All Hail the Gusto!

Gusto Group Phoot
All 21 racers of the 6th Annual Gusto with GRAPeJAM gathered for a group photo immediately after the race. Racers ranged in age from 13 to 71 years old! (Photo by Juliana Paine)


The Patriot


The 6th Annual Gusto with GRAPeJAM occurred as advertised Saturday June, 17 at the Rockhouse Marina.


The weather was just right for racing. Sunny skies were accompanied by a slowly rising breeze that brought temps into the high sixties. Before the clock struck 9 a.m., SUVs bearing paddle boards began entering the marina with several racers hurriedly exiting their vehicles to register before the scheduled 10 a.m. start of this year’s Gusto.


Knowing there is, inevitably, a rush of same day registrants, we had no illusions of starting the race precisely at 10. We merely wanted participants to be race ready by ten because before starting the competition, I needed to give pre-race instructions and then sing “All Hail the Gusto” … and then pray a little.


This year’s Gusto consisted of three races. The Master Class paddle board race sent competitors 2.25 miles up Peak Creek to a bright orange buoy set in the shallows of Peak Creak. Paddlers were required to round the buoy, as fast and as best they could, before heading downstream.


Six of the 21 registered Gusto racers entered the 4.5-mile Master Class race. Thirteen paddle boarders chose the Bona Fide race, which requires paddlers to round the furthest upstream stanchion of the I-81 bridge before heading back to the finish.


Paddlers in the Kahuna Kayak Competition started a few minutes later but followed the same course as the Bona Fide racers. The docks at Mountain 2 Island served as the finish line for all three competitions.


After instructions were given, and with the expressed purpose of providing motivation to the racers, I performed the theme song of the event, “All Hail the Gusto.” After this musical interlude had sufficiently roused the spirits of those gathered for the occasion, visiting evangelist Greg Krupey (my wife’s uncle) was called to read the invocation.


The prayer, which was brief yet poignant, included a special thanks to the Lord for the beautiful weather. Thanks was well warranted. Not every Gusto happens under sunny skies, as was the case for the very first Gusto at Gatewood Park in 2018, when the rain came down in sheets for the first 45 minutes of the contest.


By about 10:25 a.m., all Gusto racers had their paddle boards and kayaks lined up behind the white buoy nearest the Rockhouse docks, which served as the starting line.


When everyone declared themselves ready, I called the standard starting cues: “On your mark. Get Set. Go!”


What happened afterwards, I can’t rightly recall, as I was instead concentrating on plunging my paddle in and out of the water as fast as I could, while still somehow maintaining my balance.


I knew each of the Master Class paddlers by name and I knew they were all capable of paddling hard over long distances. I’ve learned from experience that you can’t lollygag at the beginning of these contests if you hope to place in the top five and so I dug deep into each stroke.


The quick tempo of my paddle strokes propelled me to towards the front of the pack but as we rounded the first buoy, Brian Hartman, winner the Master Paddler title in last year’s Gusto, began edging ahead. From then on, it was all about trying to keep up with the Master Paddler and I never looked back.


Unbeknownst to me, not everyone had the best start.


“I was paddling backwards when the race started,” said Rick Groesbeck. “I lost 20 to 30 yards right at the beginning.”


David Meyer, who has placed in the top three in several previous Gusto events, began paddling downstream towards Claytor Lake after rounding the 1st buoy.


“I was like, where’s that guy going?” Asked fellow competitor Jonathan Sweet.


“I thought, wait a minute, I can’t be in first place,” said Meyer. “Then I turned around and everybody was turning the corner so I had to come back.”


The Old Route 100 bridge serves as the one-mile mark for the race and the I-81 Interstate bridge is one third of a mile upriver from there. By the time I reached the bridge, Hartman was at least 100 feet upstream of me.


“That guy is so fast, it’s almost inconceivable,” I thought to myself. “I’m paddling like a machine with no lags and the Master Paddler of 2022 just keeps distancing himself from me.”


But you only do what you can do and all I could do was to keep paddling, while at the same time trying to avoid exerting myself to the point of collapse … a bad look at any race.


As we kept paddling, the beautiful scenery of upper Peak Creek served as our backdrop. Upstream from Conrad’s Marine and the sheer cliffs that can be seen from the Interstate bridge, the shore becomes thickly forested, giving this part of the creek a bucolic feel. As you progress further upstream, the stones forming the creek bed become distinctly visible, as the space between water level and creek bed diminishes.


Back at the Rockhouse Marina pier, Rick Groesbeck who was competing in the shorter Bona Fide race, was approaching the finish line.


“There was a point on the way back where I thought I’m getting a little bit tired but then I heard paddle strokes behind me and I turned the corner and had a good burst of energy,” said Groesbeck, who was first to cross the line to win the Bona Fide race.


This year’s Gusto did not include a senior classification, but Groesbeck, who recently celebrated his 72nd birthday, proved that there was no need for an age handicap in this year’s contest.


“I was excited to finally win a race,” said Rick – Bona Fide Ride -Groesbeck. “I finished second twice in the Bona Fide and I’ve been practicing several days a week to improve my skill.”


Spencer Rygas came in a close second to Groesbeck in the Bona Fide race, earning him the title of “First Mate of the Gusto.”


“Having someone that was right in front of me kind of inspired me to paddle a lot harder than I intended to,” said Rygas, who claimed to be “worn out” at the finish of the race.


A few seconds later, Rick Groesbeck’s brother John, who flew in from Maryland to make the race, came in third. This earned him the title of “Bosun of the Gusto.”


Damon Linkous and then Jonathan Sweet arrived at the finish less than a minute later.


Pamela Smith, who came down from Cleveland for the Gusto, was the first woman to finish the Bona Fide race which earned her the title of Gusto’s “Lady of the Lake.”


“I didn’t get a Lady of the Lake crown but the band says it all,” said Smith. “I’ll have to make sure to wear it to work, so I can explain to people what it means the be Lady of the Lake.  It means I worked really hard for 44 minutes and paddled my heart out and Went for the Gusto!”


Life changing? Well going for the Gusto may well be the way to good health and good luck but we don’t have any scientific date to prove it.


Just as the last Bona Fide racers came to the finish, Brian Hartman arrived to muscle his way to another 1st place showing at the Gusto Event earning him his third Master Paddler title. To achieve this, Hartman paddled for an average speed of 5.4 miles per hour over the entirety of the course.


As for me, I crossed the finish line a little over 2 minutes later. The fact that John Robinson, who raced me to the finish at last year’s Gusto was not far behind, kept me paddling hard.


This year my lead was slightly greater than last year’s head-to-head battle but John still crossed the finish line less than a minute after me … yet another strong competitor from Big Lick region of Virginia.


John Robinson earned the vaunted “Terzo of the Gusto” or third place award, just as he had the year before.


“It was Fantastic,” Robinson said of the race. “Perfect day. Perfect day. I chased you the whole time but had no success in catching you but we’ve got a great bunch here. Thanks for the course. It’s freaking beautiful.”


David Mayer, earned the fourth place “Quartermaster” title at this year’s Gusto, after overtaking James Paine at the halfway mark.


“It’s a great, great venue and I love the course,” said Meyer, as he relaxed after the race.


James Paine crossed the docks in 5th place for the Master Class race to earn the title of CAT 5 of the Gusto 2023 edition.


“I pushed myself to extents I’ve never done before and I got into a very nice flow and it was actually very euphoric after a while,” said Paine. “But in the beginning, I was in a lot of pain and I was gonna give up like a quarter of the way through but I really didn’t want to be beaten by Allison again. So, I tried to readjust and it was actually a very euphoric feeling after a while because my arm wasn’t hurting or maybe I was just ignoring it. I was just paddling.”


Allison Angel arrived soon after to earn the Fastest Female at this year’ Gusto.


“It was good,” said Angel, “It was really good. It was a lot easier this year because I’ve been training with the boys. They’re just way ahead of me.”


Angel, Robinson, Meyer and Hartman, who all competed in the Master Class of the Gusto, live in Roanoke and often paddle together.


By 11:40, the last of the 21 registered Gusto entrants crossed the finish line and post-race ceremonies commenced soon afterwards. The proceedings began with the presentation of an oversized check in the amount of $1,200 to the Greater Pulaski Junior Appalachian Musicians from the race sponsors of the 6th Annual Gusto with GRAPeJAM.


Following this, Gusto awards were presented for the highest-ranking race finishers with 1st place winner Brian Hartman earning his third Master Paddler title in Gusto series. For his efforts, Brian – Master Class – Hartman received a gift bag from Mountain 2 Island at the Rockhouse.


For the second year running, I, William Paine am the “Deuce of the Gusto.”  I averaged 5.18 miles per hour over the 4.5-mile Master Class course and I don’t think I’ve ever paddled that fast for that long ever before.


The intrepid John Robinson earned “Terzo of the Gusto” title by averaging 5.1 miles per hour. David – Quartermaster – Meyer averaged 4.78 mph, followed by James Paine (4.58 mph) and Allison Angel (4.46 mph).


It is perhaps worth noting that the average mph of all the Master Class racers exceeded the average speed of any of the Bona Fide Class racers, even though the route was significantly lengthier.


Recognitions, some with obscure nomenclatures, were then duly awarded to top finishers in the race.


As the Greater Pulaski Junior Appalachian Musicians prepared to play their instruments, Gusto racers and spectators settled in for the show.


Jonathan Sweet, who works as Pulaski County’s Administrator when he’s not paddle boarding, arrived late but still managed to make the lineup at the commencement of the contest.


“The last time I paddle boarded was the last time I competed in the Gusto at Gatewood … that was before COVID,” Sweet admitted. “I forgot how to paddle board until about halfway back. I was like, oh, step back a little bit and don’t drag your nose in the water.”


This is good advice for a paddle boarder and, why not admit it? A good approach to life in general.


Speaking of good approaches to life, one must recognize longtime Gustovian Holly Miller, who placed 3rd in the Female Class earning her the title of “Maid of the Mist” at this year’s Gusto. Holly placed third in last year’s female competition as well.


“I was doing my best to hold that 3rd place,” said Holly. “I had an inflatable board and it was like a beach ball out there, so I paddled like crazy trying to keep my spot. In the home stretch, I paddled like my life depended on it.”


The GRAPeJAM band who came to play for the occasion included both students and instructors from the program.  GRAPeJAM played well-known Appalachian favorites such as: Bile Them Cabbage Down, Old Joe Clark and Buffalo Gals. The GRAPeJAM set concluded by playing a Pulaski-centric version of Country Roads, followed by a rousing rendition of the “Claytor Lakers” song.


As the 6th Annual Gusto Event came to a close, Brian – Master Paddler – Hartman had this to say.


“The Gusto is awesome. It’s always awesome to come up here to Pulaski. Awesome people. Awesome place. Awesome event, year in and year out.”


Donna Travis, of the Travis Team, came to witness the spectacle.


“I think it’s great because the Gusto brings people out from the community. It promotes Pulaski County in general and I think this is a really good way to promote the county. The Gusto was awesome this year and I loved the Gusto song. That will have to be an annual tradition.”


She talked me into it. See you all at next year’s 7th Annual Gusto!


To our sponsors, we say thanks. We couldn’t do it without the generosity of: Glenn Insurance, The Travis Team Real Estate, Foothills Chiropractic, Interstate Construction, MOVA Technologies, Gilmer Sadler Attorneys, Pulaski On Main, First Community Bank, Conrad Brothers Marine, the Fine Arts Center for the NRV, Mountain2Island and the Patriot Newspaper.


Special Thanks goes to Pulaski County, which has served as the Greater Pulaski Junior Appalachian Musicians’ primary benefactor since our inception in 2019.


Race Results are as follows:


Master Class (4.5 miles)

Brian -Master Paddler- Hartman – 49:55 (5.41 average m.p.h.)

William -Deuce- Paine – 52:10 (5.18 average mph)

John -Terzo- Robinson – 52:54 (5.1 mph)

David -Quartermaster- Meyer –56:44 (4.76 mph)

James -CAT 5- Paine –58:58 (4.58 mph)


Bona Fide Class (2.6 miles)

Rick -Bona Fide Ride- Groesbeck 38:45 (4.03 average mph)

Spencer -First Mate- Rygas 39:24 (3.96 mph)

Mark -Bosun- Groesbeck 39:44 (3.92 mph)


Female Class

Allison -Fastest Female- Angel (Master Class) — 1:00:35 (4.46 mph)

Pamela -Lady of the Lake- Smith – 43:09 (3.63 mph)

Holly Welty -Maid of the Mist- Miller – 44:10 (3.53 mph)


Youth Class

Carter -Young Master Paddler- Whitt – 41:53 (3.72 mph)

Kaden -Up and Comer- Hanks – 47:58 (3.25 mph)


Special Class

Brianna -Cutty Sark- Linkous – 44:21(3.52 mph)

Damon -Smooth Stroker- Linkous – 40:26 (3.86 mph)

Jonathan -Above Board- Sweet – 40:35 (3.84 mph)



Kahuna Kayak Contest

Steve-The Big Kahuna- Grieco – 1st place

Collin -Classic Kayaker- Hall – 2nd Place

Gusto w GRAPeJAM playing at the Rockhouse
From left: Bob Pilch, William Paine, Colton Richardson , James Paine, Faith Smith, Sally French and Aiden Richardson.  GRAPeJAM students and their instructors played a few tunes after the race. Renditions of Bile them Cabbage Down, Old Joe Clark and Buffalo gals were all on the song list, as well as a slightly adjusted version of Country Roads and the ever-popular song of the season, “Claytor Lakers.” (Photo by Becky Smith)