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Judging the World's Biggest Waves

On April 29, I received an invitation to the monolithic California headquarters of Billabong where I’d sit alongside a panel of journalists, filmmakers, photographers and big wave surfers to judge the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.

What began as a far simpler single award called the K2 Big Wave Challenge back in 1998 has morphed into surfing’s night at the Oscars, providing big wave hellmen and women a widescreen recognition of the crazy risks they took the preceding year. Officiating our effort would be the former Surfing magazine editor who dreamed up the first K2 Big Wave Challenge—Billabong’s blonde bombshell Bill Sharp. 

What followed was probably the most difficult and carefully deliberated XXL judgment any of us had ever been a part of. 

First, some background. The XXL awards include “Wipeout of the Year” ($5,000), “Billabong Women’s Performance” ($5,000), “Ride of the Year,” which is the most lucrative prize at $50,000.

A surfing “Academy,” made up of a few hundred journalists, industry insiders, and surf legends, chooses these winners by online ballot. And while the surfers generally consider the academy's “Ride of the Year” the apex award, the media gives more attention to the XXL’s two final awards—XXL Biggest Paddle and XXL Biggest Wave. Why? Guinness recognizes the verdicts of these two in its Book of World Records. And this year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that could overthrow Garrett McNamara’s ride from 2011

As always, Sharp displayed a series of blown-up photos of mind-blowing rides, along with video and computer stills so we could examine waves, surfers, and camera angles down to the last pixel. 

{%{"quote":"This year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that would overthrow Garret McNamara’s ride from 2011."}%}

Judging the XXL’s biggest waves has always been equal parts science and art—and it’s always been controversial. “Biggest” is actually two categories: The “Biggest Paddle Award” ($20,000) goes to the surfer who strong-arms into the biggest “paddle” wave while “XXL Biggest Wave” ($10,000) can include paddling, but is typically focused on less challenging—but still perilous—jet-ski assisted tow-in waves. (Only once has a paddle entry won both categories—Shawn Dollar’s 2012 Cortes Bank behemoth.)  

The most important element in judging any wave is discerning the bottom or trough—the point at which a wave begins curving upward from the horizontal. From there, it’s a relatively simple matter of knowing the height of a surfer, then multiplying his height from the wave’s crest to its trough.

In first taking up the “Biggest Paddle” category, the consensus was that no one eclipsed Shawn Dollar’s 61-footer at Cortes Bank for the Guinness world record. After another hour, hunched over screens and posters, we unanimously ruled in favor of Hawaii’s fearless charger Mark Healey at Maui’s Jaws. In his crouch, Healey’s hail-mary backside widowmaker is ten times overhead, or 52 feet.

We then turned our attention to the "Biggest Wave" award. The most breathtaking photos in Sharp's arsenal showed Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, an affable 34-year-old British plumber, lifeguard, and father of two who charged down a Portuguese rogue spawned from the bowels of hell. Maybe it was the biggest thing ever ridden—even eclipsing Garrett McNamara’s 78-footer two years back. (McNamara actually towed Cotton into this wave.) But closer examination led to the longest jury deliberation in XXL history.

The difficulty of judgment boils down to this: At Mavericks, Jaws, or Teahupoo, where deep-running ocean swells abruptly jack up onto a ledging shelf and throw out gargantuan barrels, the trough is fairly easy to discern. That’s not the case at Nazaré, Portugal or with the sloping, giant wave that breaks off Belharra, France. And those were the waves we were looking at this year.

Nazaré and Belharra both have a gradual bottom transition that allows waves to reach enormous heights and for surfers to hit tremendous speeds—think of a super-G skier bombing a run.  But they’re not as steep, and in Nazaré’s case, most images are taken from a much higher vantage point, and are thus that much harder to judge.

In this case, every judge agreed that Cotty’s Nazaré wave was enormous. But was it world record? Some images shot from high on the bluffs indicated that he was only halfway down the face of a wave more than 80 feet high. But other frames shot at lower angles revealed that the apparent height of the wave is partly a function of its tremendous slope, which might indeed be a hundred or more feet long. But as judge and Mavericks veteran Taylor Paul points out in Surfing magazine, slope is not height.

Had Cotty gone left—where his wave wedges up into an apocalyptic maw—he would have been in world-record territory. But in a wise move that surely saved his life, Cotty went right, making a mach-ten turn at the wave’s bottom. As Mavericks lifeguard and photographer Frank Quirarte points out, that’s why it’s called a bottom turn, and it’s where we judge the wave’s trough. After painstaking measurements, we finally rendered a 60-foot verdict. “When he gets to the bottom and leans into his turn, that’s the wave,” says filmmaker and former Surfer magazine editor Sam George. “But the photos make it look like there’s 30 feet beneath that.”

Attention then turned to a wave that everyone initially reckoned was smaller than Cotty’s: a Belharra giant ridden by 37-year-old French photographer and amateur big wave surfer Gautier Garanx. Measurement after tedious measurement revealed that Garanx’s wave was slightly bigger than Cotton’s—62 feet by unanimous verdict.

Two feet of difference? Is this justice? Isn’t our ruling somewhat subjective? Yes on all counts. But even with computer-aided technology, finding the trough always comes down to human judgment and an inexact science. But we’re armed with some of the best photographic evidence—and the most experienced jurors—in the business. 

Some have long argued that assigning height to big waves is a fool’s errand and that as Buzzy Trent once famously said, “Big waves aren’t measured in feet, but in increments of fear.” There’s logic in that sentiment, but at the same time, the surfers themselves submit these ephemeral Everests for record consideration. And human beings, by their very nature, are fascinated with the highest, fastest, strongest, biggest, and tallest. That’s what makes the Guinness Book of World Records one of the best selling books of all time—beneath the Bible and Koran. 

And before anyone cries that the jury is biased against Europe, or specifically Portugal, remember: the XXL panel gave Garrett McNamara a still-standing world record at Nazaré.

Three nights later, Anaheim’s Grove Theater plays host to a packed house of the scantily clad, the highly devoted, the terribly inebriated and the painfully hip. For his 52-footer at Jaws, 34-year-old Mark Healey is hilarious and humble, “I ended up feeling really good about myself until I came in over the rocks and got my ass handed to me and made a complete fool of myself,” he says. “You never leave Jaws with your ego intact.”

When it’s time for Ride of the Year, 31-year-old Greg Long is rewarded $50,000 for navigating a giant backhand barrel at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. It’s one of the most technically challenging big waves ever ridden and marks a remarkable comeback for Long after a full-blown case of PTSD in the wake of his near drowning at Cortes Bank two Decembers ago.

“It’s been a pretty radical year in my life,” he says, before publicly thanking his Cortes rescuer and fellow big wave charger D.K. Walsh. “There are so many people out there I’ve met through this love of big wave surfing…you take away the awards , you take away the money, the sponsors and all the rest. I’m still the richest and luckiest person in the world.”

When it comes time for the "XXL Biggest Wave" award, Gautier Garanx is stunned. Holding a $10,000 check over his head he says, “Sorry for my very bad English. I’m not used to this kind of ceremony.” He then adds to huge applause, “I’d like to thank my first sponsor, my wife Sandy,” before strutting off the stage with the XXL’s micro-skirted check-handlers and a grin. 

In Garanx’s win though, it’s impossible not to feel for the unspeakably brave Andrew Cotton, who would have been the United Kingdom's first XXL winner. Especially when he writes a classy entry on his Facebook page. “Obviously gutted I didn’t take home a win, but honoured to make the top five.”

Don’t worry, Cotty, your time will come. 

Check out all the Billabong XXL winners on the official website

Chris Dixon is the author of "Ghost Wave." 

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What Should I Get My Outdoorsy Mom for Mother’s Day?

Would your mother or wife prefer to be climbing, boating, or running rather than brunching this Sunday? If the answer is yes, read on. Skip the flowers and honor what she loves to do by following these gear suggestions from six dedicated moms who also happen to be elite athletes.

Emily Jackson: Professional Freestyle Kayaker


Jackson, one of the best freestyle kayakers in the world, will be competing at the Reno River Festival this Mother's Day weekend while her mom and 9-month-old son, Tucker, watch from a few feet away. "The biggest part of Mother's Day is actually being around your kids or your mom," Jackson says. "Time together is the best gift of all."

But adding some gear to your Mother’s Day date never hurts. Jackson suggests checking out Kokotat's new pink colored dry tops and drysuits. "When I’m out boating, I’m very excited to be wearing my violet gear," Jackson says. "That would make any kayaking chick happy."

Dara Torres: 12-Time Olympic Medalist


Professional swimmer Dara Torres and mother of three plans to spend Mother's Day in North Palm Beach, Florida with her mother. Torres suggested Koss FitClip earphones, athletic women-specific headphones the 12-time Olympic medalist helped design. "I did a bunch of work for Koss headphones and we created a headphone that is just for women," Torres says. "The ear bud is 33 percent smaller than a regular earbud."

She prefers the FitClip Series because those buds were built for movement, plus they come in some cool colors. "You can bounce around, jump, do whatever you want, and you don't have to keep pushing them in," Torres says.  

Nancy Bouchard: Former Professional Climber


Nancy Bouchard was a pioneer female gear tester in the nineties and continues to test and write about gear today. The former pro climber went on to be an editor at Rock and Ice, where she started the magazine’s gear-testing program.

She’ll celebrate Mother's Day by doing an outdoor-sport triathlon with her husband and three daughters in her hometown of Bend, Oregon. "We’ll ski and climb and add a third component," Bouchard says. "It would be sweet to go stand-up paddleboarding."

Bouchard’s gift recommendation? A pair of mirrored-lens sunglasses, in honor of the years spent watching her daughters ski race. A good pair of shades makes staring at a snowy slope all day much more bearable. "I like Wiley X P-17 with pol emerald green lenses—they’re indestructible, look seriously cool, and knock at least a decade off my age," Bouchard says.  

Zoe Hart: Professional Mountain Guide


Certified International Mountain Guide and Patagonia Climbing Ambassador Zoe Hart lives in Chamonix, France with her husband Max and her sons—2-year-old Mathias and 5-month-old Mika. Hart will spend Mother's Day in Arco, Italy with her family and a few other friends who also climb and have kids.

"Arco is the ultimate multi-sport venue," Hart says. She get's a ton of great gear from her sponsors, so she only wants gear she can't get from them. "I'd probably love a swanky new Suunto altimeter watch or a nice pair of Oakley sunglasses," Hart wrote in an email.

If you’re reading this, Max, we suggest the Suunto Vector XBlack for its reliable track record or Oakley's new handmade Frogskin LX sunglasses.  

Beth Rodden: Professional Rock Climber


Beth Rodden, one of the most celebrated crack climbers in the world, will only have been a mother for ten days this Mother's Day. Needless to say, she hasn't put much thought into what gifts she wants or what she’s going to do. "We'll probably just hang out," Rodden says.

She did suggest the Osprey FlapJill pack for other moms because of the bag’s versatility. "I've been using it for a crag or bouldering pack and now I'm using it as a diaper pack," Rodden says. It’s easy to access the gear thanks to multiple zippered entry points—turns out this feature works equally well to reach shoes or a jacket as it does to grab diapers or wipes.

Sarah McMahon: Ultrarunner


North Lake Tahoe resident Sarah McMahon and her husband got second place together in last year's 120-mile Transrockies Run. And because Mother's Day falls just a week before she has a 50K race in Reno, McMahon aims to go for a long run this weekend as well as spend time with her husband and three boys.   

She suggests Salomon’s Speedcross 3 trail-running shoe. Not only is this her favorite shoe to run in, it’s also available in a variety of fun colors. McMahon also suggested signing your mother up for a race and paying the entry fee on Mother's Day. "If you're pre-registered, you have that goal," McMahon says. "And if someone else paid for it, you're not backing out."

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Why the Mile Is Dead (and Worth Saving)

Rounding the bend to the final straightaway of the 1964 Compton Relays, Jim Ryun’s arms pumped. He felt no pain as he kicked the home straight. When Ryun crossed the finish line in eighth place, the 17-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, became the first high school boy to run a sub-four-minute mile.

“Coach Timmons and I wrote the goal down. We planned and prayed, and it turned out that I ran 3:59 that day,” Ryun said. “It was the beginning of a new future.”

For nearly a decade, the world record in the mile was stopped at four minutes. When Roger Bannister broke the barrier May 6, 1954, he accomplished the impossible. Ten years later, Ryun raised the benchmark for high school boys. Since then, progress has stopped. High school boys and girls rarely run the mile. The crowd’s favorite distance has faded into an obscurity through an act of Congress.

{%{"quote":"“The people in the stands were going crazy, they were clapping, stomping and making as much noise as they could,” Scott says. “That’s how important the sub-four minute mile was to the people of Des Moines.”"}%}

Sixty years after Bannister’s record run, a grassroots organization is hoping to change all that—and rebuild American running from the mile on up. Bring Back the Mile, founded in 2012 by Ryan Lamppa (who also helped create Running USA), intends to lobby state high school athletic boards to bring the distance back to championship events. Their hope: the world’s most iconic distance will inject new enthusiasm into track and field and preserve the history of the sport.

“In the 70s the sub-four minute mile was a huge deal,” says former American record holder Steve Scott. “Back in those days, it was the one event everyone could relate to. The fans understood the mile, they understood the significance of it.” 

In 1979, Scott set out to run the first sub-four minute mile at the Drake Relays, a long-standing and top-tier track meet at Drake Stadium. Despite cold and windy weather, Scott was on pace to break the four minute barrier.

“The people in the stands were going crazy, they were clapping, stomping and making as much noise as they could,” Scott says. “It was the most unique moment for me, ever, because the whole stadium was there rooting just for me.”

"That’s how important the sub-four minute mile was to the people of Des Moines."

Track fans used to fill stadiums and were knowledgeable of the sport, but today even championship events have empty seats. The 2013 U.S. Outdoor Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, sold 6,500 to 10,000 tickets each day in a stadium that seats more than 14,000.

So when and why did the mile die? You can start by blaming Congress. In 1975, it passed the Metric Conversion Act, which established a United States Metric Board to coordinate the conversion from the imperial system to the metric system. Even though the country never made the switch, most tracks were converted to the metric system in the late 1970s and 1980s when they were upgraded to all-weather polyurethane surfaces. The new metric tracks were the international standard, but many were built without a mile start line. High school competitions continued to cover four laps, but four laps on a metric track is 1,600 meters and nine meters short of a mile.

“By the mid-80s every state dropped the mile and two-mile, except Massachusetts, and went to four laps on the track—the 1600,” Lamppa says. “Because the so-called adults made a decision to do four laps on a track and say that's close enough.”

As interest in the mile has waned, recreational running is at an all-time high in America. According to Running USA, 2013 was a record year for marathon participation with 541,000 finishers, a 40 percent increase over the past decade. But many track and field events haven’t seen this boom, possibly because recreational runners cannot compete alongside the pros, an element that has been credited with boosting marathon participation.

“People understand the mile because they can relate to it,” says Morgan Uceny a three-time U.S. champion. “In a sport that needs as many spectators as possible it would be beneficial to have people understand more about the sport.”

If the mile is key to reviving track and field participation, BBTM will first need to bring back the iconic distance. This year, the organization is promoting road mile events around the country. The inaugural 2014 Bring Back the Mile Grand Prix offers significant prize money and encourages recreational runners to toe the start line with the pros—in an attempt to duplicate the success of marathon racing.

But the most important step to reviving the iconic distance is also the most difficult. In its fourth year, the organization hopes to eliminate 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter races from high school competition. While the National Federation of State High School Associations, the leadership organization for high school sports, can make recommendations to the states, each is ultimately independent and free to make its own rules.

There really isn’t a resistance to the movement, but lack of action from state track and field directors. (Oregon, Vermont, and New York girls run the Olympic standard 1,500 and 3,000 meters.) Massachusetts and the New Balance Nationals run the mile, while the rest of the states seem to shrug their shoulders. Maybe all they need is a little push from Bring Back the Mile.

When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier 60 years ago and Jim Ryun followed 10 years later, the world celebrated. The 1,600 meters? No one would have noticed.

“High school boys still dream about breaking four minutes for the mile, because it means something,” says Lamppa. “Breaking four minutes for the 1600 means virtually nothing.”

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Does Your Gear Really Matter?

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Inside Meb's Win at the Boston Marathon

A month ahead of the Boston Marathon, we asked Meb Keflezighi what it would take for him to win the race where he had finished third in 2006. At first, he was coy. And then he answered: "If they let you go, you gain confidence, spread the gap, and you’re going to be home free."

Monday, against all odds, he did just that—during a mostly-solo effort that culminated in a victory and a new personal best time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds (just two weeks before his 39th birthday). In the wake of his win, we caught up with Keflezighi to discuss exactly what was going through his head during his momentous run.

OUTSIDE: Did you plan from the outset to make a huge gap that would be impossible to close?
KEFLEZIGHI: Absolutely not!

How did you build your 80-second lead? Did you hammer or were you running steady?
Five miles into it, the pace slowed down. I said no, I’m going to make it an honest pace. Josphat [Boit of the U.S.] and I broke away after eight miles. I knew what was coming but I don’t know if he did, so—l decided to go.

How did you finally drop Boit?
4:31 or 4:30! [laughs] And he was probably slowing down. I could sense his breathing. He hit me once on the back of the foot. He apologized, but I knew that when people get tired they can’t really concentrate effectively.

You ran solo for most of the race. Is it as hard as everyone says?
Very difficult. Especially in a marathon. I’ve done it before, in a 15K, and the San Jose Half. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to go, or they miscalculated that they’re dealing with a silver medalist, a New York City champion, and fourth at the [2012] Olympic Games. At about 21 miles, I started looking back because I had no idea what was going on.

When you didn’t see anyone, did you think "Yay!" or "Uh oh"?
Both. "Yay" I think I can win it and "Uh oh" because I don’t know how many of them are will work together to catch me. My pace wasn’t outrageous. If I’m healthy, I can maintain it, but things got a little doubtful at mile 22, 23, down the hills when my quads were hurting. At 24, I felt like throwing up. Then I’m like: collect yourself. To my surprise, I was still running fast. At that point, I didn’t know if [Wilson Chebet of Kenya] was going catch me, but I thought about plan B. I kept extending the lead. Going toward Boylston, I used the curves to surge and tried to use the crowd to help me push.

Since Monday, have you talked to anyone else who was in the elite pack? Any idea why they let you get so far ahead?
I really haven’t. I talked to Nick Arciniaga [the top American finisher who placed seventh behind Keflezighi]. Nick did say something about the group—and I don’t know who was in the group. I can’t say. I wasn’t there. Abdi [Abdirahman] called me.  He said there was talk about this and that. But he just said congratulations. You did the work. If they did [try to help], I will say thank you.  At the same time, I was not in my comfort zone by any means. I was trying to extend the lead as much as I can, and trying to push the pace constantly to get to the finish line. They made a mistake and let me go early on. Racing is racing. If somebody wants to go, you can’t really them to wait.  So I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.

From what I’ve read, Ryan Hall was telling the Americans not to surge or pace a chase. But do you really think the Africans would care about it if Americans with non-threatening PRs surged?
It doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up. I don’t know.  As a competitor, you can’t tell them to go this pace or that pace because there are so many guys who might say, you know what? I’m going to surge. They probably miscalculated who’s up there, and misjudged who I am. Guess what? It doesn’t matter any more.

Did you know you ran a negative split by five seconds?
I didn’t see what our halfway split was. I missed it. I asked Josphat Boit. He didn’t know. My Garmin watch said I was 13.79 or something. I was trying to do the math in my head. I just kept the same pace and said don’t worry about it—just go for the title.

What about your PR? Was that your aim?
My goal was to win the race, goal number one. Goal number two was to be on the podium.

Has anything unexpected since the Monday? Has your old sponsor Nike called?
No, I don’t think they will. But President Barack Obama called on Tuesday. He said you made America proud; it couldn’t have come at a better time; job well done. We talked for about three or four minutes.

He was president when you won the New York City Marathon, so it was his second call?
He never called me in 2009.

Have you had time to run since Monday?
I haven’t gone running yet. I can’t even walk right now. The wound on the ball of my left foot is so deep from 2007 at the Gate River Run and in 2011 the Breathe Right aggravated it. [In 2011, he ran the entire New York City Marathon with a Breathe Right strip in his shoe.] To this day, I’m still draining the blood blister and water blister. A couple doctors from the Red Sox drained it, and a doctor in New York drained it.  Coach Larsen drained it. I drained it at least seven times myself [since Monday]. I was hurting bad going through those downhills. I had to dig deep to make it happen. I’m paying for it now, but it’s such a great honor to come in first.

Are you walking around in flip flops?
I can’t do that. I have to have a cushion. I’m not stepping on it. I’m more walking on the sides. Today’s the only day, with a cushion with a hole in it, I’m walking somewhat normal. Other than that, everything is OK, I think.

Do you have another marathon in you?
[Laughs] Eh, yeaaaaaaaah, yeaah, I think there is, but I haven’t run yet.

Given the way you won Boston—planned or not—would you ever run solo for half the race again? Is that your new thing?
Why not? If I’m fit and healthy. It was a calculated, good decision. I thought a few people would go with me but they didn’t and it worked out to my advantage.

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