Kirsty MacMillan: Carolina Cup and the Graveyard 2023
Editor’s Note: Paddler Monster contributor Kirsty MacMillan details her experience competing in this year’s Graveyard race at the Carolina Cup. – Lisa Schell
Carolina Cup – Graveyard Race 2023 Recap
By Kirsty MacMillan
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…”
– Theodore Roosevelt
True for most things in life, and especially true for The Graveyard at Carolina Cup. This race is arguably one of the hardest and best tests of a paddler’s skills… beach start/finish through surf, ocean paddling, inlets and tide, boat wake and flatwater. It’s super fun, crazy challenging (unless you’re Boothy or the likes thereof lol!) and will give you the best feeling of accomplishment when you cross the finish line. And due to wind and ocean conditions it’s never really the same race year to year.
Carolina Cup happens every April in beautiful, picturesque Wrightsville North Carolina and is a really fun weekend of a few hundred paddlers all in one spot for various race disciplines or distances. It’s like Christmas for water people! There are the Harbor Island 5km, Money Island 10km and kids races on the sound side for SUP. Then the notorious elite Graveyard which is 21km (13.2 miles) that starts and finishes out on the ocean, as well as a sprint race on the ocean that runs in heats. OC1, surfski and kayak paddlers can do the Graveyard as well as SUP. The Graveyard has pros from around the world and amateurs lined up together on the starting line.
For the second year in a row this has been one of my 2 “A” races on my schedule, the focus of all my hours of training. Ever since I joined Paddle Monster 5 years ago, I know I have a training program setup by the very best and it takes all the guesswork out of my training. My off season this past fall/winter wasn’t nearly what I was planning for… a partially torn MCL that took me off the water for weeks of rehab and a new (adorable!) puppy coming into the family. But that’s the reality of life. Luckily with Larry Cain as my coach I was able to talk it all through with him and he adjusted some of the training weeks for where I was physically at. As for my equipment, I knew for the conditions of the Graveyard that I needed a slightly wider board for stability. Thanks to my friend Glen Buchanan, I was so stoked to see that my new 2023 Starboard Allstar 14 x 23” would arrive a few weeks before the race!
I drove to North Carolina this year with a bunch of Canadian friends who race, roughly a 14 hour drive. We arrived early Thursday morning to give ourselves time to rest up from the drive and also to get some time on the ocean and to check out Mason’s Inlet, one of the most challenging parts of the Graveyard. We all train on Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes… it can give us all kinds of water conditions but it’s still NOT the ocean. Drove straight to Public Parking Lot #2 and ran to the beach like little kids. A storm was coming in and the waves were messy and around 4-5’… not exactly pre-race training grounds to practice some runs through the inlet! So we improvised and found a (long) way to walk through the back way. Some small injuries happened (see initial quote from Teddy) but it was totally worth it! We could get a bit of a paddle out into the incoming surf and get a feel for it. And best of all we got this epic team pic from Cam Carney’s dad Shaun (remember this kid’s name by the way, he’s unbelievable!!).
Race morning was perfect weather… 20C and fairly light winds compared to the previous 2 days. Waves were 2-3’ high which is enough to make it a tricky beach start but not impossible. The women lined up first, 27 of us, followed by the men (64) a few minutes later. It takes a lot of slow breathing to not jump immediately when the horn goes off, and to look for the opening that the ocean waves give you so that there is a clean start to your race. Everyone to my left and right seemed to fall off at least once, I did too… board carnage.
Photo credits @hendystreet
Once out of the surf zone it was a steady high pace out to the first red buoy which was about 200m and then a left hand turn. On to Mason’s Inlet which is roughly 5km. My coach Larry told me last year to break the race up into stages and picture it like a video game and that’s exactly what I did. I knew the distance from each major stop in the game, and I tackled it one phase at a time. Here is where I want to stress how important it is to not keep everything the same and perfect when training. I’m talking about things like your GPS, your HR monitor… know how it FEELS to be in each HR zone, as well as looking down at a number on your board. As I got my feet under me in the ocean about 20 mins into the race, I finally thought to glance down at my Garmin for some data… GONE! Totally ripped off my board in the beach start. Also, super bright out. Fav sunnies also donated to the Graveyard. Sigh. Things won’t always go as planned on raceday, so the more flexible you can be the better!
As I approached Mason’s Inlet I had a gameplan of where to go. I wanted to get to the deeper water on the right hand side so that I didn’t get stuck in the low water/sand bar on the left, but that was difficult because of the waves and surf coming in from the SSW. I spent a bit too long thinking about it and ended up swimming when I should have just gone for it. Still much better than my experience the year before so I was happy to get to the sound side of the race!
The sound side is where I was finally able to look around and take in how lucky I am to be healthy to do a race like this and that I’m here. It’s flat for awhile, and the racers are now spread out. It isn’t far til the boats are going past you creating wake, and the headwind this year was really strong at times. I felt strong and well connected with the water all the way to the jetty (Masonboro Inlet). A huge number of large boats (ships, really haha) and tidal eddies made it tricky to get to the ocean, so once I made it through my legs were jello. Now it was the final leg of the video game, just over 2km to the finish line! The ocean was definitely more of a struggle now, and the swell was not cooperating with lining up with the final buoy turn. My determination to finish had me on my knees as I came in through the surf zone… I was positive if I fell in one more time I would not have the strength to get back on my board. One last time being thrown off my board, which then cracked me in the head despite me trying to get my hands up for protection, and I was out and running to the finish line. Not pretty. However there’s no better feeling than seeing your good friends at that moment and having them cheer for you and help you finish! In the end, 23 (out of 27) women and 50 (out of 64) men would finish.
Photo credit @hendystreet
The rest of the day was spent on the grounds of the Blockade Runner where lots of vendors were set up, lunch and bubbly drinks were served, and everyone can relax together and talk story about how their race went! It’s such a big event with people coming from all over, I always end up meeting some friends in real life that I’ve only ever chatted with on social media. Then we had the best dinner back at our house. The community is absolutely what makes this event so much fun!
From top to bottom: special guest Michael Booth, Megan Sheppard, Calvin Yung, Cam Carney, Kirsty MacMillan, Tommy Lam, Tony Weaver, Glen Buchanan, Maddi LeBlanc and Brad Petrus
Back in March as we got closer to this race, I was talking to my bff training partner Maddi Leblanc about what would make us happy with our race result, what we were looking for. And what we talked about held true. The Graveyard is always challenging but it is a different race year to year depending on the conditions. So the goal can’t be a certain finish time. And it can’t be a certain placing because you have no control over who shows up for the race. This year the ocean was bigger, waves were bigger, head wind on the last half of the race seemed stronger. So really the goal is the same as any other race: to feel happy with your own race, that you did your best and left it all on the water. There is ALWAYS something to learn to do better next time… for me one of those big things is to work on my fitness and paddling in bigger waves so I can cross the finish line strong next year. #lovetheconditions