Brandon Nelson: World-Record Flat Water Kayaker

Why the Bellingham paddler fulfilled his promise to go the distance

Story by Kris Parfitt
Photos by Dougal Brownlie

Photo at right: Brandon Nelson starts off strong in his second attempt at kayaking the most miles on flat water in 24 hours on Aug. 19, 2013, on Lake Padden in Bellingham, Wash.

We all have our breaking point, but despite having established himself as an accomplished athlete, lost his mother to cancer, defied death several times and made two attempts at a world record, Brandon Nelson hasn’t reached his.

However, he came close during his second attempt at kayaking the most miles on flat water in 24 hours.

“When I fell out of the boat the third time in an electrolyte-depleted-stupor, I had a short-lived flicker of doubt, that perhaps I wouldn’t finish,” said Nelson from his home in Bellingham, Wash.

But, that thought, and being out of his boat, didn’t last long.

Family and self-efficacy

Successful endurance athletes embody a certain inner-strength that is often defined as self-efficacy, the solid belief in one’s own ability to reach goals. Nelson was raised in Muskegon, Mich., in an environment that fostered an uncommon level of this quality.

His father, David “Hummer” Nelson, was an accomplished basketball player in the 1960s and is a longtime card carrying PGA member who regularly shoots his age, 71.

“He raised me and my brother to play basketball and golf, but he often told us, ‘I don’t care what you boys wanna do with your lives, don’t ever just go through the motions. Do everything you can to be your best.’”

Lynn Nelson, his mother, was a powerhouse, too.

“She was always willing to try anything and she excelled at everything she tried,” remembered Nelson. “She was always an inspiration to everyone.”

Nelson’s mom possessed the gift of unshakable happiness and was a hospice care worker, assisting dying people on their journey toward death.

In 2006, she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and died shortly thereafter. Nelson fondly recalled her attitude while she was dying and how it echoed the spirit in which she raised her two boys: “Don’t waste one minute. Go and do it.”

Passion, enthusiasm and attitude

After leaving high school, Nelson found his passion as a whitewater river guide and extreme river kayaker. His enthusiasm for life was palpable then, too, leaving a lasting impression on those who know him.

“Brandon and I had the brilliant idea to go get matching tattoos,” recalled long-time friend Jeff Peterson. “It had a small design of the globe and was surrounded by the words ‘BIG WORLD.’ This goes well with Brandon and his outlook on life in general.”

“I was with Brandon when he dislocated his shoulder kayaking a big rapid in a remote river canyon,” said Giovanni “Moss” Quaglia, Nelson’s raft guide instructor in the early 1990s. “He was med-evac’d out and spent time in physical therapy. That injury never stopped his pursuit of adventure.”

Meredith Haberfeld recalled Brandon from when they were river guides together, “Brandon sees what’s inspiring in the world, past where people ordinarily stop.”

Promises between mother and son

Nelson made a promise to his mom before she passed away to break the world record for kayaking the most miles in a day. His first attempt was shortly after she died in 2006 and he succeeded in breaking the published world record.

However, unbeknownst to him, Carter Johnson had broken the record and surpassed Nelson’s attempt three days earlier in San Francisco, Calif.

Nelson was disappointed. Being a man of his word, he couldn’t live with himself knowing he had not kept his promise to his mom. But, the commitments made between him, his mom and his brother went deeper than words.

“When we were gathered around her bed, she made a promise to my brother,” recalled a somber Nelson. “He was recently engaged and it was obvious Mom wouldn’t be alive for the wedding. However, she told my brother she would be there as a butterfly.

“And there, during the ceremony,” Nelson continued. “A butterfly landed briefly on my brother’s shoulder. How could I not fulfill my promise? She had raised the bar from beyond the grave!”

About 17 hours into his record attempt, Peter Marcus (left) and Nick Cameron help Nelson stand; Nelson’s wife, Heather, holds their two-year-old daughter, Jazzy, in the foreground.

The second attempt

Determined, Nelson made the second world-record attempt on Aug. 19, 2013, on Lake Padden in Bellingham, Wash., by paddling a continuous 1.726-mile loop. But, less than 10 hours into the day, Nelson’s leg muscles began to cramp. Halfway through the attempt he was struggling with his hydration formula.

“I didn’t have enough water for my muscles,” he said. “I was vomiting while paddling, but I was determined to finish.”

Close to the end, Nelson was struggling with a new problem, diarrhea.

“At some point I asked my team for caffeine. It wasn’t my best idea that day,” Nelson laughed. “The caffeine overloaded me with energy that my physical body could not contain, and I felt like I was going to explode.”

“I can’t slow down!” Nelson recalled shouting to a member of his support crew who was paddling next to him. Soon after that, he fell out of the boat once again.

“But this time, I was too stoned on caffeine, depleted and exhausted to realize I was in the water. While I heard that distant voice of doubt, I didn’t believe it for long. Instead, I recalled the voice of Heather, my wife, saying confidently ‘Baby, you got this!’ And, I remembered my mom. So, I got back in the boat.”

Nelson completed the attempt, after paddling 88 laps and taking over 100,000 strokes, securing his place in the 2013 Guinness Book of World Records for kayaking 151.87 miles on flat water in 24 hours.

“My mom had fulfilled her promise against impossible odds,” said Nelson of the butterfly appearance. “It was the least I could do to fulfill mine.”

Kris Parfitt is a freelance writer in Seattle. When she isn’t writing, she’s the Workplace Wellness Consultant with Dreamclinic. She also teaches nutritional cooking classes and provides wellness coaching for active women.

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