Bellingham paddler Brandon Nelson surpasses distance paddling world record (w/ video)

Official certification expected later this month

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 21, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - It was not the hero's finish Brandon Nelson probably hoped for - or deserved.

But heroic may be the best way to describe the effort displayed by the 41-year-old Bellingham resident, who is built like Superman.

On Wednesday morning, Aug. 21, more than 100 friends and onlookers gathered around Lake Padden to cheer him on in his pursuit of Guinness' ultra marathon paddling world record.

Despite bouts with stomach sickness and actually slipping off his Surfski three times over the final five hours, Nelson unofficially accomplished his quest to break the record for the farthest distance traveled on flat water in a canoe or kayak in a 24-hour period. At 7:38 a.m., Nelson completed his 87th counter-clockwise lap around Lake Padden, and after paddling approximately another 21 feet, an air horn sounded signifying he had surpassed the old record of 150.34 miles, set in 2006 by American Carter Johnson.

Nelson continued, completing almost another two-thirds of a lap, before an 8 a.m. pistol shot signaled the completion of the 24-hour event. He was then helped out of his Surfski near the boat ramp on the east end of the lake, where paramedics were called to attend to him and ended up taking him to St. Joseph hospital.

"I would give anything if I could give a big cry," Nelson said in a phone interview from the hospital. "But I don't think there's enough fluid in me to do it. It was a promise to my mom, my dad and my brother and my family and my wife. It was just an unfinished thing for a long, long time. I have a thousand memories I'm rushing through in a hurry."

Michael Medler, chairman of Western Washington University Environmental Studies Department, was part of Nelson's team in charge of making sure it had functioning GPS equipment to accurately measure the distance.

Nelson paddled "about 151.3 miles - he broke it by a mile," Medler said, adding that he would have a more accurate distance once he compiled the GPS tracking data.

Thomas Brewster, a survey manager from Wilson Survey and Engineering who helped measure the course Nelson used, estimated the completed distance at 151.73 miles, based on the completed circuits and how far Nelson got on the final lap.

Now it is up to Guinness to verify that all its criteria had been met and certify Nelson as the new world record holder. Nelson said he paid a $700 stipend to expedite the process, and if all goes well, he should hear back next week.

Nelson said he was having some "heart abnormalities" following the paddle, and was getting it checked out while he was in the hospital. It likely will be weeks before he is completely recovered from the grueling test, Nelson said.

"Going that long and hard is hard on the kidneys," he said. "It takes an internal toll - not just muscular, not just skin."

But Nelson said completing something he set out to do more than seven years ago was worth the effort to literally give everything he had, especially considering this was his second attempt at breaking the record.

Nelson took a first run at the record in 2006 after nearly two years of preparation, including working closely with the WWU's Vehicle Research Institute to design a fast and light kayak specifically for the event.

But during the final months of his preparation for that attempt, his mother, Janet, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died at age 55 on the day he had originally scheduled to make the run. Nelson postponed his attempt 21/2 weeks and decided to use it as a platform for an awareness campaign for ovarian cancer and a fundraiser for hospice care.

On May 2-3, he paddled 147 miles, which surpassed the published record at the time of 137 miles.

But three days earlier, Johnson made his attempt on Lake Merced in California in relative secrecy, making that the new record when it was verified by Guinness and negating Nelson's claim to the record.

"I think this is something he felt he wanted to do for his mom - unfinished business, you know," said Heather Nelson, his wife.

Finishing that business certainly did not come easily. Nelson said it took him a number of years to let go of the hurt of missing out in 2006, and it wasn't until June that he decided to take another go at it.

In preparation for his latest attempt, Nelson took a 10-hour paddle on Lake Padden on Aug. 3, and with the exception of some chaffing on his lower back, he was "fresh as a daisy," said local paddler Peter Marcus, who assisted with the effort.

But things were not so smooth during Nelson's paddle for the record.

"He was definitely tired and stressing," Marcus said. "That was a big hurdle to overcome, and that led to some inconvenient moments, dealing with his insides and feeding and not getting the right mixtures of athletic drinks and different ingredients that weren't sitting very good."

Marcus said Nelson's crew were able to dial him in with the right mixture of strawberries, bananas and smoothies by early Tuesday evening, but that was only the beginning of what turned out to be a very long night.

"I inadvertently consumed more caffeine than I ever should have just trying to keep myself alert," Nelson said. "All the tablets and Red Bull put me in a state of caffeine psychosis, and I couldn't get my heart and my mind to settle down."

After throwing up a couple of times, Nelson lost his balance at around 3 a.m., and he ended up falling off his boat and into the lake.

"At that moment, I thought it was over," Nelson said.

But he had multiple friends in the paddling community at his side in their own boats offering encouragement and helping to keep him alert and safe throughout the night. They grabbed him and got him back on his boat.

"He had some difficulties around 3 a.m.," said friendly paddling rival David Jacobson, who slipped out of his own boat to catch Nelson by the life vest and helped him get back on board. "It was dark out. He's been in the boat for over 18 hours, and he had a swim. ... The way he bounced back was amazing."

Nelson said his team reminded him that he was still ahead of world record pace and that helped him refocus on the task.

But Nelson said he went for a second swim in the darkness, and he slipped off a third time a few hundred yards short of the world record. Each time, he willed himself back onto the boat and kept paddling with the help of his team.

"I couldn't bear the thought of putting so much effort into it and not getting it done," Nelson said. "I probably pushed well beyond what was reasonably safe, but I had to keep going. When I heard the horn (for passing the world record), it was like taking a million pounds off my heart."

Despite the early troubles balancing his nutrition, Nelson set a blazing pace at the start.

His first three laps around the approximately 1.73-mile course were nearly carbon copies of each other in just over 14 minutes apiece, as he averaged 7.33 mph - just over his goal of 7.1 mph for the first 12 hours.

"I paddled off and on with him several times during the first 12 hours," Medler said. "It was just absolutely remarkable the pace he kept. I race Surfskis every Wednesday when I can, and I've been trying pretty hard for the last two or three years to get faster at this, and I could barely keep up with him for more than one or two laps."

The fast early pace helped Nelson build a big enough cushion that he could follow his plan to slow down over the second half of the paddle.

Over the final two hours, it was taking him about 17 minutes to make a circuit, and he was stopping for a few minutes after every loop, allowing his team to try to refresh him.

"To keep it going those last three of four laps - absolutely amazing," Medler said. "As he would come in, his eyes were shut, and he would lean back and just want to escape. But he'd sit back in the boat and just start paddling."

Nelson said he would not have had that strength without the support of the Bellingham paddling community, which cheered every time he circled and spread out around the lake to yell encouragement from the banks.

Marcus estimated 40 to 50 paddlers took turns circling the lake with him at different times during the 24 hours.

"I think we all really enjoy each other's accomplishments and like supporting them," Heather Nelson said. "It's really neat to be a part of a community where people have such lofty goals."

She also needed and got plenty of support, as she did not sleep during the event and had to serve every role from crew chief to nutritionist. She also acted as traffic cop when the beach started to fill up with swimmers and paddle boarders in the Tuesday afternoon sun. Meanwhile, she juggled her mom duties for the couple's 5-year-old son, Hayden, and 2-year-old daughter, Jazzy, who were in attendance throughout.

"(I hope they learned) that we can do anything, anything we set our mind to," Heather Nelson said, "whether it's paddling for 24 hours or Hayden wants to go to outer space. Whatever their goal is, they can do it."

After his performance Tuesday and Wednesday, there's no doubt about how badly Nelson wanted to reach his goal.

"They don't just hand world records out to anyone," Nelson said a week earlier while preparing for the event. "My goal is to break the existing record, have Guinness certify it, have them send me the certificate, and if Carter Johnson or some other person goes a week later, I couldn't care less. All I care about is finishing what I set out to do seven years ago. There's no bonus for me if it stands for X number of years."

WATCH VIDEO

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

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