A paddle race from Austin to Bastrop: cold, wet and your next thrill

Jan 26, 2018

By the time Jeannette Burris pulled into Fisherman’s Park, all she could think about was peeling off her cold, wet clothes and getting warm and dry.

She’d spent the last 12 hours and 19 minutes paddling down the Colorado River in the Texas Winter 100, a 100-kilometer paddle race that starts beneath the Interstate 35 bridge in Austin and finishes in Bastrop. In that time, she’d seen the sun come up and go down — and taken a lot of strokes with her double-bladed paddle, dripping water into her lap with every one.

Burris, 61, who averaged just under 5 miles per hour in the race, finished second (“but also last,” she noted, because she wants to keep it entirely honest) in the women’s solo division and 14th (“and also last”) in the overall event. (In this year’s race, finishing times ran from about 9 1/2 hours to more than 12 hours.)

Paddlers in canoes and kayaks compete in the Texas Winter 100 from Austin to Bastrop on the Colorado River. Stephen Spillman for American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

“It was a lot of solitude out there, which is good, but also hard,” she said. “When it gets to 6:30 p.m. and it’s dark and cold, and I’m sopping wet, I’m just ready for it to be over. It’s not physical — I go to the gym. The mental part is, ‘Why the heck do I do this?’ Then you get to the finish and you remember why — it’s because I finished another task most people don’t do.”

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Unlike Burris, who has finished numerous races, I’m a rookie paddler. I borrowed a canoe to paddle the Devils River last spring, loved it, paddled all over Central Texas in my plastic kayak, then bought my first canoe a few months ago. When a friend suggested I enter a canoe race, I rolled my eyes at first, then couldn’t resist. But there were challenges: I’d never really paddled with my husband, I’d never raced a boat, and my idea of a fine day on the river includes a picnic lunch and lots of leisurely stops to take pictures.

So we signed up.

We didn’t do the entire race. We headed to downtown Austin for the 5 a.m. start of the beginners division, watched a small group of detail-oriented paddlers lash down water jugs and strap lights to their boats, then drove a mile downstream to watch them portage at Longhorn Dam, where they hoisted their craft out of the river, trotted through a pedestrian tunnel, scampered down a rough concrete embankment and relaunched a few hundred yards downstream.

Paddlers in canoes and kayaks on Lady Bird Lake begin the Texas Winter 100 paddle race from Austin to Bastrop. Stephen Spillman for American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

Then we headed back to Interstate 35 for the 7 a.m. start of the more experienced paddlers’ race, where we met up with Burris, who was battening down the hatches of her narrow canoe. She slid water containers into holes carved into chunks of foam glued to the bottom of her boat, and pointed out the plastic women’s urinal she’d use along the way, because pulling off to pee takes too much time. A GPS tracker would keep her on pace, and she had a small first-aid kit, food and a personal flotation device.

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“I’m 61, and paddling keeps me in shape,” she said. “I go to the gym because I race, and I race because I go to the gym. It keeps me from getting old or fat.”

Burris, who is clearly neither, also finds solace in gliding down the river at a time in her life that’s been personally challenging. “I’ve been dealing with my husband’s cancer for four years, and when I go on the river, the cancer doesn’t come with me,” she said.

We watched Burris and the other paddlers line up, then sprint away as race founder West Hansen counted down the start and bellowed out, “Giddyup!”

After watching that wave of paddlers portage, we headed out to start our own abbreviated version of the race. We drove east, parked our truck at Little Webberville Park and lugged our shiny new Alumacraft canoe down to the river. Then we pushed off like turtles on a log to enjoy the most scenic 20 miles of the course without the pressure of racing. That turned what would have been an odyssey for us into a highlight reel of great horned owls, mooing cows, blue herons, gentle riffles and, disappointingly, a lot of discarded car tires.

Ben Unruh continues racing in the Colorado River after walking around Longhorn Dam on the east side of Lady Bird Lake. Stephen Spillman for American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

While Burris and the other racers glided swiftly down the Colorado River, we (unintentionally) zigzagged back and forth across the blue-green ribbon of water, pausing to stretch our legs and eat peanut butter sandwiches. We also plunged our legs into cold water to push off the occasional gravel bar.

That reminded me of what Mark Schatz, a 25-year-old canoe instructor who won the solo competitive class of the Texas Winter 100 in 2017, told me before we launched: “This is one race you’re guaranteed not to feel your feet.”

We weren’t the only rookies out there. Nathan Russell, 26, and Chris Alvarez, 30, signed up for the race after hearing about it from a friend, who described in detail the thrill he felt just crossing the finish line after nearly bailing out 10 miles from the end. They had to do it.

“We’re both amateurs,” Russell said before the start, sliding onto the hard canoe seat where he’d sit for the next 10 to 12 hours. “The goal is to finish, and be proud of ourselves for making it. As long as we make the cutoffs, we’ll be happy.”

Chris Champion, left, and Jason Cade walk their canoe back into the Colorado River after avoiding the Longhorn Dam on the east side of Lady Bird Lake while racing the Texas Winter 100 paddle race from Austin to Bastrop. Stephen Spillman for American-Statesman Photo: American-Statesman Staff

My husband, Chris, and I pulled off the river at the bridge crossing in Utley about 2:30 p.m. While he retrieved the truck, I hung out and chatted with paddlers coming through. Among them was a stiff-looking Michael Matthews, 34, who was experiencing the race for the first time.

“I’m cold. Everything hurts and I’m tired, so I’m going to keep going,” he said during a quick break at the shoreline.

“There’s chili at the end,” volunteer Patty Geisinger told him, trying to perk him up. “And it’s warm.”

At 7:19 p.m., about the time I was soaking in a hot bubble bath at home, Burris, bundled up in soggy yoga pants, neoprene socks, several layers of shirts and a paddling jacket, finally got out of her canoe and wrapped up her river adventure.

“It’s what I was expecting with the (low) flow,” she said of her finish time. “I was hoping for 11 1/2 hours, but it just didn’t happen.”

Still, she felt a surge of something she always feels after accomplishing something hard — pride. “I always am proud that I was able to overcome a cold, long race,” she said.

And this race was just a buildup to her next adventure — an attempt to finish the famed (and famously grueling) Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile hallucination fest that begins in San Marcos and finishes at the Texas Coast.

Who knows. Maybe someday I’ll line up alongside her.