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Finishing world's toughest canoe race teaches a lot about self (video)

By Taylor Mitchell
June 12, 2013 at 1:12 a.m.
Updated June 13, 2013 at 1:13 a.m.

Exhausted but in good spirits, 31-year-old Jon Newcomb gets a kiss from his wife, Rebecca, after finishing the Texas Water Safari with just seven minutes to spare in the 100-hour deadline Wednesday. Newcomb had to go solo from Gonzales after his partner, Andy Toppin, was forced to drop out of the race. Toppin, an Army veteran who was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq, developed problems that prevented him from continuing.

SEADRIFT - By the time Jon Newcomb could see the finish line of the Texas Water Safari, he thought the 1 p.m. deadline had already passed.

His brother, Paul, told him otherwise.

"My brother waved me down and yelled 'You have 30 minutes left,'" Newcomb, a 31-year-old from Round Rock, said. "I thought he was lying. I thought I was four or five hours over."

His brother wasn't lying. With less than a mile to go, Newcomb had to reach the finish line in 30 minutes, or he wouldn't qualify as finishing the world's toughest canoe race.

That's exactly what he did.

Newcomb finished the home stretch in less than 30 minutes, crossing the finish line at 12:53, seven minutes before the deadline put an end to the 51st Texas Water Safari.

"I was just happy to finish," he said.

For overcoming virtually every obstacle the course could throw at him, Newcomb was selected as the first ever recipient of the Brad Ellis award.

Just finishing the 260-mile journey - with no consideration to deadlines - was a huge accomplishment for Newcomb.

Just 75 miles into the race, Newcomb lost his partner, Andy Toppin, a veteran who lost his leg in Iraq. Toppin began to suffer problems with his leg and had to leave the race.

"I thought it was going to be the end in at Gonzales," Newcomb said. "It became an issue where he had to worry about his long-term health. That takes precedence over a race."

Newcomb was left with a decision. He could either stop and leave the race or finish the rest of the 185 miles by himself in a 70-pound aluminum canoe. He wasn't sure if he should try and go on or not, so he asked.

"I asked one of the volunteers if she thought it was possible for someone to finish the race on an aluminum craft, as big as this one, solo," Newcomb said. "She said, 'Well, you look like a strong paddler. So, I guess it's possible.' That was good enough for me."

His brother wasn't too surprised by his decision to continue on.

"I was OK with whatever he wanted to do," Paul Newcomb said. "It's crazy, but he's a crazy guy."

The troubles would only keep coming, though.

Newcomb was already behind after he and Toppin paddled 10 miles in the wrong direction. They barely reached the Gonzales checkpoint in time, coming in 31 minutes before the deadline.

"We had to paddle really hard early on in order to really just be on time," Newcomb said.

From then on, it was a race against time for Newcomb to stay in the race.

"The timing was actually really tough, just making sure he got to all of the checkpoints in time," Paul Newcomb said. "Sometimes he would get in and have to take off right away."

At times, Newcomb questioned whether he would be able to stay in the race, but his self-motivation kept him going.

"In Gonzales, right after Andy dropped out, I was really questioning whether or not I would make the next checkpoint," Newcomb recalled. "I just kept saying over and over out loud, 'You can do it, Jon. You're going to finish the race.'"

He would finish the race but not without a few more obstacles.

The second night of the race, Newcomb got just an hour and a half of sleep, most of which came on top of an ant mound.

"I didn't realize it at the time. I had about 50 bites," he said. "That was horrible."

Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the worst night of Newcomb's five-day adventure. Tuesday night, he reached the logjam that is about 40 miles south of Victoria and had to carry his 70-pound canoe by himself.

"It was an awkward 2-mile walk. There were mosquitoes everywhere. I have at least 80 or 90 bites," Newcomb said. "I decided to pick up the boat and lift it over my head, so it was just pushing down on my head for the entire walk.

"When I got back to my brother, I said that was the worst night of my life, and I stand by that. It was just awful."

Less than 24 hours later, Newcomb was walking up the steps at Seadrift Bay, a smile creeping on his face as he and his brother celebrated completing the Texas Water Safari with some champagne.

"I've done some pretty intense things in my life, but when you're alone, you learn a lot about yourself and what you're capable of," Newcomb said. "There was a lot of bad, but it was a life-changing experience."



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