Rain is still falling in Alabama, where West Hansen is running side by side with another veteran solo paddler, Salli O’Donnell, in the Greater Alabama 650 paddling race.
The two are tied for second place in the long-distance race, which starts in northeastern Alabama and finishes at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay.
At 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the two veteran paddlers – both leading their classes – had paddled 195 miles of the 650-mile race. After more than a day and a half of paddling nearly non-stop, both looked stiff and shaky getting out of their boats at an evening portage, par for the course in long-distance paddling events.
The route of what’s called The World’s Longest Annual Paddle Race follows the Coosa and Alabama rivers, passing Montgomery and Selma as it winds its way toward the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, paddlers alternately encounter swift moving rivers, slack-water lakes and, at the end, a tidal delta.
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Hansen, 59, and O’Donnell, who finished first solo female and second overall in last year’s Great Alabama 650, are chasing a tandem team paddled by last year’s winners, Joe Mann and Paul Cox. They spent much of the day tied for third place, but tonight caught the second place boat, a tandem paddled by Bobby Johnson and Rod Price.
“We’re moving the pawns around in a long chess game,” support crew member Robert Youens said from the riverbank Sunday afternoon.
Unlike the Texas Water Safari, which Hansen has completed 21 times, this race is so long that racers must stop and sleep along the way. Hansen caught two hours of sleep Saturday night and will likely stop to sleep for a few hours again tonight.
O’Donnell has completed the race twice and is familiar with the course. It may be to Hansen’s advantage to stick with her, at least for now. “She knows the course and in some of these big lakes it just makes sense to run with someone who’s done it twice,” Youens said.
“I think it’s helping them keep the pace up and enjoy the race,” Youens said. “They’re extremely focused on working together to reel in the lead teams.”
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Almost a third of the way through the Great Alabama 650
The leaders are about a third of the way through the race, which Mann and Cox won last year in just under six days.
The racers have been running ahead of pace so far, but more rain is expected tonight. “It’s going to get ugly,” Youens said.
Some of the portages that were designated drive-around portages have been switched to walking portages because roads are too muddy for vehicles to traverse. And an upcoming stretch of what would normally be whitewater is expected to be washed out because the river is flowing at more than 22,000 cubic feet per second, Youens said.
Hansen’s support crew meets him roughly every 20 to 30 miles. Today they spotted a snake at one of the portages; they’ve dealt with mud and slippery rocks, too. Their job, besides keeping him fed and hydrated, is to keep him as comfortable as possible. That means changing clothes, offering lubrication to ease chafing, and cheering him on.
“When we see him, we clean him up and lube him up,” Youens said.
Hansen’s paddling resume is extensive. He led an expedition down the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River two years later. He’s finished the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile race from Spring Lake in San Marcos to the Texas coast, 21 times, and has wins at the Missouri River 340.