The Run of the Charles is a 19-mile stand up paddle, kayak, canoe and surf ski race in and around the city of Boston. Contestants are privileged to see the historic Boston skyline and waterfront from the vantage point of being on the water. Incorporating shallows, rapids and long portages, the Run of the Charles is a Sup Race like no other. Using technical skill, willpower and endurance, this event raises money for the Charles River Watershed Association (www.crwa.org), one of the oldest watershed organizations in the country that was formed in response to public concern about declining condition of the Charles River in 1965. Over time, the efforts of this event and its organizers, have created a dramatic impact in the overall quality of Boston’s iconic river.
Written by Sunova Boards and Kialoa team rider, Travis Hayes, “Rookie at the Run of the Charles” gives us a first hand account of this incredible journey.
It started as these things usually do. Lying in bed late at night, scrolling through Facebook after a long day at the beach with my family. We had traveled to Florida to escape the snow that still sat in dingy lumps at the edges of our driveway in Maine. The warm sun had gotten me dreaming of the impending spring thaw destined to arrive any day at our frozen corner back home.
As I mindlessly thumbed through the mindless feeds, awaiting the fatigue that would send me to sleep, I began trolling for stand up paddle races to fill my summer calendar. The beautiful weather in Florida had me thinking about paddling again. As I sat on Florida’s white beaches, I gazed at the bright azure plains of uncut water and dreamed of gliding over the ocean’s surface.
Spring arrives late in New England, and the first race on the calendar did not take place until the end of May. Two more months of training awaited. That was probably advantageous since I hadn’t paddled my race board since October. It’s hard to motivate when the air temperature tops out at 7 degrees and the wind howls at 30 knots. Better to surf, ski or fat tire than freeze my hands off paddling on flat water.
Run of the Charles: A Waterman’s Adventure
I stumbled upon a post from a fellow sup race enthusiast, Greg. He was going to an event called The Run of the Charles, on April 30th! My stoke meter began to twitch. I immediately texted another race buddy (and New England sup legend) Patrick Broemmel, and asked him if he was going to attend the event. He quickly responded that he would love to do it, if we could work together, to break the course paddleboard record of 3:07 which he set in 2012. He even offered to let me borrow his 19’ Ban Pho which he designed, shaped and glassed himself. My stoke meter was now redlining.
In the coming days, I reached out to Patrick to get the necessary strategic details. “Wear sneakers” was his first, and most important piece of advice. The race is 19 miles and has 1.5 miles of portages, sometimes through the streets of Cambridge, sometimes over long gravel roads. “Plus, getting in and out of the muddy water is tricky in bare feet”.
Second: “Bring lots of water and some form of food. After 10 miles on the water your body is going to need calories, H2O and electrolytes”.
Third: “Of course have a PFD and a whistle. These are required by the race organizers and will be spot checked at portages”. Check, check and check!
We made a plan to meet and shuttle our gear together the day of the race.
I rose from my slumber at 4:30AM the day of the race. I had to be on the road by 6:00AM to make the scheduled rendezvous of 8:00AM at Boston’s Soldier’s Field. I quickly readied my gear in the half-light of the early morning northern hemisphere’s dawn. Birds were beginning to chirp in trees outside my window.
Gear packed, I headed down the familiar I-95 South, listening to tunes and gathering my thoughts on the empty highway. Soon, Boston’s skyline appeared above Route 1.
I arrived early and easily got a parking spot in the sprawling lot. A grassy strip lined the Charles River, dotted with maple trees, bisected by a concrete walking/biking path. A community garden sat at the periphery, early beans already in evidence.
Patrick arrived and I grabbed my paddle, hydration, and nutrition and jumped into the back of his Element. Sitting amongs the various belongings of a carpenter/shaper, including paddles, tool boxes, various cables and clothing, we discussed race strategy and river obstacles.
Our plan was to beat the record time by drafting each other every 5 minutes during the race in order to cut down on fatigue. I suggested we run the portages, but Patrick didn’t seem to like that idea. “We say every year we will run them, but we always end up walking”.
There were also some hazards we had to review. Along with 1.5 miles of portages, there are also several small rapids and the occasional sunken log hidden in the murky water. Many a paddler has lost a fin and/or fin box negotiating the Charles River’s shallows.
We parked the car at the designated launch point, located at a small park in a residential neighborhood near Cambridge. After registration, we unloaded the boards, attached fins, and checked our hydration packs, PFDs and phones. Patrick informed me that he had forgotten to bring his sneakers, the most important piece of equipment on this journey. He shrugged it off and decided to go barefoot. We took the obligatory last trip to the Porta Potty and then it was time to attend the race meeting.
As we reviewed the course map and hazards, I was struck by the number and variety of craft that were laid out upon the grass. Surf skis, race canoes, river kayaks, and stand up paddleboards intermingled on the green. There were folks from all walks of life and of all ages, paddling a wide range of craft. Everyone was stoked! Why had I never heard of this race?
After questions were answered it was time get into the water to warm up. I had never paddled Patrick’s 19’ unlimited race board. I was pleased to feel how easily it cut through the chocolate current. We paddled a few practice yards and soon were lined up at the long flagged line that stretched across the river to mark the start. The siren went off and the meditation began.
Patrick had brought along his Speed Coach so we could monitor our pace. He had calculated that we needed to maintain a 6.4 mph pace in order to beat his record time of 3:07. As we pulled away from the pack, Patrick began to read off the speed: “6.3…6.1…5.8”.
We started out drafting, but soon discovered there was little benefit. There was virtually no headwind and we were going with the current. We paddled side by side, discussing board design, Puerto Rico and Chattajack.
Turtles dotted the edges of the river, some sat high out of the water on tree branches, and others were mounting each other in the shallows. It was beginning to feel a lot like spring! The sun was out and the air was pleasant at 58 degrees. The tannin from the fresh water permeated the breeze along with the scent of blooming flowers.
I commented to Patrick how surprised I was by the cleanliness of the river, given its proximity to such a dense concentration of humans. Patrick informed me that the Charles River Watershed Association has been working diligently over the past 35 years to clean and preserve the Charles River. “35 years ago the river was a garbage dump. Bodies used to appear from time to time. Disposed of by Whitey Bulger and his minions”. I laughed; Patrick scolded that he wasn’t kidding.
We quickly came upon the first of six portages. Yellow and blue balloons marked the exit point, and volunteers stood on the banks, recording your number for progress and pace updates, offering encouragement and direction.
First to exit, I slipped while trying to scramble up the greasy bank, but quickly regained my footing before falling into the drink. I hoisted my board by its strapped handle and sprang into a light jog up the balloon lined trail. I felt great! I quickened my pace, running down the middle of a road, over a bridge, and back down the other side. I passed a race kayak and surf-ski on the way.
I entered the water and began to paddle slowly. I wasn’t yet sure if Patrick had ran after me, so I turned around, waiting to see his progress, staying committed to the plan to break the record together. After two minutes I saw Patrick scurrying down the embankment to the river. I waited as he caught up.
“Wow, that would have been it for me if we had been racing” Patrick exclaimed as his board sidled up to mine. “I told you we could run the portages,” I said with a smirk. He was pretty gassed, but fired up!
We came to another portage point. “This is the half mile portage”, Patrick said without much enthusiasm. Again, we scrambled up the slick berm and began to jog. I got into a really good rhythm, following the yellow traffic cones and police crossing guards through the streets of Cambridge, carrying my 19’ beast. My shoelace came untied hallway through the portage, so I stopped to tie it when I reached the reentry point. Looking back, I couldn’t see Patrick.
I slid into the water and began my stroke at medium effort. There was Patrick coming down the path, all 19’6” hoisted over his shoulder. I continued on at mid pace. When I looked back again, to my astonishment, Patrick had already closed the gap! He soon pulled up along my side, looking strong.
We traversed a few more portages, following the same script, before arriving at the first rapids. The first obstacle was a concrete spillway that stretches across the entire river. We assessed the risks of hitting our fins and wisely chose to jump off our boards, flip them upside down, and crawl over the spillway in shin high water.
On the other side, the flow really began to increase, and we enjoyed the speed as we got tubed by sprouting tree limbs and low hanging, stone arched, bridges. We stuck to the middle of the river, trying to avoid the fallen trunks and hidden rocks we knew lay in wait.
We came to the largest rapid and Patrick walked me through the proper line. “Stay to either side of that Mohawk of water, but be careful! Don’t let the nose of your board get caught in the eddy or you will be spun up river”.
We entered the rapid and, as I was celebrating making it through unscathed, the nose of my board got caught in the eddy and I was cast off into the water. I laughed as I tried to spin the behemoth back down river as I climbed aboard. Spectators on the bridge overhead cheered and laughed with me.
Are We There Yet?!:
After making it through the fast portion of the river, we spilled out into wide open, slow moving water. A head wind began to blow, and the chop increased. I was beginning to feel the miles in every muscle fiber. Each stroke began to feel more and more labored. Soon we saw the Prudential Building looming in the distance. Patrick said he thought we were getting close.
A four man race canoe began to make gains on our position. Patrick knew the occupants so began to quicken his pace to avoid being passed. Matching his cadence made every nook of my muscle fibers scream out. I dropped back, resigning myself to finishing 2nd to a legend and, in the end, crossed the finish 10 seconds behind.
I fell to my butt and began devouring what was left in my pack for nutrition. My body began to shake uncontrollably. We exited the water totally spent. The temp had dropped to 48 and the wind was picking up. We ran back to my vehicle and changed in the parking lot into dry, warm clothes. Just as we finished it began to rain.
Why We Race:
There was no prize money or awards ceremony after the race. Everyone set up tents on the lawn and began grilling food. A band played rock music while tired participants mingled, talking story. We checked the results and we had come in at 3:08:27 and 3:08:38 respectively, just missing the record of 3:07 by a minute and a half. Somewhat disappointed, I said goodbye to Patrick and thanked him for another challenging day and adventure.
As I drove home, I wondered why more stand up paddlers don’t participate in The Run of the Charles. Sure, it was created for more traditional river going craft, but since 2010 they have allowed paddleboards to participate. Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown, of rapids and rocks and concrete spillways. Or perhaps it’s the 1.5 miles of portages while carrying 12 to 19 foot boards? Or could it be the lack of fanfare after? No public recognition of your efforts, which are substantial.
Perhaps word has yet to spread. That is the true reason for this reminiscence. I would encourage any serious paddler who wants to challenge their abilities to take part in next year’s race. You get to visit historic Boston and see the area from a privileged vantage point. There were 1,200 participants in this year’s Run of the Charles. I would love to see another 50-100 stand up paddlers at the starting line with me next April.
Feeling defeated I went back through the results since stand up paddleboards began to participate in The Run of the Charles in 2010. I discovered that Patrick had been incorrect: the paddleboard record time was 3:11 not 3:07. Patrick had confused his time for Molokai with The Run of the Charles. We had beat the record by over 3 minutes! Now it’s time to beat it again next year!! Who’s with me??!
By Travis Hayes