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Female paddlers tackle World's Toughest Boat Race

Mental strength, determination get these women down the river

Pam LeBlanc
The Hippie Chicks, Ginsie Stauss, Janie Glos and Debbie Richardson approach a little white water at Rio Vista in San Marcos. The team was parcticing for the Texas Water Safari, a grueling paddle race that will take them from San Marcos to the coast. They hope to complete the race in 50 hours.

SAN MARCOS The Hippie Chicks hoist their 30-foot canoe up the bank at Rio Vista Falls, ponytails bobbing and purple and turquoise skirts a-swishing.

They're practicing portaging techniques for the Texas Water Safari, a sweat-soaked, hallucination-drenched, 260-mile canoe race from San Marcos to the Texas coast.

The Safari, dubbed the world's toughest boat race, has traditionally been dominated by men, but don't tell the Chicks. The three 5-foot-3-inch paddlers are among 25 women out of about 200 paddlers entered in this year's event.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, they'll surge out of Aquarena Springs and into the San Marcos River alongside 103 other boats. Downstream, they'll merge into the Guadalupe River, which ultimately pours into San Antonio Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. They'll have to check in at 12 points and make it to Seadrift, on the coast, by 1 p.m. June 16 to be considered official finishers.

"It's really, really, really hard and nasty," says Hippie Chick No. 1, Debbie Richardson, 43, a veteran of the race who sells real estate when she's not paddling.

"Snakes, alligators, mosquitoes, poison ivy ... you get dirty and bruised," says Hippie Chick No. 2, Janie Glos, 48, a two-time Ironman Triathlon finisher and lending assistant who will be racing her first Texas Water Safari.

The Chicks, with the words "Peace Love and Paddle" painted on the side of their boat, will race in the female division. Only four all-women boats are registered this year; the other women are paddling on mixed teams.

Among them are Christine Johnson, 39, who along with fellow fly fishing guide (and guy) Banning Collins, 29, make up Team Paddlefish. It's their first Texas Water Safari, and their goal is to get their aluminum canoe across the finish line in under 90 hours.

"We're not the fastest, we're not the strongest, but we're methodical," Johnson says. They're also good at reading water and currents.

What all these women may lack in sheer size and strength, they say they make up for in other ways.

"We're built for endurance, and it's an endurance race," says Hippie Chick No. 3, Ginsie Stauss, 51, an art teacher at River Ridge Elementary in Leander. She's one of just 10 women who have finished the race solo since it started in 1964. (She almost made it five solo finishes last year, but was pulled from the water just 2 miles from the finish after flipping her boat repeatedly.)

Allen Spelce, president of Texas Water Safari, says the women who are entering the race, either solo or as part of all-female or mixed teams, can stand up to their testosterone-fueled competitors. Their boats are typically lighter, giving them an advantage in narrow and twisty sections. And what they might lack in brute strength they make up for in other ways.

"They're just very tough mentally — there's no give, no quit," Spelce says.

Take Johnson, a single mother used to taking charge when her 10-year-old daughter needs a hand.

"I may not be as strong when we're hoisting more than 100 pounds up the bank for a portage, but I know how to tell when someone needs to eat," she says. That's important in a long endurance race, where fuel is important and constant exertion tends to curb the appetite.

She'll set an alarm to go off every hour to remind her and her partner to eat and stick their feet in the water to cool off. Unlike some teams, which will paddle through the night, Team Paddlefish will break twice a day for 190 minutes of sleep.

Johnson has been lugging two 50-pound suitcases around her house to boost her strength, and has been training since last fall for the race. She plans to write a book about the experience, which she says she is doing because of her deep love for Texas' rivers.

And she has imparted this warning to her 10-year-old daughter, Sophie, who will be at checkpoints watching for her mom: "I want you to understand Mommy is going to look worn out."

The first day of the race is nonstop action, with dams to portage, swift water to negotiate, tree branches to avoid and other boats to battle. Each team has a bank crew led by a team captain, the only person allowed to hand them ice or water during the race. All other supplies must be packed in.

On Day 2, the river water turns smooth and calm — and dreadfully boring, just as real fatigue sets in. Just before the finish line, the paddlers must cross San Antonio Bay, a broad, windy stretch of salt water.

The Hippie Chicks aim to finish among the top 15 boats this year — and have set a time goal of less than 50 hours.

"For me the Water Safari is the ultimate adventure race. It's you and your boat and you've got to take that boat down the river," Richardson says.

"And you don't know what you're going to meet along the way," Stauss chimes in.

The possibilities include log jams, dead animals and, near the end, barges, none of which dissuades these contenders.

They point out that no one has ever died during the race (one person has died while training, according to Spelce, the race director), although plenty have gotten disoriented or lost, hallucinated or vomited along the way. And Richardson once was hit in the chest by a leaping trout.

You could fill a day listening to stories of what people have gone through to finish this race: The man who jumped out of his boat, stripped naked and ran through the woods. The pair of paddlers found paddling with their paddles upside down.

"After three or four days without sleep, you start to do crazy stuff," Richardson says.

The Hippie Chicks started training in earnest in February. Glos had a broken leg then, but her teammates just wrapped her leg in plastic, picked her up and dropped her in the canoe. Later, Stauss and Glos got giardiasis, an intestinal illness caused by a parasite, probably because the mouthpieces of their water tubes got contaminated with river water.

The Hippie Chicks have just three hard rules: They will not quit. They will not fight. They will not pee in the boat.

And they vow to be the most polite team on the river. "We say please and thank you," Richardson says.

Fueled by Luna bars and Hammer gels, potato chips, Cheez-Its and energy drinks, they'll paddle from dawn 'til dusk and into the night, when trees turn into alligators, witches peer out of the reeds and Technicolor doll houses appear on the shore. At least that's what the paddlers, loopy with sleep deprivation, think.

They will pre-crumble their food to make it easier to eat when they're too tired to chew.

None of this comes as any surprise to West Hansen, who has finished the race 15 times and won it overall twice. This year, he is racing with a female partner, 25-year-old Katie Pfefferkorn.

"It was quite an education for me, racing with a woman," Hansen says. The conversation in the boat changed, for one. So did the amount of griping.

"(Katie) never utters one word of complaint, which was a pleasant change from the guys with whom I've raced over the years," Hansen says. "From what I can tell, there just might be a bit more concern between women in their boats over things that don't even occur to guys. I'm sure that's all because women are more advanced socially, whereas guys generally only care if a male partner can shut up and paddle."

His only worry?

"Personally speaking, it's tough to get out of the paternalistic role into which I see myself as an older male paddler. I'm much more concerned about her well-being than I would be for a male paddler."

At the end of the race, veterans say, the paddlers will feel like someone hit them with a baseball bat. When they finally quit paddling, their fingers will swell into little sausages. Their skin will peel for days. And they'll be very, very hungry.

For many, it will be the toughest thing they've ever done.

"The most rewarding, too, because you find out you can do it," Stauss adds.

And why leave that feeling of accomplishment to the guys?