Best of Bryan Hopkins

Bryan Hopkins is an avid canoe and kayak racer living in Columbia Missouri.  Hopkins was one of the "Original 13" who completed the 2006 MR340, during which he placed 2nd in the Men's Solo behind West Hansen.  I also had the privege of racing with Hopkins in the 2009 MR340 where we finished 2nd overall behind the Andersons.

This excerpt below was originally posted in January 2013 on the rivermiles forum.  The entire thread can be found here: 

From Bryan:

I am transitioning into another ultra marathon sport (gravel bike racing) and was musing over the lessons I have learned from distance kayaking...starting from my gumby beginnings to much better performance later in my paddling.
I thought I would list some of these insights in an effort to help those starting out. When I was getting into this whole crazy distance paddling thing... I was so hungry for tips, advice and technique. (Note: West Hansen was so patient with me on many, many phone calls...including talking me through my freak out when I faced the same shoulder collapse that he had already had surgery to correct....I owe West beer no doubt on that.) 

So here goes:

 (1) Nutrition

-Eat real food when you can. This is what your body is used to and it can also lift your spirits and bring some level of normalcy to a non-normal (and non-rational!) activity. A simple sub sandwich or hamburger can seem like food of the God’s when you are beat down on day two.

-Food and hydration options: Your needs will change over the course of the race. For example, I start out with some level of sport foods (power bars, gels, energy drinks, etc.) for the first part of the race…but transition to other foods such as gorp (mixed nuts, dried fruit, mm’s), fruit smoothies and later in race fatty foods such as summer sausage, avocado wraps, pizza, etc. If you eat these fatty foods early in race, you can get an upset stomach, but later in race they are more than appropriate…this relates to how your body provides energy over long endurance events…basically glycogen initially (sugar, carbs) and then burning fats stores later (I know that it’s not that simple, but in many ways it is!).

-Flavor fatigue. This one has taken many a racer out of the race. They stop eating or drinking and then things go south from there. Basically the way I see this phenomena is that your body is trying to protect you. For example you are drinking Gatorade or Spiz, etc…..and as expected, 6-10 hours into the event you start to feel like crap…like you are sick, cause in many ways you are. Your brain will associate the food and drink you have been consuming with what is making you feel ill and then cause you to detest that item (to the point of gaging when you place taste the food or drink in your mouth). I have made the mistake of not having options on hydration and severely gaging every time I tried to take the swallow a sip of the liquid that I knew I needed, but my mind was rejecting. Same thing happens with food. So the lesson is have options on food and be ready to abandon your favorite energy drink for water or another option when you can’t stand it anymore. If you don’t have options you may just stop drinking and eating (as a result of flavor fatigue) and a DNF is only hours away after that.

-Eat and drink at night. There is a strong tendency to decrease intake at night, (after all you should be sleeping and not slogging down some river at 2 a.m. So get rigid about keeping food and water going into the machine at night. Use a timer or schedule if you have to…but keep eating and drinking.

-“Drink before you are thirsty”-NOT. This is nonsense, your body knows what it needs and will tell you, the problem is you often are so beat down or distracted you stop listening. Drink when thirsty and don’t force it if you feel bloated. The caveat to this is to monitor what is happening. If you are drinking less than ½ liter an hour or more than 1 liter an hour…you may want to become concerned. The issue with liquids is not just not having enough (dehydration and heat stroke issues)..but perhaps more of an issue is too much water, which can kill you. (Hypernatremia: do a Google search on this one folks) If you consume too much water to cool down or because you think you should during a hot weather event, disaster can strike. You flush all the salts out of your system via sweat and then replace them with fluid volume devoid of salts…which basically screws up your blood chemistry and actually pulls salts out of your cells to equalize things…this can lead to feeling like you have the flu (as muscles fail to work correctly), but worse can screw up your brain chemistry (you go into a stupor and can’t function or talk properly) and in severe cases can lead to cardiac arrest. The scary thing about hypernatremia is that once you are there….even with medical help, you are in trouble. Drinking some water and getting to shade can help with dehydration and bring you around fairly fast…but diluting your blood chemistry will put you in a hospital and even with doctors working to help you…several distance runners have still been killed. (Note: if you use just water, then salt tabs are a good idea or intentionally eating salt foods such as chips or summer sausage, pickles. This will help keep electrolyte levels in balance…I like using the power bar brand gels as they have 250 mg of salts per packet…take one per hour or two).

-Cool Fluids: use an insulated cooler for an ice water effect during the heat of the day…this can cool your core temp and get you going again…just make dam sure you are not drinking too much to keep cool as mentioned above (hypernatremia)

(2) Gear

-Don’t change a thing just before the race. It is human nature to deal with nervous tension by “tinkering”…do not try out a new gps or paddle or seat pad the day of the race. Know ahead of time what works for you. If something is annoying in a 30 mile paddle (paddle leash, seat pad, hydration tube, shorts rubbing, etc.) it will escalate to torture by the end of day one. You can’t be totally comfortable during the race…but you should try to achieve it the best you can. A heel of a foot that is rubbed raw can demoralize you and lead to a DNF.

-Have things close. You would be surprised how little energy you will have to deal with simply things later in the race. Even just bending forward to get the dry bag at your feet with the salt supplements can become a chore that causes you to forgo things. Make sure everything works and is close by. Picture yourself beat down, with a case of the flu and drunk… get in your boat…would you be able to keep it up right? Would you be able to reach back for that spare paddle, would you be able to open a fancy pants dry box to get to an item? Trust me; on day two, you will not be the paddler you were on day one.

-Fluid elimination. Have a system for “going” on the river. Make sure it works and that you do not have to do some extreme Yoga move to pull it off. Regardless, you will spill into your boat and you will pee on yourself. The water in the bottom of your boat will become the most vile scary thing you ever contemplated (river mud, urine and sweat…cooked in the summer heat…ummm good). So related to this have a place to place food above this vile broth….a small Tupper ware tray with holes drilled into the bottom (to drain paddle splash) and velcro’d onto the deck is a good idea…cause brother, your lap will not be a safe zone in later stages of the race! (And as for all number 2 events…go to shore…I have heard all sorts of ideas regarding “on boat” approaches….uh, no…take a break and dig a hole in the sand folks).

-Gloves: Avoid them but bring them. The issue is that once you put gloves on..they hold water and soften your hands (wrinkly bathtub hands on steroids)..and then if you then take off the glove, your hands are so soft, just a power bar wrapper could cut you! However if you are getting so blistered you are slowing down…put on the gloves, but then keep them on. I like to use cheap baseball gloves found at wally world sized a bit small (they stretch when wet). One tip to decrease blisters (you will get them no matter what) is to use a casual grip on the paddle and good technique, switch to a single blade now and then. Also consider the use of Vaseline, udder balm or Hydropel now and then. By the way, if you can paddle with greasy hands…you are likely using good technique anyway.

-Boat choice: paddle the boat that works on day two and not just on day one. This often means using a more stable boat than you might like or some kinda crutch like huki wings or an outrigger system. The race really begins on day two around Jefferson City. This is where folks who can still slug it out will make good time or often as not, fall way off. A comfortable and not too tippy boat is important at this point in the race. Comfort is speed on day two.

-Waves and Wakes: Be ready for windblown waves or large boat (barge) wakes. A Texas safari type boat with very low gunnels could easily be flooded out in waves. Can you wear a deck skirt in 100 degree temps for 14 hour days?...consider an electric bilge pump or Clorox bottle to get water out of the boat…this is why I love surf ski’s and outriggers for this race….no cockpit to flood!

(3) Attitude (pain management)

-Don’t expect to be comfortable. You simply cannot do a race this long and be cruising like one long float trip. Expect to be challenged and trust me….your butt will become a major issue (regardless of perfect padding)…it will hurt, your shoulders will throb, you will doubt why you did this and pain will be a factor. I view this element of these races in a very philosophical way. Often in day to day life we don’t really get to reach inside and test our character….or when we do it is in a crisis (child with medical issues, major injury, loss of a loved one, etc.)…in the case of an event like this race, we choose to step into a challenge and spend time with the core of who we are. For me it is like the Native American spirit journey….an intentional physical challenge that deprives you of normal food, water, sleep and comforts and gets to the core of what it is to be human….without the overtone of a crisis…we choose to do this. This race of 2-3 days will feel like 2-3 weeks of normal living…it compresses experience and builds feelings and memories that are framed in a way that never happens sitting in front of a TV or dealing with work responsibilities.

-You will recover. Even just 2-3 days after the race, you will have mostly fully recovered. Granted you may be stiff, sore and sunburned…but you will be physically back to normal for the most part. Even just an hour or two after finishing your butt will not be hurting and your aches will subside. Keep this in mind….you will recover, you will not be trapped in the boat or in discomfort forever. Keep in mind there are those who are trapped there and can’t recover (injured veterans, MS victims, Cancer, etc.)…your situation is for a short duration.. so gut it out, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you just need to get there.

You will want to quit the race several times. The emotional path is a roller coaster with several low periods…gut through these and be ready for the next emotional low that will come in several hours. It’s just part of the process. You will come up with a thousand reasons to stop, and other things you could be doing instead (lying around the pool at the hotel!)…work through those periods as they will pass and return and pass and return several times. Never quit on the river. Get out of the boat at the next check point and sit on shore (don’t load your boat or do anything one way or the other) for 30 minutes…then decide. You will be surprised how 9 times out of 10…you will get up and get back in the boat and soldier on. You remove that option if the boat has been loaded on the truck or you announced “I am done” when you hit the ramp.

The converse to the lows are the highs. You will find periods when you feel really good….don’t waste them….paddle a bit faster, enjoy the high…and then when the low hits, - paddle faster too. You are gonna hurt going slow or fast…so might as well go fast (famous words of A-dog). Seriously, a brief sprint can actually increase blood flow and get all the lactic acid moving and decrease pain…eating also can get your mind out of the pain rut. Pain is like a distant sound…the more you listen for it…the louder it gets….try to put it at a distance...don’t concentrate on how bad you hurt.

Pain killers: Ibuprofen and Tylenol…have their place…but one word of caution. Do not take more than the bottle recommends in 24 hours…they build up in your system and combined with the dehydration of the race and stress your liver….Tylenol is especially bad in this regard and frankly dangerous if not used judiciously. Sun tan block…this is also a painkiller of sorts…do not allow yourself to get hurts and also interferes with your skins ability to cool you properly, which in this race is not a trivial issue. Lastly, the best pain killer of all….seeing your friends and family at each check point or paddling with a buddy on the river….try to absorb these positive elements to mitigate your physical discomfort.

Ok…hope this helps and my hope is other veterans will add to this post and help those who are taking this great adventure on - do well. It will change your life.


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