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World's toughest canoe race made safer (video)

By Taylor Mitchell
June 8, 2013 at 1:08 a.m.

Paddlers from the team of Andrew Condie, Fred Mynar, Jerry Cochran, Kyle Mynar, Logan Mynar and Tommy Yonley prepare to maneuver their canoe over Staples Dam, the first official checkpoint on the Texas Water Safari course,  Saturday afternoon. Paddlers in longer boats were able to pass their canoes directly over the dam, while paddlers on smaller teams had to disembark and carry their boats down the riverbank to the bottom.

NOTE: Catch live updates from our reporters covering the event in our live chat here. Use the hashtag #twsafari to join the conversation.

The Texas Water Safari doesn't have a prize waiting for the first boat to cross the finish line nor is there a giant, poster-sized check waiting on the winning team.

Instead, competitors only receive the personal satisfaction of completing what is often referred to as the world's toughest canoe race.

"It's unbelievably difficult but unbelievably fun," said Stacey Greer, of Austin, who began his 10th race Saturday. "It's awesome. It really is."

Competitors will push themselves to their limits and beyond just to finish the 260-mile race. Sometimes, that push will injure racers, and while the Texas Water Safari hasn't experienced many serious injuries, the 51-year-old event saw its first fatality in last year's race.

During last summer's race, Brad Ellis, a competitor, died of hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when someone drinks too much water, creating a chemical imbalance in the body.

"Brad's death was sobering because when you read about everything he's done, he wasn't an inexperienced person who couldn't read his body and didn't know how this worked," said Chuck Stewart, who has competed in 17 races since 1983. "He was an athlete, a competitor. The sobering part is 'Wow, this can happen to someone who knows what he's doing.'"

Ellis' death made people such as Allen Spelce, president of the Texas Water Safari, examine all aspects of the race.

"Not just from a medical issue standpoint but from the rules as a whole ... how can we make it safer and fun for everyone?" Spelce said.

The Texas Water Safari changed three rules during the past year. Teams are now allowed to have two captains, and food is now allowed to be passed from the captain to boat crew members. No pace boats will be allowed on the river during the race.

While not everyone is a fan of the rule changes, some racers realize the impact those changes will have on other competitors.

"I love the changes because I think it will allow more people to enjoy the race," Greer said. It might actually make the race a bit faster, he added.

Under the previous rule, teams were allowed to only consume what they began the race with. If you lost food or didn't pack enough, you were out of luck.

"There will be people that will be able to finish that wouldn't normally finish," added Victoria native Ken Startz.

A person's diet plays a large role in their success. What you eat and when you eat it affect how your body performs during competition. Startz said it's the most difficult thing about the Texas Water Safari.

"It's a survival thing - being able to keep the calories in and keep your muscles working," he said. "It's taken years to figure out how to paddle straight without stopping. It's all dietary. It's what you fill your muscles with. Once you get that down, keeping the boat in one piece is the biggest thing."

The rule changes also make the job of team captains easier. Instead of having to drive from checkpoint to checkpoint, gather water and deliver water and food to their boat as they float past, they're able to get some rest as another team captain does the work.

"The team captain is the most difficult, thankless job in the race," Stewart said. "There is a lot of pressure, and they have to be at the right place ready with the stuff for the team. If they have to drive, it could be more dangerous than being in a boat."

Jill Wyatt has been the team captain four times for boat 247, which includes Victoria native Sammy Prochaska. She said the addition of a second team captain will help with food handoffs.

"It will definitely help a ton," Wyatt said. "With a five-man boat, there are ice packs and other things, so getting all of that plus food to them as they pass by would be very difficult."

Also beginning this year, the Texas Water Safari will award someone the Brad Ellis Spirit Award, which will be given to thecompetitor or team captain that goes above and beyond the call of duty while showing acceptable sportsmanship. This year's race is also dedicated in Ellis' honor.

Despite the rule changes, every racer will do what it takes to finish the 260-mile journey and get the feeling of accomplishment.

Stewart knows all about that personal satisfaction. He's finished the Texas Water Safari 15 times and has won it six times.

"It's a great feeling to win," Stewart said. "I remember the first time I won - pushing as hard as I did and winning and never thinking that I would realistically have that opportunity."

However, for Stewart, not finishing is worse than finishing last.

"No. 1 priority is finishing," he said. "I would rather drag in last than to quit, and I've done that, been there. It's a bad feeling until the next time you do it and finish."

Reporter Elena Watts contributed to this report.

Related story:

Crossroads residents compete in the 51st Texas Water Safari

NOTE: Catch live updates from our reporters covering the event in our live chat here. Use the hashtag #twsafari to join the conversation.



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