When we paddle, we are all essentially dealing with the conditions and natural elements—the wind, current, tide, weather, moon phase, etc. It is never against anyone else but yourself, and your primary focus is to overcome your obstacles.

 

 

On SUP Racing

My journey to SUP racing began in 2016 when I took part in the SEA (Surfers Environmental Alliance) Paddle NYC, a 25-mile charity paddling race around Manhattan. The ladies I paddled with created a laminated timetable printed in the tiniest font size to bring to the race so that we would know exactly when to hydrate, refuel, eat lunch, take breaks—all of which, of course, never happened. We arrived at the start line with dry bags containing, besides the essential energy gels, chews, and bars; sandwiches (which we exchanged with each other so that we’d have a variety), boiled eggs packed in ice, oatmeal packs, fresh fruits, nuts, assorted snacks in small Ziplocs with salty and crunchy snacks like potato chips and pretzels for when we completely lost our appetites, extra water and Gatorade in addition to the 2-3L of water in our hydration packs, a small bottle of Cola for muscle cramps, and shoes in case our feet got too tired and we lost our grip.

Nobody else had anything on their boards, while we looked like we were carrying camping bags stuffed with enough to spend a few days on the water. One of my teammates’ deck attachment was falling off due to the weight of her bag, so I had her bag too! Our instructors who came to see us off could not help laughing, “Girls, you’re going to be racing, not going on an expedition!”

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Just the dry food. This doesn’t even include the fresh food we prepared!

And we’re off!

Shortly into the race, I learned that nobody was stopping for a break. All I needed to do, and could do, was to keep paddling and sipping water whenever that was possible. According to our “perfect plan”, the 145th Bridge was supposed to be our lunch spot. Passing by it, I thought about the sandwiches going bad. Even so, the only break I took was when I dumped about 2L of extra water just past the halfway point because I had so much weight on my board.

The elite race started after the charity race, and the superstar pack flew by. One of my teammates, Kaity, and I started drafting by ourselves. Our race coaches, Shannon and Carey, had taught us how to draft in one of the race training sessions, but we didn’t have much time to practice. Fortunately for us it worked! Shannon and Carey were following us from the bike path along the river cheering us on and were pleased to see our progress first hand!

I formed a two person draft pack with my teammate Jenn during the second half of the race through the Hudson River. Jenn, who normally cracks the whip during practices, made sure we finished strong by sprinting. Despite the heavy luggage we raced with, we came in together as the first female charity solo racers.

Overall, the support from our friends and coaches (such a nutrition tip from an endurance athlete and fellow paddler, Stefanie Jackenthal) was amazing, and with the SEA Paddle NYC organizers and volunteers lifting our spirits throughout the race we had a great experience. Not long afterwards, my teammates and I formed the RedSUPLadies and went on to do two end-of-the season races back to back. We got even better with the drafting train, and on both occasions, had a nice beach day with delicious seafood, great music and tons of giveaways. Best of all, we got to meet many wonderful people in the community outside of our boathouse.

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Finish line at the SEA Paddle NYC 2016.

How I got into SUP racing

My initial interest in the ability to paddle fast was for the same reason I wanted to be able to hike fast. Mountain weather is often unpredictable and changes quick. On my first hike of the Adirondack 46ers (the 46 of the 4,000ft peaks in the Adriondacks) with my partner, we reached the summit of Mount Marcy, the highest peak of New York State, excited to finally be able to enjoy lunch, only to be told by the summit steward that we needed to get down as quickly as possible because a thunderstorm was approaching. This experience taught me that the speed that I am able to move with can be crucial to my safety. When my partner and I decided to pursue all the 46 peaks to become a 46er, we also realized that we would not get certain peaks done without camping multiple days (which comes with the hassle of dealing with bear canisters, heavier backpack, and back issues) or without a wide window of good weather. It made more sense that we were able to do three – four miles per hour, as opposed to two miles per hour, which was our speed at that time.

I felt the same with paddling. If I wanted to explore more, it’s a huge advantage to be able cover more distance in less time. If there is a sudden or unexpected change in weather or an emergency, the quicker I can travel, the safer I (and my company) will be. That was my motivation for speed. In my second year of paddling, I was finally feeling comfortable keeping up with the pace of the group of paddlers at the boathouse and I started taking SUP racing classes that Shannon and Carey offered there.

Then, V, who later also became one of my teammates, suddenly decided that she was going to do the SEA Paddle. She was asking around if anyone was interested in joining her. I was a runner in junior high and swimmer in high school, and I was on a varsity field hockey team in college. I thought I would never compete in sports again. At the time I started paddling, I was into dancing, which I loved because it was the absolute opposite of competing for me. Although Manhattan was our home ground, I had not done the circumnavigation like many others had at the boathouse, nor paddled that kind of distance. It was my first SUP race, but she got me to say yes.

Our instructors and coaches were more excited than we were. Shannon and Carey added more technical elements to the race training classes and held extra sessions outside of the regular classes for us. I expected training for a race would be a grueling physical and mental torture and competing against my fellow paddlers would be no fun. That was hardly the case and SUP racing turned out be a totally unique experience of competing.

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SEA Paddle 2017.

Training days

When we paddle, we are all essentially dealing with the conditions and natural elements—the wind, current, tide, weather, moon phase, etc. It is never against anyone else but yourself, and your primary focus is to overcome your obstacles. During racing, facing the same challenge together becomes a big group effort, making it exciting and giving one an extra boost. This is usually felt from the training stage. It is interesting that so many of those preparing for the same race are the ones usually helping me with my technique, gear choices, etc. On this journey, you build comradery with your fellow racers, face your doubts and fears, then overcome them.

SUP racing has also added so much fun and depth to paddling for me. The training process: analyzing, planning, testing out, and learning what works for me to be the best paddler I can be, fascinates me. It makes me closely examine my technique because I want the most efficient stroke. Finding the form that’s right for you, or constantly making adjustment to your style while you evolve as a paddler leads to an injury-free and extended paddling life. You’re forced to eat and sleep right. You cross train and will be willing to do things you’ve never done because you want everything – strength, flexibility, balance, endurance and focus. There are many benefits to racing.

The Hudson River froze this year, and there were many cold and windy days that made it difficult to get on the water. It is pitch dark when you get out of work. I’ve paddled with my toes numb, hair frozen, and ice forming on my board. I will not be able to separate the memories of this winter with the constant layering, same dry suit in every picture, or the smell of rubber from my neoprene gloves that stays forever on my hands. Learning that you just have to show up, make the best of the weather, and take something from it every time is an invaluable lesson, and something which I take great pride in. I am grateful for my training partners and instructors that pushed me to keep paddling.

 


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Noriko Okaya

Noriko Okaya was born in Japan and has been a resident of New York since 2001. Noriko grew up participating in all kinds of sports and always loved the water, so standup paddling immediately captured her heart when she tried it for the first time three years ago. When Noriko isn’t paddling she can be found traveling, hiking (Noriko is an aspiring Adirondack 46er), dancing (salsa and tango), various cross-trainings for paddling, and she recently started learning surfing and rock-climbing. Noriko is also a member of the RedSUPLadies, based in New York City. The RedSUPLadies paddle, train, and race together, but mostly share tons of adventures and laughs.