The iron men of stand-up paddleboarding
Somebody hands a water bottle to Erick Zamora, and he promptly pours it over his head. Then he bends over, wincing from shoulder tendinitis, his pink sunscreen streaming down his face.
“This is no joke, man,” he says.
Zamora just finished – and lost – his longest race ever, a 25-kilometer course from Witches Rock to the Papagayo Peninsula, the main attraction of La Bruja Stand-Up Paddle Competition. Although the affair is not part of the national circuit, Zamora had wanted, and let’s be honest, expected to win. After all, he is Costa Rica’s first and only stand-up paddleboarding national champion.
Instead, Zamora finished nearly 30 minutes behind Geovanny Espinoza, last year’s runner up. The two happen to be good friends. But with his decisive victory, the compact powerhouse Espinoza has turned a corner in his rivalry against the taller, lankier reigning champion. Now Espinoza is dead set on stealing away Zamora’s title.
So much for a friendly trip around the lake.
The phenomenon of stand-up paddleboarding got its start in 1960s Hawaii, where inventive hotel employees perched themselves on surfboards and maneuvered with canoe paddles to monitor and photograph novice surfers. The practice rose to recreational acclaim less than a decade ago, when it became a staple vacation activity of the everyman. Balanced on carbon fiber or plastic boards with paddles in hand, practitioners embarked on pleasant, self-propelled journeys in swimming pools, on lakes and at sea.
They did it everywhere, and it became particularly popular in Australia, Brazil, the U.S. and Mexico. People started calling it SUP, and the practioners became SUPers who loved SUPing. Many of those SUPers couldn’t help but notice that some paddlers were faster than others. Some were stronger, steadier, more energetic, more enduring. It was only a matter of time before the fun turned competitive, forcing athletes to break their bodies and their egos in the name of finding out who’s the best.
When stand-up paddleboarding went from cakewalk to contest, all the requisite gear manufacturers, leagues, sponsors and SUP-centric magazines sprang up with it. Contests began taking place over incredible distances, and SUPers began attempting to set and break world records. Somebody SUPed from Cuba to Florida. Another man went 383 kilometers in Canada’s Yukon Territory in a 24-hour period. When the popularity of SUP infringed on the territory of traditional surfers, not everyone was stoked. But even the surf industry saw the potential.
In Costa Rica, the evolution of SUP has taken place over the last four years, according to Wim van Cleynenbruegel, a shaggy Belgian expat from La Garita in Guanacaste. Cleynenbruegel runs surfboard supplier Hang 10 Distribution; he also organized and emceed the Bruja tournament and many others.
“For the first two years, it was really like pushing a ball up a hill, then watching it roll down,” Cleynenbruegel said of the effort to create a national circuit. Last year, though, the SUPing community finally piqued the interest of Costa Rica’s Federación de Surf. A league emerged, competitions took place countrywide and a national championship was held as paddle boarders raced around the lake at Sabana Park in west San José last July.
“It was a big success for us,” Cleynenbruegel said. By “us,” Cleynenbruegel is largely referring to men and women who teach SUP at hotels and surf shops around the country. These instructors have been practicing for years, inadvertently positioning themselves to become the country’s first round of SUP luminaries.
So far, friends Erick Zamora and Geovanny Espinoza have shined brightest.
On the night before the La Bruja races, Zamora and Espinoza showed up together, in board shorts, at the Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, which sponsored the competition. Both had been loading up on pasta and potatoes all week, and both had ideas of beating the other. Zamora didn’t want to let those competitive impulses get the better of him, though, particularly in the water.
“I always try to think about the people that love me, and my family,” he said of his race mentality. “That’s my angel side … But the dark side just tells me, ‘kick some asses. That’s all you want. Go for it. Go for it.’”
Although the two men are from different beach towns – Zamora, 29, lives in Portero and Espinoza, 27, in Tamarindo – they’ve known each other for a couple of years. They spent most of their time together during Costa Rica’s first national circuit season, which kicked off in March. They chatted often over Facebook, carpooled to tournaments and sometimes trained together. They also shared the same sponsor – Surftech – a U.S. surfboard manufacturing company that distributes through Cleynenbruegel’s Hang 10. So when the national championship races came around, and Espinoza came in second to Zamora in both the 6-kilometer and the 3-kilometer events, it stung.
“I don’t want to talk about it too much,” Espinoza said of the rivalry.
In September, the men were part of a small team that traveled by paddleboard from Playa Danta to Santa Teresa, a six-day journey of more that 150 kilometers. Also along for that ride were Cleynenbruegel, two photographers for the new, Tamarindo-based Surfing Nation Magazine, and Rolando Herrera, the third man gunning for the national title. Herrera lives in Jacó, but did not attend La Bruja tournament because he’s training in Mexico, where paddleboarding is even more competitive.
Without Herrera at La Bruja, the only real competition for the men was each other.
On the bright, breezy morning of Nov. 9, the competitors lathered up with sunscreen and chugged water on a boat ride out to Witches Rock, a striking, pentagon-shaped stone that marked the beginning of the 25-kilometer race.
Reaching the rock by boat took about a half hour, and now five contestants would power themselves back through currents and beneath a hot sun. One by one, they tossed their mounts overboard and plunged into the sapphire-colored sea. Climbing onto their boards and stretching, they savored the final moments of calm.
In addition to Espinoza and Zamora, three more casual racers signed up: Playa Grande surf shop owner Ian Bean, Tamarindo surfer Alejandro Aguilar and Playa Danta resident Neal Herman, who had registered the night before on a whim. He hadn’t trained.
Herman would be paddling in the prone position, and had fashioned his board’s upward facing fin into a drink holder for two Gatorade bottles. He estimated that he would finish in around three hours, until it was pointed out that Zamora, the national champion, had the same goal. “Maybe four,” Herman re-estimated.
At 8:36 a.m., photographer and Four Seasons representative Joel Goren called out “go,” and the hunched men began to dig their paddles into the sea, finding their rhythms and balance.
Espinoza and his red and black 14-footer pulled ahead for the early lead, with Zamora and his creamsicle-colored 14-footer close behind. When asked earlier to describe their paddleboards, both men had said the same thing: “That’s my baby.”
Herman and Bean were traveling at about the same pace, and Aguilar brought up the rear.
The order now meant nothing, though, explained Fabián Sánchez, publisher and photographer of Surfing Nation Magazine, who had accompanied the men on their 150-kilometer journey last month.
Currents can come out of nowhere. A brief break to sip water from a Camelbak can allow another competitor to make up crucial distance. With a rippling 25 kilometers of sea stretched before you, anything can happen.
As the iron men raced toward the finish line, another competition began on Peninsula Papagayo between recreational SUPers who claimed they were racing “just for fun.”
Tents and oversized red buoys had been set up at Playa Nacascolo, the same beach where the long distance race would eventually finish. That would take several hours, though and so the crowd was treated to the 4.5-kilometer race in the meantime.
At the microphone, organizer Cleynenbruegel gave the signal, and the contestants picked up their boards and sprinted to the water.
The fans on the beach screamed the names of those they had come to support, and Cleynenbruegel announced basic instructions to some of the less skilled contestants.
“All right everybody, try to stay on the board,” he said. “Turn you’re paddle around. Way better. You’re gonna go twice as fast.”
Among the inexperienced was Melanie Schmid of Playa Panama, who was competing 32 weeks pregnant. She had made an agreement with herself that if it got to hard, she would stop after the first lap. “I’m not a competitive person,” she explained.
About halfway through the relay, Schmid became uncomfortably hot, but she decided to finish anyway. “If there was a third lap, I would not have done it,” she said.
The woman who won the race, 32-year-old Livie Redfield, one-upped her friend Angela Herman, 30. Both from Playas del Coco, they had entered the race together, and insisted they had only done so for experience, $150 Four Seasons Spa gift certificate be damned.
In the men’s division of the same event, John Fox, a 44-year-old Colorado native from Playa Hermosa, and Nelson Navarro, a 34-year-old Tico from Sardinal, shared an early lead. Both had done plenty of recreational SUPing but had never entered a race. In their first lap around the buoys, they paddled side by side, discussing their children as if it were just another jaunt around the lake.
When the second and final lap came around, though, the men began to breathe heavy and dig in deeper. Eventually Navarro fell behind, and Fox’s wife and two young girls stood on the beach, watching as their favorite racer secured the win.
“See Daddy?” Mrs. Fox said to her girls. “He likes to be first.”
About half way back to shore, the five entrants to the 25-kilometer race were hot, aching and perhaps wondering why they signed up at all.
Espinoza was still way out in front – but blisters were forming on his hands, despite the electrical tape he had secured around sensitive areas. His shoulder muscles were beginning to tremble and his lower back throbbed. A packet of Skittles he brought to reward himself sat untouched in his pocket.
He was at a low point, and then a dolphin swam up. “It was so nice,” Espinoza said. “I was paddling and he was jumping right next to me. He made me feel a lot better.”
Meanwhile, Zamora’s tendinitis raged in his shoulders. Bean’s legs began to ache so much that he was forced to get down on his stomach. Herman and Aguilar also struggled, and wondered if they would finish at all.
When Espinoza appeared around the bend at the north end of Playa Nacascolo, nearly 3 hours and 30 minutes after he had begun, a roar erupted on the beach. He was greeted with pats on the back, high fives and bottles of water. A friend brought him a cell phone with his girlfriend on the line, and she was most pleased to learn that her man had won them three nights at the Four Seasons.
Espinoza headed for a shaded area beneath a tent and plopped down on the ground, gulping water, ripping the tape off his hands and basking in the deserved victory. Over the next two hours, he watched his fellow racers drag themselves to shore, faces red and haggard, bodies hunched and shaking.
After Espinoza lost the national championship to Zamora in July, he began a tough training regimen with Cleyenbruegel, one that both men say made all the difference. [Espinoza] has a very strong mind,” Cleynenbruegel said after the race. “When he sets his mind to something, he makes it happen.”
Over the next several months, Espinoza and Zamora will train together for the upcoming national circuit, which begins early next year. The two will even share a personal trainer to prepare their bodies for the grueling long-distance races. The circuit will determine who goes to the 2014 ISA Stand-Up Paddle World Championship, set to be held in Nicaragua in May.
Costa Rica will send three competitors – likely Espinoza, Zamora and Herrera. But only one will go as the Costa Rican national champion. And despite the camaraderie between the friends, Espinoza and Zamora can never fully ignore what’s at stake in their increasingly competitive sport.
After Zamora finished the race and had a chance to cool off, Espinoza approached his rival, and patted him on the back. Then Zamora collapsed to the sand, and he stayed there for a long time.
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