouragement was gone. This time he spoke in a new tone, delivering a simple, firmly-stated message as he made eye contact across the plunging whitecaps. His strong voice cut through the whipping wind: “Ryan! Listen to me. Pingrees don’t quit, Son. You can do this!” It was that simple.
So I paddled on. I had no choice. For another 12 gnarly miles. Though it took me nearly 8 hours and 28 minutes to paddle those terrible 32 miles, a ridiculously slow pace, I finished that damned paddle. I couldn’t walk without pain for two weeks. I didn’t touch my stock paddleboard for nearly a year and almost quit the sport. It took me 18 years to get over the experience and think about doing the race a second time.
So there I was, 18 years later, standing on the same beach on Catalina Island in the pre-dawn light, my stock paddleboard under my arm, my fellow paddlers and friends on either side of me. Was I older? Yes. Was I wiser? I’d like to think so – but maybe not, as I was still paddling a stock board. The conditions? Nearly ideal. A light offshore breeze, an atypical south-to-north current (courtesy of Hurricane Lowell), and small wind waves created conditions about as good as they get. The siren went off and the 2014 Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race began. This year I was not motivated just to finish the Classic; this year I was ready to compete.
In 1996, my escort boat crew consisted of my dad, my brother Connor, and my friend Matt. On the trip over from King Harbor, the conditions were rough, unfortunately heralding what was to come the next day. The ocean pounded us the whole way across. We were happy just to reach the Isthmus without incident. But upon arrival we found all the moorings full and with no plans for where to sleep. After anchoring his boat a bit off the beach just south of Two Harbors, my dad angled himself into his small boat and fell asleep, leaving the three of us to make our own arrangements. Connor and Matt found beer and crashed out on the rocky beach. They claimed the beers helped smooth out the rocks under their backs. I did not have a beer; the rocks under my back retained their edge. All. Damn. Sleepless. Night. Long.
In 2014, my dad was living out of state and my brother couldn’t get away to relive the experience. So my escort crew consisted of friends and fellow paddlers. Captain Allen’s boat was impressive and stout. And he had thankfully reserved a mooring! Carleton, my regular training partner and Johnny, a quiet but effective motivator, joined Allen. Carleton and I took the Catalina Express over the day before the race, while Allen and Johnny (after dealing with some boat trailer challenges) skimmed across the glassy channel to do some pre-race fishing. That night I slept soundly in a pop-up camper up on the hill above the beach with Carleton and two other paddlers. Once again, no pre-race beer, but no rocks to stab at my back either.
32 miles is a long way to paddle. You have to commit to making the time to train appropriately. Leading up to the 1996 race, I worked as a state lifeguard in Santa Barbara County. Given my job, one would think I would have had a lot of time to train. In hindsight, I didn’t take the training very seriously and only accomplished a few long paddles. I usually paddled alone; there weren’t many paddleboarders in California at the time, let alone in the greater Santa Barbara area.
A few years ago, I was welcomed into the “NCP,” or North County Paddlers fraternity. Our club regularly meets at Cardiff State Beach to ply the relatively calm waters of North San Diego County. Our motley crew of paddlers and their shenanigans make the rigorous training fun. No longer was I a cocky 22-year old who figured he could do anything without much training. I was now 40 years old, married, two children, working a full time job, and while certainly still a bit cocky at times, sage enough to understand I needed to train hard to cross the channel fast and strong.
Ship Rock hasn’t changed. Definitely more guano on it now than in 1996, but it still punctuates the channel about two miles offshore of Catalina. The conditions at the rock are a bellwether for the rest of the channel. In 1996, upon reaching the rock, the channel pounced on me with more than 15 knots of wind and 3 to 4 foot waves slamming me at a right angle. Each wave crashed into my board and sent cold stinging spray across my already -shivering body as I struggled to keep balanced on my slender board. It was a different story in 2014, as I enjoyed catching small waves and bumps from astern, only needing a few strokes on my knees to drop into the waves and surge ahead, smiling, as the miles passed beneath my board. I was having fun.
There usually comes a point in every long-distance race when you question what the hell you’re doing and why you don’t just quit. So much so that you’re ready to deal with being labeled a quitter. It’s almost always a mental issue. In 1996, it happened around mile 20. In 2014, it happened around mile 13. I had picked up my pace over the last mile to try to catch the paddler ahead of me, but I wasn’t able to close the gap. I felt my enthusiasm wane. Could I really compete? Physically I was solid but mentally I hit a wall. I found myself trying to rationalize quitting and slithering into Allen’s boat and speeding off and away. Far away. I almost convinced myself that I would be okay with the fact that I couldn’t show my face at NCP anymore; losing their tough-earned respect was totally palatable. Then my frenetic mind conjured up a more honorable release–a shark attack! Yeah, that’s it. I began to play out a scenario where a great white shark surged out of the deep blue and bit the thin fiberglass and foam along with my leg, providing me with an out. In a strange way, I rationalized that avenue of relief as the more appealing alternative. But I kept paddling, my crew oblivious to my mental struggles. Or so I thought. Johnny perceived I was off and relayed some soft yet strong words of encouragement that shattered my mental morass. I picked up my pace, back on track.
The R10 buoy floats approximately one mile offshore of Palos Verdes Point. All paddlers have to go around the buoy after crossing the channel. From there, paddlers face another eight torturous miles to the finish. I guess the race creators figured it wasn’t enough of a challenge to just cross the channel – what’s another 8 miles when you’ve just paddled 24?
Just prior to the 1996 race, my dad purchased a GPS unit. Though he had spent most of his life as a sailor, he wanted a GPS to augment his innate knowledge of the sea. It didn’t help us, though, as it didn’t work properly. Dad didn’t really need the GPS anyway as he interpreted what the ocean was doing and set a course that compensated for the strong north-to-south current so I ended up paddling more of a northerly arc across the channel that brought me right to the R10 buoy. Many others elected for a straight-line course and found themselves many miles below the R10 buoy, facing a dreadful “uphill” paddle to the finish.
In 2014, Allen supplemented his shallow navigating experience with now-dependable GPS technology and his own race experience. Having completed the Classic in 2009, he knew how important it was to find the shortest and fastest route to R10 buoy and the finish. Allen correctly interpreted the conditions and charted a straight line to the R10.
In 1996, the relentless onslaught of waves and wind made it nearly impossible to knee paddle. The few times I tried, the chop would knock me off my board and into the cold sea. Pulling my cold and wet body back up on my board got old fast. Not good. So I abandoned knee paddling and paddled the balance of the race prone, my thighs and chest rubbing, well, really, grinding against my board. The rough foam pad worked like sandpaper and slowly rubbed off my skin through my trunks and rash guard. I had to put on goggles and a wetsuit “squid lid” as I couldn’t see through the spray and was getting cold.
Contrast this to 2014, when Dad called Carleton to check on my progress. It was a huge stoke for me to hear his voice over the speakerphone while I glided across the calm mid-channel waters. He was relieved to hear I was paddling in glassy conditions with a current pushing me towards the finish. I had to splash water on my back and legs to stay cool. I was paddling mostly on my knees, which resulted in fast mile-splits and the passing of several other paddlers. I was racing, thrilled in the event as opposed to struggling to just make forward progress.
Having a supportive and patient crew is essential to a successful crossing. In 1996, my brother was my nutrition man and handed me bottles of Gatorade and pieces of power bars to keep me fueled, at least until his hangover and seasickness overcame his ability to support me. Thankfully Matt stepped in and kept me fueled the rest of the way. 2014 was as different story. Though I still enjoyed power bars, my water bottles now contained a mix of powdered energy fuel. Carleton not only kept me fueled but he tracked my progress, recording my
mile-splits and chronicling my progress against the field.
Unlike 1996, I strategized my race to save some of my energy until I got to the R10 buoy. From the buoy to the finish, I would actively race the last 8 miles, giving it all I had left; the prior 24 miles or so were critical, yes, but I had consciously made a plan to keep some energy in the tank for finishing strong, hopefully while others were fading. As part of my strategy, I had sworn I would never look at the “Whaling Wall” mural at the Redondo Beach power plant. As I horrifically discovered in 1996, if you look at it (and it’s hard to not see it as it is so prominent), you become fixated on it and it mocks you, the whales laughing at you as you seemingly can’t paddle past them, even though you are only a few miles from the finish at that point. Paddle hard-paddle hard-paddle hard but then you look again and you’re staring at the same damn whales. In 2014, I didn’t look at that damn wall once! Instead, I started looking for someone to race.
I spied my training partner Robb slightly outside and ahead of me as I passed the R10 buoy. He wasn’t alone. He was fending off a hard-charging Carter, the fastest woman paddler in the field. I had a decision to make. I could keep my line and struggle along alone, or I could go get him. I went after him. After a 10-minute sprint, I caught him. He was less than thrilled to see me, knowing that I was there to race to the end. Part of me wanted to finish the last few miles with him, just as we had paddled more than a hundred training miles together that summer, but the competitive side of me took over. My crew turned on some classic rock and blasted it over the speakers. A pod of dolphins materialized out of the blue and skipped past me, stoking me on. A fantastic tingling buzz enveloped me and I edged away from Robb and Carter. And then I saw it, the elusive and iconic Manhattan Beach Pier: The Finish Line!
I paddled the last few miles in 1996 dealing with pure exhaustion, pain, a headwind and chop … and pure mental and physical numbness. I didn’t care. I reached the beach and stumbled through the shore break and up the beach, alone. I bailed on the seminal post-race finishers’ pier photo – I didn’t care, as I was just over all of it, done with the whole damn deal. I couldn’t get back to the boat and home fast enough. It was only later, reflecting on my experience, that I was proud of my accomplishment.
In 2014, I paddled the last few miles with blurry vision, a painful left shoulder, the same damn headwind and chop … and immeasurable stoke. I crossed the finish in just over 6 hours and 7 minutes, nearly a half hour faster than my goal. And, as it turned out, good enough for 6th place in the stock division and a hallowed ceramic tile trophy. The race director draped a lei around my neck and I just about lost my composure as my family enveloped me on the beach for big wet hugs. I soaked it all up; I didn’t want the feeling to end. I proudly lined up for the finishers’ photo, my smile so big you could probably see it all the way from Catalina Island.
Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race
The Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race is an annual traditional “prone” paddleboard race from Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach, California. Started in 1955, the Catalina Classic is the oldest and most celebrated endurance prone paddleboard race in the world. Known as “The Grand-Daddy of All Paddleboard Races,” the historic 32-mile marathon begins at the Catalina Island Isthmus and ends at the Manhattan Beach Pier.
Participants paddle in one of two divisions:
1) The Unlimited Division, where the boards can be of any length but are generally 14 to 18 feet long, or
2) The Prone Division where board can be no longer than 12 feet long and weigh no less than 20 pounds. Each year the top six finishers in each division are recognized.
For more information, see the race website: catalinaclassicpaddleboardrace.org.
Having now finished the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race twice, Ryan reckons he is most likely done with the Catalina Classic … but check back in another 18 years.