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2010 Mayor's Cup - Carnage the way it ought to be

Tuesday, 17 August 2010 21:13 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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Sean Rice - NY Mayor's Cup Champion 2010 Sean Rice - NY Mayor's Cup Champion 2010 Credits: Jeff Chen

Gone were the 30 knot winds, frigid temperatures, and pelting rain that whipped the gun-gray river into froth during last year’s race. There were no frantic paddlers pinned by the current against a parked barge.

Not one racer stared down the barrel of a gun when they emerged, sans boat, at a security check point. And talk about dull: no one in New York chose to leap off one the bridges along the course during the race. In short, the freak-out factor was refreshingly absent.

New York Parking…

Still I was far from relaxed. First off I had seven men with double blades staying in my humble abode; and when we piled in my car on the morning of the race the traffic heading over the Brooklyn Bridge was going nowhere fast. More stressful was finding parking along Riverside Drive. Finally I gave up and pulled up to the nearest pay garage. When I learned it was $46 for the day -- Are you friggin’ kiddin’ me? -- I headed back to the mean streets, sweating bullets, and was rewarded with one of those miraculous parking spots that New Yorkers brag about for weeks.

There were 152 paddlers from 22 countries gathered along the Hudson at 79th Street for the fifth annual Mayor’s Cup. Though I nearly took out three joggers, a cyclist listening to tunes and a frazzled Dad on his cell pushing a baby carriage, as soon as I began tricking out my boat above the pedestrian roadway separating the tree-lined staging area from the wide, docile Hudson River it felt like marathon racing on the East Coast as per usual – except for the international field vying for $15,000 in prize money. The course was 46 km (28 mi) circumnavigation of the bustling piece of rock that Henry Hudson first visited in 1609. (He was searching for a westerly passage to Asia but had he only known about the top notch Chinese restaurant on my corner, he could have cut his journey short.)

Race Favourites

Though there were two dozen decorated paddlers in our midst, only six men had a realistic chance to stand on the podium and two, ex-Olympians Greg Barton and Philippe Boccara, appeared to be long shots. That changed toot sweet when Jeremy Cotter, the ex-Ocean Ironman who has crashed the long distance ski party in a big way the last three years, became violently ill two days before the race.

Jeremy Cotter

Jeremy Cotter - missing in action

Initially Cotter blamed the beef burrito he chowed for lunch but after a sleepless night staring at porcelain he grew worse and judging by the hollow look in his deep-set blue eyes it was clear he’d contracted something more virulent. Because Sean Rice, Caine Eckstein, Cotter, Barton and Boccara were staying with me in Brooklyn (yes, the toilet paper bill alone was staggering), conspiracy theories were rampant. Though I thought I spotted a can labeled “tainted beef” in Sean Rice’s suitcase, it was only underarm deodorant.

Dawid Mocke was staying in Manhattan and wasn’t a likely suspect but he too had incentive to want him out of the mix. In seven races they’ve gone head-to-head and these kill-or-be-killed hammerheads go so ballistic so early it tends to spell lactic acid overload for most everyone else. (Cotter leads their battle 5-to-2.)

Five up the Hudson

The morning of the race Cotter traded in his ski for a cell phone and hopped on the media boat where he began his three-hour tour, schmoozing with Rob Mousley in Cape Town all the way. Before you could say “Doorman, hail me a cab to Humpybong!” Rice, Eckstein, Mocke, Barton and Boccara, cruising at 19.0 kph (11.5 mph), splashed up the Hudson with the current towards the towering expanse of the George Washington Bridge.

Sean Rice, NY Mayors Cup 2010

Sean Rice pulls the pack (Dawid Mocke riding slip)

Barton, who’d managed to string together a few weeks of decent training at the Epic factory in China, fell off the bunch first. Veering out into current, he found faster water and rejoined the leaders who were now cruising at 18.3 kph.

According to Philippe Boccara, Barton was able to work his way back because “the pace over the first third of the race was so slow.” And perhaps it was if you’re a two-time Olympic Gold medalist like Barton or, like Boccara, stand 6’8”, have the wingspan of an albatross and have won World Championships at distances ranging from the 1000 to 10K over the course of six (count ‘em) Olympic Games.

Barton and Boccara

Greg Barton pulls Philippe Boccara

Cruising down the Harlem River

After making a hard right under a head-high railroad trestle bridge, the leaders headed south on the narrow Harlem River where the current slowed and the average speed dropped to a pedestrian 13.0 kph (8 mph).

Surfskis on the Harlem River

Mocke, Eckstein, Rice, Barton, Boccara on the Harlem River

Had Cotter been in the mix it’s doubtful that the boys would have been so civil. At the 2008 Southern Shamaal in South Africa, Cotter and Eckstein, training partners on the Gold Coast, worked together like metronome salesman with evil intent, tossing one three-minute pull after the other to smash anyone fast enough to sit on their wash. Since then Eckstein notched a record third Coolangatta Gold Ocean Ironman, setting a course record en route, and Cotter won the 2009 US Surf Ski Champs, 20 Beaches and three Fenn Cup races in Oz. Given the conversations we had, I knew they were not adverse about inflicting hurt on Mocke, Rice, Barton or anyone else fit or foolish enough to have a go when the going seemed good.

That, of course, was academic as Cotter, curious and bored both, was motoring along with a cell phone stuck to his head waiting for the mop-topped mate he called “one of fittest humans on earth” to step on the accelerator.

I suspected the instigator would be Cape Town’s Dawid Mocke, a prodigious trainer who regularly logs as many as three 40K paddles per week. Though Rice won here last year and clearly knew the course, the day before the race Mocke had cruised around Manhattan on the Circle Line and surely eyed a spot or three where he aimed to do what he does best: Go like a banshee with smoldering shorts, break the competition and chill when the finish appears.

In my mind that’s where the sizzle would hit the grill: On one hand you had Eckstein, a full-time 24-year-old Ocean Ironman -- an Ever-Ready Bunny with the torso of a gymnast and appearance of kid in a boy band -- who was so dominant at the ultra distance that the Australian Institute of Sport had him try his hand as a triathlete. On the other hand, Mocke, age 32, who is on the short list of the world’s most decorated ski paddlers. In December 2009, Mocke won the Cape Point Challenge (finishing just two minutes in front of Rice) and in 2010, he finished first at World Cups in Perth, Spain and Durban. And at the iconic Scottbrough to Brighton ski race in SA, he teamed with his younger brother Jasper and won decisively even after stopping midrace to repair a hole in their ski.

Not surprisingly I was wrong. Though Rice, Mocke and Eckstein sprinted after any boat wash rolling bye, they regrouped time and again only to resume their near plodding tour. And, curiously enough, over the first half of the race Mocke did precious little work up front, seemingly content to sit in the bunch as everyone else took a pull. “A few times I took a hard pull,” said Rice, “because I didn’t want my muscles to stiffen up.”

The pack (and pace) explodes

As the five-man pack approached a high arching pedestrian foot bridge heading over to Randall’s Island, Eckstein shot out front, sprinting from river right to the far bank. Barton and Bocarra fell back and Rice and Mocke, seemingly caught off guard, carried on along the right bank. Eckstein eased ahead through the swirly water at Hell’s Gate and hammered along the east side of Roosevelt Island, a cigar-shaped island smack dab in the middle of the East River. By the time he reached the top of Roosevelt Island around the 59th Street Bridge, he’d gapped the South African duo by as much as 150 meters.

Caine Eckstein

Caine Eckstein makes his move, exploding the pack

Near the bottom of Roosevelt Island Mocke asked Rice to check if he had weed on his rudder. Mocke’s boat was clean but Rice had a dinner-plate-sized leaf wrapped around his rudder and once clear felt as if he’d had his training wheels removed.

As Rice gave chase along the right bank, Mocke dropped off his tail. “It was so un-Mocke,” said Rice. On the live commentary Cotter was similarly surprised: “Dawid has dropped back three lengths back. Dawid is broken!”

Now it was down to two.

“Where’s Mocke?”

Under the lordly presence of the United Nations Building in midtown, Rice waited for a barge to pass, sprinting onto a wave into the wind to cross the river and mark Eckstein. Halving the gap, Rice felt a surge of energy. “Suddenly,” he said, “with 20K to go it turned into a race!”

Around 24th Street, roughly 10 blocks south of the Empire State Building, the East River makes a yawning, deceptive turn from left to right. The money move, especially if the current is flooding up river, is to bee-line to the Manhattan side of the river – which is exactly what Rice did. Eckstein, however, stayed wide left in the current. Laboring like a man sprinting up a down escalator, he fought towards Rice, struggling to maintain a speed of 11 kph (6.8 mph).

By the time he’d returned to the right side of the river around the Williamsburg Bridge at the southern end of Manhattan, he was 60 meters behind and as gutted as the fish we saw on ice during our tour through Chinatown earlier in the week.

As the Statue of Liberty appeared around the bend, Rice, who’d not looked back once, shouted at the media boat. “Where’s Mocke?”

“It’s you and Caine,” came the reply.

Beat the ferry

Sparked by those words, Rice eyed a massive orange ferry at the bottom of Manhattan set to disembark. Arrive late, he knew, and he’d have to wait until a course martial ushered him through. “I killed myself to get there,” he said and, unbeknownst to him, increased his lead as he turned up the Hudson.

Although Eckstein also safely passed the ferry, he had too little left in the tank to mount a meaningful charge. Mocke was forced to wait; any hope for a win in New York would come no earlier than next year.

Avoiding near-disaster when the wake of a Coast Guard cutter tossed him against the sea wall, Rice hammered up the Hudson for the final painful 10K, grinning and grimacing both. “I was racing on adrenaline,” he said.

Sean Rice

Caine Eckstein paddles past Concorde...

“…far more satisfying”

The 2009 Mayor’s Cup had been Rice’s first international win. “Back then I didn’t know what to expect. This year I knew how hard it would be and to do it against a thicker field made it far more satisfying.”

He finished with a time of 3 hours and 17 minutes. Eckstein crossed the line two-and-a-half minutes later, flopping on the dock next to the depleted winner. They looked like two shipwrecked sailors who’d struggled to shore. “I was absolutely shattered,” Rice said.

No Excuses

Afterwards I caught up with Mocke. Weary, philosophical and a bit bewildered, he described his preparation as “A+” and made no excuses for his uncharacteristic finish.

“I got left behind,” he said. His original plan, he said, was to make his move 30K into the race and he chided himself for not adapting quick enough at the critical juncture when Caine made his break: “I’m a bit annoyed with myself for a few of the decisions I made.” But in the next breath he praised Rice and, citing the fact that any of four men could have won, said ski paddling has become a more mature sport. “It’s good to get cut down every now and then. I have no excuses.”

“…ate, dreamt, and slept the Mayor’s Cup”

Though I’d trained with Rice earlier in the week and had seen how much fitter and faster he’d become in a year, I figured the burly lad, who’d just celebrated his 21st birthday with a good pay day at the Arctic Sea Kayak Race (ASKR) in Norway, would come in third behind either Mocke or Eckstein. What I hadn’t factored into the equation was how badly he wanted to repeat.

Sean Rice

Sean Rice - Mayor's Cup 2010 Champion

“For two-and-a-half months I trained twice a day specifically for this race,” he told me. “I ate, dreamt, and slept the Mayor’s Cup. When I was broken in training or went to bed when my mates went out jawling in order to wake up at 5 a.m. in cold, dark Cape Town, I often asked myself if it was worth it. But heading down the finish I had goose flesh. I felt so grateful for all the people who supported me back home.” A wide grin spread across his face. “It’s easily the biggest win of my career. “


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