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Mother completes first-time solo race (w/video)

By BY JULIE GARCIA - JGARCIA@VICAD.COM
June 17, 2014 at 1:17 a.m.
Updated June 18, 2014 at 1:18 a.m.

Heather Harrison, 34, of New Braunfels, hugs her sons, Spencer Harrison, 7, center, and Cameron Harrison, 9, right, before she embarks on the 260-mile Texas Water Safari canoe race that started in San Marcos on Saturday. Harrison finished in Seadrift in 77 hours and 21 minutes.

SEADRIFT - Much like with life, Heather Harrison's first solo Texas Water Safari did not go as she planned it.

On Tuesday, as she walked in her boat across the 6-mile bay to the finish line at Seadrift, the 34-year-old asked what time it was.

Though unplanned, Harrison finished at exactly 3:33 p.m., which was her boat number.

"It was more difficult along the way for a lot more reasons than I expected," Harrison said. "Speaking of expectations - nothing in life goes as planned, and neither does the Texas Water Safari."

This is the second consecutive year Harrison, a New Braunfels resident, has completed the 260-mile canoe race that started in San Marcos on Saturday.

In 2013, Harrison competed with a team of women under the name of Red Hot. She kept the team name, boat number and the spirit of her friends by embarking on the journey alone this year.

A fellow paddler designed Red Hot's logo, which is a devil girl with a paddle in her hand.

"We have so much fun making it fun," Harrison said. "Older racers don't care what they wear, and that's fine. We're doing it strategically."

A fan of other endurance events, such as triathlons, Harrison has found her strengths on the water.

"I found that I'm really suited for canoeing more than running," Harrison said. "There's something different about this sport that I'm better suited for and enjoy more. I love being out in nature, and I love being able to see Texas from the river."

Unexpected obstacles

Red Hot finished in just more than 66 hours last year, and Harrison was hoping to accomplish that time again by herself.

But the river had different plans for the mother of two sons, Cameron and Spencer.

Saturday night, Harrison injured her right arm, which made it difficult for her to close her hand around the paddle.

"It flared up several times, and I had to rest more and ice more than I planned," she said. "A lot of the obstacles that you should expect, but they're still unexpected."

Another issue that arose was a malfunctioning spot tracker, which is how her team captains, Kat Wilson and Patrick Aten, family and friends were keeping up with her on the course.

"I passed messages along with every racer who passed me," Harrison said. "I didn't want them to worry because I also know that most of my friends and family are new to the safari, and it's natural for them to worry."

Harrison finished the race in 77 hours and 21 minutes and was greeted at the finish line by her friends, family and her race family, including Debbie Richardson, who introduced Harrison to the safari.

Inspirational women

Harrison called fellow competitor Richardson one of the biggest inspirations in increasing women racers in Texas paddling in the past seven years.

"That's kind of changing the face of the safari. The safari used to be very secretive about who and what you knew," Harrison said. "Debbie believed in sharing and teaching and building up not just women but anybody."

Richardson, who did her first safari in 2008, was part of her first mixed-gender race with Phil Bowden of Team River Fitness. Her only solo race was in 2012.

The duo finished the race in 51 hours and 6 minutes.

"I was first introduced to the Texas Water Safari in 2006, and at that time, there were very few women racing - I was told it was a man's race," Richardson said. "So, it made me want to do it in a skirt, and show the men that women are tough and strong and beautiful."

Prior to the race's start Saturday, there was an all-women photo taken at the Aquarena Center in San Marcos.

"I just felt so proud and so happy to see so many women come out to attack such a huge thing," Richardson said. "I love the way the sport has evolved, and that's why I love helping people, especially women."

Solo effort

Though Harrison is happy to have finished a solo safari, she said it's not really her thing.

"Doing it solo was way more difficult than I could have anticipated or that anyone could have told me," Harrison said as she hugged her sons. "I really like being part of a team."

Harrison said people were the reason she fell in love with canoeing.

"I love being a team player and contributing to a greater goal," she said. "I'm a good teammate, so to go solo is harder mentally. There's no one to talk to, tell jokes to, to celebrate when you nail the right current and you dodge every rock and log perfectly."

Though nothing went exactly as she planned, and she was forced to walk the length of Seadrift in the water while dragging her boat along, she had no shortage of smiles.

"It would have been a dream to finish as planned, but that's not what happened," Harrison said. "I have a finish at 3:33 which is my number, and I'm intact, healthy and happy."

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