Caroline Burger watched as her husband, Brandan, and his teammate, Mark Koenig, slipped their canoe into the Des Plaines River at Oak Spring Road in Libertyville Sunday morning for the 57th run of the Des Plaines River Canoe and Kayak Marathon.
Joined by her two small children -- Abby, 8, and Bryce, 5 -- Burger waved signs and rang a bell in encouragement.
Her cheerleading must have worked its charm, because, a little more than two hours later, the Madison, Wisconsin, resident watched as her husband's craft was one of the first two to arrive at the finish in Prospect Heights with a time of two hours, 11 minutes and 45 seconds.
First to the finish were Don Walls and Dale Burris, who steered the 18.5-mile course in two hours, 11 minutes and 37 seconds. Walls, of Russellville, Arkansas, said they didn't run into too many difficulties in Sunday's race.
"Just some big waves up the stream a little bit, and that was about it," he said.
Koenig said second place was about as well as could be expected after the foot brace in his teammate's part of canoe, a key component especially for steering, broke during the race.
"That made life a little difficult, but he fought through it," Koenig said. "For the last eight miles, we were kind of on little pins and needles once in a while on some of the turns."
Koenig noted the fast pace of the river Sunday, caused by the high water levels.
"It was a little squirrely out there," he said. "The river was moving pretty good. It was a fast race today."
In fact, race organizers were so concerned about the high water levels and swift current that they considered canceling the race, and even sent a warning to participants.
"It's certainly been a challenging week for us, trying to decide whether to go or not go." said event co-Chair Jack Snarr, who said debris accumulated from falling trees also presented reason for caution.
"We made a late decision to run the race," said co-Chair Al Pilgrim, who credited the assistance of the Lake County and Cook County forest preserves with clearing the river of deadfalls, branches and trees.
Even after allowing the race to go on as scheduled, organizers vetted participants at the start line to be sure they were prepared for the conditions. If someone showed up with two children as passengers, that person was advised not to participate.
Contestants ranged from the experienced team of Lake Zurich resident Pat Faul and his longtime teammate Steve Conlon of Batavia -- they also engage in extreme racing, including a 135-mile race on the Louisiana bayou -- to the first-time mother-daughter team of Lindenhurst resident Julie Gatza and her mom, Molly Carl of Fenton, Michigan.
"We're a little nervous, because water is so high this year, compared to what it has done in past races," Gatza said.
Faul, who races across the state with Conlon, said the Des Plaines event is one of the longer races out there.