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The Runoff

I boldly suggested that someone could run along a known local stretch of water faster than anyone could kayak it. And a race was born.

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If there was one thing we could agree on, it was that we were going to win. The problem was that we were two teams—kayakers in the water and runners on land—and both could not win.

Five of us stood at the start: a couple of barrel-chested kayakers dressed in neoprene, helmets and spray skirts (to keep the water out of their boats) and three svelte and eager runners, thumbing our IT bands and high-knee jogging in place. I couldn’t help but recall a moment from my youth when my brother and I threw various species of insects in a jar to see “who would win.”

This race, like many great endeavors, began to take shape at an hour beyond which nothing good is supposed to happen. Scotty had been teetering around pouring “pinot bombs” for the after-hours crowd when I boldly suggested that someone could run alongside a local four-and-a-half-mile section of water faster than anyone could kayak it.

“Not at peak runoff,” Scotty said in his strong Kiwi accent, no easier to understand when he was drunk than sober. “Cemetery Lane to Jaffe Park, 17 minutes.”

“Bullshit,” I slurred, which is generally all it takes for a bar bet to form.

Growing up in a mountain town, whether you participate in all of the sports available to you or not, you at least pick up the lingo. You know that river flow is measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). You know about the winter’s snowpack. And you know that the rising temperature from spring into summer creates the runoff that swells the slow, casual waters over the banks of the Roaring Fork River, and that the section of water from Cemetery Lane to Jaffe Park will earn its name of Slaughterhouse.

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A year or two passed before the event crystallized, and I found myself alongside the rising gurgle of the Roaring Fork, squaring off against the other crew. The week before, I had tapped out a quick text message: “Monday, 6 p.m. Runners vs. kayakers. Cemetery Lane to Jaffee Park. Tell your friends.” I sent the text to every runner and boater I knew and was elated to show up at the Cemetery Lane Bridge to find four others as curious as I was.

“What’s it running right now, you reckon?” I asked Jules, a kayaker.

“Between 600 and 800,” he replied. “Peaks at 1,200. It’s gonna be a close one.”

A passerby counted, “Three, two, one, go!” and we set off from the amphibious starting line. The rush of the water swept the kayakers away in their sleek, dart-like boats as we runners crossed the grass onto the nearby trail.

As the three of us cruised through the first mile, I looked over my left shoulder to see the green boat and red life jacket of Jules. This was a real race.

Another mile down the trail I peered into the steep ravine that the river had carved below us to see the kayakers paddling just behind us. Then the trail and river parted to begin the mile of mystery where you can only wonder how your competition is faring.

Emerging from that, I saw no boaters. I descended for the final mile keeping one eye on my footing and the other on the river below.

Empty water. I reeled in my speed slightly.

What is it that compels us to compare disparate things? I thought. Apples and oranges. Spiders and grasshoppers. Kayakers and runners.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the flash of Jules’s paddle. A jolt of adrenaline sent me sprinting the final quarter mile of trail. As I splashed into the river at the rudimentary dock that was our finish line, I looked upstream and greeted my competition and friend as he paddled his final few strokes. His smile was as big as mine.

With beers in hand, we stood around the take-out and exchanged stories—more than you’d think possible from a mere 27 minutes.

As we crushed our beer cans underfoot, it occurred to me that perhaps we weren’t comparing unlike things so much as trying to create like things. In this case, a story.

Rickey has grown out of his spider versus grasshopper stage … kinda. This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.

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