15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Green Race

Adriene Levknecht fires off Gorilla at the 2014 Green Race. Photo by Regina Nicolardi
Adriene Levknecht fires off Gorilla at the 2014 Green Race. Photo by Regina Nicolardi

When this year’s 20th anniversary of the coveted Green Race near Asheville, N.C., kicks off on Nov. 7, it’ll draw some of the world’s best kayakers to one of the country’s best Class V runs for little more than bragging rights and a piece of glass. Here are 15 things you might not know about it…

1. It’s Fast. The course record was set by New Zealand’s Dawson in 2012, who shaved his prior year’s winning time down 20 seconds to win in 4:10 and eclipse Andrew Holcombe’s previous record of 4:27 and Tommy Hilleke’s of 4:34 set in 2005. Since then, other paddlers have gotten close, with Pat Keller finishing in 4:14 in 2013 and Issac Levinson and Dane Jackson tying at 4:19 in 2014. Will this be the year it’s broken again?

2. The worst carnage ever befell Nick Easley in 2006, whose wreck in Gorilla has garnered close to 50,000 views on YouTube (see below). Suffering broken ribs, a concussion and a punctured lung, Easley spent a week in the hospital after cowboying up and hiking two miles out. “For the most part we’ve pretty lucky with injuries,” says organizer Jason Hale, whose e-mail handle is H20Beatdown. “Most injuries happen while people are training. On race day you have the best safety you could ever hope for.”

3. The water for the race is turned on by a guy named Frank, who works for Duke Power. In 2004, high water in Lake Summit upstream forced him to crank the flow up to a whopping 250 percent. The event was officially cancelled, but seven paddlers raced anyway. Other years, Frank has been dosing on the job with the release coming late, causing spectators paddling in to get caught in a self-coined “bubblefuck.” “When that happens, people have to wait for the next rapid to fill up before they can go downstream,” says one bubble rider, who saw 30 people jammed into the 10-person eddy above Go Left. “It was sketchy as hell for a moment. As soon as I thought there was enough water I hauled ass out of there and never looked back.”

4. With no entry fee and no prize money, each year racers simply compete for The Glass, a coveted stained glass trophy made by local boater Todd Graff. The design varies every year, but never sways far from its roots: a kayaker descending the maw of Gorilla. Small trophies are handed out for the women’s, hand paddle and short boat categories, but The Glass itself is reserved for the fastest paddler, period. So far it graces the windows of the likes of Dawson, Keller, Jackson, Levinson, Jason Hale, Al Gregory, Tommy Hilleke, Andrew Holcombe and more.

5. Partying’s as much of the program as paddling, with the race book-ended by major ragers. Oftentimes, this has included a post-race alligator-Jambalaya blow-out at Liquidlogic co-founder Woody Callaway’s house at the take-out. “The first time, I told my neighbors I was going to have a ‘little” party,’” says Callaway. “It turned out to be more than 300 people. The next day one of my neighbors said, ‘I hope to God you never tell me you are going to have a BIG party.”

6. Manufacturers get into the action, too. Over the years, the race has spawned several new kayak designs, including the Remix 100 (now the Stinger) from Liquidlogic, the Momentum from Wave Sport, and the Green Boat from Dagger. But for all this technology, the boat with the most wins remains a blue Prijon Tornado with eight: two by Jason Hale and six by Tommy Hilleke. “There’s a fine line between good speed and being able to run Class V safely,” says Holcombe, adding that how a boat sheds water is almost as important as its length.

7. The Green Man (or Iron Man) title goes to those with the balls to race both short and long boat categories (Glen LePlante set the tone by first doing so in 2003). Each year, maybe 15 people rattle their nerves in the sadistic combo, towing the extra kayaks behind them on the paddle in and then stashing them at the start to retrieve for run number two. “It was never that popular until Glenn did it,” says local Green Man John Grace. “You’re subjecting yourself to the same punishment twice.”

8. Even after all these years, the race’s Zen-master is six-time winner Tommy Hilleke, who, in 2006, lost for the first time since 2000 only because he moved to Colorado. He credits it to time in the saddle. “A lot of it is just knowing the river,” says Hilleke, who estimates he’s paddled it up to 750 times. “At that point I probably had more descents down it than anyone.”

9. The only year a banner has been at the race was in 2004 when Red Bull put a giant inflatable arch across the river near the finish line. Despite a raging Red Bull and vodka party, the commercialism was frowned upon and banners were never allowed at the race again (organizer Jason Hale rounds up just enough sponsorship funding to cover race costs and t-shirts).

10. It is good karma to yell “Ride the Lightning!” while launching off the launch-pad lip at the top of Gorilla. No one’s quite sure why it relates to kayaking Gorilla, but the term was coined during a high-water run by Hilleke and refers to metal band Metallica’s second album, released in 1984.

11. Racers employ different strategies to win. Newcomers keep a steady pace up top to reserve energy for Gorilla (“There’s nothing more helpless than surfing the Gorilla hole when you’re exhausted with tons of people yelling at you,” says Benedict). Strategy two: go fast for the opening two minutes, then chill during the hard stuff before Gorilla. Strategy three (and what usually wins): go full out, but calm yourself above each technical drop. Most racers believe you win it up top and lose it at the bottom.

12. It’s its own watery Woodstock, with nearly 1,000 spectators, including a man in a chicken suit, hiking down a treacherous trail for two hours to get to the race site. “And it’s not an easy hike,” says Hale. “It kicks your ass, with the last section making you hang onto ropes in a steep, slippery gully.”

13. The race has never been won in a short boat. Local Pat Keller won the first-ever short boat class in 2004, but short boat times are usually at least 20-30 seconds off their long-boat brethren. Today’s cutoff is 9 feet, but the specs change. “It’s more a way to separate it from the faster race class than anything else,” says Grace. “We don’t want to alienate anyone from racing…it’s all about posting your own best time.”

14. Anyone who wants to complain about the Green Race can get a refund of their entry fee for a $10 donation.

15. This year’s 20th anniversary of the race makes it one of the longest-running “extreme” kayak races in the country and world. Find out more on this year’s race at http://greenrace.amongstit.com.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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