Gnarrows Race 2011

The Gnarrows Race is a grassroots event on the Poudre River. If anyone asks, it's not really an event at all, just a bunch of paddlers that happen to be paddling together on the same stretch of river. No money changes hands, and there's not much publicity about the race. For years now, I have lived in Fort Collins, and heard all the trash talking that happens online about the race, but never had the chance to compete, although Natalie competed in 2009. This year, the race happened a little later than usual, and we were just barely able to make it back from the Slave in time.

Looking back at Natalie's post from 2009, there are a lot of similarities between the two years. In 2009, Natalie's mom happened to be visiting, and took a bunch of photos of the race. This year, it was my mom. In 2009, Natalie broke her Werner bentshaft just before the race, and had to borrow a paddle. This year, exactly the same thing happened. In 2009, we have a photo of Kyle trying to pass Natalie right below the airplane boof (and he eventually did pass her). This year, same pass, same spot. And of course, both years, Natalie was the only female racer.

Anyway, here's the blow-by-blow account of the race. We got off to a late start because many of the race organizers were helping clean up a swim in the second rapid of the course (ahem... Spencer...). There weren't many competitors, so we ended up with two heats of 4 and a heat of 5 for prelims.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

From Gnarrows Race 2011

Prelims are a race through the whole Narrows; from up above Upper Narrows down to the end of Lower Narrows. It's a couple miles, and pretty tiring. I had been training a little on the Slave, but I had forgotten that the race would be taking place at high altitude in the Colorado mountains, so I had good bursts of speed but got winded easily. Fortunately, I had a fast start and was able to pull just barely ahead of Austin Woody, then managed to hold on to my lead with some lucky lines through the first few rapids. After that, I was pretty much set.

Kyle (previous champ) battles his way through Whiteline. Gnarrows Race 2011

Austin still right on my tail at Whiteline. Gnarrows Race 2011

Natalie was in the 5 person heat, and it was an incredibly stacked heat. They all started very tight, and stayed tight all the way to the finish line. There was a flurry of passes in Super Collider, the first rapid. Natalie had a fast line through the main part of the drop and passed Evan, but then got hung up on some rocks in the runout and was passed by Evan and someone else. They all came in to Whiteline very close.

Heat 3. Gnarrows Race 2011

The tricky move in Whiteline is a sticky eddy near the bottom of the drop (this is where Spencer swam, right before the race). Natalie ended up in that eddy, but was able to paddle out on her first try and stay very competitive. She might have even moved up to second place. Things were kind of confusing in the photos.

Natalie enters the eddy. Gnarrows Race 2011

Just after exiting the eddy (full contact eddy turn). Gnarrows Race 2011

The three prelim heats launched at some close intervals, so I was still in my boat when Natalie's heat arrived at the finish line. Curt was out ahead, but not by much, and then the other four boats were literally still running into each other jockeying for position as they crossed the finish line. Evan managed to pass Natalie during one of the final moves in the last rapid, and she took third in her heat.

The top 2 advance from each heat, but here's the cool part of the Gnarrows race: there is an extra round in between prelims and semifinals, where everyone who didn't qualify for semis gets another chance to race head to head and get into semis anyway. This year, because of how the numbers worked out, it was a heat of seven people with the top two achieving official redemption. This inbetween round is known as the Losers' Bracket.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

Nathan had ended up third in my heat, putting him in the Losers' Bracket. He had an excellent start, and maintained a solid lead for a seat in semifinals.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

Natalie had smooth lines, but they weren't enough to catch up to Nathan's start, and she took second, which still put her in semis.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

Seven people is quite a few when you're in a river bed this small.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

But I guess that doesn't matter if you're winning.

With our new qualifiers from the Losers' Bracket, we had two heats of four people each in semifinals. The top two from each heat would advance to the final round. I was in the first heat, right up next to Evan at the start line, but also racing against Nathan and Josh Heise. Evan got boxed in between Nathan and I at the start, and wasn't able to get his paddle into the water, putting him way behind. When the metaphorical dust settled, I found that I was in second, ramming Josh, who was first. I backed off a little for the boof, and lost ground, but eventually managed a pass near the bottom of the course.

About to pass Josh, with Nathan and Evan following. Gnarrows Race 2011

Natalie was in the second semifinals heat, and once again found herself in a very stacked heat. The whole pack was incredibly tight through the whole course. Near the airplane boof, it looked like Curt might pull way out ahead, but he flipped over and lost most of his lead.

Semifinals heat 2. Note the bottom of Curt's boat over on the right. Gnarrows Race 2011

In the chaos surrounding the boof, Austin Woody managed to pull out into the lead just ahead of Curt. Natalie passed Kyle, but the two of them were still in full contact across the flats.

You can tell from Kyle's face that he really wants to make the pass. Gnarrows Race 2011

Just like in 2009, Kyle kept dogging at Natalie and managed to squeeze past her, but the two of them had lost too much time battling each other, and neither of them moved on to the next round. It was Austin, then Curt, then Kyle, then Natalie.

This meant that our finals round was ready to go. Austin and I were the first place finishers from the previous round, so we had first pick of the start locations. After a coin toss, Austin started closest to the current, and I started on the opposite side of the lineup, in the hope that I would be able to get some effective strokes while everyone else bunched up trying to catch current. Curt and Josh were in the two middle spots.

My strategy almost worked, except I actually came out of the start in third place. Curt was out in the lead, and I was behind Austin and ahead of Josh. Finals was the closest matched heat yet, and we were all very tight, but I was definitely battling for last.

Finals heat! Gnarrows Race 2011

I had a little hiccup leaving the cauldron below the airplane boof, and Josh snuck past me.

Josh passes me, just below the airplane boof. Gnarrows Race 2011

I hadn't even really realized that I was in fourth, I just saw how close I was to Josh and Austin, and hammered as hard as I could to either knock them off line or make a pass.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

From Gnarrows Race 2011

Down below the late boof, in the last couple moves of the course, I had practiced an alternate line, in case this exact thing happened. The river is pretty narrow, and unless the leader makes a mistake it's very hard to pass someone when you're both in the same channel. I practiced this alternate line so that I would have an unblocked path to try to take, giving me a slightly better chance at passing whoever was in the normal channel.

As I committed to the alternate route, I realized that Josh, who was right ahead of me, had also broken to the right, which totally foiled my plan. However, I lucked out. He hit a couple rocks and got pushed out of the current, and I was able to capitalize on his small mistake and pull into third.

Reconnecting with the main channel, I saw that I had lost some ground and Austin had pulled ahead. This was the reason that most people had taken the left channel, after all. In a way my gamble had failed. However, in the second to last move, Austin took the left channel. That's the normal line when you're paddling for fun, since there is more water over there, but that channel zigzags enough that it is not the optimal race line. I barreled through the narrower, rockier, but straighter line just to the right, and gained just enough time to crash into Austin in the flats above the final move. We were neck and neck, and we both reached forward simultaneously to try to grab the water in front of the other person's boat. Lucky for me, I was in the Big Bang, which is a good 6 inches longer than Austin's boat, and I also have gigantic arms because I'm like a foot taller than him. I planted a stroke on the very front end of Austin's bow and yanked myself about half a boat length ahead of him.

While Austin and I were having our little reaching contest, Josh was paddling down a clear course behind us, and had managed to catch up. The three of us flew off the final boof all overlapping. I was barely in the lead, and Austin and Josh were on either side of me, with their bows right at my elbows. Of course, Curt was so far ahead of any of us that he was already starting to climb out of his boat. I had taken second in my first ever Gnarrows race. We decided that Austin and Josh were close enough that they had tied for third.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

The first place prize is an engraved belt buckle that gets passed from champion to champion every year. Maybe some year I'll get ahold of it. Second prize is a 40, but I don't drink. I figured that since it was such a close finish, I would donate it to Austin and Josh.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

Stoked with a great finish, I joined a group of other paddlers headed up for a victory lap, and convinced a couple people to try out the new Fluid boats that we had with us. It was a great way to end a really fun day.

From Gnarrows Race 2011

From Gnarrows Race 2011

So, in case you weren't able to follow all the twists and turns in that high speed narrative, here are some results:

1) Kurt Braunlich
2) Leif Anderson
3 (tie) Austin Woody and Josh Heise

5) Kyle McCutcheon (3rd in semis heat 2, 1st in prelim heat 1)
6) Nathan Werner (3rd in semis heat 1, 3rd in prelim heat 2)

7) Evan Stafford (4th in semis heat 1, 2nd in prelim heat 3)
8) Natalie Anderson (4th in semis heat 2, 3rd in prelim heat 3)

And past there, I don't remember how people placed.


  1. Looks like a blast! Glad you guys made it safely back from the north. Leif, I hope you poured some of that 40 out for your homies!


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