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Photos courtesy of Ashley Landis.
Hoover resident Sean Dickson and Mike Durkin were a two-man team that participated in the Texas Water Safari canoe challenge.
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Sean Dickson has never been one to back down from a challenge. So when the 38-year-old Riverchase resident’s friend asked him to compete in a race called the Texas Water Safari, Dickson didn’t think twice before he said, “Absolutely.” After agreeing to the race, Dickson did some research and said he was immediately overwhelmed.
“Even then, I still had no idea what I was getting myself into, and you can’t until it happens,” said Dickson, who owns Riverchase CrossFit Combat Fitness Training Facility.
According to its website, the Texas Water Safari is the world’s toughest canoe race. The race, which started in 1963, runs 262 miles from the town of San Marcos in the middle of Texas, all the way down the Guadalupe River into the town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. Teams have 100 hours to complete the race in which they encounter whitewater rapids, multiple portages, bugs, snakes, freshwater alligators, bull sharks and the relentless Texas heat.
Most don’t finish the race. In fact, this year, only 57 of the 118 boats that competed made it to the finish line. Sean Dickson’s boat was one of them. After two days and 11 hours, Dickson and his partner, Mike Durkin, finished the race in 41st place.
For the owner of a CrossFit facility and U.S. Army veteran, training is no joke. From the day he decided to sign up for the race, Dickson cut alcohol, sugar and junk food from his diet and immediately began training.
He’s no stranger to hard work. He has competed in one major race event for each of the seven years he’s been out of the Army. But he doesn’t compete in just your average marathon; he competes in races like the Ultimate Sucks, which consists of 36 hours of combined weightlifting and marathon running, he said.
“I do it because I have to show myself every year that I’ve still got what it takes to be a Ranger, to be a Green Beret,” he said. “I do these events because as I’m driving to the race I still have no idea if I’m going to finish, and I need that in my life.”
Dickson began his training with a row machine and a customized CrossFit workout meant to condition him to push past exhaustion. Once he was able to row long distances on the row machine, he moved on to kayaking 12- to 18-mile stretches. After that, he practiced for the whitewater rapids. Every weekend he traveled to the Coosa River, where he ran the same 7-mile stretch of rapids three or four times in a row.
During the final stage of his training, Dickson took on two-a-days. On the weekends he took his training to Oak Mountain State Park where he did a CrossFit workout on the shore, then paddleboarded at a threshold pace, meaning as fast as he could, for a mile. Then he repeated the circuit again.
A few hours later, he met fellow CrossFit enthusiasts at his gym where they created a workout meant to bring him to his breaking point.
In the pitch-black night, with no music and no talking allowed, Dickson prepared for the race.
“There were times where I swear they were trying to kill me,” he said.
During the six months leading up to the race, Dickson said he never considered quitting, but others certainly did for him. Race organizers and Water Safari veterans all warned Dickson, his partner, Mike Durkin, and their two other sister boats — all champion obstacle racers and CrossFit experts — against competing.
“We were told pre-race that we had a 20 percent chance to finish,” he said. “When we got to speaking with the vets and they found out that we don’t train together and we just rented our boat, they told us two things: one, your chances dropped below 10 percent and two, you’re going to die.”
On the morning of the race, Dickson and Durkin set out in their 18-foot canoe wearing only the clothes on their backs and carrying nothing more than a small bag of medical supplies, some sandwiches, protein and carbohydrate gels and water.
Dickson said the first 10 hours were the most brutal because of the congestion of other boats paired with the fast river rapids and tight turns. He and his partner were knocked out of their boat NASCAR-style when a veteran boater crashed into them in an attempt to cut them off from a turn. During the 11th hour, Dickson said he hit a mental collapse.
“I went off the deep end,” he said. “I just went quiet. You have to figure that in a three-day race, psychologically everyone has a high and a low. It’s really a manic-depressant environment.”
Luckily, Dickson’s partner was able to bring him back up, and the two spent the next 24 hours navigating about 60 miles of the 262-mile course. They stopped only to resupply at each of the 10 checkpoints or to walk their boat over areas too dangerous to cross.
Every fourth hour, they ate. At the top and bottom of every hour, Dickson and Durkin implemented a rest plan in which they took turns laying back for 1-3 minute periods without paddling. They did not stop to go to the bathroom.
The only other time the men stopped was to do what they called “body maintenance.” During this time, the men spent five minutes rubbing their bottoms down with Desitin in an effort to prevent the inevitable rash they would get from sitting in wet clothes for 56 hours straight.
“I was literally making a papier-mâché diaper out of Desitin, but things worked out,” Dickson said.
Dickson said the majority of the distance was traveled during the second day, when they passed through 140 miles of mind-numbingly monotonous river terrain. By the third day things hit an all-time low, as the two men, exhausted from 48 hours of constant paddling, encountered a logjam, a whirlpool and, finally, the open ocean.
Dickson said he remembers a distinct moment where he was certain he was going to die. He and his partner had gotten sucked halfway into a room-sized whirlpool when they grabbed onto a rock and eventually hoisted themselves and their canoe back onto a bank of rocks.
All the while, Dickson’s wife, Peggy, along with family, friends and race organizers, sat back watching the GPS tracker for the team predicted to fail. Dickson said he found out later from his wife that their group of skeptics slowly turned into fans with each checkpoint they made it through.
“She said by the time we got to the fourth checkpoint, the race staff said if we finished in 75 hours we would be considered legends,” he said. “About the time we passed halfway, a bunch of people that smirked at us before were cheering for us.”
Rounding the Bend
By the time Dickson made it to the last day of the race, he had just 64 more miles to row, but much of it came in the form of the open bay, which was full of bull sharks and huge waves.
“I have never in my life pulled out more balance skills, just because I didn’t want to fall out of the boat and get eaten by a shark,” he said.
When things got tough, Dickson said two thoughts got him through. He thought about getting home to see his two young sons and he thought about his peers in the Army who died during battle.
“That was hard,” he said. “This [race] wasn’t hard. When your friend has been shot and you have to carry him, that’s hard. So I told myself to stop whining about being in a canoe in a race I volunteered to go to, and it would bring me back.”
In the final stage of the race, Dickson said he and Durkin decided to wait for their friends who had lagged behind during the race. They wanted to finish as a team.
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” he said.
They grabbed onto each other’s boats so they could finish at the same time. As they pulled up to the dock, they saw a figure standing chest deep in the water pumping his arms in celebration. The figure was the teams’ mentor, John Bugge, a 15-time national championship canoeist, who had won the Texas Water Safari for 30 of the past 40 years. This year, the 65-year-old won the men’s division with a 47-year-old woman as his partner.
When Bugge presented the men with their finishers’ trophy, Dickson said he almost cried.
“He made a speech saying that we never should have been able to finish the race, but yet we proved everyone wrong,” he said. “It was like Michael Jordan telling you you’re good at basketball.”
Now that the race is over, Dickson said he has no plans to follow his mentor Bugge in trying the race again.
“It was the most brutal, agonizing experience of my civilian life,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll do it again, but you know, never say never.”