I rode a dragon – and lived to tell about it. On Sunday, a motley crew of 20 employees came together to represent Medtronic the St. Paul Dragon Race competition. Our team was named”Earl’s Dragons” after Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken. The ragtag group of paddlers included accomplished engineers, PhDs, inventors, computer wizards and some odds (me) and ends from the corporate communications. It turned out to be the perfect combination of smarts (PhDs/inventors), power (engineers) and enthusiasm (communications). Only four people on our team had experience paddling in dragon boat before, but what we lacked in experience we made up for in enthusiasm. In a matter of hours, Earl’s Dragons, transformed from a group of strangers into a menacing team of water warriors.
After the initial meet and greet among team members, we got down to business. First we determine our seating arrangement. I volunteered to paddle on the port side, and was placed in the second to last row. On land, we were taught paddling basics, safety instructions and general racing jargon. After a few short minutes, we were boarding our dragon Hector. (I took the liberty of naming him. He is an awfully important part of the team to go unacknowledged!)
Hector’s insides were bare bones. His spinal cord was a long metal bar bisecting the boat, with 20 horizontal vertebrae creating rudimentary seats for the paddlers to sit on. There were 21 people crowded onto Hector’s back; 18 paddlers, one drummer, one flag catcher and a stern.
Paddlers: They paddle the boat, duh!
Drummer: Also fairly self-explanatory. She beats a drum located in the front of the boat to keep the team synchronized
Flag Catcher: In order to win the race, each team must capture a floating flag. The flag catcher crouches down in the head of the dragon during the race, then when the boat approaches the flag, he pops up, climbs onto the dragon’s head, and snatches the flag. If he misses the flag, or falls in the water, your team is disqualified.
Stern: This person stands at the end of the boat, and uses a large paddle to steer. Thankfully, the boat rental company Steve the Stern. Not only did he expertly navigate the boat, he also gave us instruction and shouted encouragements at us. He was awesome.
We practiced paddling in unison and learned how to wake Hector from his resting position (stopped) into full flight (moving smoothly through the water) with two strong paddle strokes. After about 40 minutes on the water, we retreated to shore where we chatted, ate lunch and enjoyed the lively Asian heritage celebration happening on shore.
Around 1 p.m., our team was called for our first race. We were pumped! The energy was electric. Every member of the team was shouting and cheering anxiously as we prepared to begin our first race.
When the bull horn sounded, we were off with a jolt. Our boat sprang forward as Hector roared to life. We grunted and pulled with all our might as our lead rowers set a blistering pace. Hector flew down the course. I think I even saw his wings pop out during the last hundred meters to fly us to the finish. Our flag catcher climbed bravely on to Hector’s head to snatch the yellow flag, sealing our victory soundly.
We slowly paddled back to the starting line for our second pass. Despite another strong start, our pace slowed midway through the course. We had expended so much energy during our first race, our energy was waning. Luckily we had enough fire left to inch out our opponents by seconds, claiming our second win.
After some enthusiastic cheers and splashes, we went back to shore to await our next round of races.
After the remaining 10 boats finished their first two runs, we were called back to the water. A bit of our original vigor had worn off, but our boat’s energy was still very positive and focused. Our second two runs were markedly slower than our first round, but nevertheless we prevailed. Hector carried us to two more victories.
Meanwhile, several other teams were posting impressive times. Even though we had won all our races, our cumulative time placed us in third.
It all came down to our last two passes. We were trailing behind the Monkey Island Paddle Club (experienced rowers) and Accelerate Fitness (a boat full of fitness instructors).
The last set of races was a grind. We finished strong, and never lost our competitive spirit and won our final two races, leaving us with a 6/6 record. Even with a perfect record, our cumulative time wasn’t fast enough to propel us to the top. Nevertheless, we were ecstatic for our third place victory.
When the race organizer announced our bronze metal finish, our entire team erupted into cheers of joy. Our team captain Adrian hoisted our trophy in the air as we celebrated our success. We exchanged high fives and sweaty hugs and vowed we would be back next year to ride Hector to a first place finish. It was a beautiful way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon. This is precisely the type of event I never would have joined prior to my self-imposed forty by thirty challenge. Instead of my usual Sunday routine (nap, watch bad TV, another nap, surf the internet), I spent the day doing something much more memorable with a random group of co-workers. I also got to hang out with a herd of dragons, which is definitely a lifelong dream come true.