Posted by: Katie Coakley
The Hawaiian surfer doesn’t do much racing in mountain rivers, but when he does, he can hang
By Shauna Farnell
Kai Lenny thrives in “uncomfortable” situations – be it riding a 60-foot monster wave or raging whitewater on Gore Creek.
“Being on a river at altitude is pretty much the opposite of what I do on a daily basis. That challenge alone requires a lot more thought process and sheer will,” Lenny said after Saturday’s Yeti Down River SUP Sprint, in which he, in spite of operating out of his usual wheelhouse, managed to finish fourth against whitewater paddleboard luminaries like Spencer Lacy (who won), Michael Tavares (second) and Bradley Hilton (third).
The 26-year-old Hawaiian, who was recently inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, last competed at the GoPro Mountain Games in 2014; he won the Down River Sprint. While navigating Gore Creek might be less of a spectacle than being engulfed by a mountain-sized fold of water, even the roughest ocean doesn’t necessarily prepare a surfer like Lenny for riding a board down a fast-moving river.
“You have to rewire your brain a little bit,” he said. “You do more counter-steering on the board than in the ocean. In the ocean, if you want to go right, you’d use your toes if you’re a regular-foot rider. Here, you’d counter-steer, using your heel edge to go to the right versus going to the left. Also, in the ocean, you’re more on the back of the board. Here, you’re farther forward on the board because the water is coming behind you constantly, whereas normally you’re skimming across the water in front of you.”
Growing up on the northern shore of Maui, Lenny was surfing by age 5 and continues to tackle the ocean on just about every imaginable type of board – surf, SUP, kite, hydrofoil …
But his experience riding a SUP through mountain runoff is relatively minimal.
“Whitewater, in general, is so different than the way the water moves in the ocean,” he said. “Re-acclimating not only to the altitude but actually to the way the river moves, trying to figure out what’s the fastest line and trying not to fall, it’s pretty much the opposite effect than in the ocean.”
Going from the ocean to 8,100 feet is also not something Lenny does too often.
“I’m just this sea creature trying to acclimate to this altitude,” he said. “So what would have been an easier paddle was super hard because I couldn’t get enough oxygen in my lungs. That’s what makes this race so challenging and fun.”
Lenny has a knack for making what he calls uncomfortable scenarios appear comfortable, lounging in the frigid waters of Gore Creek following his race as if it were a jacuzzi.
“I love putting myself in challenging situations, mainly because it forces you to step it up,” he said. “Basically being uncomfortable is where I thrive. In the moment, it maybe doesn’t feel good, but you force yourself to get better. It’s fun to give these guys –hopefully – a run for their money in their own environment. It’s a fresh challenge.”
Sunday’s Yeti SUP Surf Cross will be an even fresher challenge. Lenny’s plan? Go all in.
“That will be more technical than physical, that’s where the river guys will have an advantage, but I’ll try to give it to them as much as I can. I’ll just analyze what they’re doing and do my own thing with it. Should be fun.”
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