This was originally published in Silent Sports magazine. It’s a true story.
When you’re not very fast – at running, biking, hiking, paddling – you find other ways to distinguish yourself in competition, other badges of honor you carry proudly through life.
The year was 1996. I had taken my new used plastic sea kayak for a weekend of paddling on the north shore of Lake Superior, and saw signs for the kayak festival. Since the waves were bad, I decided to sign up for the 18-mile marathon the next morning, where I would at least have someone to pull me out of the drink if I tipped.
That night we partook of a fish boil at Superior Shores resort, and I met some of the competition – a woman from Madeline Island with a nice fiberglass, custom-made boat, and a photographer from Minneapolis whose arms were as big as my legs. I was undaunted. I’d been paddling every day on Jackfish Creek by my home near International Falls. On weekends, I would take a longer journey out into the islands of Rainy Lake or into Voyageurs National Park.
I spent the night in my tent in the backyard of one of the organizers. By 7:30 a.m. I was lining up for instructions with about 30 other kayakers. One young college student I had met the night before look disparagingly at my paddle, a two piece, $25 Carlyle with an aluminum/plastic shaft and flat, straight blades. “You gotta jettison the log, dude,” he said. “That thing must weigh a ton.”
I looked around at the other paddles. Sleek graphite and wood with fancy aerodynamic shapes. I had seen them in the stores when I bought my kayak, but $100 seemed outrageous for a paddle. How much difference could it make?
At the starting line, I was fantasizing about a strong finish. I had never paddled with anyone else, so I didn’t know for sure how fast I was, but since I’d been kayaking every day, I fully expected to surprise myself.
Everyone seemed to know a guy in a racing kayak would take first, but second place – first in my age division – was still up for grabs. I checked out the rest of the competition. About a third in my age range (late 30s, early 40s) a third older men and women, and a third college-aged or 20-something, including a few cocky, buff boys and two giggling girls who would be paddling in circles within five minutes, I was sure.
The gun went off and we set out northeast along the shore. For the first five minutes, I was feeling good. The boat was moving just as smoothly as usual, and I had a perfect rhythm going in my strokes. But very quickly I began to wonder as I looked around at the other boats. The racer was way out in front, but a handful of others had already pulled ahead, and some that started behind had already caught up. I was paddling fairly hard to get a good start, yet the giggling girls were keeping up with me.
After a half hour, the awful truth had sunk in: I was slow. Not just a little slower than average, but painfully, embarrassingly, humiliatingly slow. Second place was not only a fantasy, but a fantasy along the lines of an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel prize. I was in last place, watching two little co-eds pull off in the distance. Giggling and tossing their curls.
Encampment Island was the midway point of the race. We had to circle the island then head back to Two Harbors. Long before I reached it, the racer passed me on his way down the home stretch. The Madeline Island woman and the photographer were in the next pack of five or six. Less serious marathoners came next, among them the co-eds. By the time I started around the island, everyone else had finished rounding it and passed me going the other direction. It felt like being lapped in a two-lap race.
I labored back to Two Harbors, finishing in something like four and a half hours, a full 45 minutes after my closest rival. As I paddled toward the dock, I saw the organizers taking down the tents. The announcer had not yet closed up shop. She spoke into the loudspeaker as I crossed the finish line. “Brett Larson from Ranier, Minnesota.” I raised my paddle above my head while the crowd cheered politely.
In this shining moment, I had accomplished something no one had ever done – indeed, something no one would ever do again. Not only had I come in last, but I had come in last with flair, with verve, with personality and guts. I was literally last by a mile. Three miles, maybe. I, Brett Larson of Ranier, Minnesota, was the first ever last-place finisher at the Two Harbors Sea Kayak Festival marathon. Take that, Lance Armstrong. You will never sniff my record.