Monday, January 14, 2013

The long and winding... River?

It's been a funny old road for the last couple of years... or a funny old river, maybe. In my little journey to get back into kayaking properly I've been through a little bit of a revolution, a couple of different boats, one coaching course and an awful lot of thinking and analysis. And after the weekend just gone, I think I'm starting to get somewhere.

Like they always say in addiction counselling, admitting you have a problem is the first step, and this post on UK Rivers was that first step for me. It took me a long time to write, a lot of thinking, a lot of deliberating as to whether I should post it or not, but like an addict taking the same first step, I stuck it and got a wonderfully positive response. Some great advice from top-level coaches, some "you are not alone" comments from other 'mortal' boaters, and a good set of thoughts and ideas from everyone.

One quote in the UK Rivers topic stood out: "Consider your motivation for taking part in the sport and what you want to get out of it. If you know what you want, you can focus your efforts to achieve it more effectively". At  the risk of sounding like an old man, I paddle with a Uni club full of gung-ho kiddies who want to progress as fast as possible and run the hardest, gnarliest, nastiest stuff they can. Frankly, I wish them luck. My aim is thus: I want to enjoy paddling, in control, regardless of grade. I'd rather have a fun day hitting every tiny little eddy on a Grade 2/3 rapid in perfect control and style than scaring myself silly sketching my way down a grade 4+/5 and "getting away with it" again. That's not to say I don't want to run harder things in the future, but I want to run everything with control and be happy, not just pinball my way down them and survive.

The psychology of doing that is an oddity, though, and I've talked about this on a lot of different levels, to a lot of different people, for a lot of different reasons. The confidence games that go on in your head can be a great boost or an awful limitation to you, and they're never the same from day to day. I've had a wonderful weekend this weekend (which I'll expand on later) but Saturday started with my head saying "Woohoo! Let's go boating!" and Sunday with "Why are we doing this?". Both days ended up being equally awesome, but Sunday took a lot more perseverance and effort to make it all worthwhile. Those easy sunny Saturday-type days are what I want, what I need, but are sometimes few and far between. Those grey, grinding Sunday-type days are more common but much, much harder, even if the extra effort is almost always worth it. The two go hand in hand, but there's another good aim: I want to make Saturday-type days the norm and Sunday-type days a rarity.

Once we've plucked up the courage to get out of bed, into paddling kit and on the river, what next? Someone in that topic said "you obviously have some good skills, you wouldn't have got this far if you didn't", and they're right. I do have some good skills, they just don't always shine through if my mind doesn't want to play ball. There's the delightful Catch-22 of wanting to work on progressing some of those skills, but being held back by a lack of faith in their existence. One of the books mentioned on that page, Inner Skiing, deals with this really well, identifying two 'selfs'. The first is the voice that nags you from the back of your mind saying "you can't do that, you'll blow it, what if it goes wrong?". The second doesn't speak, just sits quietly but knows exactly what you can do and exactly how to do it. Quieting the first and letting the second do its job is something that takes work. Acknowledgement that some of those skills are a little rusty and need some work, that I'm not invincible and that I do sometimes get things wrong is fine, that's called being human. And being firmly seated in the departure lounge of my comfort zone every once in a while is not a bad thing, those excursions to the edge of the envelope are definitely necessary if I want to progress. Which I do, in case you'd missed the point of this post.

In terms of those progressing those skills, I went on a 4-Star Kayak training course at the start of December. The BCU coaching and awards system changed a couple of years ago, and the awards are reviewed and updated with a fair degree of regularity. In the 'old scheme' I held a few decent awards (4-star Inland kayak, 4-star Sea kayak, 3-star Inland open canoe) but they were all attained 10+ years ago. In ten years, things have progressed: Boat design has changed; the best way to handle those new boat designs has changed; technique, in terms of physiology and best practice, is similar but subtly different now. The old 4-star I held was vastly different to the 4-star I'm working towards now. The new award is split into 'personal skills' and 'leadership skills', one of which I'm pretty good on, one of which needs work. Having some professional coaching for the first time since... nineteen ninety-something?... gave me the areas for some work, and a lot of it seems related to out-of-date techniques, unsurprisingly. That weekend was two great days of paddling on classic river sections that I knew well, with some great people, but it highlighted a few gaps, a few tweaks to make and some things to aim for. If I went for an assessment now, I have no doubt I'd fail. I might pass if I had an exceptionally good day with an understanding/partially sighted assessor - I'll not bring luck into it, I believe you make your own luck - but it would be an outside bet. So that's another tangible target: Pass my new 4-star. I'm not placing a time limit, it will take as long as it takes, but it's something to work towards for my own benefit.

And after those three aims, as I said earlier, I've had an excellent weekend.

3 of us took to the Leven and Kent on Saturday, both rivers I've had a distinct fear of in the past. Backbarrow fall on the Leven has put the wind up me for a long time, and I've often got out (unnecessarily) to inspect the line and psyched myself out while doing it. A friend stopped me doing the same last year, as we sat in a mid-stream eddy he said "Don't inspect it. You know the line, you know how to hit it. So go and do it". And I did, and I hit it the cleanest I ever have. On Saturday, I did the same again. The section around Fisherman's Island at the end of the river is the same, it's caught me out so many times before that I've avoided the harder right-hand route to bimble through the easy left. This time, I dropped into an eddy on the lip, looked into the channel and thought "What exactly was it about this that worried me?". Not the mind overcoming itself here, but skill overcoming it - every time I'd run it in the past I'd rushed round the corner and straight into the channel, tensed up, in survival mode, hoping I was in about the right place, and suffered for it. This time I dropped into the eddy and broke the section in two, made sure I could get to the right place, then set off again. A small revolution, a victory for common sense and confidence.

Sunday was a trip to an old stomping ground, the Tees Barrage Whitewater Centre, and it started badly. After such a good day on real, natural rivers on Saturday, we were headed to a grey, concrete manmade course. The advantage of the concrete course is lots of good features close together. The disadvantage is, if you screw up, you're almost certainly going to get flushed through a couple more of those features. Maybe that played a role in the headgame, maybe it's that most of the smaller eddies are boily and fast flowing, apt to feed you back into the feature if you stop concentrating, maybe it's that I'm still not sure how good my whitewater roll is, maybe it's that I'm still not happy with being stuck in stoppers. Either way, I wasn't a happy bunny, but fortunately it only took one good move to change that.

There's a drop at the bottom of the course, called the Acid Drop, which is fairly infamous. Since the course is partially tidal, at low tides the Acid Drop is at it's highest, and the stopper at the bottom at it's nastiest. As I worked my way down the course on my first run, Tom caught me up and said "Have you been through the Acid Drop yet?" No, I said, I hadn't made it that far yet. "Go left or right, one of the two". Hmmm... ominous. Three of us headed down towards the bottom of the course, and I consciously left a good gap between myself and Heather in front of me, just in case. I rounded the last corner to see Ellie's boat upside down, flushing away from the hole, and Heather's boat, also upside-down, very much still in the hole. I went right, as hard right as I could, hit a boof stroke and piled my weight over the front of the boat, in case the tail caught the hole. A tiny kick of the noise upwards, a quick glance round, and I found I'd boofed straight into the safety of the right hand eddy.

I laughed, kept paddling, some good runs, some great, fun-but-challenging little moves, a couple of sketchy moments (have now discovered the practical application of the 'inside drive' method of breaking out: It saves you from ending up stuck on boily, squirrelly, horrible eddy lines because you tried to skid-turn and didn't  carve into the eddy fully), but afterwards I thought about what would have happened if Tom hadn't warned me, if I hadn't gone for the corner, if I'd got stuffed in the hole like Heather did. Chances are I would have swum, and that would have made my bad day worse, rather than hitting something tricky and challenging which made my bad day much, much better.

But, anyway, onwards and upwards. I'm headed back to the Lakes next weekend with the Uni club, let's see where we end up and what happens. I'm looking forward to it...