by Keva Andersen
The picture on my Instagram story on race day morning was captioned “wondering WTF I got myself into!” That was a pretty good indicator of how I’d been feeling since I made a last-minute decision to enter the “Off Da Couch” race, held on October 22 in Newport Beach, California. At the beginning of the year I’d set a goal for myself to be more intentional about my paddleboarding and to expand on my skill set. I’ve been paddling since 2011 but I’d never really set distance or speed goals for myself. And while the sport was still great fun I wanted to see how much further I could go if I pushed toward specific goals. Yet racing still really wasn’t on my radar as something I thought I could do. And if I’m being honest, as I was standing there that morning waiting for my turn to head out, I still wasn’t sure this first attempt wasn’t going to end in disaster!
The “Off Da Couch” race day schedule started with the safety meeting at 8:30 am, the 9-mile long course headed out at 9 am, followed by the 6-mile board race a few minutes later, and the short course at 11:30 am. Since this was my first time out I opted for the short course, so I had a lot of time on my hands to reconsider if I was really cut out for this. I knew the distance would be fine but seeing the crowd with all their gear was a little intimidating. Especially as I was standing there with my 12’6” inflatable Infinity Blackfish Air. But watching “the big kids” take off on their boards, cheer on other racers, and finish strong was so inspiring I knew I’d be kicking myself for weeks if I chickened out. So when the time came to head to the start point for the short course I checked the pins on my race number for the millionth time, tightened my leash, and followed along at the back of the pack.
We gathered on the water at the start line just south of the Newport Aquatic Center with the OC-6 and OC-1 crews leading the charge along with surfskis and some prone paddlers. The skies were mostly cloudy, the temperature in the low 60s, the breeze had definitely picked up and there was already some chop on the water. The SUPs were the last to go and as we waited to take off, I decided to start the race kneeling. I knew this would be a no-go in a professional race situation but given how choppy the water was after the other craft took off, I knew my inflatable didn’t stand a chance of staying upright if I was standing. After getting tossed around for a while I hopped to my feet and took stock of how things were looking. Most of the group had taken off and were well ahead of me but they didn’t seem too far ahead, all things considered. We were pushing against the outgoing tide but the wind was at our backs and I thought, ok, I can at least keep this respectable. One stroke at a time, keep your balance, don’t crash into anybody. I kept that as my mantra until there was no one close enough to have to worry about that last one!
As I approached the turn around point most everyone was well ahead of me, with the exception of the hardy crew of 12u racer Lily in an OC-1, her dad following along on a SUP, and a man in a kayak. We made our way around the metal buoy to head back to the start when we were hit by a headwind I can only describe as gnarly, I believe between 10 and 15 miles per hour. Every bit of speed we gained from following the outgoing tide was getting flattened by that breeze. But no matter. Lily led the way in her OC-1 as I put the hammer down on the paddle and just tried to keep up.
With the finish line in sight, we could hear the cheers as we approached with the crowd encouraging Lily in what I think was her first race. But then I heard another voice yelling for me too! There was Suzy, who before that day was a friend from Instagram I hadn’t yet met in person, encouraging me to push hard to the very end. I remembered to yell out my number 79 to the team at the finish with the race director teasing me “ok, 1 clap for you too!” and just like that it was done. I was sweaty, tired, and ready for a snack, but really stoked.
In the end, the official race results said I came in second to last but I really didn’t care about that. I had such a good time out on the course and was so excited to meet that goal of finishing that I couldn’t wait to try my hand at another one, now that I knew what to expect. And everyone at the event was so nice and encouraging, especially when they found out this was my first race. I had a lot of fun meeting new people and one woman even stopped me in the parking lot to tell me she thought I did a great job on the inflatable and her kindness and encouragement has stayed with me. “Off Da Couch” is also a fundraiser in honor of NAC’s beloved Sam Couch, who died of Cystic Fibrosis. CF has also touched my family and it felt great to start my racing journey in a way that was also giving back to the community.
I’d been hearing that the racing community was really fun but for years I’d been hesitant to try it. I was lucky to have run with a fun crew of paddlers through Salmon Bay Paddle when I lived in Seattle but even after years in L.A. now I hadn’t been able to replicate that. I’d watched the racers on Instagram and felt like I was missing out but thought I didn’t have the right gear or the right skills or the timing just wasn’t right. I live in an apartment so inflatables have been my only option, and while they’re fun they’re not exactly built for competition. So what finally convinced me to give it a shot? I kept going back to a July SUP Connect Instagram live conversation with Kristin Thomas and Jen Fuller about racing. It’s no secret that SUP can be very expensive and it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to have the fancy race boards and paddles before you can compete. In that live interview I asked if there was a way to get into racing on a budget and it was Jen who offered this advice: “paddle the hell out of whatever you’ve got.” Everyone starts somewhere and dialing in your stroke and your skills on something unconventional can help build a base that will benefit you down the line. That advice kept rattling around in my brain until finally I said stop second guessing yourself and registered for the race. And I’m so glad I did. I’m hoping to upgrade my board sometime next year but until then I’ll be paddling the hell out of that inflatable and I’m looking forward to racing again at Hanohano in San Diego in January.