Shannon McGowan:

The King of the James has become a yearly tradition for my friends and I. It’s an Adventure Triathlon that celebrates the unique access we have to the outdoors living in a city as big as Richmond, Va. Racers mountain bike around 9.5 miles of single-track trail, run 4 miles of trails, and paddle 2.5 miles of Class III white water that runs right through downtown Richmond. People have the option to do the entire thing solo or race it relay style as a team. I’ve only competed with a team, but this year, I decided to set out to do it solo, and I’m so glad I did. 

You’re doing King of the James?

YES! Yes? I guess so… Yes believe it or not this little lady is planning on doing the entire King of the James SOLO style! I can’t tell you how many people have reacted surprised when I told them I was doing it. I don’t completely know why it’s so surprising. I do all three sports regularly and have been for quite a while. I guess that doesn’t change the fact that I’m a tiny ass lady.

I have worked in the outdoor industry since I was about 17 when I started working as a kayak and SUP guide. From there I got into white water kayaking, mountain biking, and trail running. Working as a guide has been one of the most empowering things I have ever done. At times, I would think, “if I can do this, I can fucking do anything!” 

It’s not always an easy industry to be immersed in. I’m no stranger to the “wait…you can do this?” question.

I have struggled with that question for a few years now. It has made me second guess my own ability and spiral into questioning my own questioning of it. Do they see a weakness in me that I don’t see? Am I projecting because I know of a weakness in me that I’m afraid of? Am I actually too teeny tiny to be doing this? 

I love feeling strong. Back in high school, I joined the Marine Corp Fitness Team and competed nationally for it. What I loved most about it was that the guys and the girls all worked out together and had the same competition. It put us on an even playing field so to speak. But holy cow did it frustrate me to see the guys get stronger than me even though we were doing the same exact workouts every day and week. 

I now know that I can do anything a man can, it just takes more effort sometimes. I’m willing to put in that effort. 

The frustration of feeling physically inferior to others has led me to push myself too hard, causing injuries and malnutrition that I’m still trying to get on top of. I went too extreme in pushing myself past my limit. I’m realizing it’s okay to take it easy at times and to seek support. Most of all, I’m learning the importance of self-care and respecting my own ability.

I want to trust that I know what my body is capable of. Much of my life I have looked for answers in those who seem stronger than I to tell me my limitations and strengths. I know I can do this, I don’t know how fast or slow I will be, but I know I’m crossing that finish line.

So to answer the question, “You’re doing King of the James?”

You’re Goddamn right I am.


I am exhausted and full of happiness, excitement, and PRIDE. 

It’s truly amazing what our bodies can do. Someone recently told me that humans are endurance-based creatures. That’s how we were able to hunt animals that were so much bigger and faster than us through history. We would chase them down for miles and wear them out.

I had that thought running through my head during my slowest moments to prevent me from stopping. It helped remind me that going slow still counts as moving forward. That along with repeating in my head, “you got this, just trust yourself, you’ll know if you need to stop!” 

I had to trust myself that I would know when I needed to slow down and when I could push a bit harder. 

The race started with the 9.5-mile mountain bike section of some of the most technical trails that Richmond has to offer. Training for the race, I focused heavily on mountain biking because that section really defines your place in the race. It was also the most intimidating section to me because I had never participated in a mountain bike race before. What if I slow people up? How will people be able to pass me? How will I pass other people? What if I have to walk?

I got two excellent pieces of advice leading up to the race that made a huge difference: 

  1. Don’t be afraid to walk/run something! You’re faster running your bike over something you’re unsure of clearing than you are going for it and messing it up. Lots of mountain bikers do this!
  2. Trust your ability! If you spend the majority of the race letting everyone pass you, you’re going to catch up and get yourself stuck and frustrated, which isn’t fun for anybody. People WILL let you know if they want to pass you. 

If you are on the fence about signing up for a mountain bike race, do it. (Unless you have never ever mountain biked before in your whole entire life) I was happy to discover that people were great about communication when people were stopping, slowing, passing, etc. It immediately took away the stress I had and made it so much more fun! At certain spots, it felt like I was just out on a ride with a bunch of cool people with random people yelling at you, “Yes here comes a queen! YOU GO, QUEEN.” 

There was screaming and wooing the whole time. You could really feel the excitement and pride everyone was feeling just for being apart of the race. It made it easy to stay motivated.

I thought I had the running section in the bag. Out of the people I knew who signed up for the race, running was not a part of their regular workout routine. I run almost every day. Little did I know the HUGE difference between running four miles and running four miles after mountain biking nine and a half miles. 

I quickly realized I did not fuel my body enough. I had four eggs for breakfast. I burned through all four eggs on the bike ride. I kept thinking, “crap, I should’ve had more eggs.” The lesson here is when in doubt, EAT MORE EGGS. 

Or just make sure you properly feed yourself before working your body so hard, especially the day before (#carbload). That’s that self-love I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to get lazy and prioritize the workout over properly feeding yourself. They are equally as important!

A lot of people planted snacks for themselves in-between the sections. I got lucky and ran into a friend on the trail who had some extra Gatorade and energy chews. The other lesson here is, ALWAYS HAVE ENERGY CHEWS IN YOUR POCKET/ BEFRIEND GATORADE OWNERS. Or just have a backup snack to give you a boost. It’s up to you to take care of yourself, and there’s no guarantee you’ll run into someone that has an extra sip of Gatorade or eight extra chews for you.

I finally got to the put-in and saw my two friends running to the water with their huge unicorn inflatable with their team race number proudly taped to its neck. After we screamed and wooed at each other I started the hardest part of the entire race: putting on white water gear after mountain biking and trail running for an hour. 

“Grrrrrrp ehhhhh c’mon UGH crapola ahhh… AH HA,” I think were my exact words as I tried to fix my spray skirt under my dry top. Once I had my gear on I was ready to go and was excited to get on the water.

It was such a gorgeous day! The sun was out, and the air was cool and crisp. It was nice to have a good chunk of flat water to catch your breath a little and take it all in. Each rapid had a group of people setting safety and cheering on all the kayakers, rafters, SUP paddlers, and (of course) floating unicorns.

At this point in the race, I felt I was in the clear. I had made it through a majority of the race no problem and now I just had to complete the section where I have the most experience. Right before I enter Hollywood Rapid,(aka the most technical rapid on the Lower James River and where many paddlers swim), I go to put my nose plugs on and *SNAP.*

Are you crapping me right now? The nose plugs, that I have paddled with for years through all kinds of weather and conditions, just broke? Right above Hollywood? During King of the James?!

This was the final test of self-trust that I had to work through during this race. My nose plugs breaking may not seem like a big deal, but through the years I’ve been paddling, they have acted as a security blanket for me. I’ll throw them on even while going through an easy splashy rapid. If I flip and start to feel water go up my nose, I bail almost immediately, when I really should try to roll back up.

There was no way I was going to bail after making it this far. I told myself, “You know you got this, you know this line well. Even though I know you got this, it will be okay if you flip.” The last part of that thought is new to me. 

When I would find myself unsure in the past, the inner dialog was more along the lines of, “YOU GOT THIS BITCH HANG ON TIGHT YOU’RE NOT GOING FALL/FLIP BECAUSE YOU GOT THIS YOU CAN’T FAIL BECAUSE YOU GOT THIS.”

All that did was made me more afraid of failure AKA falling or hurting myself. It ties into practicing self-love and respecting your ability again. If you are going to put yourself out there, you have to accept the possibility of failure and use it to your advantage. Failure builds confidence because it builds experience. 

I spent the entire time going through Hollywood screaming…but they were happy screams in response to all the people cheering! Which reminded me of one more key component of completing a race like this: It’s crazy fun.

I made it through Hollywood with a clean line and rode that confidence all the way to the finish line. I paddled hard through the final stretch and slammed my boat into the take out… I HAD JUST FINISHED KING OF THE JAMES AS A SOLO WOMAN COMPETITOR. My body celebrated with a charlie horse as I stylishly rolled out of my boat. 

Now that I have completed my first solo King of the James, I know I can do more and can strive to be better. It was not as intimidating as I thought it would be at all. I would have never have known that if I hadn’t just gone for it. Practicing the art of respecting my own strengths and limitations, I set a realistic goal this time around, which was just to finish. 

I can proudly say I kicked my goal’s butt and am already cooking up new goals for next year. If you are thinking about doing something outside your comfort zone, I suggest you do it, (safely!). Experiences like this allow you to get to know yourself and your capabilities while also practicing self-trust, self-love, and self-respect. Plus its also SUPER FLIPPIN FUN.


Improve your Personal Record with Runners Essentials Daily Vitamin Formula.

A Synergy of Science, Athletics and Nutrition
Written by Runners Daily Vitamin

More stories

Ashwagandha… maybe you have never heard of it, right?

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an ayurvedic herb used by athletes for its rejuvenating and recovery properties. A study performed at the Exerc...

You Never Regret Finishing a Trail Run

[VIDEO] There comes a point in every trail run when the pain, the inconvenience, the tiredness, the cold, the wet, fall away and the reward of fini...