Forget Chasing Mavericks. Like runners’ quest for the 4-minute mile, Red Bull athlete and Jackson Kayak’s Dane Jackson is training his tail off for the Holy Grail of extreme kayaking: Getting under 4 minutes in this year’s 26th annual Green River Narrows Race taking place November 6.
Dane has won the race multiple times and last year nearly cracked four minutes with a time of 4:02.3, improving on 4:04.4 from the year prior. But like runner Roger Bannister, who first accomplished the feat by just sixth-tenths of a second in 1954, reaching that milestone won’t be easy.
To get a sub-4 time in 2021, he’s currently training double time in Tennessee, and paddling his beloved Narrows of the Green run as often as he can to dissect it down to the millisecond to see where he can save time — 2.4 seconds, in fact, to break four minutes.
Paddling Life catches up with His Daneness to explore what it will take to beat the 4-minute mark.
PL: What’s it going to take to break 4 minutes?
Dane: There is no doubt that it will take a near perfect run, there isn’t much room for error when even the slightest mistake can add those crucial few seconds. Over the last few years, I have really started to break down the entire course move to move, even seemingly simple moves — trying different lines and techniques, then timing and breaking them down. Really breaking down each move instead of looking at the run as a whole, or only focusing on the major rapids has allowed me to notice places to save as much as half a second where I might not have realized before.
I have all my previous race runs as well as others broken down by time on a spreadsheet, along with my training laps. So, as I continue to build more knowledge and muscle memory for nailing the lines, the better I feel about getting the sub 4.
Last year for the first time at normal water levels I was right at the 4-min mark, as well as a few 4:01s, so I know it’s there. I just have to make sure on race day to keep the pace where it needs to be, not burnout, and not get lazy getting the boat where it needs to be to nail the moves.
PL: How important is it to you?
Dane: Having this challenge, and something to constantly look forward to pursuing, is always exciting. It’s one of those challenges I am stoked to be able to have in front of me. I love any chance like this that allows me to push myself, and find ways to continue to improve. I’ll never stop putting in the time and effort, and I will make it happen one day. It’s important to me because it’s something to push myself to continue to improve in ways it could have been easy to have been content. It’s hard to beat anything that puts that kind of motivation in me.
PL: Any particular portions of the course where you can improve?
Dane: There’s always room for improvement, and I continue to find those moments year after year. Even when I think I have a move dialed, I’ll often realize a better way to nail it and be even faster. The hardest section is for sure the bottom minute and a half, with the biggest moves and slides. Not only are you having to deal with them when you’re already running lower on energy, but they are also the hardest moves to hit with the 12-foot-long boats. With shorter boats you can often make corrections, or make the boat go where you want it to from more places. With the long boats, if you get even the slightest bit lazy and don’t put yourself in the right position before a move, it’s unlikely the following move will go well. Not only that but even if you put yourself in the right position, there are still so many variables at play, which sometimes means you can have a vastly different line than what you might have had in practice.
PL: Does it take better stamina and power, or better lines?
Dane: Better lines can always be an answer since the Green Race is one of the hardest races there is to feel that you didn’t really make any mistakes on a run. A big part is not underestimating the importance of each move, big or small, down the entire run. Being just slightly off on a few smaller moves adds up and can be the difference between being over or under, so I have really worked on focusing on that these last few years.
The biggest thing for me as I continue to progress is really understanding pace when it comes to the paddling aspect. It can be extremely difficult to not burn out on the top half, then not have the energy to make the lines happen on the lower half, especially in a long boat. Quality over quantity is what I have always worked towards, and last year in particular I really started to realize where my pace needs to be. I often push just a little too hard in the top half, and last year I realized that I still am fast, even if it feels as though I am barely paddling. As long as I am doing strong, good forward strokes. So, it takes really approaching every move, big or small, equally — while also maintaining a pace to make up the time needed up top, with energy left to make the big moves at the bottom.
PL: Are the flats more important than the rapids?
Dane: People often over analyze the flats, and will often believe that’s where you can save a lot of time. But the truth is that flats are often the complete opposite. They are a great place to burn too much energy because all you are focusing on is forward paddling, and it’s easy to paddle harder than necessary. In the end it doesn’t take much to get the boat up to top speed and keep it there, so you are better off pacing through them than pushing too hard. Quality strokes on the way into or out of a move, where most people would cruise, can be much more useful than those extra few not clean strokes on flatwater.
PL: What’s the biggest time suck on the course?
Dane: Definitely Gorilla and the slides, because they’re just so challenging to consistently have good lines, even if you know exactly what you are needing to do. You can be in the exact same spot 10 times and have completely different lines every time. So, I’ve focused on getting as many laps as possible through that section because in the end that’s where sub-4 will likely be lost.
Even though I feel like I know what I need to be doing on each move, it can still be a roll of the dice at times in these boats. On top of that, water level is a huge factor for the bottom part of the course. Higher water gives you the ability to save time at the top of the course, but makes the bottom section much more difficult to stay on top of the water. The fastest lower section is still Pat Keller in 2017 when it was one of the lower years. So, there are a lot of variables to have when it comes to one run a year.
If I had to pick one place that will be the difference even if I nail the rest of the course, it’s probably Powerslide because it’s one of the toughest moves to hit right, especially at the end of the race.
PL: How are you feeling physically and mentally?
Dane: More than anything I’m just so stoked to get back to training, and back into racing mode. Physically I feel good, though I will still want to put in more work leading up to the race, to make sure I have the muscle and endurance to not burn out. Mentally I am just so stoked, it’s always such an exciting time to know that Green Race is really not far out; it’ll be here before I know it. It’s always hard to have to say “Next year I’ll get the sub-4”, because you know how long you have to wait. So, when I feel race season creeping up, I just get fired up to start training, getting in shape, and anxious to be on that start line.
PL: What are you doing to train?
Dane: I am headed to Austria for the Oetz Trophy event, so I have started to make sure I am in racing shape for not only that, but also going straight into Green Race training afterwards. The main training I am doing is flat water sprints, as well as some time in the gym. Flat water sprints are so great because it makes sure you are focusing on your technique, on top of a good workout. It is also great for training because if you’re doing something like sprints in between bridge pylons, and say it’s around 30 seconds a lap, if you do 5 laps with 30 seconds in between, you are going to be fairly tired by your final laps, it could be easy to get lazier. But it’s a great way to make sure you really focus on your pace and your technique, even if you are tired, to make sure your final times are the same or faster than the first laps. Developing the ability to focus on being able to still have good technique, even when you are tired, is key when it comes to any racing.
PL: How’s it compare to the 4-minute mile running?
Dane: Well, I am definitely not an avid runner so I can’t speak on behalf of people that train towards that, and I am sure there are variables and challenges I am unaware of. But the craziest thing about working towards this is that in the end I am on a natural force that is out of my control in many ways. The water is constantly changing, and every line can be different than the one before even if I am in the exact same spot. So, I could be in the best shape of my life, the best kayak design, and the perfect water level and there are just going to be things I can’t control. But I think that is also a part of what makes it so exciting. I look forward to working towards it once more, and I am going to have a great time no matter what happens.