27 Years Of History: A Green Race Interview With Clay Wright
27 years ago, Leland Davis (race founder), along with a crew of 16 whitewater paddlers (many of which were true pioneers of the sport) decided that it’d be a good idea to race down the Narrows Of The Green River. “The Green” is a steep and gnarly, class V whitewater gem located just outside of Asheville, NC. Roots run deep in this neck of the woods, and The Green Race is the epicenter of everything that is right with whitewater kayaking… it’s truly the most wonderful time of year.
We thought it would be cool to review the history of the race, and highlight some epic moments. The first thing that came to my mind was “who won the first Green Race?” As it turns out, none other than steep creekin’ master, and all around whitewater legend Clay Wright took top honors at the inaugural Green River Race.
I caught up with Clay, and talked to him about the vibe of the first race, specific memories, and what his thoughts were on the large scale, progressive production 27 years later.
Clay noted that it was a ”funny thing, I had run it a few times, heard there was a race, and knew it was a cool course. I better go hard because this could be a big thing, and there will never be a year like this one. I just knew it was exactly what we should be doing…boats were getting shorter, this is the spot, it’s where we should do this, nobody got hurt, and it was a unifying experience for the crowd who did the race.
One other thing that I thought was interesting was that Clay had not run the Green nearly as much as other locals who were also racing in 1996. He lined up second, went hard, and clean lines and won. He attributed part of his first place finish due to his boat (the other part was due to Clay’s incredible talent). His actual race boat had 13 holes in it, and would collect so much water, he had to eddy out before big drops and let it drain through the cracks. He ended up racing his creek boat for the race (Pyranha Mountain 300), and not a longer race boat that many other racers are paddling. Due to the slightly different shape (and being a little shorter), it could have given him an advantage - longer is not always faster on a river as fast and steep as the Green.
I then asked Clay what the key factor to his success in class V racing was (Clay has paddled in the Green Race between 13-16 times!!), and he said “with The Green Race in particular, the moves are so fast, you can actually rehearse the entire course in your brain, and it’s cool to remember every single piece of it, and every place you are going to put in your stroke, and every move you are going to make…obv this was not the case in the first race, but in later races (13-16 times), you can know every single move. It’s pretty detailed and tai chi like in terms of flowing through the course. It becomes like a dance, and you may miss a step, or get off line, but when you get back on what you’ve rehearsed, it feels so good... if that is going well by the time you get to the harder rapids (Go Left, Gorilla), you are feeling like that is going well too - you think positive thoughts, know the moves, and make it happen.
If you can make the entire Green Race one rapid in your head, you can do well. You really can get into a flow state…it’s just you and the river, and you try to make the dance last all of the way to the bottom. It’s a different side of boating that you do not experience in regular kayaking…usually it’s with a crew. It is socially acceptable to paddle solo (since it's a race), and it’s just you and the rapids... it feels great to have that experience.
Sub 4 minutes of fury and flow State with Dane Jackson
My last question for Clay was to get his thoughts on the large scale of the production. It’s morphed from an underground, grass roots, core paddling event, to a full fledged mainstream operation worthy of being on NBC Sports, complete with a live stream!
Seeing them turn up the heat, and all of these people working to get scaffolding, cameras and a timing system down in the Gorge, pre race and after parties, and now it’s here…and it’s awesome. This is what I want for the kids that I coached and for the kids of kayakers that did the race back in the day (Hilleke’s etc). I am super proud of the crew for blowing it up like they did… It feels more relevant and real. And now it’s their kids turn to race, which is great.
The next generation - that's what it's all about
People are working hard to go as fast as they can, and organizers are working as hard as they can to make it a thing that people appreciate.
I like the fact that we can enjoy the progression that these guys are having - a lot of them are in the same boats just making them look like new boats. They practice harder, and make it look great. Progression is a great thing - I want to see Dane (Jackson), Isaac (Hull) or someone beat the 4:00 mark… (SPOILER ALERT! Dane Jackson indeed got under the 4:00 mark shortly after this interview. See video above)
If you want to know what’s so special about The Green Race, watch the live stream on Saturday - it’s got an undeniable energy that is pure whitewater soul. Thanks to The Green Race Crew (John Grace, Tommy Hilleke, Jason Hale, and many others) for keeping the train rolling for 27 years, all of the racers firing it up on the first Saturday of November, and especially to Clay Wright for the time on the phone tonight. Whitewater kayaking is awesome, and the Green Race is one many reasons why that’s the case!
Donate to the Green Race Conservation Project
And last, we shamelessly plug BAR-U-EAT, especially the subscription program, which includes a 20% discount on your, and ensures that you never run out of BAR-U-EAT during your exciting adventures!