On a scorching day last July, Lee McGregor of South Africa paddled his kayak up to a makeshift finish line at a pier on Lake Erie, in Buffalo. McGregor, his massive shoulders heaving, hurried out of his sleek fiberglass craft, stumbled past a group of startled onlookers and ducked into his station wagon, which his wife, Sherley, had parked nearby. "That day, I was so tired and sore that I climbed into the back of my car and just hid," the 43-year-old McGregor recalls with a laugh. "I was leading the race, but I didn't want to talk to anybody. Tears were rolling down my face. I couldn't slop shaking. I just wanted to go home."
McGregor had just finished Day 12 of the Finlandia Vodka Clean Water Challenge, a 30-day, 765-mile endurance kayak race from Chicago to New York City. The annual race requires competitors to paddle portions of the Great Lakes, eight rivers, the Erie Canal and the Atlantic Ocean for a $25,000 first prize and the challenge of testing the limits of human physical exertion. "It's got to be the craziest race ever invented," says McGregor, who, despite his fatigue, held off 15 other competitors over the final 18 days to win. 'After paddling four hours every day for that many days, your body has simply had it. I don't think I'll ever get in a kayak again."
McGregor may have been exaggerating about his future, but not about the race. The Clean Water Challenge, the longest kayak race in the world, is so grueling that it attracts elite marathon paddlers from around the world. "It's unlike any race I know," says Greg Barton, 35, a four-time Olympic kayak medalist from Seattle who finished second in this year's Challenge after winning it in 1994. "Some kayak races last two or three days, but there's nothing in the world to compare with this."
Aching shoulders, sunburn and mental fatigue brought on by hours of constant rowing are just a few of the afflictions that Challenge competitors endure. They spend an average of four hours a day on the water, typically covering 20 to 30 miles, and their times are recorded for each day's stage. They hit six states in all: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
"You can't specifically train for something like this, because the race is so long that if you did the miles for it, you'd destroy yourself," says Dean Gardiner, a 30-year-old Australian who has won numerous world paddle events and who came in second in the '94 Challenge. "It's easy to get bored with sprint races, but this race is different, and it's not a bad way to see this part of the country, either."
The Clean Water Challenge was created in 1993 by Finlandia, the Finnish vodka distiller, to promote recreational water sports, environmental awareness and, of course, vodka. In addition to offering prize money, Finlandia donates $50,000 to nonprofit groups dedicated to protecting waterways along the race route.
Anybody with the courage and desire to paddle 765 miles can enter the race, but competitors must supply their own equipment. They use two types of boats, racing kayaks and surf skis. A racing kayak is an open-cockpit craft that weighs a mere 15 to 20 pounds and is used for speed and flat water sprints. A surf ski is a heavier (25 to 30 pounds), sit-on-top craft, with a small cavity on top in which the paddler sits. It is better than a kayak for riding waves. Regardless of which vessel a competitor uses on a given day, he or she must carry a spare paddle, a life jacket, safety flares and a VHF radio. Racers also make sure to carry plenty of liquids.
During the Challenge, athletes spend evenings at campsites or nearby motels, often eating together and sharing laughs about the day's events. "Believe it or not, it's really a lot of fun," says Joe Glickman, a 36-year-old journalist from Brooklyn, who has competed in all three Clean Water Challenges. "Nothing brings people together like shared suffering. None of us here are suit-and-tie people, so we all seem to get along real well. From Day 1 a lot of friendships are formed. And after two weeks it's like a family."
On the water, however, there is little time for chitchat—at least among the elite competitors at the front of the pack. There, racers spend hours paddling side by side, jockeying for position. As in bicycle racing, the leader often must endure racers "drafting" in his wake, conserving energy while waiting for an opportunity to dart by. "There is some strategy involved, especially in flat conditions where you get a pack race," says Barton, who became the first American male ever to win Olympic gold in the kayak when he took both the 1,000 meters and the 1,000-meter doubles at the 1988 Games in Seoul. "When that happens, the guy in the lead is essentially pulling the other people, and the other racers can conserve their energy for the finish."
This strategy hindered Barton as he attempted to gain on McGregor during the final days of this year's race. McGregor, well-versed in rough-water paddling from his experience in coastal racing back home in South Africa, built a 30-minute lead over Barton in the early days on the relatively choppy Great Lakes. Thereafter Barton, who is considered the best flat-water paddler in the world, could never break away from McGregor, who simply drafted him over the flatter Erie Canal phase of the race. "It was frustrating, but Lee was simply better prepared to race than I was," Barton says.