BLOOD, GUTS AND BLOW HOLES ON THE EASTERN CAPE

Wednesday, 24 December 2008 02:49 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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2008 PE to EL Challenge/Southern Shamaal 2008 PE to EL Challenge/Southern Shamaal Credits: Owen Middleton/Rob Mousley

An hour into the first leg of the world's longest, toughest ocean kayak race, dorsal fins appeared one by one, then in a flurry until they surrounded us like a shiny gray gang of skinheads emerging from a dark alley. Only a rube from Brooklyn or a paranoid fool would have thought shaaaark -- these mischievous mammals had Flipper written all over them. I've paddled with dolphins in Florida and Hawaii and New Jersey, but I'd never seen so many, so close, or for so long. They were as cheeky as subway mashers and so large that they actually put out a fat wash.

I stuck on Carter Johnson's slip. Carter and I were part of a four-man team relay race - a  race within the race and a new wrinkle in this iconic event. Heading to the check-point halfway through Day One, we were already minutes behind the lead singles. The sea was flat, Carter claimed he couldn't pull any faster and we needed to make a decisive move. As Captain of Team America, I shouted at the nearest blow hole for the rowdy bastards to form a diamond so that we could drop in behind.

I first learned about the PE2EL in 1994 at a month-long stage race from Chicago to New York when two of the participants, Anton Erasmus and Rob Welsh, regaled me with tales of a four-day torture-fest along the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Erasmus, now the race director of the Southern Shamaal PE2EL Challenge, reported that in 1977 he was 12 km from the finish on day one when he was upended by a Southern Right whale. "Bewildered and dazed," he staggered to the finish with a dislocated shoulder and passed out on thfe beach at Woody Cape.  Welsh, an idiosyncratic teacher with a Beethovfenesque mane of hair and a penchant for sucking back cigarettes and black coffee before we set out each morning, rhapsodized about the big runs but also described bone-crushing surf, debilitating blisters and open sores that made sitting in the bucket torture.

Plascon Challenge Missing Person

I figured they were tearing the ass out of it until I read a story headlined: "244 km of Sheer Hell" that described "mountainous spring-tide surf" that cannibalized skis at Woody Cape and included a sobering story about Robbie Clegg, former winner of the Fish River Marathon, who "disappeared in the surf for 30 minutes before being traced by lifesavers." As someone who typically launches off a dock into a tame channel, I made a mental note to enter the PE2EL as soon as Hades froze over.

In the Beginning there was a Bar

The origin of the PE2EL can be traced to an old-fashioned bar bet back in 1972. A runner named John Ball bet a barrel-chested surf lifesaver named John Woods that he could cover the distance from Port Elizabeth to East London faster on land than Woods could on water. Apparently neither was intoxicated enough to forget because at 3 a.m. on the morning on January 7 the duo raced out off the steps of the City Hall in P.E. and headed up the coast, one by land, one by sea.

I met John Woods at Woody Cape and the end of Day One. The 65-year-old father of Steve Woods, Poppa W has bright blue eyes, a deep voice and relaxed way about him. His nose looks like it's been on the wrong end of an elbow or two on the rugby field. He'd started into a headwind just as we'd done today. But while we paddled lightweight adjustable skis, Woods had paddled a heavy home-made model with a wood paddle and logged plenty of hours in the predawn dark. "I had to paddle by ear," he said. Enduring blisters, sea sickness, a "hectic" swim by a reef out to sea, searing heat, a broken escort boat and a damaged ski, it took him three days and eight hours - a mere 90 minutes behind Ball, "whose chief complaint was sunburnt ankles," Woods said.

John Woods Paul Chalupsky SS08 RobM

Legends: John Woods (left) and Paul Chalupsky

Most sane folks would have viewed this audacious act of perseverance as good theater and left it at that. But, let's face it, the citizens of this ruggedly beautiful wide-open land are more than a bit mad: Macho, stubborn, arrogant, and tough as biltong.  Something in the water compels them to play hard, long, and often - a trait made more extreme when Saffirs were excommunicated from the rest of the world during the Apartheid era. In any case, they saw in this ball-busting bar bet a perfect excuse to launch a four-day stage race, tough enough to sometimes leave tough guys in tears.

Approximately two dozen life savers entered the inaugural race in 1973 -- with Tony Scott, Paul Chalupsky and John Woods finishing 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

And So There We Were

So how did a flatlander from the Big Apple, someone well-versed in PE2EL lore, end up in Port Elizabeth on a rainy day in early December? Two words: Gavin Dickinson. A tall, hyperkinetic media-man living in Dubai, Gavin grew up in East London spending as much time at the Nahoon Surf Life Saving Club as possible. He looked up to hard men like Tony Scott and Paul Chalupsky and, later, Herman and Oscar, who would come to dominate the race.

Gavin Dickinson

Gavin Dickinson

In 2006, Gavin and Ian Kingon, another East Londoner living in Dubai, did the race in a double, a first for both. When I next saw him in Dubai and he described the experience, it was lekker this and and kiff that. "No other race has the camaraderie like this one; the guys really care for each other as it can be a very unforgiving environment. I love that!" He and a few mates in Dubai decided to organize an international relay race to run along side the "regular" PE2EL race. He was determined I would bring a US team to the race and just didn't seem to hear me when at first I demurred; the man's not in PR for nothing. In 2008 the race would be packaged with the Dubai Shamaal as the "Southern Shamaal", so, lucky me, I would get to do both.

Big Bucks in the Desert

Returning to Dubai just one year later I was amazed to see how much more development had occurred in this hyper-developed city that sports 25% of the world's cranes. The economy back home was as flat as my backside but the skyscrapers in Dubai were going up like a bumper crop of corn.

Similarly, the race purse had swelled to $130,000; the field was deeper and far more decorated than last year - and most agreed that the '07 edition was the best ever assembled for an ocean race. Four Olympic medal winners were on hand. Between Manual Busto and Ivan Lawler you had enough World Marathon Titles to fill a trophy case. And, oh yeah, most of the fleetest ocean paddlers on the planet were on hand: McGregor, Mocke, Jacobs, Pretorius, Bartho, Bouman, the Chalupsky brothers, Lewin, Jacobs, Gardiner, Cotter, Eckstein, Stewart, Jarrott, Nesbit, well, you get the idea. I counted more than 40 guys that I couldn't beat unless they had a baby at sea. Someone cynically quipped that if you wanted to put an end to competitive kayaking around the world all you had to do was bomb the pre-race meeting.

Heading from my hotel to the pre-race meeting, I asked Ivan Lawler how he expected to fare. At 42 Lawler looked much the same as he had when we met a decade ago at a multi-day race in Brazil. The three-time Olympian and six-time World Marathon Champion was retired but he'd recently taken to the ski and said he was really enjoyed being a beginner again. "It's a beautiful sport," he said, "a thinking man's game." He'd been training with Oscar and the mob in the Persian Gulf and was approaching the race "as if I'm the worst guy here - if I learn anything I'm a winner," he said - but in my mind he still was Ivan freakin' Lawler, a man who went 14 years without losing a marathon race in Great Britain. And he was here because he'd won a qualifying race in Wales that provided a free ticket to Dubai.  

Ivan Lawler

Ivan Lawler

 "Where do you hope to finish?"  I asked.

"Dunno," he said. "Top 50."

Bollocks, I thought.

Post Game Wrap Up

Most of the pre-race talk revolved around whether McGregor or Mocke would win; it seemed a given that it would be one of those two, with Tim Jacobs or Jeremy Cotter sharing the podium with them. I found it easy to make a good case for either man: Hank had dominated the river racing scene in SA and hadn't lost a ski race in 2008; Mocke, the two-time defending champ in Dubai, had edged Pretorius, Cotter and Oscar at the Man Dragon Run in Hong Kong a week earlier. But last year, Mocke recovered from a disastrous start and still trimmed Hank in Dubai. Tough call.

Then I spoke to Matt Bouman. Once SA's best surf life saver, the former Olympic hopeful insisted that McGregor was "the best surf ski paddler on the planet by some distance" and implied that it would take Moses in a motorboat to keep a fit and rested Hank off the top step. I don't know about you but when a 6'8" paddler with a "Sundance Kid" ‘stache and jagged scars across his chest insists on something, I tend to agree.

Matt Boumann

Matt Bouman

And so the speculating game continued.  

How Fast Was the Mob?

The other pre-race debate had revolved around the Beijing boys - Kenny Wallace, Ben Fouhy, Eirik Veras Larsen, and Tim Brabants. Would one of them win the Thule Gates Hot Spot? Could any of them crack the top 10? Would this cross-over influx of honed talent have a big impact on the sport?  The race answered our questions: no, no, and not yet.

Kenny Wallace

Kenny Wallace

Only Wallace, who had won gold in the K1/500 and bronze in the K1/1000, cracked the top 20, coming in 18th. Fouhy, a Kiwi who held the world record for 1000 meters until recently, was 24th. Norway's Larsen, silver medalist in the K1/1000, was 30th; one place ahead of nine-time world marathon champ Manuel Busto, the short muscular Spaniard who arrived with a camera crew, masseuse and lofty expectations. Lawler was 35th and countryman Brabants, a gold and bronze medalist in Beijing, was 40th.

The disparity between the ski specialists and the flat water paddlers proved how different the two sports actually are, especially when there's motion in the ocean. Witness the performance of the first-place women, Michele Eray, who came in 38th overall. More than a few folks noticed that this slim 29-year-old woman had trimmed one of the male Olympic champions. But Eray, who competed for South Africa in the K2 and K4 in Beijing, began paddling a ski when she was 14. In 2002, she and Kim Rew became the first women to complete the PE2EL in single skis. In other words, the woman knows how to connect the dots at sea; whereas the flat water boys wore themselves out sprinting up the backs of waves.

Michele Eray

Michele Eray

Lots of Shrimp for the Barbie

Though the top 10 was split equally between Springboks and Aussies, five out of the top seven were from the Land of Oz. Tim Jacobs, of course, made the biggest splash. The dominant ski paddler in Australia, TJ had two New Zealand King of the Harbour titles on his resume but he'd yet to break through at a major international race. As Dean Gardiner remarked, not only was it the first time "a black boat" [the ultra-light carbon Epic ski] had crossed the line first at a World Cup Event, the race showcased the emergence of Aussie ocean Ironmen as a force in ski paddling, in Dean's mind a turning point for the sport.

Tim Jacobs

Tim Jacobs

Deano was referring to the appearance of former professional Ironman Jeremy Cotter (3rd) and current Ironman Caine Eckstein (4th), his 22-year-old training partner. Cotter, who resembles Brad Pitt (or at least Pitt's business manager), is so lean even his face looks muscular, "but Caine," he said, "is fitter than me." Add the other young gun, 23-year-old Murray Stewart (6th) - a former Springbok who moved to Australia when he was 14 - and toss in skilled surf life saving studs like Kirk Jarrott, Brendan Sarson, and Marcus Brockhurst and you had a host of hungry paddlers eager to cash in on the recent influx of prize money in the sport. But, as Deano said, "There are many more ridiculously fast young guys right behind."

Business Time

While the bulk of the mob carried on swilling $7 beers at the post-race bash, a dozen of us retired early in order to catch a 4:30 a.m. flight to Johannesburg and a connecting flight to Port Elizabeth. With the change in venue came a change in thinking, from being a solo racer to being part of a four-person unit.  I knew two of my teammates -- Carter Johnson, a 33-year-old endurance freak who lives on a house boat in Sausalito, CA, and Zsolt Szadovszki, a former Hungarian National Team member who hangs his many hats in Hawaii - but I'd not met Patrick Dolan, a laid-back 20-year-old from Oahu who'd been training with the US Sprint Team in Chula Vista, CA, until I arrived in Dubai. Carter, Zsolt and I were casual friends but by race day we'd downed so many lattes and covered so much conversational ground - from the Presidential election to Iraq to barroom brawls to the virtues of tantric sex (Zolt's specialty) - that long before I learned how to pronounce Szadovszki we felt like an actual team.

US Team

Left to Right: Zsolt Szadovszki, Pat Dolan, Carter Johnson, Joe Glickman

A similar team-building exercise took place when Dean Gardiner organized an outing to the Addo Elephant National Park. Dean and I go way back but this was the first time I'd meet Jeremy Cotter, Caine Eckstein and Murray Stewart.  In the van on the way to the park, conversation was slow to nonexistent. I tried to break the ice with wry Brooklyn humor and when that failed I offered to buy lunch if they would laugh at my knock-knock jokes. Fortunately the mood improved when we discovered that each of us had spent the flight from Dubai to Johannesburg watching the New Zealand singing comedy team The Flight of the Conchords. If you haven't had the pleasure, check out Business Time:

 

But what sealed the deal was a startling phenomenon that none of us is likely to forget any time soon. We drove for a long while through the park's undulating hills, seeing great mounds of elephant poop but nary a pachyderm. That is, until Deano spotted a small gray mountain wobbling our way like a Sherman tank made of Jell-O. We sat in the van and waited....until a hulking bull with tusks as long as surf boards ambled up so close that I could see his dusty eyelashes. He was urinating on his hind quarters, making a swishing sound with every step. Cotter, the least mature in the bunch, pointed to the lad's prodigious member and broke into a chorus of Business Time.  If you have just listened to it, you'll get the joke.

It's Way Too Early to Get Wet

The race started at Blue Water Bay.  At 6:30 a.m. Carter and I set off in the last wave with the elite skis and punched through the small breaking waves into the mist and followed a conga line of skis up the coast on the glassy sea.  An hour later, the aforementioned dolphins arrived like a friendly squadron of fighter pilots and by 8:45 we surfed into the Sunday's River check point where we handed off to our doubles team of Patrick and Zsolt.

Too Early

While we changed into dry clothes on the deep soft sand at the deserted beach at Sunday's River, the boys we'd started with carried on up the coast. Drinking my first cup of coffee at a roadside farm stand, a full eight hours after staggering out of bed, I was reasonably sure that those doing all 75 km would have bartered a month's worth of Sundays for some cloud cover and a cranking west wind up the bum.

WOODY CAPE

Standing on the boardwalk overlooking Woody Cape is to bask in the glory that is the coastline of the Eastern Cape -- peaceful, powerful, timeless - a pristine landscape of towering dunes that dissolve into the sea and extend for as far as the eye can see. At lunch, Oscar maintained that even with a six minute deficit, Lightee Pretorius and Matt Bouman would catch Murray Stewart and Dean Gardiner. Of course, Oscar would probably have felt the same had his wife Claire and 71-year-old father been chasing but, in fact, it wasn't an unreasonable prediction. Lightee had finished second in Dubai and Bouman was 8th despite puncturing badly. To me, the X-factor was Deano. With Murray Stewart he had a rocket in his pocket, but the 43-year-old downwind specialist had finished 28th in Dubai and seemed utterly uninterested in hurting himself -- especially into the wind over 50 km. Though he'd blasted with the big boys early on in Dubai, he backed off in the downwind chop. "I lost interest," he told me afterwards. "I'm just bored with it all...."

Team Australia

Murray Stewart and Dean Gardiner

The shore break at Woody Cape was mellow but every so often some serious sets hammered the beach. Waiting for the first double, Herman Chalupsky told me that he'd once got so worked on a 10-foot foamy coming in that "my foot pedals ended up behind my rosy." No such trouble for Deano and Murray Stewart, who 3 hours and 56 minutes later, surfed seamlessly to the beach -- six minutes clear of Lightie and Big Matt, whose legs buckled like a newborn colt's shortly after he hit the beach.  Short of some serious mishap, I thought, it's all over: Game, Set, Match, Team Australia.  

Matt Boumann

Matt Bouman 

The first through paddlers to reach the beach were the Bartho boys, Daryl and Brett. Hank McGregor was the first single, 84 seconds ahead of Scott Rutherfoord. Three-time champ Paul Marais was hot on Scotty's bony tail. These boys had been out there for just over six and a half hours. The last time I'd paddled near that long was at the death march that was the 2007 Molokai and the following morning I felt as if I'd tussled with a sumo wrestler in the sauna. But these poor bastards had a three-day slog ahead of them. 

Hank the Tank

Hank McGregor

The seconds set up camp in a field behind the pool at the Woody Cape campground. That afternoon the scene resembled a cross between a M*A*S*H unit and a nursing-home pool party, with guys laying along side their vans seeking shelter from the sun. Bevan Manson, his swollen hands streaked with red iodine, wondered if he'd be able to carry on. Haydn Skinner, who'd logged 100 km sessions in training, had all but wrecked his shoulder. Haydn Holmes could only chuckle describing how he'd blown like an old inner tube. 

Brendon Thompson reclined on the grass as his wife drained his blisters with a hyperemic needle better suited to anesthetize a race horse. This was his 10th PE2EL - it was the race that inspired him to start paddling. He and his lanky young partner Grant Van Der Walt, the former Junior World Marathon Champion, had seen whales, dolphins, penguins and scalloped hammerheads and finished just four minutes behind the Barthos. Blisters, fatigue and the head wind predicted for tomorrow couldn't dim his enthusiasm. "This is the most incredible race," he said. When I walked away he was still smiling.  

And so it went for the next three days.

Race Within a Hasselehoff

We woke up each morning in darkness, launched at dawn and took strain along a pristine coast that demanded superlatives. Never had I done a race where paddlers discussed whale sighting before their personal performance. In fact, there were so many whales that unless you'd spotted a humpback's tonsils no one really cared. Afterwards, we hovered around the keg of Zulu Blond suds manned by the chain-smoking, rowdy brew master and talked some serious shit. In Hamburg at the race briefing at end of Day 3 I made a mental note: Paul Marais, the lanky, laconic defending champ from Cape Town would not catch Hank McGregor but he would kick his ass in the beer-swilling department.

Zulu Blond

 

By his own his lofty standards, Hank McGregor had had a disastrous race in Dubai. Twenty minutes after the frenetic start Hank moved to the front and inexplicably cut far too close to shore.  His 11th place finish proved that the man most consider the dominant ski paddler in the world could actually have a bad race.

Not along the Eastern Cape. Hank dominated the singles while Scotty Rutherfoord and Paul Marais battled for second. When Thompson and Van Der Walt sheared off their rudder launching at Woody Cape on Day 2, Team Bartho had little to do save keep  their craft afloat. Luckily for me (as it turned out), Richard Von Wildemann bailed. A few months ago the rabid waterman from East London had dislocated his shoulder surfing Jefferies Bay on a monstrous day. He'd showed up in Dubai, a last-minute decision, and notched an impressive 20th. But it had taken him eight hours to finish Day 1 and his shoulder said, "My good man, enough is enough."  Heading through the break on Day 2 I got cleaned off my ski when a boat sent backwards by a breaking wave slammed across my chest. The Feral One, who was watching from the shore, sprinted through the surf like a real-deal David Hasselehoff, steadied my ski and shoved me out to sea.

The through paddlers who endured each kilometer with nary a run during their four days of toil were the true heroes of the race and I applaud them, but what interested me most from a competitive point of view was the performance by Team Australia. The crux of the Aussie vs. SA rivalry seemed epitomized by the duels Oscar and Deano have waged over the years. Both, clearly, are downwind masters but while Oscar paddles to the brink in virtually any condition, Dean picks his spots depending on his fitness, his mood and the conditions. Both had young beasts on their squads and given the flat conditions it could be argued that their greatest asset would be as tacticians and team leaders. So I was more than a bit surprised when the Aussie doubles team of Stewart and Gardiner controlled the race from the start.

Murray's father won the PE2EL in a double with Paul Chalupsky in 1977. For as long as Stewart could remember he'd heard about this grand, character-building race. However, young Muzz had several concerns beyond the fact that he'd never paddled further than 30 km and that he and Dean had disparate paddling styles. He was also worried about Dean's motivation. But that faded the moment they hit the water. "Dean worked really hard in conditions that aren't his specialty," he told me. "He puts a lot of thought into how he races and made sure to keep me filled in: How we would navigate the surf, which line to take out at sea, when to push, when to rest, which days we needed to really put the hammer down and which days we could take it a bit easier. He had the race under control right from the start."

Cotter and Eckstein, who burned off the competition by trading three-to-five minute pulls with surgical precision, impressed me no end. A 29-year-old from the Gold Coast, Cotter trains "only" twice a day now -- down from the three-to-four daily sessions he logged during his 10-year career as an Ocean Ironman. Cotter may be the more potent ski paddler right now but the enormously able Caine - the two-time Coolangatta Gold winner - seems poised to kick some serious ass in the not so distant future.  Back in Brooklyn, I asked the quiet lad via e-mail about the next World Cup event in Perth in January. "I think the Saffas have begun to recognize us as first-class competition, although I could imagine them saying, ‘If there was wind we wouldn't have come close.' So I can‘t wait for the next few years of great downwind races as they'll get to see that Australia does get wind and we do training in any conditions."

Winners

Cotter and Eckstein cross the line

But I wondered if the "next few years" was the here and now. Do the math: the combined ages of Eckstein + Stewart = Oscar, who won the World Cup Points title the last two seasons. Who do the South Africans have who can go with them?  Hank and Mocke, both 30 years old, are clearly up to the task.  Toss in Lightee, who's capable of surprisingly everyone but himself, and Bouman, a prodigious talent if he stays healthy and focused and, well, it's Business Time on the high seas.  

Joe Glickman

 

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