The Ultimate Run

There’s something riveting about the idea of perfection in sports.  We dream of watching a pitcher throw a perfect game, a football team have a perfect season, and for a long time, I dreamed about having a perfect run in whitewater slalom canoe racing.

Many years ago, when I was first starting out in whitewater, the late Jamie McEwan forwarded me an article about Olympic slalom kayaking called “Two Trips to the Top.”  It was a fascinating analysis of the history of the two of the best whitewater slalom racers of their generation — Rebecca Giddens from the United States and Oliver Fix from Germany.

The author was former US Slalom Team coach Bill Endicott — probably one of the twenty most  interesting people I’ve ever met: a Harvard grad, a Marines Corps officer, the architect of the wildly successful US Whitewater Slalom Team in the 1980s, a driving force behind starting the Slalom World Cup and in slalom’s re-inclusion into the Olympics in 1992, the Director of Research and Analysis in the Clinton White House, author of numerous books about paddling and about politics, and father of a rock star.

In “Two Trips to the Top” — written in 2003 after countless interviews — Endicott delved into the question of how Giddens and Fix took such different paths to international and Olympic success in whitewater slalom.  The Giddens profile was remarkable in itself.  Sometimes students ask me who the greatest athlete I’ve ever met was.  I tell them: Rebecca Giddens.  She was amazing (even better than my high school idol Matt Striebel).

8/18/04 --Al Diaz/Miami Herald/KRT--Athens, Greece--Women's K1 Kayak Single Racing at the Olympic Canoe/Kayak Centre during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. The winner of the Silver Medal Rebecca Giddens.
2002 World Champion and 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist Rebecca Giddens (USA)

Here’s the introduction to Giddens’s section in “Two Trips to the Top”:

“In the fall of 2002, 60 Olympic caliber athletes were invited to the Navy SEAL obstacle course in San Diego . . .  First, an experienced SEAL ran the course — and he didn’t make everything on the first try. Then the athletes had a go. Only 8 of them finished the course.

Three of them were whitewater canoeists and kayakers. One was a woman. Her name was Rebecca Giddens. She could do 31 pull-ups nonstop and bench pull 80 kilos and she had just won the World Championships of Whitewater Kayak Slalom.”

Incredible.

But even more fascinating to me was the story of Oliver Fix, golden child of the most high-powered and modernized slalom training program in the world.  Where Giddens grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, far from an organized training site — or even whitewater of any kind — and had to make due with weekend trips to train Fix came of age in the cradle of slalom — Augsburg, Germany — home of the famous Ice Canal, the Olympic course from the 1972 Olympics, and seat of one of the best equipped and best funded youth slalom training programs in all of Europe.

Ironically, though Fix was the product of such an efficient, government-sponsored system, Endicott painted him as an iconoclast — and endless innovator whose all-consuming quest to “find ways to break the rules” and to “cut lines even tighter” drove him to challenge accepted norms: of equipment, of training methods, and of paddling technique, even as he broke ranks with the German team, trained alone, and became the foremost German men’s kayaker of his generation.

1995 World Champion and 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist Oliver Fix

It was all building up toward what both Endicott and Fix called “The Ulimtate Run.” It’s likely that Endicott came up with or at least popularized this term in canoe slalom; it was the title of one of his early books about kayaking, back in the 1980s.  But it was in “Two Trips to the Top” where I first read Endicott’s description of Fix’s winning run at the 1995 World Championships in Nottingham, England (emphasis mine):

Oliver’s performance at the’95 Worlds was an “Ultimate Run,” that rare moment in a big race where you have a perfect performance. It is a moment that few boaters experience and Oliver never experienced it before or since, not even in winning the ’96 Olympics.

“I [Fix] felt my second run was in a way my graduation day. It was like going into a test and knowing everything. It was a zone experience. Everything was perfect. Everything fell into place.”

He didn’t get it on his first run.  Although he had a good, fast run, he got a 50 on an upstream gate because the judge said he crossed the gate line from the wrong side. He didn’t let that bother him, though, and instead concentrated on his second run . . . 

“On the second run, I was on the start line and I had the feeling that everything was set. I just went down the course as though I was on rails. It was in slow motion. I did moves direct that no one else did. One was a downstream in an eddy. I had the perfect run –the Ultimate Run.

Oliver won the race by 1.8 seconds over the USA’s Scott Shipley and the next five boats were in the same second.

What a moment.

Now, I don’t believe that anyone can truly have the “perfect” run in whitewater slalom.  Sure, there are some sports that you can do mathematically perfectly: you can pitch a perfect game of baseball, or knock down all the pins for a perfect game of bowling.  But you can’t mathematically have a perfect run in whitewater slalom; it’s just not possible.  I know that.  Still, I’d built up Fix’s run in my head all those years as an image of perfection, an ideal to aspire to.  It probably helped that up until a few weeks ago, I’d never seen Fix’s run.  Then, a few weeks ago, the entire race appeared on YouTube, that I finally watched The Ultimate Run.

It was incredibly disappointing.

The clip starts with a blazingly fast Silver Medal-winning run by American Scott Shipley (check out his incredible move on the last upstream gate).  Fix’s winning run starts at 1:12:20:

While Fix does win by an incredible margin over otherwise flawless runs by American Scott Shipley and Czech racer Jiri Prskavec and a host of other greats, I’d be lying if I said I was as  blown away watching it as I thought I’d be.  I had to ask myself: what made this run so disappointing?  In other words: what did I expect the Ultimate Run to be, and why wasn’t Fix’s run living up to that ideal?  Fix’s greatness on that day, based on the results, was incontrovertible: he beat the best kayakers in the world, at a particularly competitive time in slalom racing, by an astounding margin.  And it wasn’t a fluke: he won the Olympics the next  year.  Understanding why I wasn’t impressed by his run was less an exercise in picking it apart for mistakes than in understanding how greatness can be lost in translation because of our underlying assumptions about what greatness means.

Here’s what I found.

Part of it is undoubtedly the fact that they’re racing on what can barely be described as whitewater.  The North Fork of the Payette this is not.  Charlotte this is not.  South Bend this is barely.  While I suspect that this was merely a very low water level at Nottingham (as the water marks on the “shore” seem to confirm), it’s hard to look too heroic when you’re basically racing on whitewater no different than what your average club boater rolls off the couch for on the Lower Yough or West.  This is basically the Fiddlehead Slalom in Vermont with harder gates and lot more polluted water.  And while sprint courses are “hard” in their own way — exhausting — you don’t usually think of the Ultimate Run as being some red-faced boater huffing it down a canal.  You picture daring, athletic moves on big whitewater.  You picture the hard made easy — not the easy made hard.

The first thing I noticed was that Fix did not have a strong opponent.  I don’t mean his fellow racers — who were the best in the world — but the river itself.  Fix was racing on what can barely be described as whitewater.  It’s hard to look too heroic when you’re basically racing on class II.  And while easy courses — “sprint courses,” we call them — are hard because they’re exhausting — you don’t usually think of the Ultimate Run as being a flatwater sprint.  You picture daring, athletic moves made on huge, powerful rapids.  You picture the hard made easy — not the easy made hard.  

Then there’s the backdrop.  While there’s a whole lore of unheralded playground legends, of barely remembered street performances that happened with no witnesses and therefore seem more mythical (think of the famous Rucker Tournaments in New York City, where street legends like Earl Manigault made impossible moves that lived on in legend, I generally think that an “ultimate” performance needs to happen in front of a large crowd, in a large, storied venue.  Think Madison Square Garden, the Rose Bowl, Fenway Park.  The dreary, industrial-looking manmade course in Nottingham, England does not exactly look like the ideal backdrop for an ultimate performance in anything.  There’s no cheering crowd lining the shore of a beautiful mountain river.  Instead you’ve got an ugly concrete channel echoing with the sporadic cheers of Fix’s German teammates, who seem like the only people there, running down the course alongside him.  In 1995 this was the biggest kayak race in the world, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.  If there’s no one there to see it, does the Ultimate Run still happen?  Doesn’t it sort of feel less like the Ultimate Run if no one’s watching, and if it happens in an off-beat, unmemorable place?

And what if it simply doesn’t look like the Ultimate Run?  Yes, Fix dominated the competition.  But it wasn’t the paragon of jaw-dropping physical prowess I was expecting.  He didn’t look that fast.  He’s sprinting hard, but his boat doesn’t dance.  He doesn’t whip his bow around or crank big pivot turns.  It wasn’t dynamic.  It didn’t look like the Ultimate Run.  But why?

Then it occurred to me: there are two reasons.  First, perfection isn’t always flashy; and second, I was used to modern racing, which is much flashier than slalom used to be.

Remember Jiri Prskavec, the Czech who finished third?  Twenty years later his son, Jiri Jr. — the most awesome child prodigy I have ever seen in kayaking, including a young Dane Jackson — would go on to win the World Championships himself, last year, in 2015.  Go online and look up his winning run.  It’s breath-taking: one-stroke upstream gates, lightning fast pivot turns, seat-of-the-pants gate-ducking almost the entire way down the course.  And you know what?  It’s electrifying to watch in a way that Fix’s run isn’t.  Prskavec’s run (at 1:22:56) looks a lot more like The Ultimate Run than Fix’s.  

But does that matter?  Does the Ultimate Run have to *look* like the Ultimate Run?

Back in 2002, when I first started showing up to national-level races, those same new radical moves that Prskavec did later were already around.  I remember being awed by the gate ducking and pivot turns being done in practice or on demo runs by guys like Lee Leibfarth, Eric Hurd, and especially a C-1er named Ryan Bahn.  

I always wanted to paddle like Ryan Bahn.  While my own stiff and upright paddling style brought to mind less-than-daring images — more like “Al Gore in a C-1” — Ryan Bahn was one of those aggressive paddlers who made every spectator lean forward in his seat.  He threw his body all over the boat, balanced right on the edge at all times, and at least once on every run did something so absurdly athletic that you’d never seen anything like it before.  One of these impossible moves — which happened during the Great Falls Race of the Potomac extreme race — was so impressive that LVM made it into a video clip as part of a series they had called “The Golden Stroke” meant to highlight paddling perfection.  Check out the link.  It’s awe-inspiring, and it was twice as striking in person.  As much as anyone I ever saw, Ryan Bahn always *looked* like he was having the Ultimate Run.

But Ryan Bahn didn’t even win the Great Falls Race that day.  In slalom he never even made the Olympics.  He raced at least once in the World Championships but didn’t place that high.  He certainly couldn’t have gone into the ring with Oliver Fix, who won the World Championships and then the Olympics in consecutive  years.  Although that moment at Great Falls will live on in my memory, Ryan Bahn didn’t have the Ultimate Run that day — even though it looked like it.  The Ultimate Run is about a lot more than just looking good.

And here’s another reason that Fix’s run didn’t look so amazing: equipment.  It took me a few weeks to realize this.  Prskavec is probably no better a paddler than Fix was — perhaps not even as good — but his dynamic turns and gate-scrambling are largely possible because of today’s much-shorter slalom boats.  In 1995, all slalom boats were required to be four meters long.  Today, they’re much shorter and lower volume.  Much as the plastic boat revolution of the 1990s dramatically shortened play boats and creek boats and allowed once-unthinkable rivers and maneuvers to become standard fare, the short boat revolution of the late 2000s in slalom — paired with the shorter, tighter race courses that these boats enabled — suddenly showcased a much more dynamic brand of slalom.  These runs looked more spectacular.  The four-meter behemoths that Fix and crew were lugging down the course in 1995 and laboring to turn through the upstream gates make much of his “Ultimate Run” look to modern eyes like it’s in slow motion.  Watch Fix do that upstream in Gate 13.  It’s almost impossible to see the innovative and even daring paddling style that Endicott writes about.  Compared to Prskavec in 2015, Fix in 1995 looks like he’s moving through molasses — and it’s not because he wasn’t paddling near-perfectly.  It’s because of his equipment.

And it’s also relative to the boater.  After all, men and women win races all the time without necessarily delivering their best.  These runs are certainly not candidates for the Ultimate Run.  Nor are most of my best ever race runs candidates.  Even when I paddled the absolute best I conceivably could, I was basically finishing in the middle of the pack at national races.  Perhaps somewhere in a dark corner of my memory I can look back on some solid, 5th place run where I eked ahead of a few extra guys at the Glacierbreaker Slalom back in 2007 as my personal “Ultimate Run,” but this was certainly note a real contender for The Ultimate Run.

And lastly, does the Ultimate Run have to contain the type of wallet-dropping athleticism of the Ryan Bahn Great Falls clip above?  The answer is no.  Scott Shipley writes in his book Every Crushing Stroke about throwing one of those incredible, flashy moves during a World Cup race in France in the early 90s — so flashy that Eurosport put this clip on replay over all its coverage — and then being stunned to watch the tape later and learn that a young German paddler had cut more than a second off Shipley’s time in that one gate by employing a decidedly unphotogenic and low-key maneuver.  (That boater’s name?  Oliver Fix.)  So “style” — displays of overt, exuberant athleticism — absolutely does *not* have to be part of the Ultimate Run.  Winning does.

And that’s something else about the Ultimate Run: like in all sports, it’s often very misleading to compare greatness in one era to greatness in another era.  Glenn Frey of the Eagles once said something really pretentious, but also profound.  He said, “We set out to become a band for our time. But sometimes if you do a good enough job, you become a band for all time.” Maybe that’s true of the Ultimate Run.  Maybe it doesn’t mean “the best run of all time” so much as it means “the best run of your time” — the best performance possible, with whatever equipment, training methods, and techniques exist in your time.  Just because the 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefeated doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the greatest football team of all time.  Players today are undoubtedly faster and stronger.  But it does mean that no team dominated a single season — no team dominated their time — quite like those ‘72 Dolphins.  In the same way, Oliver Fix finished 1.8 seconds up on the best boaters of his era — he dominated his time — and that’s why we’re still talking about it.  Comparing his run to a run from 20 years later, with completely different equipment being used, makes no sense.  

So the Ultimate Run needs to be the work of a very top athlete, competing in a big, meaningful race, against the best in the world, and it needs to be a victory by a wide margin.  Sometimes it happens in places that don’t look like the ultimate settings, and sometimes it doesn’t include wallet-dropping displays of athleticism.  Now that I understand what made me doubt the level of Oliver Fix’s performance — the old equipment, the empty, depressing stadium, the mild whitewater, the easier gate placements — I’ve realized my own modern prejudices, and I grant that Oliver Fix did have The Ultimate Run.  

But I have to ask:  what are some of the other Ultimate Run candidates in whitewater slalom?

If there is one run that is generally considered to be the Gold Standard of whitewater slalom — and the most famous example of an “Ultimate Run” — it has to be one that happened six years before Fix won the Worlds.  Back at the 1989 World Championships on the Savage River in Maryland, American Jon Lugbill, already the most decorated whitewater slalom paddler in history, turned in perhaps the greatest run ever seen in a major race.  Lugbill’s C-1 run was 12 seconds faster than his next nearest competitor (American David Hearn), and fast enough to put Lugbill, a C-1 paddler, in the top five in the normally much-faster men’s kayak division.  This run is famous.  I’d seen video of it on VHS years ago, and it was an early upload to YouTube.  It’s still talked about with reverence by Americans who were there in 1989.

Even the British announcers were gushing over this run, which starts at 24:40:

I must say, even though it’s older, Lugbill’s run looks a lot more impressive and a lot closer to what I expect the Ultimate Run to be than Fix’s.  All of the elements that were missing on Fix’s run were there: a huge, hometown crowd, a beautiful natural river with impressive rapids, and Lugbill’s especially aggressive, attacking style.  What’s more, the race even has historical import — Lugbill is storming down the course on a victory lap at the close of a decade that he and David Hearn dominated — the American champion winning big in front of the first American crowd to ever host a World Championship.  It seems like the time and place where the Ultimate Run should have happened.

One run that I always thought was an underrated candidate for Ultimate Run status was Thomas Schmidt’s (two) winning runs at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney:

Schmidt, who I don’t really know much about but am pretty sure didn’t win a ton of other big races, absolutely owned the race course on this day, winning by a wide margin over a strong field including Shipley and Englishman Paul Ratcliffe.

One last thought about the Ultimate Run.  A few weeks back, in the Internet build up to the Green Race, a now-famous extreme kayak race that takes place on the Green Narrows river in Saluda, North Carolina, there was speculation about whether a sub-4 minute Green Race time would be possible this year:

 

It didn’t happen.  The winners clocked in around 4:13, and the course record still stands at 4:10.  I find this Bannister-like barrier to be quite a different goal than the idea of an Ultimate Run.  For one thing — a 4 minute Green Race time is not an “Ultimate Run.” It’s too universal.  Because that race course never changes (since 1996 the Green Race has begun and ended at the same two river rocks, and descended the very same rapids, including the giant log visible in the video capture above, just behind the boater).  Almost by definition there is no “Ultimate Run” achievable.  The Green is like a high school track — the playing conditions never change much (except water levels).  And so, just as Roger Bannister’s sub-4 minute mile was considered a milestone but never the Ultimate Track Race, a sub-four minute run on the Green would be a breathtaking, but by no means considered the perfect run.  Like with a track race, the idea on the Green would be that times will probably keep getting lower and lower as training and equipment improve.  Just like with track, there’s never really any single “Ultimate Run.”

On the other hand, Schmidt’s run or Fix’s run or Lugbill’s run could be considered the Ultimate Run — because those particular combinations of race gates will never be used again.  The Ultimate Run is always ultimate only in context.  Sure, one can say that Lugbill did it better on that day than other racers did on other days, but we can never really know.  Only by being great in one, ephemeral moment can a racer seem to achieve the kind of ideal: the true Ultimate Run.

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