The Runner and The Kayaker


I feel that same familiar feeling as I stare down at a rapid I’ve seen a dozen times, except this time, I’m geared to run it. Instead of tingling nerves, a fluttering belly, and sweating palms, a sense of indifference creeps in. Like a cold, dense fog, it veils my vision and mutes my voice. The pieces are there: I have adequate safety, I see my line, and I find the risks and consequences of this particular sequence acceptable. Not to mention, it’s a pretty impeccable spring day in the Green River Gorge; the leaves are on the verge of bursting and spark a tangy yellow when backlit by the late morning sun.

“You said you want to be here,” I remind myself. “You sat down and wrote out goals, and this was one of them.” But suddenly I feel slow and sluggish, like I’d rather be at home under some blankets.

Photo: Chad Blotner

Chris jolts me back to the riverbank. “What are you feeling?” he asks. I hesitate; he already knows which wheels are turning in my head; he’s seen the thousand-yard stare sink on to my face before. The granite boulders stare back at me as I shift my vision downstream. Chris hovers for a minute before heading back upstream to get in his boat. After he leaves, I decide to take a final minute to assess: not the river but what, exactly, it is that I’m feeling.

I return to this feeling of wanting to be at home under a blanket. It makes me chuckle because of how comfortable that would be compared to where I am now, weighted down with bulky safety gear, cold, and about to do something scary. And then it dawns on me. I had forgotten what it was like to take myself out of my comfort zone, expand my spectrum of acceptable circumstances, and press onward.

With a wry smile, I hoof it back upstream to get in my boat and meet Chris in the eddy. “You gonna go for it?” he asks, though it’s evident I’ve chosen my downstream path. “Eddy to eddy,” I reply, snapping my sprayskirt back in place. I’m comfortable with getting uncomfortable.

Photo: Chad Blotner

I once heard that great kayakers must enjoy getting into trouble. I meditate on this as I pound up and down the road that runs alongside the Green River. Kayaking and running don’t really have anything to do with one another, I always thought, but already my environment has forced me to reconsider this notion as I bounce beside my backyard river four to five times a week. What makes a great runner, then? I ask myself. That one is easy, my knees reply. They’ve been dull aching since Mile 6, and I’ve four more to go on this training run. Stubbornness is to mischief in this analogy; great kayakers must be a little mischievous and great runners must be a little stubborn.

But we all need a little balance, my sore hip reminds me. It’s got a spicy warmth to it since I’ve been neglecting my core exercises lately. My one-dimensional pursuits are always with the best intentions but seem to leave me coming up short somewhere farther down the road.

The next day is an off day from marathon training so I find myself on the river instead. At the take out, I strike up a conversation with a local paddler I’ve not seen around before. Our chat leads from paddling to our hometown to running; he’s a runner, too. Off-handedly, I mention that I think my running pursuits have made me a better paddler, and I’m surprised by his startled reaction. “Really?” he replies, incredulous. “How do you figure?”

Prolonged focus, or “mental is a muscle.”
The lure of kayaking is, perhaps, its fleeting gratification. Rapids are over in an instant, and we are forever chasing that high of staring down the beast of fear and getting the better of it; it’s true, too, that we might not be as interested in that tango if the beast didn’t occasionally prove to be a formidable opponent and best us. Consider, though, that those moments of pure focus are just that: moments. Flexing your mental muscle can be exhausting after just a few battles with the monkey on your back. Have you ever gotten to the takeout and been absolutely fatigued more so from knocking down a handful of mental challenges than any physical exertion?

On the other hand, have you ever taken some time off from paddling only to return and find you’ve lost a bit of your nerve? The adage of “mental is a muscle” gets me through some tough but necessary moments, on the water and off. I have to flex, train, and yes, even rest, my mental muscle the same as my real muscles; otherwise, I risk the same kinds of overuse injuries or burn outs on my mind as I do my body.

Cross-training my kayaking with running forced me to improve my focus fitness. Suddenly, I didn’t have to focus on precise execution for just a few minutes but for hours on end. One slip could cost me the tenacity to make it through an exceptionally challenging workout.

A few months after my marathon, I found myself as an assistant guide on a kayaking trip in Chile. We gather the group to scout one of the trickiest rapids of the day, and my role is to talk through the scout, helping everyone understand the approach and outcome. As instructor, it also leaves me to bring up the rear. I hike back to my boat alone, nerves backflipping in my belly, but I hear the familiar voice in my head, the fierce one I often heard during my long hours of pounding pavement. I talk myself through my plan of action—there’s no question or doubt in my approach—and, as I peel out of the eddy, my brain goes blank, auto-tuned for complete, focused execution. I gained that mental fitness during those hot, hateful miles of marathon training, only to get to put it to great use on some of Chile’s fabled whitewater.

Comfort in discomfort.
There’s no way around it: kayaking is uncomfortable. From the gear we have to wear to the complex layering, cramped kayaks, and just about every aspect of our river environment (rocks are hard and water is cold), this is a pursuit that demands desire in order to overcome the initial barriers of discomfort. Beyond that, we see the truly great river seekers as those with the most developed sense of comfort, in their crafts and out of them. If we know we will be uncomfortable either in preparation or execution, we better learn to enjoy it, or at least learn how to cope.

I’ll be the first to admit I used to be pretty willing to take a beating on the river, but as I got better at paddling, I found myself willfully seeking those humility-inducing experiences less and less. Hitting my head on rocks, getting hammered by powerful features, or risking a swim seemed less appealing because, well, I learned how to paddle in a state of relative comfort without those experiences.

But those of us that take to the river often enough know it’s not a matter of if we are humbled by the river, but when, and it’s advantageous to embrace that discomfort out the gate.

I re-learned how to suffer from running, because running is all-suffering. That moment on the river where I was so anxious to seek comfort over challenge was a result of simply forgetting what it was like to be uncomfortable, and there are no free passes or easy miles in my personal exercise of balance. Once I learned fortitude through continued discomfort—the sore muscles, the exhausted mind, the aching joints—I realized I was missing this mark on the river. Getting uncomfortable and finding joy on the other side is a part of our journey downstream.

Processing struggle and trauma.
My long training runs gave me a lot of time to think, and it was usually about kayaking and sometimes about food. The truth is that I started running a few years ago for the same reason most people start running: to escape. I had a few scary, outright crappy river experiences and I was embarrassed or otherwise unable to process my way back to a place of positivity with kayaking. Looking for an excuse to not go paddling when all my friends were headed to the river, I started running instead.

It’s no secret that sports, particularly those with meditative qualities where we can get lost in action, can help us process trauma. I just never thought I would find a desire to come back to kayaking while trying to run away from it.

There’s nothing to do on a run but think, and I ended up spending many of my miles thinking about my kayaking. I visualized running rapids—some I’ve run before, some I haven’t—over and over and over again; I revisited those painful experiences and picked them apart, analyzing what I could have done differently and what I can do better the next time around. The space between the river and me was deliberate but not one of paralysis as I kept moving, kept processing, and kept seeking. Simply put, running served as a catharsis and a conduit for acceptance, eventually allowing me to return to the river emboldened by my experiences, not in spite of them.

Photo: Chad Blotner

There’s an old joke about needing a vacation from your vacation. Sometimes we need an outlet for our outlet; meaning, we need to find a way to better ourselves in our pursuits by expanding the means in which we seek to achieve. Athletes of all veins are encouraged to cross-train; even my beginner’s marathon training plan mandated that much. Balancing our river passion through cross-training—be it yoga, mountain biking, running, etc.—can keep us from becoming stagnant by growing our perspective. It can improve our mental fitness, elevate our ability to withstand adversity, use experience to better perform, and seek rehabilitation for trauma and struggle. It can re-ignite passion and motivation, perhaps having gone stale, altogether. It can remind us why we like to play outside to begin with.

I was once told that kayaking is not a hobby, but a lifestyle. I never thought I would be one of those actively trying to make that a reality by pursuing paddlesports for a living, but here I am, trying to find longevity through the river. We’ve all seen that paddler or river guide, old enough to be someone’s grandparent, but young enough in spirit to remind us of all the joy to be found by following the current. If we’re clever enough, we, too, can be lifelong river chasers.

The mountain air is light and crisp, promising the kind of weather I had been crossing my fingers for for weeks; I can see the autumn sun sneaking glances at the early morning shadows and promising to put them back to bed in an hour’s time. Geared up once more, I double and triple check my pack to make sure I’ve got everything I need: extra gels, hydration salts, and, heaven forbid, a bit of toilet paper. My stomach flutters and I take a moment to make sure it’s nerves, not coffee hard at work.

Stealing glances at the racers around me, I try to pick out the veterans from the rookies, and I wonder if they can tell I’m here, at the start line of a marathon, for the first time. I pace, waiting for the race director to give the last call before counting us down. I survey the crowd again and break into a wry smile; these runners could easily be paddlers at any put-in of any river or on the banks above any reputable rapid. The nerves and energy just before taking the leap and leaving the comfort of the eddy were unmistakable to me. This was my tribe! I knew these people; we were all about to start downstream with a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of stubbornness.

I really start to hurt around Mile 22; there’s no talking my way out of it. This is the marathon. Instead of trying to forget my discomfort, I sink into it, knowing it’s a rite of passage for those of us who choose this path. I glance to my right and spy Wilson Creek, one of my favorite kayaking runs, meandering along what’s left of the race course; its presence gives me some much needed vitality. I grit my teeth, refocus, and choose to let the river guide my feet 4.2 more miles.