Before you could say Mooloolaba has a shitload of o's, Tim Jacobs (9th), Caine Eckstein (10th) Hank McGregor (11th) and Ben Allen (12th) hustled breathlessly up the beach. Incredibly, in a field where 13 men averaged 15 kph or more, Clint Robinson finished nearly three-and-a-half minutes clear of his closest rival.
Studying the results half a world away, I assumed it was a mistake. The runs weren't that big. How had he averaged 16.3 kph for 27 km? Then I watched Rambo's video: Set to a piercing guitar solo by a heavy metal band called "Grim Shit," it was four-plus minutes of power and precision, grace and raw aggression and suddenly it made sense: Robinson sat in his all-carbon Epic V10 like a kid chilling in a swing, leaning back on a run one moment and, midway through another frenetic guitar riff, tore at the Indian Ocean with feral intensity. Wielding a paddle with blades as large as snow shovels, he was in complete control: a cross between Bruce Lee dismantling a line of assailants and a pit bull digging up a bone.
Clint Robinson - 2009 (courtesy of Rambo)
If I sound like a groupie, I'm not alone. The day before this year's Doctor, Tim Jacobs, who finished six minutes behind Robinson that day, told me: "Clint seemed to be playing with us." And Cotter, who called it "the largest margin of victory I've ever seen in a big race," said Robinson skill downwind was "so far ahead of everyone else! He's the best ever." Set Molokai aside, he said, as it's a 50K that he's never properly prepared for, and "I don't recall anyone ever beating Clint in a ski race."
The Doctor Ain't In
Robinson skipped the Doctor in 2010 and '11. (For the record: Dawid Mocke edged Cotter in 2010; last year, Jacobs outsprinted Bruce Taylor.) Given he aimed to qualify for an unprecedented sixth Olympic Games this summer, he planned to do a sprint regatta in Queensland the same weekend as the Doctor so, once again, he'd be a no show. However two days before the January 21 start, race director Dean Gardiner told me that Robo had decided to skip the regatta and "rock up" to Perth instead. Cue up the sound track from "Grim Shit," I thought -- the 10th edition of the Doctor suddenly had much more buzz.
In a country with more elite ski paddlers than any nation in the watery world, the 39-year-old from Maroochydore stands alone, literally and figuratively. He was just 16 when he was invited to train with the Australian Olympic kayak squad. Two years later, in 1992, the strapping lad from the Sunshine Coast trimmed Knut Holman, the Norwegian World Champion, and two-time Gold medalist Greg Barton, to capture the K-1 1000 in Barcelona. At 18 he was Australia's first kayak gold medalist.
Four years later in Atlanta, he won Bronze, a crushing blow for such a precocious athlete who'd tasted so little defeat. For the next few years he battled illness and injuries, but in 2004 he and Nathan Baggaley won silver in the K-2 500. Tack on four ICF World Championship medals and he's the most decorated sprinter Oz has ever known -- and yet all that pales in comparison to his prowess in a sport far more dear to the Aussie sporting public, surf lifesaving. In 1999, he broke Trevor Hendy's record of 23 national titles. By 2008 he'd upped that total to 36, including 13 ski titles, a number so off the charts that even his detractors, and there are plenty, call him "freakish" and "the greatest ski paddler ever."
While us media types were stoked to have the Secretariat of ski paddlers in the starter's gate, when I asked the other thoroughbreds in the field about Robo's late entry, the response ran the gamut from mild excitement to nonchalance, with the lone exception being Tim Jacobs. TJ had finished a distant second to Robinson last month in Sydney and was keen for another crack. "In order to be the best," Ben Allen told me, "you have to beat the best." On the other hand, Dawid Mocke said: "Whether he's here or not, I'm not going to race any less hard. Focusing on anyone else is an indication of insecurity!"
Of course, for anyone keen to crack the top 60 -- me, for instance -- Robinson's appearance was a devastating blow.
Wind Off, Heat On
Called Wadjemup ("place across the water") by the Noongar people, Rattenest ("rat's nest") by the Dutch, who in 1669 had to sidestep quokkas, cat-sized marsupials that look like big-ass rats, and Rotto by the locals today, the island was flippin' hot, by any name. As I prepped my boat on the beach before the race, sweat rolled down my face as if there was a leaky faucet under my cap. The grim reality of the passage ahead only added to the stress.
The wind had been predicted to blow up our bums at a tidy 12-to-15 knots, but in fact it was more like 10, and, blank me, side on. Without the cooling affect of the famed "Freemantle Doctor," which switches on nearly every afternoon like a giant fan, it was as hot as Pamela Anderson (circa 1999) under klieg lights. How this would affect the race was anyone's guess, but in my mind, the balance of power shifted from Robinson towards the supreme grinders like TJ, Ben Allen, the Mocke boys and any of the (little-discussed) Ocean Ironmen in the field.
When the gun sounded, the 350 paddlers spread out in a rolling conga line bashed into a frothy mess of motorboat wash strong enough to scour a herd of elephants. Still, the boys up front escaped unscathed; 1K into the grind, Clint Robinson claimed the Hot Spot. Nipping at his stern was Cotter, followed by Bruce Taylor, Daw and Jasper Mocke, TJ, Brendon Sarson, Ben Allen, Reece Baker, and Michael Booth. Afterwards, Marty Kenny, who worked his way through the field to finish ninth, told me, "It was comical how hard some guys started. Surviving today was all about energy management." Or, he added, "converting the ocean's energy into forward momentum."
Who said paddling wasn't a contact sport? (TJ has a close encounter at the start)
The x's and o's of the race up front were fairly straightforward and if you followed the live commentary on this site you know that for much of the first 10K, a 12-man pack, scattered like plastic bags in the park, zigzagged in search of any moving water (read: boat wash). The lead changed constantly, with Robinson, Cotter, and the two Mocke brothers pushing the pace up front.
But as the hour mark neared, the field had been whittled to five: Robinson, TJ, Mocke x 2 and Cotter -- with the former Junior Ironman standout Mike Booth lurking just behind on his black and yellow Think ski.
Clint Robinson leads, then (L to R) Dawid Mocke, Jasper Mocke and Tim Jacobs
The runs were maddeningly small, rolling over our left shoulder away from the finish, and the combination of the oppressive heat and anaerobic angst required to drop onto these inviting depressions took their toll. Go too hard chasing runs and your heart rate soared; back off, and the most resolute up front eased away.
Just over an hour into the game, Cotter, who'd led for much of the first 6K, "died in the ass" and Boothy, a diminutive mop-topped lad from the Gold Coast who's built like a Jack Russell terrier, moved up. Then Dawid Mocke, who'd led for much of the way, struggled and fought to maintain contact with the four up front.
The only man in the mix who'd not pushed the pace was last year's winner, Tim Jacobs. "I worked hard early," he told me afterwards, "and focused on sitting behind the guys while staying fluid and relaxed. You couldn't keep pushing without burning out."
With roughly 8K to go, the terracotta roofs that frame the finish now clearly in view, the proverbial shit hit the much-too-weak fan. Said TJ: "We [Jasper Mocke, Robinson and Booth] all went in different directions chasing a little run. When we settled down I had about 50 meters on Jasper. From there I tried to maintain my rhythm and hold on."
Last year Jacobs caught Bruce Taylor with less than a kilometer to go. As the duo neared the beach, Jacobs scratched over a wave a nanosecond before Taylor. The lanky lad clamored out of his ski first and outsprinted Taylor to the line by the length of an outstretched quokka.
This year, however, the former builder turned full-time coach (who happens to be the older brother of triathlete Pete Jacobs, second place finisher at the 2011 World Ironman Championship), was eager not to let it come down to a sprint finish. "I pushed on every run I could," he said, and finished 34 seconds clear of Jasper Mocke.
Tim Jacobs and Jasper Mocke move to the front
Tim Jacobs - 2012 Doctor champ
Seven years younger and half a foot shorter than his more decorated brother, the pugnacious lad from Cape Town proved the old adage that what matters most is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. More interesting to this reporter is the intensely loyal, fiercely competitive dynamic that binds these Afrikaans-speaking buds. They push each other in training, which only sharpens the competition when they race together. Jasper beat Daw in their backyard this December at the Cape Point Challenge and then again just a week before the Doctor at a 14-km race in Mandurah. While the Mandurah race was relatively minor, Jasper, who'd taken up the pull, led Dawid into a jetty just before the last bend. In short, it's no surprise that the younger Mocke finished second in such a decorated field or that his mentor, who prides himself on his consistency, dug in to pass 20-year-old Michael Booth to claim the last spot on the podium.
Bruce Taylor, who thrives downwind, finished fifth, eight seconds ahead of his training partner Jez Cotter. On the beach Taylor called it the "best paddle I've ever done." Hours later, standing at the bar, he called it "the hardest race I've ever done. I'm still fucked." Clint Robinson, who looked so relaxed for most of the race, cramped badly in the last 10K, finishing seventh.
Rambo's 2012 Doctor
(NB: the video is in HD which means that if you don't have high speed ADSL, you may want to start it, then click pause to let it download in its entirety before you watch it. Otherwise you may have a stop-start viewing experience!)
Cold Beer, Sober Insights
Robinson finished 20 minutes ahead of this reporter and was nowhere to be seen when I staggered to the beach. Bummer, I thought, as I wanted to get his thoughts on the race, his pursuit of a sixth Olympics and more. I've interviewed Robinson many times over the years before Molokai. In 2009, collecting information for a book I planned to write on ski paddling, he was extremely generous with his time, even inviting me to his home in Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast.
A complex cat, he's a fiercely driven individual. He eschews small talk and is a man with few mates, preferring to spend most of his non-paddling/coaching time with his wife and children. He doesn't drink (yes, he is native Australian) and he doesn't care if that makes him the odd man out, since he chooses not to fraternize with the men he intends to beat. Off the water, however, he's direct, thoughtful, and gracious; he answered every question I asked, no matter how inane or pointed, including the prickly point of his much-discussed history of blowing off prize-giving ceremonies when victory eludes him.
When I had arrived for awards at the Hillarys Yacht Club, the last person I expected to see was Clint David Robinson. But he was there, and went up to the podium when his name was called. Afterwards, we got right into it: his uphill climb to make another Olympic team ("I'm challenging the window of what's possible."); the day's race ("I didn't have the volume in my body for a flat race; had there been runs it would have been different"). We discussed his loss against Hank McGregor on the pancake-flat Molokai channel in 2009, the relief he felt after winning Molokai the last two years, and his desire have a crack at Dean Gardiner's record when he's fit and it's firing.
It was a free-flowing conversation made more meaningful, I thought, precisely because we were having it after he'd failed to win a race most everyone expected him to win. When I said as much, he smiled. The words "older and wiser" and "mature" were used.
Just before we launched into a conversation about a book he wanted to write about the mental side of athletics, Marty Kenny, clutching two beers in each hand, offered Clint a brew. Robinson declined. "You know I've never been drunk," he exclaimed. Marty, who'd downed somewhere between six and 16 beers, reminded him of the post-race bash 20 years ago when they'd been part of an All-Star crew that won the Molokai six-man outrigger race. "You were drunk off your horse then," he insisted.
"You're right mate!" he said, laughing. "But that was the last time!"
When I headed off, the two old friends were still tearing the ass out of it.
- Tim Jacobs (Aus) 1:50:10
- Jasper Mocke (SA) 1:50:44
- Dawid Mocke (SA) 1:51:54
- Michael Booth (Aus) 01:52:20
- Bruce Taylor (Au s) 01:52:46
- Ruth Highman (Aus) 02:15:36
- Claire Duncan (Aus) 02:24:02
- Kylie Broad (Aus) 02:35:01
For more information: www.oceanpaddler.com
On 15 Dec, 2009, Freya Hoffmeister completed her 332 day, 13,790km circumnavigation of Australia... She overcame weather, sharks, sea snakes, currents, salt water crocodiles and the scepticism of the surfski community in doing so!
Joe Glickman's book, Fearless, tells the story of the expedition - as only Joe can. By turns humorous and inciteful, it's a great yarn about an extraordinary adventure - and an extraordinary person. Strongly recommended.