I've wanted to do the Gauley double marathon ever since I heard that kids from the World Class Kayak Academy did it during the 2007 Gauley River Festival. When I tell people this, the response I usually get is "Why?" or "You're crazy." For them, a single marathon sounds bad enough, and a double marathon sounds like torture. But that's not the way I see it.
There's something really cool about running the whole river in one day. It gives you a different perspective. As boaters, we sometimes forget that the river sections described in our guide books (e.g. Upper, Middle, Lower) are arbitrary designations, and we talk about them as if they were completely different rivers. But that's not the case at all. The Gauley doesn't hit a dead end at Panther Creek, and it doesn't bubble up from nowhere at Bucklick. Every point on the river is connected. And if you do the Gauley marathon, it gives you a greater understanding (and appreciation) for the river as a whole.
I say the "whole river" with some reservations, because obviously the Gauley doesn't start at Summersville Dam. It starts many miles upstream on Gauley Mountain and picks up several tributaries that are interesting in their own right before reaching the dam. They are unaffected by the fall releases, so they're not included in the Gauley marathon. But if the dam wasn't there, I'd start higher up!
OK, so that explains why I'd want to do a single marathon, but why a double? That question is more difficult to answer, but I'll try.
- For the whitewater. If I'm going to drive 5 hours each way, I want to get my money's worth. I want to run as many rapids as possible. 26 miles of whitewater is great, but 52 miles is even better. I think the Jackson Kayak crew has the same basic idea when they do an "all day play run." It's all about going home tired and happy.
- For the challenge. I'd never paddled 52 miles in a day before, or even close to it. Could I do it? Was it possible?
- For the novelty. When you run the Gauley every weekend in September it gets a little bland, and you start looking for ways to spice it up. I'd never run the Gauley in a long boat before, and I'd certainly never done twice from top to bottom, so the double marathon was a way to make the Gauley feel new again.
- For the solitude. As everyone knows, Gauley Fest weekend is a circus. With the right mindset it can be a fun atmosphere, but boaters who enjoy the wilderness experience usually stay the hell away. However, I discovered that you can still find solitude on Gauley Fest weekend. You just have to work a little harder for it.
If I was serious about completing the double marathon, I had to do some research first. Here are some of the questions that I had:
- When does the release start?
- When does it end?
- How long does it take the water to get from the dam to Bucklick?
- How long does it take for the water to get from the dam to Swiss?
- How long does it take to do a marathon in a long boat?
- How long does it take to drive from Swiss to the dam?
Fortunately there are a lot of resources on the internet that helped me answer those questions. The Army Corps of Engineers posts the whitewater release schedule every year. Saturday releases are normally from 6AM - 2PM, but on Gauley Fest weekend the release ends at 3PM. That extra hour is crucial for the double marathon, as you will see. Chuck Brabec has written an excellent overview of Gauley River hydrology called Gauges 101 - The Gauley River. This is where I learned that it takes 3-4 hours for the water to reach Bucklick and 8 hours to reach Belva (which is about 4 miles downstream of Swiss). It usually takes me 5.5 to 6 hours to do the Gauley marathon in a playboat, but I'd never done it in a long boat before, so I asked some friends. They told me 4.5 hours was a good estimate. Finally, I got directions from Swiss to Summersville Dam on Google Maps, which told me the drive took 33 minutes.
With this information in hand, it was easy to determine that if the release started at 6AM and took 8 hours to reach Belva, it would get there around 2PM. And if it took 4.5 hours to do the marathon in a long boat, I couldn't start before 9 or 9:30 or I would catch the bubble. After finishing the first marathon around 2, I would have to quickly load my boat on the car and hightail it back to the dam before the water shut off at 3. Then I would paddle another 4.5 hours and take out between 7 and 7:30 (just before sunset). Getting the timing right was very tricky business. It was reassuring to know that the water never really turns off completely on Gauley release weekends; the Army Corps of Engineers releases 600-700 cfs overnight to prime the pump for the next day. But a double marathon on 600-700 cfs would go a lot slower than 2800 cfs, so I didn't want to miss the bubble.
As it turns out, the hardest part of the Gauley double marathon is setting the shuttle. Not many people do it (the kids at WCKA are the only ones I've heard of) so you'll probably have a hard time convincing your friends to join you. Nor do you want to impose on anyone by asking them to sacrifice their own festival plans to pick you up. Furthermore, it would be very difficult to hitch the shuttle -- even on a busy weekend like Gauley Fest -- because the first shuttle is so time sensitive and on the second you're trying to retrieve your car from the dam when everyone else is heading straight to the festival.
There are two ideal situations for setting the double marathon shuttle: either have a shuttle bunny, or have two cars and two friends willing to drop them off at Swiss on their way to running the Lower Gauley (that way you don't have to set shuttle at all and they don't have to go out of their way to help you). Billy Armstrong wanted to do the double marathon with me, so we drove down to the Gauley together. Our shuttle situation wasn't ideal, but we made it work. First, Jeff Kahn and Sean Devine gave us a big assist by dropping Billy's car off at Swiss for us. (Thanks guys!) That took care of shuttle #1. But we didn't have a second car, and we didn't have a shuttle bunny. We decided to wing it. If Billy wasn't feeling up to a second marathon, he'd run shuttle for me. And if he was feeling up to it, we'd try to hitch back. We both left changes of dry clothes at the festival in case we couldn't hitch back to the dam, and I brought my cell phone and some money which I could use to entice people to give us a ride.
THE FIRST MARATHON
We got off to a late start because of the delays that always go hand in hand with Gauley Fest. It was nothing major, just a minute here and a minute there. Billy saved us some time by running down the put-in road instead of waiting for the park ranger's shuttle, but we didn't put in until 9:39 AM. Once on the water, we made quick work of the warm-up rapids. A common misconception is that you have to paddle hard the whole way to do a Gauley marathon. That is not the case. All you have to do is stay in the current and pace yourself. It is generally a good idea to paddle the flatwater and rest in the rapids. But you don't have to sprint. In fact, you shouldn't sprint or you'll wear yourself out.
Below Pillow Rock Billy got out of his Dancer to adjust the outfitting because his feet were being rubbed raw by the foot pedals. I was sensitive to the lost time, but I knew that 4.5 hours was a long time to be uncomfortable, so it made sense to take care of it right then and there. Unfortunately that wasn't the end of it, and Billy had to adjust the outfitting again below Lost Paddle. In addition to the foot pedal problem, he was sliding around on the seat, which threw him off balance and made him feel out of control in the rapids. It was clear that he was getting frustrated with all the outfitting issues, because he's a great boater and he just wasn't himself in that boat. I was impressed by how he toughed it out and did everything he could to make the double marathon happen.
When we got to Panther Creek, we both knew that we were running behind schedule. In fact, we were so far behind that we were jeopardizing our chance to finish the double marathon. So we started paddling faster to make up for lost time. If we could make it from Panther Creek to Swiss in 2:45, we just might be able to pull it off. Somewhere in the Middle Gauley we crossed paths with Jason "Paris" Hilton and John "The Rudler" Rudland. It was John's bachelor party, and they were doing the marathon too. (Congrats John!) We told them what we were trying to do, and Jason told us, after looking at his watch, that we'd better hurry.
Shortly afterward, we pulled over at a beach to eat a quick snack and stretch our legs. I started peeing next to a rock, and jumped back when I realized that I was peeing on two coiled copperheads! They weren't very pleased with me.
The Lower Gauley went by in a blur. We kept passing people and passing people. We didn't stop anywhere. We saw people that we knew, and we shouted hi, but we didn't stop. After Diagonal Ledges the river was empty. We saw a boat floating upside down below Lower Stairstep with nobody in sight, so we pushed it to shore, drained it, and propped it up on a rock so the owner could find it. We saw two river boarders below Rooster Tail, and they were the last people we saw. We arrived at Swiss around 2:15. I don't know if we were the first people off the Lower Gauley, but it seemed like it.
Billy decided that he'd better not do the second marathon. He was coming off a shoulder injury and didn't want to reaggravate it. But he was happy to run the shuttle for me. As Billy drove me back to the dam, I devoured a banana and three peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Then I drank straight from a gallon water jug to rehydrate. We made it back to the dam by 2:50. I reloaded on granola bars and Gatorade. After agreeing on a rendezvous time, I headed down to the put-in and slid into the water. It was 2:56.
THE SECOND MARATHON
The second marathon was almost eerie. There I was, on Gauley Fest weekend -- the busiest weekend of the year -- and I was all alone. The river felt like a ghost town. Nobody was at the dam. No rafters, no kayakers, no rangers. It was quiet. All I could hear was the rushing of the water. Nobody was fiddling with their spray skirt at the put-in. Nobody was surfing the wave in the first rapid or hanging out in the eddy. Nobody was doing flatwater tricks in the first big pool. Nobody was warning the newbie in their group not to surf the wave at Initiation. Rafts weren't lining up like school buses. It was just me and the river.
With only a 4 minute head start, I knew that I had to keep paddling to stay on the bubble, so I just got into a rhythm and went. Left blade, right blade, left blade, right blade. Splash in the chest. Stay in the current. Left blade, right blade. When I got to Geek Wave, I saw Adam Johnson throwing down like it was nobody's business. He had it all to himself. I don't know who was more surprised to see who. I also don't know if he paddled out after me or just stayed there until the water was gone and hiked back to the put-in. I just nodded my head and kept paddling. When I looked back over my shoulder, he was throwing loop after loop after loop.
I didn't stop paddling or see another person until I reached Pillow. Luke Hopkins was standing on the rock, and there were a few other people as well. I was getting tired and sloppy, so I flipped in Pillow, which was a wake up call that I needed to pay more attention to what I was doing.
Paddling through the pool above Lost Paddle with nobody else around caused some anxiety. I feel very comfortable on all of the Gauley rapids -- including Lost Paddle -- but I was tired, alone, and worried what would happen if I flipped in 2nd drop, hit my head on the rock shelf, and lost consciousness. Talk about a worst case scenario! I eddied out on the right to catch my breath and to make sure I had a good line. It was probably the first eddy I caught on that second marathon. I was able to block out the bad thoughts and everything was fine.
A little later, I saw a guy portaging around Tumblehome. He was paddling a C-1 for the first time ever and had gotten his @$$ handed to many times that day. My hat's off to him, that takes cajones. I asked him if he was OK and he said yeah, his buddies were waiting for him below the rapid.
I passed a group at Iron Ring and another group at Sweet's. From there it was smooth sailing until Backender on the Middle Gauley with not a soul in sight. There I saw Kevin Vesely and crew. It was around 5:15 at this point. They had a car at the dam and a car at Wood's Ferry, but nothing at Swiss. They also had playboats and a guy with them who'd only paddled three times before. It sounded like they'd be getting off the river really late. I told Kevin we could probably take a driver back to the dam if he could make it to Swiss by 8 PM, which is when I was meeting Billy. But that was the last time I saw them. I heard the next day that they'd made it out alright.
From Koontz's Flume to the flatwater above Swiss I saw nobody else. Nobody. I had the whole river to myself. If you go outside of Gauley Season, that's what it's like. But on Gauley Fest weekend? That was amazing. I just kept chugging along, and made it to Swiss at 7:22. I walked over to the Church to see if they had any food left, but they'd been sold out for over an hour. So I stretched and I waited for Billy. Fatigue set in on the way to the festival. When we got there, I ate some more sandwiches, did one circuit around the festival grounds, and then crashed. Despite all the surrounding noise, I slept like a baby.
I don't know if the Gauley double marathon will ever catch on, but that's part of the allure. To paddle 52 miles, you have to really want it. That said, it is very doable, and I think it's worth doing -- even if it's just to get the river to yourself on a busy weekend. The only drawback is that you're too tired to really enjoy the festival on Saturday night (I was never much of a partyer anyway). The single marathon is a good way to train for it, and I see more and more people doing that every year.
Thanks to Jeff and Sean for setting our first shuttle, and special thanks to Billy for doing the first marathon with me and setting my shuttle for the second. You guys made it happen!