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Texas Water Safari finishers recount race

ERICA RODRIGUEZ

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
July 12, 2010 at 2:12 a.m.
Updated July 13, 2010 at 2:13 a.m.

Nathan Tart, left, of Austin, and Jeff Maples, of Pflugerville, of the team Dam Runners, shake hands after completing the Texas Water Safari. Maples said it was a "bucket list checkoff" because it was his first time doing the race. The Dam Runners came in 1st place for novice and 16th overall.

SEADRIFT - Sam Richie's swollen hands oozed with blisters and cuts. His face was a toasty pink and one finger was white with pus.

It was the first time the 23-year-old Washington D.C., kayaker had been to Texas, but he'll be leaving with more than blisters on his hands.

"The Guadalupe gave me a nice welcome," he said, resting by the waterfront after his team paddled in first place in boat No. 314 on Sunday evening.

The team, made up of Ritchie, Andrew Stephens, Amado Cruz, Daniel Cruz, Efren Cruz and Andrew Soles paddled in after 34 hours and 40 minutes of surviving "The World's Toughest Canoe Race" - the Texas Water Safari.

Monday afternoon, the competitors lounged around the waterfront while ushering in other racers.

"If you do end up quitting in this race - unless you have some massive injury - you've quit in your head," Ritchie said.

The race was the team's first time paddling together. Ritchie had never paddled more than 35 miles before doing the 260-mile race.

"Nobody really did any training," said William Russell, 27, the team captain from San Antonio. "It wasn't supposed to be an easy race."

For the three Cruz brothers, Belize natives known to many as simply "The Belizeans," the route was easier than last year.

"There's no secret," said Daniel Cruz, sipping a beer in the shade. Cruz, known as "The Digger" for his swooping paddling style, and his brothers have paddled their entire lives. The three have competed in La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.

Last year, teams battled record-low river levels and record-high temperatures. This year, the higher water levels made the race slightly easier, but still grueling. In the last nine hours, Amado Cruz didn't eat or drink because of stomach problems and many got lost in Alligator Lake just miles from the finish.

"I just want to reach the finish," Amado Cruz said.

In the shade of a waterfront pavilion, race officials and team captains watched for paddlers.

Many had gotten lost the night before in log jams of Alligator Lake and the choppy waters of the San Antonio Bay made finishing difficult.

"They really want to finish this, and this would be a heartbreaker," said Veronica Wisniewski, of Washington State, team captain of the tandem boat No. 106. Her husband and his partner were somewhere on the horizon of the brownish waters. The night before, their boat had broken in half.

Though she's only slept a few hours each night, Wisniewski believes she's got it easy.

"I'm not fighting that," she said, pointing to the waves.

The last 35 miles of the trip is known as Hallucination Alley and many report seeing everything from people on the riverbanks to battleships.

"I think anybody that finishes the race should be given a free psychological exam," said John Smith, a finish-line official holding a beer. "Even their brains have blisters. They're completely zapped."

Competitors agreed.

"I think the toughest thing was mental as opposed to physical," said John Murphy, a 35-year-old from Colorado, who finished in 11th place overall with a three-person team. The team was lost for nine hours in Alligator Lake the night before.

"I'm relieved," he said, after finishing a burger. "But if someone asked me to do Safari right now, I would laugh."

For Max Feaster, an 18-year-old who competed in the solo division for the first time, concentration was key.

"It's just focus," he said. Feaster won his division and came in eighth place overall.

Ritchie said he began to see bridges and his team captain on the shore.

"We started fantasizing that the water hand-offs were around the corner," he said.

Through the race, the team would circle between euphoria and utter exhaustion.

"It's like we went through every circle of hell," Ritchie said.

Wednesday, the East coaster leaves back to Washington D.C. with first place bragging rights and unparalleled memories of Texas.

"The majority of it is the Guadalupe," he said. "This prehistoric place created just to abuse my mind."

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