The 52nd Mid-American Canoe and Kayak Race was a complete contrast from last year, when the Fox River was at its lowest point in decades -- almost too low to paddle the route from St. Charles to Aurora.
This year, a swift current and what one official described as the highest water level seen in six years helped propel racers along the river without reaching dangerous speeds. And the breeze that chilled spectators Sunday kept racers comfortable.
Pat Faul, of Lake Zurich, said the racing conditions were perfect. He and partner Steve Conlon of Batavia -- veteran paddlers from the St. Charles Canoe Club -- finished among the fastest teams in the 10-mile race.
Both men have decades of experience racing all over the country. They point to the technical aspects of the Fox River race as key to its charm.
"You have to read the river," Faul said. "You can see the shallows and the chutes but you have to know the river a little bit."
Faul gets his canoe into the water at least a few times each week, and often every day during a racing season that stretches from May to October.
The annual race is run as a time trial where racers are released in heats of 10.
Janet Perry, of St. Charles, competed Sunday with Sonja Gilman of Bristol, Ind. in the 10-mile race. Both returned for a 6-mile route that ran from Batavia to Aurora later in the morning.
Perry said the time trial means racers can't ever let up once they take off.
"You're racing against people you never see so that's an interesting mental challenge," said Perry, who with Gilman finished first overall in the tandem kayak division.
Perry said she likes the diversity of the race, which brings newcomers along with paddling pros.
Megan Taylor, of Wheaton, competed for the first time this year with her college friend Lindsey Burkitt, of Naperville, who raced for the third time. The pair was dressed as lifeguards complete with whistles and white noses.
Taylor said people were cheering them on along the length of the route and fellow racers were friendly as they paddled by.
The pair rented a canoe Sunday morning, raced and then returned the rental at McCullough Park in Aurora as soon as they left the water.
Jeff Long, public relations manager the Fox Valley Park District, said that option is one factor that has led to the event's fast growth over the last four years.
"It couldn't be easier," Long said.