It can be a mixed bag for the wife of a racer: Part 2

As I described in my post on May 28th, becoming a kayaker mid-life can be a daring adventure.  When your intended beloved becomes a United States Canoe Association racer (State and now Nationally-ranked) you have a couple of decisions to make.  The first one was whether or not I would also learn to kayak.  Would I become a “kayaking widow” a couple of nights per week as my River Bear practices then races throughout the State of Indiana?  The second one is if I did paddle, what kind of kayaker would I become?  Recreational?  Racer?  Eeeeek, no!

Steve dons his dry suit here in the Midwest by about April or as soon as there is open water in our local rivers after the long Winter.  Initially he would borrow my Think Fit (sea kayak) to start his season as it was more stable and forgiving when wearing this neck-to-toe zoot suit.  As the weather warmed up he transitioned to either his Thunderbolt (open cockpit racing kayak) or surf ski (sit-on-top ocean vessel) as I reclaimed the Think Fit to join him with our Tuesday night Fort Wayne Kayaking Group.  As I described in my previous post, one of the fears a paddler must overcome is that of falling into the water and drowning.   To help guard against this outcome you can wear a paddling life vest, choose a more stable boat, or upgrade to a surf ski.  When you topple out of a surf ski you will have a much easier time re-entering the boat, especially in deeper water.  The kayak won’t fill up with water since the hull is a closed system.  This provides you an excellent flotation device to hang onto should you topple over, until you can either re-mount the boat or swim with it to safety.  This surf ski design began to look appealing to me in my second season of paddling.  So did having a kayak that was even lighter and narrower making it easier to paddle.

You could say that I was the first in the Midwest to bring home a Think Fit and then a Stellar SR.  In time the introduction of the Stellar line would open up opportunities for my River Bear, Steve, to become a representative for both Stellar and Epic kayaks here in Indiana.  Cool beans.  Wifey-poo done good!  I had so many offers to purchase the Think Fit that it wasn’t hard to sell it when a suitable Stellar SR became available.  Our friend Allan took to it easily and made waves, literally, that I could have never accomplished as a recreational paddler.  My baby found a good home and served her new racer well.  He even won a medal at his first Nationals in his age class:  his first year competing and finishing in a torrential thunderstorm!  Ah, the things that become normal when racing enters your life.  Yes of course we were cheering him on equally drenched at the finish!

At first I doubted my decision to upgrade to a beginner surf ski.  Sure there would be a learning curve but when my maiden voyage in a friend’s private ski lake yielded a nearly effortless glide with my winged carbon-fiber paddle, I thought I “knew” that I had made the right decision.  Or did I?  I can recall nearly panicking as I paddled between lakes in a local chain-o-lakes:  my legs outstretched and straddling either side of the boat for stability.  What had I done?  The cross-winds were fierce in open water!  Forget the great secondary stability it’s the initial stability that I was sorely missing!  Once in the channel I could calm down a bit.  Whew.  “This is going to take some practice,” I muttered to myself.  But was that what I wanted as a recreational paddler?  Not really.  I like to stop and grab a drink of water or bite of a snack bar along the way in addition to taking advantage of navigating a more streamlined, lighter vessel.  Learning the sport from my racer husband had landed me in unfamiliar territory for sure!  Now that Allan had already bonded with the Think Fit there was no use looking back to my first love (the kayak, that is!).  Back to the calmer lake we went for more practice before the next outing . . .

Julie in the Stellar SR

Julie in the Stellar SR

The Fort Wayne Kayaking Group was headed to the Cedarville Reservoir in Leo, Indiana early in October.  The boat launch just over the bridge provides access to the St. Joe River to the north and to the reservoir to the south.  Later Steve would remind me that my first paddle when we were dating was in that reservoir.  Sweet.  Now it was three years later in the Fall:  October 11, 2011 to be exact.  I did pretty well that beautiful night for my third outing in the Stellar SR, continuing to wear a life vest for added security.  Unfortunately I made 4 costly mistakes that evening.  First, I let the mouth of my water bottle make contact with the greenish water.  Second, I ate a snack that I had saved in the zippered pouch of my life vest even though it had become a little mushy, perhaps melted.  I was hungry and it hit the spot!  Third, a winged paddle tends to throw a lot of water into the air, particularly for beginners just learning the more efficient racing stroke for which it is designed, which also sent blue green algae aerosols into the air.  And fourth, I doubt that I washed my hands after we loaded up the boats and sampled one of the member’s luscious peanut butter cookies she often brought to top off the Tuesday night paddles.  Within 24 hours I was deathly ill and it was not from the cookie!

Within 36 hours I thought I was going to die.  Seriously.  Have you ever been in so much pain that all you can do is moan, holler, and moan in agony some more?  After the second trip to the doctor’s office that week, he sent me to the emergency room for IV fluids mixed with anti-nausea medication.  We figured by then that it was from something in the water but what could it be?  The weekend was hell on earth.  In between vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and unbelievable abdominal pain eventually my brain started to put the pieces together in what was left of my mind.  Early the next week some blind internet searching found a report documenting the testing of Indiana rivers and lakes.  In a chart written in 2005 describing various cyanobacteria populating stagnant waters in the Spring and Fall I found it:  cylinderospermopsis.  I matched all of the symptoms listed for exposure.  The treatment?  “Supportive measures” as needed.  I already had that.  What else?  I didn’t need the other recommendation thankfully:  intubation or life support.  My liver enzymes were elevated but that didn’t indicate any additional treatment at the time.  These days I wish that I had been administered activated charcoal back then.  Oh well.  It’s amazing what 2 1/2 more years of research yields that could have been helpful at the beginning of this exceedingly difficult journey.

I never paddled the Stellar SR again.  Here’s a picture of me in the one that has now gotten away.  We never fully bonded.  I never fully mastered her.  ‘Tis bittersweet you might say for the wife of a kayak racer.  I had learned so much and come so far since my maiden voyage in that plastic Sirocco in the summer of 2007 only to stop as they say, “dead in the water.”

Julie in the SR in early October 2011

Julie in the SR in early October 2011

The next 2 1/2 years was a wretched process trying to figure out why I wasn’t getting well.  Was it Chronic Lyme disease?  Biotoxin illness such as cyanobacteria and mold?  Non-epileptic seizures?  For more on finding hope during the medical part of this story just scroll through this blog a bit for the good/bad/ugly of overcoming a serious illness.  As for kayaking and while the battle continues today, there have been enough recent improvements that I am able to get back into the water for limited outings.  I am exceedingly grateful for the improvements.  The Lord appears to be restoring the years the “locusts” (as in pesky little cyano-bugs) have eaten (Joel 2:25), slowly but surely.  He has sustained me through this hellish journey and many nights home alone while I supported Steve in his continuing to progress as a USCA racer.  He has done well and I am proud of him.  That’s the benefit for me of having a Heavenly Husband at home with me in my heart while my earthly husband is away.  It works that way for us gals whether we are married or single.  It’s all good:  whether or not you are with your paddling buddy or not you are never really alone when you have Jesus in your heart.

My watercraft of choice has now changed.  When I did try to sit in the cockpit of the Stellar SR, I realized that my balance skills were now altered.  How in the world would I ever enjoy paddling a tippier kayak with an altered center of gravity?  It was just too much for me.  But I also did not want to go backwards into a heavier, wider, shorter sea kayak either.  I had tasted the sweetness of performance race boats and longed to be with Steve back out on the water.  The lighter kayaks and paddles made this all possible in the first place, minimizing the stress of my underlying fibromyalgia.  I would have never been able to paddle in the past due to chronic pain.  My Stevers had helped me find a way.  Now could we find a way to get me back on the water again?

By this time we were grateful to have acquired a tandem outrigger canoe.  The first time out in the OC-2 after the onset of the recent illness were meaningful minutes and happened at the end of last summer.  We went out again on our friend’s ski lake earlier this year and even took it to the smaller Oliver chain-o-lakes last month.  Yes, my first outing in 3 summers happened a couple of weeks ago!  Having a River Bear at the helm made it all possible as I could rest in the front seat when needed.  THAT was an emotional day for sure:  tears of joy to be out again and tears of sorrow for all of the lost time.

The question remained as to what would I paddle solo?  Could I even paddle solo?  The answer came with our one-man outrigger canoe.  She is beautiful.  In carbon fiber she weighs in at 22 pounds despite her 21 foot overall length.  And she looks so very cool too.  Oh how I love Steve!  I get to do so many cool things because of him!  Anyways, here’s a picture of the boat I will be paddling, Lord willing, as I get stronger.  These days I still have seizure attacks every day, including in the evening after paddling for awhile.  I’m not sure yet how to modulate this other than making sure my body temperature doesn’t fluctuate, stay hydrated and nourished, and avoid contact with nefarious waters underfoot!  Oh well.  The answer to the unknowns lie in the Lord’s hands.  I’ll just go slow and remain grateful to be paddling a bit once again.

See there?  Who says you can’t paddle an ocean-faring outrigger canoe in the Midwest?  Just like the Think Fit then the Stellar SR, sometimes you get to start a crazy trend that works for you and others follow along too.  Good ideas breed good company.  Thank you Lord.  Guess it was meant to be.  God is so good.  All the time.  God is good!

May 2014:  Julie in the OC-1

May 2014: Julie in the OC-1

2 thoughts on “It can be a mixed bag for the wife of a racer: Part 2

  1. I’m building back to a hopeful goal of stand up paddling by end of summer. I miss that water!!! 8)

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