Editor’s Note: Chattajack 2016 wasn’t the only paddle race with brutal conditions this fall. Village of Stoke and PNW Correspondents Coli and Joel Yang offer us this account of the Round the Rock race on September 17, which by all accounts was simply epic. Here’s their story, with commentary from both of them together, as well as their individual accounts and comments.
Coli and Joel: Round the Rock is a very special race for Coli. It has typically fallen around her birthday and there isn’t anyone we know who gets as excited about paddling 13 miles as a birthday present than her. This year’s RTR would be Coli’s 4th. Since we moved to Oregon over the summer, this race is no longer in our backyard and required a bit more planning than in the past. Regardless of the distance and added planning, this race was still “on” for Coli.
This year we helped raise money for the Hirshberg Foundation for its research towards finding a cure for Pancreatic cancer. This RTR was dedicated to Coli’s Great Gramma Dorothy Jeffery & Great Uncle Philip Yang, who we lost to this form of cancer.
It was a dark and stormy morning…
…a paddleboarder’s worst nightmare” Coli laughed. The forecast called for some wet, and windy weather for Round the Rock today. Uncle Bruce (Barry’s) report included a warning for some Bad weather paddling – Okay, so it won’t be sunny – that’s no big deal, we’re P.N.W. paddlers, and gnarly waters is what being a P.N.W. paddler is all about.
#660 – lucky number – we’re ready for this!
Coli and Joel: We switched out some of our gear to accommodate a “not so sunny experience” for the 13 miles we were going to paddle around Mercer Island.
Coli: The waiting got me apprehensive, and nervous. All the standing around messes with your head. I started thinking about if I should be doing this. What rain?? Oh a little wind?….. did I have to worry?… It’s not like we’d be racing till 3pm. I’ve done this 3 times already and it’s been consistently good conditions each time, and it’s not going to be like it was in 2012.
What’s a little rain and wind? – I’m ready – I was totally excited for this
The beach start made things a little trickier as it was a bit of a tight squeeze, but due to the growing wind patterns – the usual RTR water start would have been really difficult to keep all of the paddlers aligned to a starting line since the water was already getting choppy and the wind was picking up.
Waiting for an Eternity
Coli and Joel: After what seemed to have felt like a lifetime – the race finally started. We did our usual “Hang back and wait a moment or three” to check out where the carnage is happening, then start our engines and point in the opposite direction ~ and go for it! Everyone went left, so we punched to the right – “It’s important to not get stuck in all of the soup chop with everyone else – I prefer to start away from the pack to find our own place and pace”
Joel: We’ve tried to punch it at the race starts in the past and it’s really difficult to get out front with a solid kickoff on a tandem – the last time we tried, all I saw were Coli’s feet in my face!
Coli: When I first got on the water. I was happy. I felt like four miles went by quickly, we’re going to beat our time from last year regardless of conditions.
The start went by smoother than we had thought. It was a choppy upwind – but we were able create a pace to cross the channel and work our way towards the island. We knew that what we paddled upwind, we would eventually be able to paddle downwind.
Distances and Rough waters is where I thrive…… But little did I know that combined and multiplied, they are treacherous!
When we got to the island – we turned the corner on the south end of Mercer and we were hit with lots of side chop that we had to deal with – that wasn’t fun. I just wanted to tough it out and get through it.
When we finally got to the point where the side chop was done and the bumps were in our favor, I was stoked… scared.. but stoked! I’m not much of an adrenalin junkie and tandem downwinding is hard. You get catapulted into the unknown and uncontrolled, but fortunately I have enough skills to work through it.
Coli and Joel: We were paddling alongside this shirtless guy and could not believe he was without a shirt! We were freezing just watching the dude.
At the SW end of Mercer island – it was nice to see our friends Dan Taylor from Destination 360– who was snapping pics of all of us as we went by, and Jeff Rudd who was cheering us on! That type of encouragement goes a long way! We finished up the sidechop section and got ready to head into the DW section where we anticipated a nice break.
During the downwind section of the race it felt really peaceful, and almost as if we were on a solo run as there was next to no one we were paddling alongside and sharing that section with. The lighting was silvery, with lots of illustrations in the clouds, and roller bumps that were playfully accompanying us as we downwinded through the east side of Mercer island chatting and belting lyrics from Rancid’s “Out Come the Wolves” (Coli’s current fave album)
It was us, our friend Estelle Matheson paddling an OC-1, and her friend Carmen – enjoying the silvery lighting over the bumps….it was very surreal, and unusually peaceful.
A ghostly Scene
Coli: The quiet before the storm. – duh – duh – duuuuh !
It didn’t even feel like there were two other people paddling with us, or that we were even in a race. They were almost like ghosts or surreal angelic beings at a distance. The lighting was like we were in a dystopian movie, maybe you found the downwind section peaceful… I was stressfully chanting …must…stay….on….board… in my head the entire time.
Towards the end of the DW section – when we got close to the north end of Mercer island, I was just starting to get the feel for it when we started to experience some ghost swells – then all of a sudden Dad falls in. “my first thoughts were, Holy S*&^$!!! – must stay on….don’t fall in!!!” I braced low and stopped myself from going in – but I kept going with the board catching bumps as Dad very slowly caught back up and climbed on board as he yells “It’s not the water…it’s meee!!! Coli stay down, I got this!!!” and I thought to myself – maybe you should be the one sitting and I should be the one paddling. So he gets on and falls in …again… and the process repeats itself 8-9 times. At first I laughed, but after it kept happening I was concerned that something serious was wrong… like it could be his sleep apnea affecting him again as a couple of years ago he suffered lots of exhaustion and would just fall in.
Fellow paddler Jeff Gassen stopped and check in on us as I was swimming back to the board – I was exhausted but thankful at the thought of another paddler and friend checking in just in case.
Joel: Falling in took lots out of me. I was exhausted, and it was hard to not think the thoughts “What the hell is wrong with me” Falling in happens to all of us, and it’s frustrating to watch folks pass by you as you climb back on board. Falling in a few times is aggravating as you get progressively more exhausted and aggravated and that vibe really does not help you get back on track. Falling in more than a few times in a row is concerning…..
Was it our gear setup? Was it something going on with my health? It was a total mental vomit moment that started to bring everyone’s worst enemy right up to my nose – doubt.
It’s not like we could do anything to switch out our gear right now… right now we had to strategize how to complete this race!
After eight board chucks, I started to get confused with what was going on. Our friend Michele Black stopped to check in on us as she must have witnessed my Pole Vaulting technique and we let her know that we were okay and that I just really needed to chill out.
I had to hit reset so that we could clear our heads and continue. I realized that I had bonked pretty hard. We had a smallish breakfast and it wasn’t a hot day out so we weren’t hydrating like we would normally.
Coli and Joel: We hit Luther Burbank park on the North tip of Mercer Island, and it was at that point we realized that 40 paddle strokes later – we had made absolutely no progress. We had sidewinds blowing us way off course, and Joel was tanking fast. We finally sat down and canoed into a cove where we could take shelter from the wind and refuel. At this point, we realized that the race was no longer about time, or racing, but more about strategy, and planning out how we were going to finish this last leg.
We dropped the “Leg anchors” and snacked up. At this point we were very happy that Joel had added more fuel to our packs. As we were chowin’ down on Stinger gummies – the first support boat checked in on us. It was a nice surprise. We thanked him, and he cruised westbound towards the end of the pack to check in on others.
While we were snacking – we watched other paddlers go by and observed how they got blown off course and anticipated a challenging next stretch. There was whitecap ahead and lots of sidewind to battle…. With a limited tank left to reach the finish
We decided to cross the channel and hug the Bellevue shoreline so we would not have to battle the fierce whitecap after the Enatai bridge. The channel crossing was not easy by any means – it was 100% paddling on the left, and we had to take frequent breaks. At one point we saw a paddler laying down on their back (feet forward) paddling into the wind. It was a moment of humor where we both cracked up because it looked like he was playing the guitar with their paddle.
It was grueling to get across – but we set our sights on several coves. Then we decided on a strategy to “Cove hop” paddling from one cove to the next and seeking shelter from the wind as we slowly crawled towards the finish. This was beyond the conditions of the Alderbrook Hellwinder we did several years back where Coli used that race and the term Hellwinder to gauge conditions of what we are about to take on. Strategy was key, and we both decided that the cove hop was going to allow us to leapfrog bit at a time from one safety point to another.
We got passed by another – support boat with a fellow paddler that checked in on us and gave us props for continuing.
We did the slow cove hopper slog – As we approached the Mercer Island bridge at Enatai beach – we were approached by another support boat – carrying more fellow paddlers and informing us that they were continuing to retrieve racers under the Mercer Bridge – but on the Mercer island side and not the Bellevue side.
Wait – so that would mean crossing the channel again????
We just spent gawdknowshowlong just getting over to this side!!!
Joel: At this point – I wanted to leave the option open. I was spent, beat up, and started to really feel the beat down that Mother Nature handed us. Coli was quiet, unusually quiet – but I let her be. The call would be hers to make if we continue or bail out – we were at Mile 12 at this point, and glancing down at my watch. We already paddled more than 13 miles with all of the zig zagging and getting blown off course. When we got to the bail out point (back across the channel) Dan asked us if we were okay, and if we were going to continue. We pulled into the cove and evaluated the gnarly whitecap up ahead. The thought of DNF’ing had never crossed my mind at any race until now.
“How are you guys? You okay? Coli – are you tired? Are you okay?” Dan asked. “If you’re not up to it – it’s okay to pull out here.”
Coli was quiet – and I saw the determination in her eyes “We’re going to finish… Dad, can you finish? We don’t come this far and not finish” My body sank as I knew that I had to put my armor back on…but simultaneously my heart was so full of pride hearing those words come out of this lion hearted warrior. What was I supposed to do? How do I make the right call? I was so stoked that Coli was determined to finish – but on the other, could we really take on this last stretch of treach?
Coli and Joel: We both looked out again to evaluate the scenario. Several paddlers were on the dock waiting to load their boards on the shuttle vehicles. We were doing our mental game of Hellwinder math when our friend Aaron Poledna pulled up and said the most horrifying words you could ever hear a parent ask “Hey guys, have you seen Graison?” Aaron and his son were paddling together and when the weather started to get gnarly – Graison paddled ahead of his dad and Aaron figured that at one point in time he’d hear that his son hit the checkpoints on the way to the finish, and that he was just going to truck along slowly to the end.
We had not seen Graison at all during this race…. Then Aaron asked us if we were bailing or if we were going to push through to the end. Coli shared that we were going to push it thru (I was still trying to figure out if it was at all possible at this point – but kept the positive attitude) We all made an agreement that if we pushed through together – we would finish together, and that no one was to be left behind.
Joel: I looked out and the frothy foam caps were just itching to pick a fight with us – kicking water into our eyes and laughing super loud like a pack of hyenas. This was going to be the most challenging last mile of raging fury we have paddled together. Coli and I have paddled in some wicked squalls in the past….this was very humbling. We were getting laughed at and throwing in the white towel to safety didn’t seem like a bad plan at all. The winds had both fists up and threw the first jab. “Dad, I know you’re thinking about downwinding right now, but it’s not the time – right now we need to finish” Coli. She was right. I needed to clear my head again, as two downwinders passed us by to add salt to the wound.
Should the fit hit the shan – we could turn around and downwind back to this exact point to be picked up by Dan and the crew. This was not what we were planning on doing, but having this bailout plan in the back of my mind allowed me to have us both move forward knowing that there is an exit strategy if we needed one.
Coli: That mile felt way more than a mile! It felt like 5 just from getting blown around. The water was so choppy that I drank a chunk of Lake Washington – I’m sure that everyone that finished the race drank a piece of that lake.
Coli and Joel: We slowly trudged forward and frequently spot checked Aaron to make sure that he was within visual distance. It was difficult to keep pace together but we did the best we could to cross the final channel. Whitecaps smashed into us pushing and pulling on us like a tug of war in a washing machine. Water knocked into Coli so hard that I heard her “Glug” a few times. The wind just wanted to pick a fight, constantly provoking us throwing jabs and hooks pushing us to the right…. and seeing if they could get me to fall in again for added amusement.
Joel: During the raging fury of this last channel crossing that felt like we were inching 1ft per mile – Coli was as unnaturally quiet. It was eerie as this is a side of her I am not quite used to. It was her inner warrior at work. Something that I had witnessed in the past – but not to this extent. She kept her communication to a minimum, saving her energy for each paddle stroke, making it count. The tempers of the dark tumultuous waves kept punching into us and washing over our board trying to sink it. Taunting us, mocking us, throwing insults demanding that we quit. “Inch at a time – we can do this, I am not tired, I am not sore…” I felt like King Leonidas on his knees battle beaten and worn before he threw his spear for the last time.
Coli: “There were no emotions – it was just me and the water, that’s it- if there were any emotions that flowed through, I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to finish. If we DNF – I want it to be because I am not physically able to finish, not that I lacked determination”
Coli and Joel: When we made it across the feeling was overwhelming. We just stayed as low as we could and inched towards the docks on the other side of the channel. We found a cove to seek shelter as we waited for Aaron to get across. It didn’t work. The water kept smashing us into the docks that were not providing any form of shelter. We were too exposed and team Demoralizer took it personally that we didn’t lose our tempers while it provoked us the entire time. We cove hopped forward to seek shelter at another dock further ahead…… inch at a time.
“Aaron – you can do it – don’t give up!!!!” we hollered back. We got to the second cove – this one had a much more efficient shape that allowed us to take shelter from the wind and rest while we waited for Aaron to catch up. It wasn’t calm by any means – we still had to make sure we weren’t smashing into the docks – but it was just enough for us to stay seated and watch out for Aaron and rest a little.
“Where’s Aaron?” it had been a while and we were just tucked far enough into the corner that he wasn’t in visual sight. We pulled the board out into the open for a moment so we could get a better vantage point. “Daddy, I don’t see him – do we go back for him?” We decided to wait another 5 mins before we’d paddle back to the previous cove to get a visual on Aaron. We finally hit a point where we felt like we had waited a little too long. We paddled back out and managed to catch a glimpse. Aaron kept getting swept back at the Enatai channel and had gone in several times. He was getting super discouraged. Don’t let team Demoralizer bring you down – you got this! We hollered as loud as we could to encourage him for that last stretch across the channel towards us.
Joel: Coli was very firm about “honoring your agreement.” We made the agreement to finish together, so we will, even if it means we are not going to do awesome on our time “Coli. When Aaron finally caught up to us, we took a breather together and proceeded to crawl that last stretch to the finish.
As we approached the finish, we heard the most deafening roar of noise: cheering, hollering, encouragement, and among all this excitement – I had this unbelievably stupid idea to paddle further out and catch the bumps in. As we paddled out, I heard Barrett Tester’s voice over the P.A. “hey guys, the finish line is here! There’s no need to paddle back to where we started…. guys…turn around!” We did, and caught the sideways bumps in the wrong direction, it totally didn’t work, I had no idea what I was thinking. It was awful…. The crowd must have thought we were insane, or mostly that I was insane. Coli didn’t complain whatsoever – she was so focused on getting to the finish – she just kept going.
Aaron Poledna was patiently waiting for us at the finish line, as we whipped back around and finished up our circus act. Coli and I barely managed to sync up our race finish drill to hop off the board together. I was so exhausted I fell in while reaching for my leash. I hardly had the strength to get back up after my body almost fully submerged in 1.5′ of water. Coli reached out and linked hands with me as we always do when we get to the finish. Aaron reached out to join hands with us and we crossed the finish together. “This is honoring your agreement” ~ Coli
When Coli crossed that finish line – she kissed the ground.
Coli and Joel: It was a huge relief to see Graison waiting at the finish, anxiously awaiting his father. Team Demoralizer’s howl faded into the background wind chatter, defeated from the deafening roar of the crowd….. Thank you, we are truly grateful for all of the encouragement. It is so amazing to get this type of support every time we approach the finish line. There truly are no words to describe the amount of positivity and support everyone has shared with us over the years.
As for being anxious about finishing with a better time than last year? That went out the window once Mother Nature put us to the test. This was the most humbling experience we have had together. It taught us a lot about how we react and respond to situations. We planned for a Hellwinder and Nature’s playground delivered a whole lot more. It is amazing how you can easily get so hung up on the silliest thing, and then realize how petty it all is when you are delivered a huge slice of humble pie in the form of many consecutive uppercuts and you have to strategize how to move forward in survival mode….and keep a level head with your kid on board. Coli taught us an amazing lesson on keeping your cool while the water was punching over us and trying to slap us in. It was an amazing, unforgettable visual.
It is during an adventure like this where things really don’t go as planned, and Mother Nature throws a wildcard at you, that you truly get to experience how a community comes together. We will never forget this year’s Round the Rock
Coli: This year we started Round the Rock as competitors but finished as a Village!
Coli: This paddle was super gnarly – my dad almost chopped off my fingers with his paddle – twice! It happened when the weather turned on us and he was trying to cross bow turn while the wind was gusting ….and all I could feel was this really painful sting on my fingers. Then he sliced into my Achilles during a paddle transfer sometime halfway through the race. Daddy fell in many times ~ That was super weird, I thought he was messing around at first…. But after so many times in a row I started to get worried.
Awesome acts of kindness
Coli and Joel: Estelle Matheson checking in on us on her OC; Jeff Gassen checking in on us after Joel first started pole vaulting;
Michele Black checking in on us after Joel didn’t stop pole vaulting; support boats did a phenomenal job of locating and checking in on everyone – we were very impressed with how on it they were – thank you!
Layne Stambaugh helping Rob search for his board after he got ditched under the I-90 Bridge.
Alex Vaughan towing Layne to his board…. and still hit the podium.
HalaGear’s Paul Clark & Lindsay Lambert traveling all over Mercer island helping with shuttling paddlers and their boards back to safety.
Thank you to all of our friends and family that donated to the Hirshberg Foundation to help support the research in finding a cure for Pancreatic cancer.
And finally a HUGE Thank You to Jeff Underwood, Dan Eberhardt, Alina Iofciu, and all of the volunteers in making this year’s Round the Rock a safe and very memorable experience. We will not forget this one for a very long time.