copyright 1990 thru �96 and 2006 by Joseph J. Mitchener
River Dancing is an ancient sport. It is unaided river racing. Each competitor tries to swim the pools and dance the rocks thru a stretch of river in the least time. Running rocks at high speed feels and appears like dancing. You work your way up to high speed rock running with practice. River Dancing is akin to another ancient sport still practiced in Scotland and Ireland called Fell Running. Fell running is running mountain boulder fields (occasionally for time). To River Dance a person needs only a swim suit, a pair of beat up tennis shoes, and confidence in his swimming ability. One of the many beauties of the sport is that it has only two rules: 1) Finish in the least time. 2) No flotation devices (in very cold water wet suits are excepted). Thus you are free to choose whichever route you like. If you can make better time running along a nearby road, leaving it only to make the start and finish . . . go for it! Since running a road seems to many people like cheating, you�ll find that most river dances are run thru narrow gorges where lots of swimming is required. There is no rule against several people starting at once. But the lead runners stir up mud obscuring the bottom for those close behind. Thus, most river dances start runners five minutes apart.
Another beauty of the sport is that only one person is needed who is not running. In an �Out & Back� race (far the most common) a hand paper punch is affixed to a rock or tree at the far end of the course. This device punches any of various forms (a heart, a triangle, etc). Competitors should not be able to easily guess the shape to be punched. When a person approaches the timer to start, the timer cuts off a piece of plastic trash bag about two feet long by one or two inches wide. This ribbon is tied snugly around the runner�s neck. The timer marks down the runners name and starting time. When the runner gets to the far end (turn around point) of the course he punches his neck ribbon to prove that he was there. When he gets back to the start/finish, as soon as the timer sees the correct punch in the runner�s ribbon, he marks down the finish time. When the timer has a few moments, he figures the runner�s net time. When all the runners are in the one with the shortest net time is declared the winner. Most of the races I have participated in were out-back races. The winner usually gets a twelve pack of beer and/or a lei and a kiss from whoever he/she wishes.
One way races (either up or down stream) are less common, and more difficult to conduct. Two timers are required. Their watches must be synchronized. Communication by radio thru a long stretch of narrow, deep gorges frequently does not work. Usually the timers must get together after the race to figure the net times for each runner. If a party is not already in progress, one usually starts as the winners are declared.
Obviously there is some danger involved but this should not be overrated. Once a week during the summer months (June thru mid September) I ran various rivers for a decade. I bloodied my shins on several occasions, and only once broke a toe. Of about forty riverdancers I know, only two have sprained their ankles. Broken toes are quite rare. Riverdancing is thus vastly less dangerous than snow skiing or skate boarding. However, if a runner is unable to move on his own power, it is sometimes difficult to extricate him. In a formal contest there will be another runner coming by quickly. He can render assistance and alert others. But when you practice alone you risk injury in stretches of river that are rarely visited. Although no runner has yet reported an isolated serious injury . . . the risk is very real. Thus we urge you to practice with a friend of comparable speed. During practice, the faster of two runners can relax for a few moments while his friend catches up. Bring your wife or girlfriend. Lady riverdancers are frequently as fast as the men.
You will quickly find that the best way to improve your time is to stay out of the water as much as possible. Swimming at a sprint I can only make about one meter/yard per second. But a jog across the rocks at about ten minutes per mile gives me almost three meters per second. Unfortunately, staying out of the water means that I must more frequently deal with bushes and undergrowth. At lower elevations this entails more exposure to poison oak. Runners like me who are very sensitive to poison oak thus tend to choose the water when the bush gets thick. My dermatologist prescribed Diprolene ointment. Small amounts rubbed on to poison oak swellings a day or two after exposure cured the infections. A toothpaste sized tube lasts me two summers. Then, in 2005 I discovered �Alavert�. This over the counter medication, if taken at least an hour prior to exposure, keeps me from being infected in the first place!
No doubt neanderthals and then men have raced along rivers from one village to the next since the dawn of time. But I formalized the rules and named the sport in the summer of 1988. (A young fellow and I got into an impromptu long distance race down Arroyo Seco River west of Greenfield, California.) Early in 1990 I published a 53 page booklet titled, �Riverdance Rhyme�. Each year for six years I revised this booklet adding new rhymes and deleting some of the old ones. It�s been ten years since the last edition. I decided to publish a fresh one. But this time I chose to print all of my rhymes in what I call, Capital English. This form of the written language is what I term, �English for the rational mind�. You can learn to read Capital English in about ten minutes. If you�d like to buy a copy of this booklet, please mail a check for $7.00 each to me at the address listed at the end of this section.
Many of my friends objected to giving this sport any publicity at all. They feel that it is a beautiful and classic exercise which should grow in a classic fashion, by word of mouth. Ours is a vision of Grecian athletes pitting their strength and agility against miles of pristine river gorge. But we have seen other visions too. We have seen hundreds of yards of lovely river banks encrusted with broken beer bottles and other trash. If you take up the sport, be sure to bring a double trash bag with you to the river. Haul out not only what you brought in, but as much other litter as you can get into that bag. If you know people who regard the environment as a vast dump, please discourage them from coming. It is my greatest hope that River Dancing will become an Olympic sport before I die. But if that is to happen, the strongest most agile runner-swimmers must take it up by the thousands. Start easily. You�ll find that your speed and stamina develop quickly. When you begin joining formal competitions (ten or more runners with an independent timer) please report the results to the Riverdance Society on the internet at www.greensuit.org
Wishing you balance and glittering water,
Joseph J. Mitchener POB 181 Pioneer, CA 95666 USA spring 2006