Two-time Green River Race champion Isaac Levinson talks with SI.com about the danger and history of the pinnacle of kayak racing, which runs the first week of November.
Regardless of the sport, races where we time ourselves against fellow humans, can sometimes ring hollow in the anthem of the American outdoor experience. Aren’t we trying to get away from all that when we play? But that’s not the case with The Green River Race near Asheville, N.C, a soulful test of river-running ability celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
The Green, which empties Lake Summit, is a sacred river in the whitewater community, its steep riverbed and fantastically-named rapids (try "Gorilla" and "Bride of Frankenstein") are held in reverence as a testing ground, a Class V centerpiece of the whitewater-rich hotbed that is Asheville, a beautiful town on the edge of the Smoky Mountains and ground zero for N.C. river running—some of the finest in the continental U.S., “and it has a lot of history. Everybody in the Southeast knows about the Green Race, even non-kayakers.”
The river is dam-released which makes for reliable year-round flows. Kayakers can usually count on it nine months of the year, which makes for an unparalleled training ground. But 2015 will be more intense than ever as recent heavy rains have created high-water conditions with the Green running at 200%: that’s local speak to describe the river’s level. Water levels on other rivers are usually measured in cubic-feet-per-second. But on the Green, locals look for releases from Tuxedo Powerplant and if two generators are fully operational, kicking water into the river combined with natural flow, that’s 200% or around 24-inches. A full-on level that gets the attention of the more than 100 entrants that migrate to Asheville from around the world the first weekend in November each year.
“I’m super worried about safety if it’s this high (Saturday),” Levinson says. “For my personal safety and all the other athletes. You come into Gorilla Falls (the river’s crux) winded and going lactic and you flip, there’s a real chance of blacking out. We’re basically going down a controlled avalanche.”
25" race lap with Pat Keller
Well that was EPIC! Pat Keller and I routed the Green Narrows top to bottom at 25" in just over 4 minutes! Be careful out there, its no joke and also keep a heads up for wood shifting or falling into the river during these biblical rains. Jackson Kayak Kokatat Galasport International The Green Race #20years20inches #southeastvibes #itsrainingPosted by Isaac Levinson on Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Race organizers employ some of the best river safety practices on the planet but the danger is real. And with the high flows, so is the chance of setting a course record of under four minutes—the only feat rewarded with prize money at this historic event. Levinson defeated Dane Jackson, another Green Race favorite, by a tenth of a second last year.
The video above is a training run from Levinson’s point of view with good friend and fellow competitor Pat Keller who’s won three times. They’ll be among a small group of favorites vying for the green glass trophy this weekend and the coveted title of Green Race Champion.