Ultra-Innovation: Quadrapus and RoRow
The worst suffering undoubtedly happens to the rank beginners, the ones who think race clothing is a rubberized rain suit. The ones who pack nothing but Power Gel for a 3-day race because someone told them it was "complete nutrition." Or one of the most painful sins: Trying, for the first time, ANYTHING during an ultra. (If you, your gear, and your strategies aren't "Old Friends" by the time the starting gun goes off... something's not right.)
After this spring and summer of training and racing, I find I'm struggling with my hands. I thought I had leathery tough skin on these giant paws. But after a full day and night of paddling, I'm blistered up. I tend to consistently get a half-dollar size popper on my right (control) hand, and a few smaller ones on the fingers. Blisters, though, don't slow the boat down. I'm happy just re-popping them when they top off and keeping on truckin'!
What slows me down, though, is the swelling. By the second and third day of a race, my body's sending major fluid into my arms and hands -- to the point where I can't make a fist anymore. That makes gripping the paddle a real chore, and I know I'm not getting good power from my core to the paddle blade. Other racers might have it different, but my hands are a weak link in my drive train. Finishing a race with reserves of core power because my digits are stuck open ain't gonna cut it. Hence... the "Quadrapus."
Before I explain this latest innovation, try this: Relax your arm, your wrist and your entire hand. Let it fall down to your side and just hang there. Now look at your hand and the position it's in. It's not in a fist, is it? It's half-open and in its most relaxed state, and it takes zero energy to be there. Deviating from that, like making a fist to grip a paddle for days on end, takes energy and ultimately causes strain. Swelling naturally follows, as well as blisters from endless friction.
The "Quadrapus" is a prototype wrist-brace/hand-bypasser cooked up with some scrap webbing, velcro, mini-cell foam and dental floss... all lovingly assembled at the kitchen table. The device's reason for being is to take the hand out of the drive train, and to positively connect the paddle shaft to the wrist or arm. Perfected, the device will do what the hand does: pull the shaft during the power phase of the stroke and push it during recovery; it'll keep its grip in the right place on the shaft without slippage; it'll release and clamp back on easily; it'll be light and cool to wear. And it won't ever get tired, blistered, or swollen. It will not suffer.
The Quadrapus with hand.
The Quadrapus got its name for the four appendages hanging off it - the straps that lock it onto the paddle. They branch off either side of the padded wrist strap, and velcro around the shaft. The wrist strap velcros tightly onto the wrist, and it's back to racing.
During test runs, I played with varying levels of just letting go with my hand. Other than keeping my thumb under the shaft, I could straighten my hand completely or just keep it relaxed, and power was still making it efficiently to the blade. It took a bit of "balance" to get clean blade entries the first few minutes, but it sorted itself out. The brace-effect of the strap tightened around the wrist was actually comforting. I've been lucky in that I don't typically have wrist soreness, but I believe the brace would help that if I did.
The straps do tend to slip on the shaft a bit, and are too bulky in general. The next version could be made much lighter. The wrist strap ergonomics are key, and this verion's strap isn't nearly comfy enough. I want it to "disappear" when I'm using it... not even notice it. Finally, it's not exactly easy on-and-off. For long stints it'd be fine, but when every second counts and a meal break takes 40 seconds instead of 30 because you're wrestling with a velcro bracelet... well, let's just say you wouldn't catch a pro doing that.
The next day after we tested the Quadrapus, my brother called to tell me he'd just met Mike Totaro - a.k.a "Tote" - in Placerville, CA. Mike, it turns out, had just finished developing a device with an almost identical purpose: The "RoRow". Tote's RoRow's use the same wrist strap concept (though Tote thought to pad his for comfort!) but where the Quad' uses velcro straps, RoRow's rely on a hook. Made of super light hardened metal sheathed in cordura, the hook fits naturally onto the shaft right inside your palm. With the hook in place, the strain of the power phase is taken away from the fingers and put on the wrist strap. (With both devices, it could be argued that the repeated "traction" the wrist is put under may have a therapeutic effect.)
Heather in boat with RoRow.
The hook makes for a very easy on-and-off the shaft, and flops neatly out of the way if you want to temporarily grip the paddle as you would normally. Its un-secured attachment, however, means that you still have to maintain somewhat of a grip on the paddle. The thumb and forefinger together works best, with the other three fingers relaxed. The cordura-coated hook has no resistance to slippage along the shaft, so the two-finger grip is also critical to keep your grip indexed. Keep in mind, the RoRows weren't developed specifically for ultramarathon racing, but more for general day paddling and, Tote's passion, kayak fishing. For $25 a pair, they're well worth adding to the gear bag. (E-mail me and I'll put you in touch with Tote.)
RoRow on Heather.
The perfect hand-replacement device for ultra-marathon racing is still just an idea. Imagine if then the forearm becomes the weak link, then the shoulder, then...? Imagine a tribe of ultra-marathon racers capable of harvesting so much power and efficiency out of their boat, paddle, core strength, nutrition, and meditation as a sleep replacement, that they're holding 8.0 mph for days on end! Who would've thought a kayak would hit 20 knots? But just look at the foil kayak.
If 'racing' is the addiction, 'innovation' is how we get a better fix!