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Racer completes event year after friend's death (video)

By Taylor Mitchell
June 11, 2013 at 1:11 a.m.
Updated June 12, 2013 at 1:12 a.m.

Ian Rolls, 35, in green, pushes off from the starting line of the Texas Water Safari at Spring Lake in San Marcos on Saturday morning. Last year was Rolls' first appearance in the race, but his attempt was cut short just south of Gonzales when his paddling partner, 30-year-old Brad Ellis, died suddenly from low blood salt levels as a result of drinking an excessive amount of water. Ellis was the first fatality in the race's history.

SAN MARCOS - As Ian Rolls crossed the finish line of the Texas Water Safari, the 35-year-old could hardly stand.

Not only was he physically exhausted from finishing the 260-mile race in a little more than 48 hours, but he was also emotionally exhausted.

"Oh, definitely, it was emotional," Rolls said. "I didn't want to make a scene, but it was all I could do not to emotionally breakdown."

A year ago, Rolls was unable to finish the world's toughest canoe race after his partner and friend, Brad Ellis, died from drinking too much water.

This year though, Rolls was the fifth boat to cross the finish line.

"I was hoping it would be a cathartic deal, and it ended up being just that," Rolls said. "Nothing in the race was a downer, and I never felt like I would be better not doing it. It was a good process."

Rolls, who was in the solo unlimited category, was the fifth boat overall and second in his class to cross the finish line at Seadrift Bay, finishing the journey in 48 hours and 28 minutes.

During those long hours by himself, Ellis was on Rolls' mind.

"I thought about him a lot," Rolls admitted. "I talked to him, and he was in my heart the whole time. I asked him to help me and be with me. I had a lot of time to have one-way conversations with him."

For the 2013 edition of the Texas Water Safari, several new rules were put into place. While one of the rules allows competitors to receive medical attention and still complete the race, Rolls said he doesn't think the rules would've saved Ellis.

"I agree with some of them, the medical stuff especially," Rolls said. "The food bothers me; it bothers everybody that you can get food. None of that stuff would have made a difference with our race last year, though."

Rolls and Ellis made it roughly 100 miles into last year's race, between Gonzales and Hochheim, before Ellis was airlifted to what is now the San Antonio Military Medical Center.

While Rolls remembers the area well, he passed through it at night and couldn't see exactly where he pulled the boat over to the side during last year's race. Instead of thinking about Ellis passing away, Rolls concentrated on keeping up with another pair of boats.

"I was in such a competitive mode with another solo boat (Gaston Jones) and the six-man Cowboys team, just trying to keep up with them," Rolls recalled. "When you go solo, you're alone a lot of the race, and that's when I was thinking about him."

Rolls truly did stay busy. He didn't sleep and had only about an hour of stop time. But with Ellis and a mental toughness that would rival an Ironman athlete, he was able to push himself to the end.

"The guys and girls that do well have a lot of mental toughness," Rolls said. "It's mostly with whatever you have inside of you rather than how to paddle or what boat you have."

Maybe the part of the race he thought about Ellis the most was the log jams roughly 40 miles south of Victoria.

"I went crazy around log jams, and my head wasn't right," Rolls recalled. "But I knew with a little bit of time and a little bit to eat, I'd be fine. It was good to experience that, to be really down and out of your mind and be able to come back."

Rolls had already come back from one thing. He was there when Ellis began having problems and was there to pull him out of the water. After an experience like that, nobody would fault Rolls for not coming back to the Texas Water Safari.

But Saturday morning, he was on the first row of the starting grid.

"It was really important for me to come back," Rolls said. "I didn't want his death to make me quit something I loved, and he wouldn't have wanted that either. This race is cathartic, healing in a lot of ways. It's important for me to do it as part of the healing process."



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