1. 2007’s 12th running of the race, a half-mile course dropping 300 hair-raising feet, was one for the record books. It saw the most competitors (145), most spectators (1,000, including a man in a chicken suit), and two new course records: Andrew Holcombe’s 4:27 bested Tommy Hilleke’s record of 4:34 set in 2005, and Robin Betz’ women’s win at 5:23 eclipsed the mark of 5:46 set by Nikki Kelly in 2002.
2. The worst carnage ever befell Nick Easley in 2006, whose wreck in Gorilla has garnered 10,578 views on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=D35fat6vdWA). Suffering broken ribs, a concussion and a punctured lung, Easley spent a week in the hospital after cowboying up and hiking two miles out. “For the most part we’ve pretty lucky with injuries,” says organizer Jason Hale, whose e-mail handle is H20Beatdown. “Most injuries happen while people are training. On race day you have the best safety you could ever hope for.”
3. The water for the race is turned on by a guy named Frank, who works for Duke Power. In 2004, high water in Lake Summit upstream forced him to crank the flow up to a whopping 250 percent. The event was officially cancelled, but seven paddlers raced anyway. This year Frank must have been dosing. The release came late, causing the hundred or so spectators paddling in to get caught in a self-coined “bubblefuck.” “People had to wait for the next rapid to fill up before they could go downstream,” says one bubble rider, who saw 30 people jammed into the 10-person eddy above Go Left. “It was sketchy as hell for a moment. As soon as I thought there was enough water I hauled ass out of there and never looked back.”
4. With no entry fee and no prize money, each year racers simply compete for The Glass, a coveted stained glass trophy made by local boater Todd Graff. The design varies every year, but never sways far from its roots: a kayaker descending the maw of Gorilla. Small trophies are handed out for the women’s, hand paddle and short boat categories, but The Glass itself is reserved for the fastest paddler, period. So far it graces the windows of Jason Hale, Al Gregory, Tommy Hilleke, Pat Keller and this year’s winner, Andrew Holcombe (Clay Wright won the inaugural pre-trophy event).
5. Partying’s as much of the program as paddling, with the race book-ended by major ragers. This year started with a Halloween bash with the band “Bullets and Lace” decked out in skeleton and wolverine garb. Those still standing then headed to the pizza-and-beer premiere of LVM’s No. 24 on Thursday, before washing it all down with a post-race alligator-Jambalaya blow-out breaking in Woody Callaway’s new house at the take-out. “I told my neighbors I was going to have a ‘little” party,’” says the host with the most, who woke the next morning to find 30 people sleeping on his floor, a pair of women’s jeans in his kitchen and a sea of beer cans that filled 24 contractor’s bags. “It turned out to be more than 300 people. The next day one of my neighbors said, ‘I hope to God you never tell me you are going to have a BIG party.”
6. Manufacturers get into the action, too. Over the years, the race has spawned several new kayak designs, including this year’s 11’9” Remix 100 from Liquidlogic, 11’6” Momentum from Wave Sport, and 11’9” Green Boat from Dagger (production model to be released this spring). The Green took the top four spots this year, and the Remix the next two, and eighth through tenth. The boat with the most wins? A blue Prijon Tornado with eight, two by Jason Hale and six by Tommy Hilleke. “There’s a fine line between good speed and being able to run Class V safely,” says Holcombe, adding that how a boat sheds water is almost as important as its length.
7. The Green Man title goes to those with the balls to race both short and long boat categories (Glen LePlante set the tone by first doing so in 2003). This year 30 people rattled their nerves in the sadistic combo, towing the extra kayaks behind them on the paddle in and then stashing them at the start to retrieve for run number two. “It was never that popular until Glenn did it,” says local Green Man John Grace. “You’re subjecting yourself to the same punishment twice.” This year Paul Stamilio upped the ante ever further by entering the hand-paddle category as well. No name, yet for people who do that.
8. The race’s Zen-master is six-time winner Tommy Hilleke, who, in 2006, lost for the first time since 2000 only because he moved to Colorado. He credits it to time in the saddle. “A lot of it is just knowing the river,” says Hilleke, who estimates he’s paddled it up to 700 times. “At that point I probably had more descents down it than anyone.”
9. The only year a banner has been at the race was in 2004 when Red Bull put a giant inflatable arch across the river near the finish line. Despite a raging Red Bull and vodka party, the commercialism was frowned upon and banners were never allowed at the race again (organizer Jason Hale rounds up just enough sponsorship funding to cover race costs and t-shirts).
10. It is good karma to yell “Ride the Lightning!” while launching off the launch-pad lip at the top of Gorilla. No one’s quite sure why it relates to kayaking Gorilla, but the term was coined during a high-water run by Hilleke and refers to metal band Metallica’s second album, released in 1984