On a scorching day last July, Lee McGregor of South Africa
paddled his kayak up to a makeshift finish line at a pier on
Lake Erie, in Buffalo. McGregor, his massive shoulders heaving,
hurried out of his sleek fiberglass craft, stumbled past a group
of startled onlookers and ducked into his station wagon, which
his wife, Sherley, had parked nearby. "That day, I was so tired
and sore that I climbed into the back of my car and just hid,"
the 43-year-old McGregor recalls with a laugh. "I was leading
the race, but I didn't want to talk to anybody. Tears were
rolling down my face. I couldn't stop shaking. I just wanted to
McGregor had just finished Day 12 of the Finlandia Vodka Clean
Water Challenge, a 30-day, 765-mile endurance kayak race from
Chicago to New York City. The annual race requires competitors
to paddle portions of the Great Lakes, eight rivers, the Erie
Canal and the Atlantic Ocean for a $25,000 first prize and the
challenge of testing the limits of human physical exertion."It's
got to be the craziest race ever invented," says McGregor, who,
despite his fatigue, held off 15 other competitors over the
final 18 days to win. "After paddling four hours every day for
that many days, your body has simply had it. I don't think I'll
ever get in a kayak again."
McGregor may have been exaggerating about his future, but not
about the race. The Clean Water Challenge, the longest kayak
race in the world, is so grueling that it attracts elite
marathon paddlers from around the world. "It's unlike any race I
know," says Greg Barton, 35, a four-time Olympic kayak medalist
from Seattle who finished second in this year's Challenge after
winning it in 1994. "Some kayak races last two or three days,
but there's nothing in the world to compare with this."
Aching shoulders, sunburn and mental fatigue brought on by hours
of constant rowing are just a few of the afflictions that
Challenge competitors endure. They spend an average of four
hours a day on the water, typically covering 20 to 30 miles, and
their times are recorded for each day's stage. They hit six
states in all: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York
and New Jersey.
"You can't specifically train for something like this, because
the race is so long that if you did the miles for it, you'd
destroy yourself," says Dean Gardiner, a 30-year-old Australian
who has won numerous world paddle events and who came in second
in the '94 Challenge. "It's easy to get bored with sprint races,
but this race is different, and it's not a bad way to see this
part of the country, either."
The Clean Water Challenge was created in 1993 by Finlandia, the
Finnish vodka distiller, to promote recreational water sports,
environmental awareness and, of course, vodka. In addition to
offering prize money, Finlandia donates $50,000 to nonprofit
groups dedicated to protecting waterways along the race route.
Anybody with the courage and desire to paddle 765 miles can
enter the race, but competitors must supply their own equipment.
They use two types of boats, racing kayaks and surf skis. A
racing kayak is an open-cockpit craft that weighs a mere 15 to
20 pounds and is used for speed and flat water sprints. A surf
ski is a heavier (25 to 30 pounds), sit-on-top craft, with a
small cavity on top in which the paddler sits. It is better than
a kayak for riding waves. Regardless of which vessel a
competitor uses on a given day, he or she must carry a spare
paddle, a life jacket, safety flares and a VHF radio. Racers
also make sure to carry plenty of liquids.
During the Challenge, athletes spend evenings at campsites or
nearby motels, often eating together and sharing laughs about
the day's events. "Believe it or not, it's really a lot of fun,"
says Joe Glickman, a 36-year-old journalist from Brooklyn, who
has competed in all three Clean Water Challenges. "Nothing
brings people together like shared suffering. None of us here
are suit-and-tie people, so we all seem to get along real well.
From Day 1 a lot of friendships are formed. And after two weeks
it's like a family."
On the water, however, there is little time for chitchat--at
least among the elite competitors at the front of the pack.
There, racers spend hours paddling side by side, jockeying for
position. As in bicycle racing, the leader often must endure
racers "drafting" in his wake, conserving energy while waiting
for an opportunity to dart by. "There is some strategy involved,
especially in flat conditions where you get a pack race," says
Barton, who became the first American male ever to win Olympic
gold in the kayak when he took both the 1,000 meters and the
1,000-meter doubles at the 1988 Games in Seoul. "When that
happens, the guy in the lead is essentially pulling the other
people, and the other racers can conserve their energy for the
This strategy hindered Barton as he attempted to gain on
McGregor during the final days of this year's race. McGregor,
well-versed in rough-water paddling from his experience in
coastal racing back home in South Africa, built a 30-minute lead
over Barton in the early days on the relatively choppy Great
Lakes. Thereafter Barton, who is considered the best flat-water
paddler in the world, could never break away from McGregor, who
simply drafted him over the flatter Erie Canal phase of the
race. "It was frustrating, but Lee was simply better prepared to
race than I was," Barton says.
One might say McGregor had been waiting all his life for the
race. A world-class swimmer for his country in the late 1960s
and early '70s, McGregor was prohibited from competing in the
Olympics because of South Africa's policy of apartheid. Figuring
that he would never get a chance to compete as a swimmer, he
gave up the sport and instead began concentrating on kayak
racing and surf-ski racing, both popular pastimes in the coastal
communities of his country. He became a legend on South Africa's
beach-sports circuit, but he always felt a void because of not
being allowed to compete against the world's best.
"It was aggravating," says McGregor, the oldest participant in
this year's race. "We never had the choice. One day you're 17
years old and hoping to compete against the world's best, and
the next thing you know you're 32 and you've never realized the
dream. I was looking for something to finish off my career, and
this [the Challenge] was my Olympics."
McGregor was further motivated by his desire to beat Barton,
whom he calls "the Michael Jordan of paddling." Like many
paddlers in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, McGregor
had long watched in awe as Barton dominated the world kayak
scene. His admiration for Barton was so strong that McGregor
even taught his son, Hank, the proper way to paddle by breaking
down films of Barton's gold medal performances in the '88
When Challenge organizers called McGregor at his home in Durban
last May to ask if he would participate, he said no, thanks. But
then he mentioned the call to Hank, now 17, who was busy
training for the 1995 world marathon kayak championships in
Spain, where he would finish third. "When Hank found out, he
said to me, 'Dad, you've got to do it!'" McGregor recalls. "He
said, 'You've been telling me about the great Greg Barton all my
life. Now here's your chance to compete against him.'"
So within a month McGregor set aside his work as the owner of an
earth-moving business, and with Sherley, set out for the U.S. on
his quest to beat Barton and make up for lost time. They moved
to Fort Lauderdale, where they lived with friends while McGregor
trained along the Florida coast. In June, McGregor paddled the
Challenge course backward, from New York City to Chicago, to get
a feel for the conditions.
"At the start of the race Lee was shooting for me, and I didn't
know who he was," says Barton, who has a mechanical engineering
degree and now designs kayaks for a manufacturer near his home
in Seattle. "He got off to a great start, and I just couldn't
For his part, McGregor credits Barton with fueling in him the
competitive fires needed to survive what he now calls "the
toughest 30 days of my life." In fact, when the two men shook
hands at the awards ceremony after the race, McGregor implored
Barton to make one last try at the 1996 Olympics. Although
Barton, now married and working full time, told McGregor he
could no longer afford to take the time necessary to train,
McGregor was unmoved. "You're still the best in the world," he
Asked if he plans on defending his own title, McGregor leaves
little doubt. Even though the Clean Water Challenge next year
will consist of 12 shorter regional races, a move designed to
avoid conflict with the Atlanta Games, he still wants no part.
"I'm never going to race again," he said, perhaps remembering
that hellishly hot day on Lake Erie. "I came here to beat Greg
Barton, and I did that. Why would I ever want to go through this