The Inland Paddler: You Never Forget Your First Race

do the Cold Stroke

Peer Pressured to do the Cold Stroke, but in a good way

“You really need to do the Cold Stroke,” my manager at REI said, not long after I was hired at the store in Raleigh. He started to tell me why.

It’s fun, It can be absolutely beautiful.  You are paddling in the middle of winter. Just about everyone gets a prize, and a really good one.  And you get to meet all these really neat people.

“You will love it,” he said. “And then you’ll want to do the Carolina Cup in April.  You HAVE to do the Carolina Cup.”

Cold Stroke Classic – the gateway drug to sup racing.


At least it was for me. Of course I did not want to disappointment my new boss. From the moment I met him, we shared our love for stand up paddling. Even though the store we worked in is the only one in the Raleigh-Durham area that doesn’t sell paddle sports gear.  It did not take me long to decide to do the Cold Stroke.  I really had no idea what to expect, but he pretty much had me when he said “you are paddling in the middle of winter.”  How cool was that?

So I signed up.  Just for the short course, the 3.5 miles around Harbor Island.

I had three goals in mind for my first race:

  1. Don’t fall in
  2. Just finish
  3. Have fun!

That last one would become the one I focused on, and still do, before any race.  Number One isn’t that significant anymore – but back then, the thought of falling into the cold Carolina sound water and having to continue paddling wet was not attractive.  But now, with the right gear and the right experience under my belt, I just don’t think about that.  As for Number Two, well, that too is always a goal in the back of my head, but sometimes now, in the fours years since I started racing paddleboards and OCs, I want just a little bit more.

do the Cold Stroke

But always, the goal is to have fun.

Race Day morning was chilly but the sun was out.  All things considered, we had a great day weather wise.  I was most nervous about the start.  I remember looking around and seeing a lot of boards that were shaped very differently from my 11’6″ Naish Nalu.  And there were unfamiliar names – like Bark.  I quickly learned the differences in board shapes, and understood why there were different race categories based on board design and length.

do the Cold Stroke


I was very nervous.  I was worried most about the start.

I met a new Facebook paddle friend in person in the hallway at the Blockade Runner, Mark Colino from New Jersey.  He was geared up and ready to crush it.

“Mark, any last minute tips for me? This is my first race!”

“Yeah, every fifth paddle stroke, SMILE!!! Just have fun! You’ll do great!”

To this day, whenever I am nervous, or if I am grinding through a hard stretch – like at Paddle Imua, or at Chattajack, I always smile after every fifth paddle stroke.

Not long after meeting Mark, I met Katie.  Little did I know that was the beginning of a friendship’s worth of paddling “Advenchas.”  A mutual friend had suggested we meet and it was at the Cold Stroke where that happened.  Katie paddled right next to me for pretty much the entire race, taking pictures for this web publication I had spent a lot of time on after having bought my first board.  It was called The Distressed Mullet.  Her humor and friendliness helped me get through that first race experience, no doubt.

do the Cold Stroke

When it came time to get on the start line. I think my knees were shaking.  When the horn went off, the amount of chop all around me was intense.  No amount of paddling on my small little Lake Crabtree had prepared me for that.  But I managed to stay on the board.  Katie shouted out some advice.  Soon, the crowd thinned out and paddlers got into their rhythm.  I looked down and the water was crystal clear.

The sun was out.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day.

I can’t believe I am out here doing this!!! I must have said that aloud and to myself a thousand times.

I do not remember much else about the race that day, four years ago.  I met all of my goals – I did not fall, I finished and most importantly, I had fun. I finished in one hour and two seconds.

And I knew I needed a new board.

do the Cold Stroke

Well, okay, not a NEW board, I knew I needed a RACE board, because after that one 3.5 mile taste, I knew I would be going to the Carolina Cup. And looking for other local races to do.

What I didn’t know or even anticipate was that because of the encouragement from everyone I met that day at the Cold Stroke, and because of the ohana that is our community, I would go on to race in some of the coolest, most beautiful and even storied races in our sport. Or that I would have a family that would get me through one of the hardest years of my life two years later when I lost my mom and dad.

I didn’t know I would end up needing a storage unit for my quiver of boards.

I missed last year’s Cold Stroke Classic because I was iced in here in Raleigh and couldn’t make it.  And I missed the year before because I was in Arizona taking care of my parents.  I am really looking forward to getting back on the water in Banks Channel and beyond, being with that ohana, and lots of friends I haven’t seen since October and November. And I am super excited to start the 2017 race season with just this one goal.  Have fun!

do the Cold Stroke


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