Are Stand-Up Paddleboard Races the New Half Marathon?
Sanctioned SUP races are more popular than ever—and they're surprisingly beginner-friendly.
My first stand-up paddling competition (and fifth time on a stand-up paddleboard—tops) was the Red Paddle Co's Dragon World Championship in Tailoise, Lake Annecy, France. (Related: The Beginner's Guide to Stand-Up Paddleboarding)
If that sounds like, well, a world championship, it is. People from around the globe (120 people from 15 different countries) train to earn a spot on the podium in the men's, women's, and mixed heat—or, they don't. It turns out training isn't so much of a requirement: One team signed up that morning when fog thwarted their rock-climbing plans and another started training just a few weeks before the competition.
"I don't like to say 'competition,' I like to say 'event,' because paddling isn't just about watching the pros compete—it's about building a community," says Martin Letourneur, professional paddler and Nike Swim athlete.
Letourneur says there are usually three types of athletes at a SUP—ahem—event: The pros, who compete for prize money; the amateurs, who train but also have full-time jobs outside of SUP; and the beginners, who take lessons during the event and compete in smaller races to get a feel for the sport in a low-pressure environment. "Every event tries to attract beginners in some way because beginners are important for the longevity of the sport."
It's working: More people are participating in the paddle sport than ever. About 537,000 people between 18 and 24 years old said they SUP'd in 2017, according to the Outdoor Industry Association's Outdoor Participation Report, and three million more Americans took part in a paddle sport (which includes sports like kayaking and canoeing) in 2014 than they did in 2010, according to the Outdoor Industry Association's Special Report on Paddlesports. Women are largely responsible for the trend: The same report shows that women make up 68 percent of stand-up paddlers between 18 and 24 years old.
Noriko Okaya, a 46-year-old translator and amateur paddler based in New York City, understands why. "Paddling events are super supportive and low-key," she says. "Maybe it's because the sport is relatively young, but you can learn as you go and don't need to overly prep." (Again, most events offer lessons on the spot!) "It's not like a triathlon or any other race you'd imagine." She signed up for her first event with a few friends four years ago and hasn't looked back since. (Read more: Does SUP Really Count As a Workout?)
"I think the growth of paddling follows this trend of outdoor sports—like hiking, swimming, cycling—becoming more accessible," adds Letourneur. "Plus, it's a very simple sport to learn."
That was pretty much my takeaway from the Dragon Board World Championships. I started training the day before (hey, it's been a busy summer)—but picked it up pretty quickly. And even though some paddlers were in it to win it, most were there to dress up with their friends (think: tutus and temporary tats), cheer on other teams, and drink a little too much at the pre-party.
The team nature of this event is particularly unique (the Dragon Board is 22-feet long and holds a team of four people), but you'll find supportive vibes in other paddling events too. "Even your competitors cheer you on during the race," says Noriko.
Some SUP events to try this summer:
Subaru Ta-Hoe Nalu Paddle Festival: Lake Tahoe, CA
August 10 - 11, 2019
Paddlers of all levels can participate in the 2-mile, 5-mile, and 10-mile race, but beginners will especially appreciate the lessons and non-competitive Tahoe tours throughout the weekend. ($100 for unlimited events, tahoenalu.com)
Bay Parade: San Francisco, CA
August 11, 2019
Clean-water non-profit San Francisco Baykeeper hosts a 2-mile SUP event in the SF Bay (along with a 6.5-mile swim and 2-mile kayak) to support clean waters. ($75, baykeeper.org)
Great Lakes Surf Festival: Muskegon, MI
August 17, 2019
Camp on the beach, cheer on paddling pros, and take SUP workshops to sharpen your skills. You can also mix it up with some kayaking. ($40 for all lessons, greatlakessurffestival.com)
SIC Gorge Paddle Challenge: Hood River, OR
August 17 - 18, 2019
Paddle approximately three miles in the Columbia River, a.k.a. water-sport Mecca. All levels are welcome in the "open" class, but be prepared for a challenge: The area is known for being windy. ($60, gorgepaddlechallenge.com)
New York SUP Open: Long Beach, NY
August 23 - September 7, 2019
Close out summer at the New York SUP Open, where you'll take SUP lessons and yoga classes, and compete in amateur races if you're feeling competitive. ($40, appworldtour.com)