Last Paddler Standing was an emotional rollercoaster—and a disruptive new frontier for SUP racing

 

After 48 hours, Paolo Marconi was the Last Paddler Standing

Kelly Margetts called it a Netflix series. That’s a bold assertion for a humble SUP race, yet by the time Paolo Marconi claimed victory after 48 hours of slow-moving suspense in Sarasota last week, Kelly’s comment was starting to sound like an understatement.

Last Paddler Standing was unlike anything we’ve seen in the world of SUP. It was less of a race and more of a journey. An emotional rollercoaster that swept up everyone it touched and somehow turned a simple, never-ending live stream into compelling viewing.

It might just be a new frontier for how our sport is shared.

Last Paddler was always going to be the craziest race of the year—we didn’t know it would be the most dramatic as well. To quote 40-lapper Göran Gustavsson, Last Paddler was “more than a race.” It was a story, one full of compelling characters – the competitors – to whom we formed an emotional bond. And the longer they paddled, the deeper that connection grew.

Like your favourite character being killed off at the climax of a binge-worthy season, we felt the pain as each paddler inevitably retired from their endless laps around Nathan Benderson Park. There wasn’t a dry eye when Alex Somoano gave one of his emotional monologues nor a jaw off the floor when he was dramatically DQ’d for over-sleeping the start of lap 44.

Bobby Johnson. Now he’s a character. Despite only paddling standing up for a month, the Floridian native was probably one of the favourites (and definitely one of the talking points). There were stories of the mind games he likes to play, how he’s the most competitive guy in the world and that he’d simply never quits a paddle race. But by the time his legs gave way after almost 42 bold but exhaustive laps, Bobby had nothing but respect for his fellow paddlers. This intense journey no doubt forged new friendships on and off the water.



What I love about Last Paddler is how many aspects are unique to this race. For example, Paolo’s victory was only possible when the runner-up John Knippers decided it was. It wasn’t until John announced he was retiring after 47 laps that a victory could be achieved. Indeed, Last Paddler records won’t be set by the winners but the runners-up who push them. The race only really begins when there are two left standing.

Knippers wasn’t a name I knew before Sarasota but it’s one I’ll remember. The middle-aged, journeyman paddler from Oklahoma earned cult-like status in the live stream chat for his positive determination to push through limits. He really wanted to quit on day two when the sun was high and wind was strong but fought through the afternoon, then pushed all through a second night and into a third calendar day before finally telling Paolo he was stepping aside.

But how bout that Paolo. What a performance. The youngest of the “Fabulous Five” – the group who lasted from laps 26 to 40 in a 14-hour unbroken marathon – Paolo was also the only competitor without a dedicated support crew on location in Sarasota. During the live stream we spoke exhaustively about how important a solid support crew is – “it’s a team effort,” “it’s critical,” “you can’t do this without support” – but Paolo somehow managed it on his own.

Paolo did have support but it was half a world away: his partner, Susak, and their 10-month-old were cheering from Europe. Susak probably posted more comments than anyone on the live feed. The text-to-video interactions between the pair during breaks were some of the most endearing moments of the show.

The Italian looked focused from start to finish. There were times of doubt, particularly during the unforgiving second night, but Paolo was nothing if not determined. He also mastered the “power nap” strategy, probably sleeping more than any other competitor by stealing five minutes here and there during the approximately 15-minute breaks between laps. And he now joins a very small club of elite athletes who’ve successfully gone from winning short course races to conquering ultras (Seychelle, Bruno, Daniel, Lincoln and Lena are the others I can think of).

The experience certainly had an impact on Paolo who spoke of being overwhelmed by emotion. That’s the beauty of the ultras, you’ll come out the other side a changed person.


John and Paolo, the last two paddlers standing


Göran retired after 40 laps, sometime around 2am on Monday morning, but instead of going to sleep he sat in the commentator’s chair for three hours and helped take us through the Graveyard Shift with witty insights. He wanted to be part of the event even after he was no longer part of the race.

The chatty Swede had only stopped paddling “Because I haven’t eaten anything in the past five hours. I have no energy left.” And that’s one of Last Paddler’s many selling points: suddenly, the most mundane tasks of everyday life become serious strategies and stimulating storylines. The simple act of eating becomes a skill in Last Paddler. Sleeping is a critical strategy. Even timing your toilet breaks can impact your result.

But perhaps the most surprising part of Last Paddler was just how addictive it was to follow. The pace was like watching paint dry – the start of each lap comically slow – yet it was hard to look away. Slow-moving suspense as we waited and wondered when the next paddler would drop out and receive their “NO LONGER STANDING” souvenir coin from event organiser Greg Wingo.

On the first night, I commentated ’til two in the morning then lay in bed for another two hours listening to co-hosts Kristin and Mason offer updates and anecdotes. I dared not close my eyes for fear of missing another retirement. (My co-hosts deserve an award of their own, Kristin in particular who did an extraordinary 36 hours on the microphone—Last Commentator Standing!)

Sarasota was the third most-watched live streams SUP Racer has ever produced. And it was easily the most-commented. There was a whole community in the chat box on YouTube. Paddlers around the world stayed up all night to watch the drama unfold at a snail’s pace. The whole event was something special whether you were on the sand in Sarasota or tuning in from half a world away. (My favourite part was the fans who sat through the Graveyard Shift on Saturday night as I descended into madness on the microphone.)

Last Paddler proved that SUP racing doesn’t need to have “Formula 1” action to be entertaining. It just needs a story. The live stream lasted more than two days but we only showed 4 or 5 hours of actual paddling. It was 10% action, 90% talking. Nothing happened most of time yet the race was never dull. As one of my paddling friends put it, the webcast was like a “48-hour podcast.”

If you create characters, tell a story and build suspense then you’re going to have an event worth following. And that’s one of the many reasons I love this event.

Paolo himself seemed to agree, saying in a follow-up thank you post that “this kind of format and the way the streaming was built up can have a great potential to reach a wider audience and make our sport even bigger.”

There are still countless improvements we could make to the live stream but I’m surprised by how well the first experiment went. Credit to Greg for creating such a unique event for us to cover.


replay the final seven minutes of Last Paddler

you can also replay the final seven HOURS


Another interesting point is that just about any paddler in the world could win Last Paddler. You don’t need to be the fastest or strongest, just the “toughest” and most determined, at least mentally speaking.

This is an absolute game-changer.

Suddenly, a whole new type of athlete can emerge. The “ultras” have already unlocked an unorthodox breed of paddle athlete but Last Paddler takes that to a whole new level. And the final two in Sarasota last Monday morning proved it beyond doubt: We had Paolo, a well-known international elite athlete, up against John Knippers, an amateur paddler better known for paddling with his dogs than winning big races.

In a 5k race it wouldn’t even be close, but in Last Paddler they were almost dead even.

Apart from levelling the playing field, this also makes the race far less predictable. As much as I love watching elite races at the Worlds or the Euro Tour, the podiums tend to look the same. But in Last Paddler you’re going to see total unknowns standing side-by-side with international stars. It’s refreshing.

The purists will argue it’s not a traditional SUP race if it’s not about speed and skill. And I completely agree: Last Paddler isn’t a traditional SUP race, it’s something entirely new and innovative. It’s disruptive to the old way of doing things, and I think our sport could use a little more of that in the future.

 


 

I’ll be having an Instagram Live chat with Paolo Marconi this Friday to hear more about his Last Paddler odyssey — join us on @supracer from 12pm midday on Friday European time (that’s Friday evening Australia, graveyard shift Friday morning in Florida — follow @supracer stories for exact start times)

“Season 2” of Last Paddler Standing has already been confirmed: We’ll return to Sarasota in December 2023; Want to test yourself? Registration opens 1st January and I suspect it’ll fill up pretty quick this time (there will be a cap of around 50-60 starters)

Special thanks to event organiser and director Greg Wingo, his assistant race director Steven, the race volunteers, my live stream co-hosts Kristin and Mason (and Göran, and Greg, and Kelly…), all the support crew who went sleepless in Sarasota plus all the fans who watched the live stream from around the world!