Low water and low braces were the theme at this year’s 13th annual running of North Carolina’s notorious Green River Race, with year-long bragging rights as well as the coveted stained glass trophy on the line once again for the winner. In no surprise, that winner was Pat Keller once again, raging through the course in 4:31, riding the lower water level just three seconds slower than his record time of 4:28 in 2007.
Still, the low water – only 6 inches on the gauge, compared to 9 inches at the normal flow of 100 percent – took its toll on racers’ psyche, who still had to thread their way down a half-mile course dropping 300 hair-raising feet.
“The low water made Gorilla pretty scary,” says long-time racer Shane Benedict of Liquid Logic. “It’s full-on on that level—you can get messed-up up top pretty easily, and then land on rocks in just four inches of water. There were tons of weird lines and people were running it every which way. Someone even said we should have a backwards class.”
Still, more than 100 paddlers were up to the challenge, with about 30 new racers taking part – the most new racers ever. But perhaps they just didn’t know any better.
“A lot of local racers backed out this year,” adds Benedict. “Still, I thought the number of entrants would have dropped to 50 or so because Gorilla was so hard, but we had close to a hundred so a bunch of people stepped up.”
The racers’ times were on target as well. “Folks went really fast this year, considering the low water,” says co-organizer Chris Bell. “And nobody got injured, despite the low water. The rest of the rapids are easier at this year's level, but Gorilla is arguably more dangerous.”
Indeed, while no one even went upside-down in Gorilla this year, elbow-to-elbow spectators were treated to a number of new and different lines, even by cagey veterans, in this annual rite of passage for Class V paddlers.
With perennial favorite Tommy Hilleke noticeable absent this year (kid number three is on the way), following Keller’s smoking time in the long boat division was Chris Gragtmans four seconds back at 4:35, Eric Deguil at 4:42, Issac Levinson at 4:43, and Andrew Holcombe at 4:49.
"The water level definitely made it difficult to have fast times," says Keller, who's now won the event twice. Despite school and work getting in the way of training, he adds that he spun out below Gorilla last year and lost 6-8 seconds, but that this year, depsite the low water, he "had much better lines."
He adds that it was also great to see so many slalom boaters like Levinson, Geoff Calhoun and Eric Herd come out for the event.
But he also adds that the low water even made him a bit nervous. "There was enough to fire into Gorilla with some level of comfort, but that's about it," he says, adding that he doesn't even run Gorilla below 60-percent flows. He also took a hand-paddle run, but admits he "was too scared to to do a training run beforehand."
Running back up for the short boat division, Deguil notched first in that category at 5:01, followed by Gragtmans three seconds back at 5:04 and Holcombe third at 5:09. Gragtmans’ finish earned him the coveted IronMan title for fastest long and short boat time combined.
There were only two DNF boats, and Ryan Snodgrass has the coveted honor of coming in last but alive at 21:50.
“Gorilla was a total zoo, as usual,” says Bell. “And it’s super difficult at lower water levels -- climbing that hump at the top knowing what is below puts a knot in your gut.”
“The Green Race is a fantastic community event, and filled with tons of fun and merriment amidst the serious business going on,” says John Pilson, AW's Green Narrows stream keeper. “But the water was lowthis year from the drought, and that kept a bunch of people from racing as it makes Gorilla pretty sketchy.”
One highlight was Paul Stamilio's line through Gorilla after he chocked his paddle in the Notch. Without much time to recover, he missed his first roll and finally rolled up at the lip of the drop, only to piton. “He recovered like a champ and had a great time all the same,” says Pilson. “He is a tough son of a bitch.”
Other highlights included a spectator falling in the drink at Scream Machine and having a rough go of it before being roped out; and winner Pat Keller's hand paddle line off Gorilla. As he dropped the main drop he clapped his hand paddles together twice and spectators could hear both claps. “It was, way, way cool,” says Pilson. “There is likely no other paddler going who could pull that off. Pat is in a class above the rest of us mere mortals.”
When all was said and done, every one once again went to Woody Callaway’s house for a Woodrow-style raging bash every bit as hard to survive as Gorilla. And when everyone awoke the next day and made their way through the empty beer cups to the official race site for results, they found this sign: “Only 367 days, 18 hours to go until the 2009 Green River Race. Sat., Nov. 7, High Noon.”
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Bonus: 10 Things You Don't Know About the Green Race!
1. Last year’s 12th running of the race was one for the record books. It saw the most competitors (145), most spectators (1,000, including a man in a chicken suit), and two new course records: Andrew Holcombe’s 4:27 bested Tommy Hilleke’s record of 4:34 set in 2005, and Robin Betz’ women’s win at 5:23 eclipsed the mark of 5:46 set by Nikki Kelly in 2002.
2. The worst carnage ever befell Nick Easley in 2006, whose wreck in Gorilla has garnered 10,578 views on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=D35fat6vdWA). Suffering broken ribs, a concussion and a punctured lung, Easley spent a week in the hospital after cowboying up and hiking two miles out. “For the most part we’ve pretty lucky with injuries,” says organizer Jason Hale, whose e-mail handle is H20Beatdown. “Most injuries happen while people are training. On race day you have the best safety you could ever hope for.”
3. The water for the race is turned on by a guy named Frank, who works for Duke Power. In 2004, high water in Lake Summit upstream forced him to crank the flow up to a whopping 250 percent. The event was officially cancelled, but seven paddlers raced anyway. This year Frank must have been dosing. The release came late, causing the hundred or so spectators paddling in to get caught in a self-coined “bubblefuck.” “People had to wait for the next rapid to fill up before they could go downstream,” says one bubble rider, who saw 30 people jammed into the 10-person eddy above Go Left. “It was sketchy as hell for a moment. As soon as I thought there was enough water I hauled ass out of there and never looked back.”
4. With no entry fee and no prize money, each year racers simply compete for The Glass, a coveted stained glass trophy made by local boater Todd Graff. The design varies every year, but never sways far from its roots: a kayaker descending the maw of Gorilla. Small trophies are handed out for the women’s, hand paddle and short boat categories, but The Glass itself is reserved for the fastest paddler, period. So far it graces the windows of Jason Hale, Al Gregory, Tommy Hilleke, Pat Keller and this year’s winner, Andrew Holcombe (Clay Wright won the inaugural pre-trophy event).
5. Partying’s as much of the program as paddling, with the race book-ended by major ragers. The last two years this has included a post-race alligator-Jambalaya blow-out breaking in Woody Callaway’s new house at the take-out. “I told my neighbors I was going to have a ‘little” party,’” says Callaway. “It turned out to be more than 300 people. The next day one of my neighbors said, ‘I hope to God you never tell me you are going to have a BIG party.”
6. Manufacturers get into the action, too. Over the years, the race has spawned several new kayak designs, including this year’s 11’9” Remix 100 from Liquidlogic, 11’6” Momentum from Wave Sport, and 11’9” Green Boat from Dagger (production model to be released this spring). The Green took the top four spots this year, and the Remix the next two, and eighth through tenth. The boat with the most wins? A blue Prijon Tornado with eight, two by Jason Hale and six by Tommy Hilleke. “There’s a fine line between good speed and being able to run Class V safely,” says Holcombe, adding that how a boat sheds water is almost as important as its length.
7. The Green Man (or IronMan) title goes to those with the balls to race both short and long boat categories (Glen LePlante set the tone by first doing so in 2003). This year 15 people rattled their nerves in the sadistic combo, towing the extra kayaks behind them on the paddle in and then stashing them at the start to retrieve for run number two, with Chris Gragmans coming out on top with a combined time of 9:39. “It was never that popular until Glenn did it,” says local Green Man John Grace. “You’re subjecting yourself to the same punishment twice.”.
8. The race’s Zen-master is six-time winner Tommy Hilleke, who, in 2006, lost for the first time since 2000 only because he moved to Colorado. He credits it to time in the saddle. “A lot of it is just knowing the river,” says Hilleke, who estimates he’s paddled it up to 700 times. “At that point I probably had more descents down it than anyone.”
9. The only year a banner has been at the race was in 2004 when Red Bull put a giant inflatable arch across the river near the finish line. Despite a raging Red Bull and vodka party, the commercialism was frowned upon and banners were never allowed at the race again (organizer Jason Hale rounds up just enough sponsorship funding to cover race costs and t-shirts).
10. It is good karma to yell "Ride the Lightning!" while launching off the launch-pad lip at the top of Gorilla. No one’s quite sure why it relates to kayaking Gorilla, but the term was coined during a high-water run by Hilleke and refers to metal band Metallica's second album, released in 1984