on Lake Superior

DPSR 20-Mile Marathon Challenge across Superior

It all started August 11th when my new paddle friend Anya, from Minneapolis, asked if I like to do this race/downwinder across or along the shoreline of Lake Superior out of Duluth.

I briefly looked at the info and we went back and forth for about a week (knowing full well this was above my head) and then, signed up.

Shortly after that, she sent me this video of a guy she knows, Jon Sanborn, on Superior, in the same area.
I watched it. And then, I almost threw up.

I went back and read  what I had signed up for…..

“This is a demanding open-water paddling experience for advanced level paddlers who have developed significant endurance.  The main variables to prepare for include equipment selection for distance paddling in cold water (45-50 degrees) along with paddling in wind and waves……

All paddlers in the Marathon Challenge must be capable of self-rescue, independent navigation and averaging a forward speed of at least 3 miles per hour for 20 statute miles on flat water in calm conditions.”

After that, Anya and I stopped talking about it for a while….

A few weeks later, she took her daughter to that area and sent me a picture of them wearing winter gear, wind blowing, waves crashing. She was concerned.

We waited until the week before to make plans, not knowing if we would actually do it. I didn’t have a board to downwind and I told her it would be a game day decision for me.

Email came from the race director the week of the race that conditions looked good for a downwinder along the shoreline and WARM air temps. Oh, well that seemed ok, right Anya?

I asked around for advice on a board to use and I was offered help from two great guys in the lake country area. Both strong paddlers, but not super familiar with the downwind scene. I was offered a 14′ Coreban Edge ( big displacement hull). Probably a little more board than I could muscle, but I was doing a downwinder so, the wind would help, right? At the time, I thought it was a better choice than my Blkbox Sidewinder or the Tahoe Bliss( both 12’6″).

I also ended up taking a 12’6″ Tahoe Thunderbird(owned by my paddle friend Nate) as a back up. We had been training together so I had been on that board before and I thought if conditions were really good, I’d take that out.

If you haven’t figured it out already, I had no idea what I was doing.So, despite what was happening in my life with kids, job, dogs( who had been recently skunked) and a husband who is busy training for his own running Marathon, I was going. I figured the chance of actually doing the race was 50 %. Anya and I could always find something else to do.

hmmmm… Maybe I should take my bike along, just in case.

Headed up to Duluth Friday morning with enough clothing and paddle wear to last a month-wetsuit, Hydroskin pants, bike clothing  and paddle jackets and vests ( I love the crossover of bike and paddle wear), booties, keens, hats … way too many choices. Got to the campground and met up with a seasoned paddle boarder by the name of Ken Lambrecht, his paddle cat, Bug and his Surfski buddies (one of whom was in the video above). He checked out my board choices and really didn’t say anything. Then we checked out my clothing options. If there is one thing I’ve learned, its that men run warmer than women so I wasn’t ready to make choices for clothing yet.

Anya showed up. Ken gave us our flares( yes flares) and he purchased a flare gun too just in case I wanted to take that out. Yikes! And then we got the news that the race course was changed from a downwinder to a crossing. Whaaaat? That 50% chance of me going just dropped to a 20%. Damn! I knew I should have brought my bike!

(Anya said we could always rent bikes.) Lucky for me, we were on the same page.

Quick warm up paddle at camp. I grabbed the big board. It felt ok but I still wasn’t sure. Jon Sanborn( the guy in the video) asked what my biggest fear for the race was while we were out there paddling. I told him, “going into that cold water over and over. I don’t want to get cold”. He said ” then take the bigger, more stable board” I thought, ok, maybe, I don’t know….

He and all the guys were supportive and encouraging.

 Bug the paddle cat.

We all headed to the race meeting. Its hard to remember exactly what was said. I recall the race director saying that we were an experiment, that he had high expectations for us and that we were elite paddlers( I shot Anya a few looks of confusion). I remember talk of shipping lanes and to stay a mile away from ships.”They are going much faster than you think, they create an incredible wake and they have a blind spot of a half mile and they can’t stop so……” “Head toward the stern of the boat.” Anya said, “that’s the back right?” Ha! They spoke of radio channels and gps coordinates. They said 288 would be my bearing. 288, 288… I couldn’t t stop thinking about 288.  Uh, I have a $3.00 compass that Kenny got me just in case I needed one. Anya had her fathers watch that had a compass. I guess I’ll figure that out tomorrow.

There was talk of fog and the research cell “Blue Heron” that would mark the halfway point. “Would we be able to see it 10 miles from shore?” No body really answered that question.

The chance of me doing this race? 20%

We dropped off Kenny’s car at the finish( Anya and I forgot to put extra clothes and straps in his car).We ate our last meal on earth and talked about the pros and cons of crossing and what we could do tomorrow instead of this race. We ate at the Duluth grill. Incredible food but, no booze:(. Went back to camp and tried to sleep. All I could think about was 288….I slept 2 hours.

Up at the crack, ate, headed to the start. I followed Anya and Kenny. Kenny’s board turned on the car(pictured below). I tried to call to alert them but no answer. I figured, oh well, he could use my board because I’m not doing this race anyway.

Kenny’s board is ajar.

Showed up to the start. Beautiful morning!

 Anya, Kenny and I ( a pre-race selfie is natural)

Race director said we would have some wind. He checked my stuff and saw my compass. He looked confused. Compass didn’t turn so how was I suppose to set it to 288? He and Kenny taped the 288 bearing on the center line of the board and I was told to keep the needle on North. No big deal, right? I could do that. I looked at Anya at some point, and said, “What the Hell else are we going to do today? We may as well do it.” She was amused. I was up to 95%;)


$3.00 compass and my laminated map with phone numbers. I wondered if my phone would even work out there?

We were told we may be able to see the Blue Heron research vessel about 4 miles in. I grabbed my Soleus running watch. I couldn’t use it to find anything but at least it kept track of how far I traveled.

I took 2 PFD’s (after Kenny said to take what made me feel comfortable) So, 2 it was. I had one around my waist and one on the board. Flares in the pocket of the vest and one on me. Molokai hydration vest full of Tailwind, 4 Gu’s and 1 bar, my phone, my asthma inhaler AND my emergency whistle around my neck. I kept drugs( ibuprofen…), gum and cash in that whistle. I thought if I ended up on a different shore, I could get a cocktail, or a cab or something:)

 (photos taken by Dave Englund for Minnesota Stand Up Paddle Boarders Association)

We were off.(99%) Anya and I tried to stay together but it wasn’t easy. Some paddlers veered left and some veered right. Anya and I stayed on 288.

Lake Superior is big! As we paddled, everyone disappeared into the abyss. No birds, no fish, no weeds, just water and side chop. Yes- from the right, over and over and over…. I quickly learned I would be paddling/ muscling this board on one side ( my weak side). Oh well…I couldn’t wait to see that ship at half way. Shortly after that, Anya let me know that she didn’t know how to work her Dad’s compass watch. She also learned that I had the gps watch that tracked miles. We  eagerly paddled to the 4 mile mark and stayed in each others sights.

It wasn’t until about 6 or 7 miles in that we could see what looked like a ship and then, it happened. I fell in. It felt like it happened in slow motion. I felt the board tilt left quickly, tried to recover and then, I was in. I held the paddle tight (thank you biking gloves) and scrambled back up.  Anya paddle over to see if I was ok. I laughed and shouted back to her “Yes! I got that over with! COLD! I was not doing that again. A few miles later, she went in. I paddle over. “Anya, did you go in to make me feel better?” I think she yelled back something with an expletive;)

We sat on the board for a bit after that, had a Gu and started again toward the Blue Heron.

I felt happyish but that quickly faded when it seemed to take forever to get there. Anya and I stayed within sight of each other. We got to the boat, they checked our bib, yelled our name and then we set off for 288, again.

 I took a picture of Anya taking a selfie at the Blue Heron (why not?)We had a few visits from a guy on the jet ski which was slightly annoying because he created a wake. But it was nice knowing he was around.

I think we started to see land a few miles after the half way point but I couldn’t make anything out. I got passed by a female surf skier and I could see the other surf skiers off in the distance. She was nice to see.

No ships, no birds, no nothing, just water and the agony of paddling on one side. I started to get the rhythm of the waves . They would come in 3’s so I could try to keep steady when they hit my right side over and over. I would cut into them and ride the wind back once in a while but mostly stayed on course. Anya, who is stronger(and younger), started to move further way as we figured out the general location of the finish. I needed someone to chase, so it worked out perfectly;).

Sore right shoulder, tight left forearm, tense low back, wiggle toes, drink water, gu…..just keep paddling.

Finally, the jet ski guy showed up about 3 miles from the end after visiting Anya and gave me something to look for. “Look for the arch of the bridge and veer to the left of that.” Something to look for! Yay! I was still on 288 and I still had Anya in sight. I was calm, happyish and had plenty of time to finish.

I made it!

 ​(photo taken by Dave Englund for Minnesota Stand Up Paddle Boarders Association)

​Anya and Cherie hanging at the finish:)(photo taken by Dave Englund for Minnesota Stand Up Paddle Boarders Association)

The buoy

I can’t forget to mention that I had the support of the 100/100’s paddle challenge people. This group of amazing virtual paddlers has gotten me through so much. Yes, I have virtual training friends all over the place(mostly down south). They are amazing. I sent them this message the night before we left.

​The messages that came back after I posted were amazing. I just love the 100’s!

They were with us:)

Anya 1st, Cherie Englund 2nd and me 3rd

followmee app tracks from my phone ( Yep, that is me!)

The crossers with a ship in the background.

The race director Randy, did come up to me after I finished and said something like, ” Deb, I saw that compass and thought it wasn’t adequate and then I looked at your face and thought, uhhhh she’s probably going no matter what..so…”
Trust the $3.00 compass Randy! I did:) 288!

Great experience, with a great paddle friends! And the best thing about doing this race, is the 31 mile Chattajack race I’ll be doing a month from now in Tennessee, doesn’t seem like such a big deal:)