Photo Doug Vojtko

I’ve had an amazing 2020 paddleboarding season. I’m lighter, faster, more competitive, and I’m having more fun. With the end of the Midwest Paddle League season this past Saturday it seems like a good time to pause for some reflection. Partly because I’m not ready for it to end. Partly because I want to share what I have achieved and how I did it.

Like most people, COVID has had a huge impact on my paddling this year, but I’m not sure if it helped, hurt or a combination of both. Regardless, I’m pretty pleased with how it all turned out.

Looking back

My 2020 journey didn’t start on January 1. It started in 2019. I spent the winter of 2019 with a hurt left shoulder, which was eventually diagnosed as arthritis. My weight had ballooned to over 240. I wasn’t doing any exercise, and I wasn’t excited about paddling.

Doug Vojtko and Bernie Isacovici were in full swing introducing the Midwest Paddle League and I was on the sidelines; I was a spectator. I didn’t paddle at all until May 10, not because the weather wasn’t good or it wasn’t warm enough, I just didn’t feel like it. When I did finally hit the water, I struggled to paddle 4 miles at over a 19-minute pace. The first race of the season was June 1st at Gun Lake, and I didn’t even sign up for it until just a few days before.

I finished the race and did terrible. Dead last. Got beat by folks who I had never been beaten by. Did a 13:40 pace and was wrecked by it. But while I was out there, I got to compete. On the last leg of the race, I caught Keith Conway and drafted him for a minute. I remember saying to him, some thing to the effect of, let’s team up and catch Bernie Isacovici. It was like I lit a fire in Keith, he didn’t want anything to do with it, and wicked it up a whole bunch. I couldn’t keep up, and at the end of the race I was lying on the board, my feet were so cramped up I couldn’t walk. My shoulder hurt. I was spent.

But in that competition to not finish last, a competitive drive ignited in me. I’ve never won races, or thought I could, but I also never finished last. I could always complete at some greater level on shear determination and natural ability alone. But at 45 years old at that point, hurt, overweight, I couldn’t do it anymore without putting the work in. It was a wakeup call.

Despite my disappointing finish, I felt supported on shore. Part of something. Even at the first race under the auspices of the Midwest Paddle League, I could tell that Doug and Bernie were on to something, and I wanted in. But I wasn’t exactly sure what I could contribute, but I wanted to help. I wrote a race recap that was published in what was then Distressed Mullet (now Paddle Monster) and I got a bunch of positive feedback on it. I found what I could contribute.

From then on, I decided to dive in and do as many races as possible. I started paddling every day again. I never again finished last, but I really wasn’t getting any faster, hovering around 14-minute mile mark, and feeling terrible after races. I limped for several days after every event with debilitating foot pain. I was stuck, so I did what most people do, I blamed my equipment and bought a new board. After that didn’t work, I bought a new paddle.

The beginning of July, I went and paddled a few times with Alex Sandler, who was a regular fixture on the podium at that point in the season. It was an eye-opening experience. Alex was able to explain a few things about my stroke that really made sense to me and that I could practice. I got my times consistently in the lower 13-minute pace. I finally felt like I was getting better.  And at the end of July, I pulled the trigger and joined the Paddle Monster intermediate program with coach Travis Grant.

photo Alex Sandler

I saw immediate results, and on August 10th, I paddled the fastest race of my life around Belle Isle at a 12:02 pace.  A 5-mph average was in reach, a goal I had set and thought I could achieve 2 years earlier. The next day, in search of more speed I traded my 26” wide board for a 24.5”.

Photo Doug Vojtko

The last race of the 2019 season was back at Gun Lake, the same place as my disastrous 1st race. I managed 12:08 pace. I shaved over 1:30 per mile in just a few months. I was stoked at the progress, but my body was wrecked. My foot pain hadn’t gotten any better, and I had developed knee and hip pain. I broke down and went to the Doctor at the end of October, and found out that the arches of my feet had collapsed, both knees were inflamed from prior injuries, and I had significant arthritis in both hips. My doctor and I decided to start from my feet and work our way up. I got custom insoles for my shoes, and started a 4-week, 3 times a week Physical Therapy a regimen designed to strengthen my feet, knees, and hips. At the same time, I doubled down on the most relatively pain free exercise mode I had available, indoor cycling on Zwift 4-6 days a week. I followed and interval training program designed to build my Functional Threshold Power (FTP).

The Season That Almost Wasn’t, 2020

I kept up the cycling into March but got onto the water much earlier this year with the help of a dry suit. March 15th was my first paddle this year, a full two months earlier than 2019. And then the world stopped turning as COVID hit. I normally travel a fair amount with my job, but that all came to a screeching halt and all the sudden it got a lot easier to fit in workouts.

April 1st, I started back on Paddle Monster, this time following the advanced program with Larry Cain. But instead of going 100% with paddle training, I decided the bike riding was really adding another dimension to my workouts. I started using the bike as a cool-down after paddling, and even bought a mountain bike and started riding trails on the weekends.

With Carolina Cup cancelled and the 2020 racing season very much in doubt, I was really looking for a way to see how much progress I was making. I jumped into the Paddle Monster Virtual Paddle League as soon as it was announced. On May 14th, I broke the 12-minute pace mark for the first time in my life with 11:32 pace, 35:48 for a 5k time trial.

On July 1st, I did my first 10k distance with a sub 12-minute average. It took me years to break the 5-mph average mark, I thought it would take me a while to hit a 5.1mph average. It took me less than 2 weeks. On July 11th, at the first race of COVID delayed Midwest Paddle League season, I did a 5.1-mph average over 10k at the Midwest Paddle Festival. A month after that on August 15th, I did a 5.2-mph average around Belle Isle in Detroit. A week after that, I did a 5.3 average over 10k at a race in Indianapolis. I’ve matched that pace several times since.

This past weekend, I was back on Gun Lake for the Midwest Paddle League season finale. The place where it all started 2 long years ago.  I weigh 190 now, and while stuff still hurts, I feel healthy. I managed an 11:34 pace in the race for 5th place. 2 minutes per mile faster than the beginning of 2019. I did 6 of the 7 league races this year. I did all the Virtual Paddle League Races, Virtual M2O, and am signed up for Virtual Chattajack.

That’s enough for me. Despite COVID, or maybe because of it, I’ve gotten to train, I’ve gotten to compete, and I’ve contributed to keeping the momentum of the Midwest Paddle League going. But I had one more surprise coming, at the season end awards following the Gun Lake race, I was awarded the 2020 Midwest Paddle League Paddler of the Year award. Kinda strange considering I help run the league and had no idea. I thought I knew who we were giving it to. I was shocked when Doug started describing contributions and achievements and people started looking at me. I remember shaking my head no, I did what I did this year for me, I never expected any recognition for it.

I am humbled at receiving the award. There are so many that are equally worthy if not more so. I can feel the emotion of it even after a few days have passed.

June 2019 and July 2020. Photos Doug Vojtko

Giving Back

People often joke that I have never come across a hobby I didn’t like. I have completed at various levels in Ice Hockey, Skateboarding, Snowboarding, Triathlons, Cycling, and Motorcycle racing. And it’s true, I still love all of those things, but paddling is special to me. Since I got my first board back in 2013, it was a source of relief and relaxation. One of my many flaws is that when I get into a thing, it tends to take over a bit. I end up in charge of things. With paddleboarding, the only thing I have to be in charge of is myself, but I still have the opportunity to contribute and influence the support. I think it’s important to give back wherever I can, and that took on special meaning for me this year.

The Midwest Paddle League had big plans pre-COVID this year. We had 17 events on the calendar and had pre-meetings with all the organizers. We had sponsors lined up. We had a promotion plan all set. We were in the process of getting our 501c3 nonprofit designation. I was talking to pros trying to get them to attend Midwest races. We had a full-page ad in Standup Journal. We were going to make the Midwest scene bigger than it ever was, then the bottom fell out.

We immediately refunded what little money we had collected, cancelled plans for any sanctioning fees, and prepared for the worst. But as June gave way to July, it still looked like we could have a few races. We got every race that hung on all the press we possibly could. I got recaps published within 3-4 days of every event.

Personally, I got to write some articles outside of the league scope. I did a couple product reviews, a Midwest recap of the virtual M2O and a feature I’m super proud of on 4the22, and organization that helps get vets and first responders on the water.

I also did a feature on Panda Paddle and Stand Up for the Cure, which lead to me participating in both those events. I managed to raise raising just a hair shy of $3k total towards both causes and even ended up doing a bit of a local event around Stand Up for the Cure that got my local community involved.

photo Kirk Donaldson

I’d like to think it had an impact, but to some extent, I feel like I am preaching to the converted. Promoting paddling to those who already do it doesn’t necessarily support the growth of the sport, but maybe there were a few that came to the sport or grew their participation because of the things we did as a league, or I did as a writer or fundraiser.

Looking Forward

I’m excited about paddling, about the Midwest Paddle League, and about training. I’m going to keep my foot on the gas this off-season. Going to drop to a 23” wide board for next season (SIC RS), and hopefully drop another 10-20 pounds, I’m down to 190. I’m scheduled to do VO2 max testing in early November. The idea is that I will find my true max heart rate which will allow me to calibrate my heart rate zones for structured workouts and hopefully maximize the results I get from my workouts.

The Midwest Paddle League is going to pick back up all the stuff we had in motion last spring and apply it moving forward. Were going to figure out ways to get more diverse, get more women involved, and more kids.

Speaking of kids, I’m trying my best to start a local kid’s team. Not sure how I am going to fit it in, but I know getting youth involved is critical to the survival and growth of our sport. I’m excited about becoming part of the AAU, and I can see the path forward to it being a high school sport and maybe even the Olympics in my lifetime.

The Secret to My Success

The secret is that there is no secret. Do the right things and the scoreboard will take care of itself. The right things for me this season were:

Follow a structured program – exercise science is still more art than science, but the part we do know from science is that we have to train the capacity of our heart. The best way we’ve figured out how to do that is through a structured approach to intervals. This year I followed two program’s Zwift’s FTP Builder on the bike and Paddle Monster on the water. Once our following a program, trust the process. Sometimes workouts don’t feel like that much work, it’s intentional. Resist the temptation to make it harder than it’s supposed to be.

Mix it up – I added biking and running to my regular workouts this year. When the weather wasn’t cooperative for paddling, I would substitute a biking activity, including riding indoors on a trainer. About mid-season, I started doing bricks of paddle/run, run/paddle, paddle/bike. Not sure of the fitness benefit per se, but I can say it helped me stay engaged, more consistent, and helped me clear lactic acid and be less sore.

Pay attention to food – This is probably the area I need to pay better attention to. In the past, when I’ve been strict, it’s been hard to stick to. This time around, I reduced eating at restaurants, cut back on beer, and focused on eating fresh whole foods. Really small changes, brown rice instead of white, almost no frozen food, very little bread. I do cheat, more often than I should, I have more work to do here.

Be consistent, do the work – Pre COVID, I was travelling a lot, it was change for me to be consistent about working out on the road. It did mean that I had to be a little flexible on when I did my rest days. Sometimes that meant doing a workout on Sunday when I really didn’t feel like it. But I also gave myself permission to substitute workouts for alternate fun activities, playing ice hockey, mountain biking with friends, hiking with my girlfriend.

Want It- it’s not enough to just do the steps and go through the motions. You have to want the results. That’s the only way to stay motivated. Routine for the sake of routine is the path to burn out. It’s also more fun if you approach the process with an intent.

That’s it. Common sense stuff. I don’t mean to say that it’s easy, it’s not, it’s just worth it for me to get the results on and off the water. It also takes some sacrifice. I’ve missed out on more than a couple mountain bike trips, and a 100-mile gravel adventure ride that I wanted to do. My motorcycles have gotten pretty dusty this summer. I haven’t done any skateboarding, partially because I haven’t had time and partially because I’m scared of injury that would keep me away from paddling. Not easy, just worth it.

As a writer, composing this article seemed pretty strange and self-indulgent. I’m not used to writing about myself directly, especially around my own achievements. It’s not like I am winning races, my story is really a journey from bad to mediocre. I’m not an elite athlete or a role model, I’m just a fat guy the wanted to be a little less fat, and a competitor that wanted to be more competitive. Nonetheless, I’m allowing myself to revel in in a bit, and celebrate some success. There you have it, my confessions from the middle of the pack.

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