The Rundown on the ‘James River Rundown’

June 17, 2015 · 7 minute read
Competitors in last year's James River Rundown. Credit: Angie Williams

Competitors in last year’s James River Rundown. Credit: Angie Williams

Earlier this season the James River Association announced details for our 2nd Annual James River Rundown, a series of paddle races that take place June 27-28, 2015 in the heart of central Virginia on the mighty James. With its ala carte menu of race options, both seasoned paddlers and lollygaggers alike will be pleased to hit incredible stretches along this historic river. A grueling 100-mile endurance race begins the morning of June 27 at James River State Park in Gladstone and is touted as one of the longest races of its kind on the East Coast, testing even the most seasoned paddlers.

But wait, there’s more! This year the JRA has added two shorter races to the event in the hopes of enticing paddlers of all skill levels to register. On June 28, a 40-mile race starts in Cartersville, and later that morning a 20-mile race starts at Powhatan State Park. All of the races will culminate just past Robious Landing in Richmond at American Legion Post 354 for a post-race celebration complete with local bluegrass faves 14 ½ Strings, barbecue, and beverages from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. Boom.

Competitors will traverse the river in kayaks, canoes, rafts and paddleboards, either as solo paddlers or in teams. There are no restrictions on what they paddle, just as long as there is no motor, sail, or anchored oar configuration and participants reach the finish line within the 40 hour cutoff. Designated safety checkpoints will be set up along the way, offering paddlers a chance to rest or camp.

I caught up with a few of the adventurous early adopters of the paddle in hopes they would pass along some wisdom to anyone caught up in the idea of running any one of these amazing paddles. Rusty and Leza McClain dominated last year’s run with a searing 17 hour win. Saw no one for hours. Epic. Kevin Odberg founded the race after paddling a 340 mile stretch of the Missouri. Raced with his brother Mike. They still like one another. And John Nestler was first place solo, second overall. Tremendous effort.

RO: Before the James River Rundown, what was the longest distance you paddled?

R&L: We paddled the 120 mile Ausable River Canoe Marathon in Michigan

KO: I paddled the 340-mile Missouri River 340. That was my first big race and it took my brother and I 62 hours to finish. Prior to taking the leap and signing up for that race, however, my longest paddle had been about 10 miles but I got in some good training runs prior to that race.

Ready for action before last year's Rundown.

Ready for action before last year’s Rundown.

RO: How did you prepare for the Rundown?

R&L: We paddle/race all year round. For example did the General Clinton 70-miler on Memorial Day several weeks before the JRR-100. Ran several sections of the race course in the weeks between the 70-miler and JRR-100.

KO: I paddled most sections of the course and got in a few longer paddles of 4-6 hours to make sure I was comfortable in the boat, which I was, for a short time. But if you paddle for 18 + hours in a padded lounge chair eventually you will not be comfortable so you just need to prepare to hurt.

RO: Looking back, what would you do differently to prepare? Punching slabs of beef? Lifting logs? P90X?

KO: Any cardio is great, however, paddling 100 miles is more about enduring than it is about fitness. If you are willing to paddle through the exhaustion and pain you are more prepared than someone in great shape prone to giving up. One of the best things you can do is learn good paddling technique so you use big core muscles more than smaller arm muscles. That will help with muscle fatigue.

JN: I brought plenty of water and food which kept me comfortable, but totally neglected the wear and tear that would happen on my hands. I was using a whitewater paddle in a sea kayak, so the water dripping down the shaft and constant friction gave me pretty bad blisters by mile 30. I started wrapping my hands in duct tape, but it wasn’t that effective. So a couple pairs of dry gloves could be really good – and a longer paddle to prevent a wet shaft. I also peed in my kayak since I thought taking my skirt off took too much time – worked well while I was racing, but smelled pretty foul after. So maybe that wasn’t necessary….

RO: Was there a section of the James you found most challenging? Most awe inspiring?

R&L: Some of the ledges in the first half of the race and after dark seeing large numbers of lightening bugs twinkling like Christmas lights in the trees along the shore.

JN: None of the course was all that technical for a plastic sea kayak, but people definitely had trouble in composite boats. I saw one canoe flip in a rapid, which really slowed them down, and a couple boats had issues with the rocks. I’d say that was my biggest advantage – I really paddled fast through the rock gardens since I didn’t have anything to worry about with a durable, fast boat. Those sections were the most fun too as I could play around with my whitewater skills, whereas the flat water gets pretty monotonous sometimes.I also passed the annual Batteau Festival ( during the race, and it was quite a sight to see those boats being poled down the river!

All human-powered vessels are fair game at the JR Rundown. Credit: Angie Williams

All human-powered vessels are fair game at the JR Rundown. Credit: Angie Williams

RO: Give me an “oh $h*@” moment during the race.

R&L: We were told at the last check-point at 900 pm that there were no more rapids to contend with in the dark, however there were at least two ledges that caught us by surprise, and were a little un-nerving in the dark.

KO: My brother and I were paddling an 18.5-foot canoe which is not easy to maneuver. We found a chute in a rapids section only to find out there was a very large rock straight ahead of the chute we were running. We were already committed and just had to accept the fact we were about to crash into it. We did and slowly tipped sideways and got to cool off for a second before continuing.

RO:   Was there any point in the race where you thought “What the hell am I doing ? “

R&L: Of course, luckily not to both of us at the same time, so we kept each other going.

KO: Multiple points. You tend to go through energy cycles. One minute you feel great and you’re loving life and paddling is easy and enjoyable. Ten minutes later and you feel exhausted and want to hit someone with a paddle. It’s usually happens around the 60-80 mile mark. You’ve paddled longer than ever before, most of your body hurts, especially your butt, you are exhausted, possibly nauseous, and realize you still have 20-40 miles left to paddle. Once you get closer to the finish, the end is in sight and you get re-energized by the fact you know you’ll make it.

RO: What’s one piece of wisdom, advice you would pass on to this year’s Rundowners?

R&L: Keep paddling and pre-paddle as many sections beforehand as possible.

KO:  Don’t show up to the race already dehydrated. Hydrate for 4-7 days prior to the race, bring plenty of water and eat a little something every hour to keep energy levels steady. Also, just stay in the boat and keep going.

JN: Don’t stop until you finish – the hurt really comes on when your body realizes that it’s done racing and it can shut down. Also take it easy at the beginning – people really blasted off the starting line, but it’s a long race.

RO:   Besides pulling into Robious Landing, any moments of Zen you’d care to share?

KO: There was one moment when a bald eagle holding a bass flew over our heads and we got to watch it cross the river. We both saw it so it wasn’t a hallucination.

JN: You get in the zone. God knows how many strokes it takes to go 100 miles, but there’s definitely a zen associated with it. It’s a cool feeling that’s hard to get in shorter events.


Think you have what it takes? The James River Rundown is still accepting registrations until June 24. is a proud sponsor of this year’s Rundown. Get out in a boat, and maybe we’ll be interviewing you this time next season.