It was a bright, sunny morning in the rural Dutch province of Friesland. The locals were sitting at cafes on the banks of the canal sipping coffees and enjoying the last days of summer. The flag of Friesland – a province that considers itself more of a nation – fluttered gently in the breeze. And as is the norm in the Netherlands, bikes outnumbered cars on the road by four to one. But down on the water, something rather extraordinary was happening.
Coming around the final corner, passing under the final bridge and taking the final few of some sixty-thousand paddle strokes, Niek van der Linde crossed the finish line in the host city of Leeuwarden to punctuate one of the most incredible performances our sport has ever seen. After completing an entire lap around Friesland – along seemingly-endless canals, through quaint villages and across pancake-flat farmlands – Niek finished the 204km “Non-Stop” edition of the famous SUP11-City Tour in an utterly extraordinary time of 23 hours, 32 minutes and 16 seconds.
Simply finishing this quest is an achievement, doing so in less than a day is mind-boggling…
The Non-Stop SUP11-City Tour is exactly what it sounds like: competitors paddle the entire route of the famed, five-day stage race in one long, unbroken stretch of torture that tests the body and pushes the mind into previously-unknown places. It means starting Saturday morning, paddling all day, paddling all night and then, depending on how fast you’re going, paddling through til lunchtime or evening on Sunday. And while the weather was close to perfect this year – blue skies and light winds – that merely illuminated the daunting task that lay ahead, the never-ending maze of long, narrow canals that stretch around Friesland like an aquatic highway.
Ticking off all 11 “cities” that give this event its name (“towns” would be a more apt description) and completing the non-stop course is one of the toughest assignments in the world of paddling. But while it’s a truly solo affair on the water (there’s no drafting allowed in the non-stop), each paddler is really part of a team–support crews often stay up all night themselves, rendezvousing with their tired troopers at bridges and villages to refuel them with fresh water, snacks and a pep talk about not giving up.
The Non-Stop 11 Cities is a true ultra, an Everest that many dream of conquering but few actually do. An intimidating yet inspiring beacon for paddlers around the world.
Niek’s victory was no surprise – this was his fourth non-stop title after saluting in 2017, 2019 and 2020 – but his time was simply stunning. His only competitor was the clock and even that couldn’t keep up. This performance wasn’t just a race record, it was a world record, as the Dutchman claimed a title he’d been fiercely focused on: The infamous 24-hour distance world record.
The “24-hour” is a simple test: paddle as far as you can in a day. It’s one that few paddlers have attempted but where the mark has already been set surprisingly high by a steady flow of determined fanatics. French ultra-marathon man Dode Florent had claimed a distance of 202.71 kilometres in France back in 2018, which bested Bart de Zwart’s high-water mark of 193.8km from the previous year. With this year’s 11 Cities course stretching 203.5km, finishing within a day would eclipse Dode’s record by default, but in the end it wasn’t even close. Niek could have kept paddling another 28 minutes and added another 4 or 5 kilometres to his tally, but he was satisfied by simply breaking the old mark.
Niek’s heroics weren’t the only story from this wild adventure: seven solo paddlers and two teams completed the odyssey while another four were DNFs after valiant attempts.
Göran Gustavsson from Sweden – a veteran of the 11 Cities and the non-stop in particular – set a new personal best in 29 hours, 24 minutes. He was paddling an inflatable. I believe this is the sixth time Göran has completed the 11 Cities course, but apparently that’s not enough sightseeing in the land of sheep and windmills — he will do it all again in the five-day race starting Wednesday in what has become known as the dreaded 11 Cities “Double”.
Sharing the Viking power with Göran was an unlikely-unless-you-know-him ultra-marathon athlete, Peter Steinfath of Denmark. His family name is more famous for his older brother, Casper, but Peter’s heroics immediately left a mark on the paddling community. Looking more like a surfer from the 70s than a serious athlete, Peter’s diet of well-cooked steak and honey was apparently the secret to success. He crossed the line smiling like a rock-star that’s been on an all-night bender, and his brother was full of praise on Instagram (true to form, Peter uses no social media).
The first of the two Czech non-stoppers, Marek Splichal, crossed the line an hour earlier in 31 hours, 37 minutes. He would be joined almost eight hours later by the final finisher and compatriot, Dalibor Oravec, whose time of 39 hours, 15 minutes was outside the official cut-off but worthy of a result for the pure determination and never-give-up attitude it showed. It’s a record for longest time on the water by a stand up paddler in the history of this event (eclipsing yours truly). Also coming home Sunday evening was Frenchman Philippe Aerts in 34 hours, 20 minutes.
Perhaps the most impressive performance outside of Niek’s heroics belonged to Margriet Koeman. The only woman in the field after the large British SUP11 contingent were unfortunately kept out of the event by Dutch quarantine restrictions, Margriet completed the course in 33 hours, 34 minutes and 6 seconds after spending all of Saturday, all of Saturday night and most of Sunday paddling along the never-ending canals in this north-eastern corner of her country.
But the paddlers weren’t the only ones completing the epic quest around Friesland, a route inspired by a hundred-year-old ice-skating race known as the “Eflstedentocht” (literally: 11 city tour). In addition to the superb support crews that kept their paddlers fueled, the tireless media team – who kept the whole paddling world not only up to date but so immersed in this adventure that we felt like we were there – deserves special mention too. If you followed the @sup11citytour you would have seen the world’s longest instagram story as the crew phoned in photos and videos from the distant canals, remote bridges and eerily-dark villages of Friesland all weekend including the very early hours of Sunday morning.
You can see more fruits of their labour tomorrow as we premiere the full highlights video on the Non-Stop live recap show. I’ll be hosting the show on Facebook Live from 2pm local Dutch time Tuesday. (Google “What’s the time in the Netherlands?” to calibrate your timezone.)
Until then, here are the final times from another year of this epic, crazy, mind-bending event. Who else wants to give it a shot next year?
2021 SUP11-City Tour NON-Stop results
Niek van der Linde (NED) 23 hours 32 minutes 16 seconds
Goran Gustavsson (SWE) 29:24:45 (personal best)
Marek Splichal (CZE) 31:37:15
Peter Steinfath (DEN) 32:21:49
Philippe Aerts (FRA) 34:20:00
Dalibor Oravec (CZE) 39:15:44
— DNF —
Vincent Claeskens (BEL) 165/204km
Tjentse Veenstra (NED) 147/204km
Matthias Vagt (GER) 74/204km
Michael van Craen (BEL) 73/204km
Margriet Koeman (NED) 33:34:06
NonStop4Kids (GER) 28:24:45
Golden Girls (NED) 29:05:03
(Shout out to the large British contingent who were unfortuantely unable to reach Friesland due to travel restrictions, and who would have helped make 2021 the largest ever non-stop field. Special mention to Alison Rennie who was going to attempt the infamous “Double” — both the non-stop and five-day. Next year…)