Nelson to make simplified second attempt at world paddling record (w/ video)

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 20, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Bellingham paddler Brandon Nelson, 41, will be the first to say there is nothing simple about paddling 24 hours straight.

"Ultra events involve suffering, no doubt about it," Nelson said last week. "There is no way to stay comfortable (in a Surfski) for that long. I know I'm going to a painful place."

Despite the pain he knows is waiting for him, at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, the local Re/Max real estate agent will fold his chiseled 6-foot-6 frame into an Epic V10 Pro Surfski on Lake Padden. Twenty-four grueling hours and hopefully at least 86 - if all goes right, perhaps even 91 or 92 - laps later around a 13/4-mile course he and his team have marked out and painstakingly measured, Nelson will emerge on Wednesday, Aug. 21, with a Guinness world record he's been waiting to break for almost nine years.

This will not be Nelson's first attempt to break the Guinness record for farthest distance by canoe or kayak on flat water in 24 hours - he made a memorable attempt in early May of 2006.

But this time, Nelson promises, things are going to be much, much simpler - or at least as simple as a 24-hour torture test can be.

"I think the approach this time is way more chill," Nelson said. "It will look to a lay person like, 'Oh my God, the intensity is so high!' But relative to last time it will be half."

There was very little that was "chill" about Nelson's last shot at the record.

That 2006 attempt was actually the culmination of two years of preparation. After making the decision to attempt the record run, he worked closely with the Western Washington University Vehicle Research Institute to design a fast and light kayak especially for the event.

But the preparation was hardly the greatest challenge Nelson faced during those two years leading up to his paddle.

"In the final four months, my mom (Janet) was diagnosed with terminal cancer," Nelson said. "I said immediately, 'Alright, I'm going to make this a fundraiser for hospice, an awareness for ovarian cancer, and I went very pubic with it. It was in homage to my mom, who ended up dying the day (April 13) we had originally scheduled to paddle."

He rescheduled the event for about two weeks later on May 2-3, and despite breaking the custom-made boat in windy conditions on Lake Whatcom, taking on water and having to use a heavier backup kayak for five hours while the primary boat was repaired, Nelson managed to surpass not only the old record of 137 miles but also his goal by about three miles, padding 147 miles.

"We ended up doing it and being successful for all we knew, and it ended up being the tribute to her (Janet) that we wanted," Nelson said. "And it was only afterwards that we found out that there was one little detail - you didn't actually break the record. It turned out we had outdated information."

Only three days earlier, renowned United States ultra marathon paddler Carter Johnson had attempted to break the same record on Merced Lake in San Francisco. His distance of 249.95 kilometers (150.34 miles) beat Nelson's mark by more than three miles and still stands as Guinness' record.

Unlike Nelson, who had made very public his intentions to go after the record, Johnson played his attempt close the vest, not publicly announcing it until after he had received confirmation from Guinness that he did indeed own the new record.

"It was a blow," Nelson said. "It was frustrating to learn that. It took me years to finally let go of that, even though a lot of people all along said, 'What you did was so successful and such a tribute to your mom. That was just a line-item detail. You did everything you set out to do. You broke the recorded, existing record at the time by 10 miles.' But it was this little asterisk that weighed me down for a number of years."

It wasn't until a couple of years ago, that Nelson said he was "able to forgive the whole situation and finally let it go."

In June, Nelson decided he was ready to make an attempt at removing that asterisk and go after Johnson's record.

And this time, Nelson said, the goal of the entire project was to keep things as simple as possible with only two months of preparation.

"Last time was a good life lesson," Nelson said. "I took the exact opposite approach this time. I took what I call the Occam's razor approach - How simple can we keep it? How few people do we need to get it done? Do we already own, can I borrow or do we have to buy the gear that I need?"

First and foremost, that meant no custom-built boat.

Instead, Nelson plans to use an Epic Surfski right off the rack built by the same company that he and wife Heather have worked with for the past year. Nelson said the comfort and stability of the V10 Pro made it possible for him to use a Surfski - a style boat that Nelson said is perfect for such an attempt but usually is uncomfortable over long distances for a 6-6 paddler.

"The boat last time was really a symptom of how custom and complicated I made everything about that event," Nelson said. "I didn't take any part of it and say, 'Hey, let's do this as simply as possible.' That was where I was in my life. I was the artist who felt he had to create every aspect of my business, my life and my home."

In 2006, he led a publicity campaign to raise money for Whatcom Hospice and a hospice house in California - an effort he said raised nearly $20,000 - and awareness for ovarian cancer.

This time he did not go public with his attempt until only hours before he took to the water, and he has a much smaller support crew this time.

The more sheltered Lake Padden also should be simpler to paddle on than Lake Whatcom and has a better equilibrium if the winds do kick up - helping him down wind to make up for having to wrestle the boat into a breeze - and the warmer water temperatures typically are faster. The smaller lake also will allow for more of an audience, something Nelson said he likes to feed off.

Even his nourishment will be simpler this time.

Last time he stopped every lap - about every 20 minutes - to take on super-formulated bars, Gu energy products and water. This time he'll take on water and food by stopping every two hours, and his food will be sweet potatoes, avocados, bananas, strawberries and coconut water - a reflection of a gluten- and dairy-free diet he adopted two years ago.

"Last time, it was more stress than I ever should have brought on myself, and I paid the price out on the water," Nelson said. "I was sick for weeks after that event. It took such a toll on my emotions and body. I remember I couldn't stop coughing for two weeks. ... I'm really looking forward to not being so stressed about every second, every stroke. There's some margin there."

Part of the reason Nelson said he feels there is a margin is he's trained with Olympic coach Carlos Dinares the past two years on Lake Samish, and that helped him realize, "I was twice the athlete I was, and that I had tremendous power and potential, even as I turned 40 and 41."

Nelson did a 10-hour test run on Lake Padden on Aug. 3 to prepare, and with the exception of some chaffing that developed on his back, he said he was encouraged by the results. Despite self pitting and even getting out of the Surfski to relieve himself at one point, Nelson was able to average 7.1 mph.

He said his goal on Tuesday is to carry that same average through the first 12 hours of his paddle, allowing him to dial things back to the low 6s for the finish. He only needs to average 6.26 mph to break the record.

"I'd like to do about 160 miles," Nelson said. "I think that comes out to a 6.66 (mph) average over 24 hours."

Despite simplifying just about every aspect of this attempt, Nelson said one area has caused stress - getting his attempt verified.

Guinness requires two official witnesses on site at all times and letters from each of them verifying what they saw. Two master witnesses also must talk to every witness and write letters.

Nelson's team includes J. Thomas Brewster from Wilson Survey/Engineering and WWU chairman of the Environmental Studies Department Michael Medler, who helped set up the course using GPS systems. They must not only detail how the course was set up but also monitor Nelson's progress with GPS systems on land and two more on his boat to accurately measure the distance traveled.

In addition, the team must document with video the start, finish, at least two minutes from every hour and every time Nelson stops the boat as well as with photographs from different perspectives and times during the attempt.

"The one stressful part of this is abiding by Guinness' standards," Nelson said. "They're very stringent, and they're ruthless, and they and they have no problem denying people if they don't have accurate evidence. I've done everything short of going to an attorney with their packet to interpret, making sure we follow the letter of the law on this."

Nelson said he already paid a $700 stipend to Guinness to fast track the verification process to cut the time he has to wait from six weeks down to three days, meaning he could know if the record is finally his by next week.

If he is successful, it would be the completion of some unfinished business.

"I don't have this burning inner storm that keeps me up at night that I need to do this," Nelson said. "I see it as something that is very much within my reach and a way to finish some business I set out to do long ago."

And this time, that will be enough.

Although he does not have a specific cause he's paddling for this time, thoughts of his mother and many others will obviously be on his mind as he circles Lake Padden.

"I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours thinking back on the first paddle - my mom's passing just before, the sound of the boat cracking under me, my choice of back-up boats to get in while the broken boat was being fixed, the crowd of people there supporting me and the hundreds more who had sponsored the event to help us raise money for hospice, the moment I learned that my distance had been beat days before and every bit of minutiae you can imagine," Nelson wrote in a follow-up email.

"When something so large in scope doesn't turn out the way we hoped, I think any one of us would analyze it to death - until we can set out to do it right and get it done. ... Tuesday's effort is very much in line with the original project from 7 years ago. It is a tribute to my mom and her life, her role as a hospice caregiver, and as a wake-up call for early cancer screening. It's a tribute to one of the two primary crew members from my attempt in 2006, Ken Brunton, who lost a long battle with cancer just last year. He would've been with the core crew at Padden if he were still alive. And it's a tribute and a salute to every man, woman and child who has been affected by cancer. The strength I call on to break the world record is inspired by those affected by cancer."

WATCH VIDEO

Reach David Rasbach at 360-715-2271 or david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com .

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