More than a race: We’re building the ‘Ultra Paddle League’ to share the world’s longest races, biggest stories and grandest adventures

 

The raw beauty and utter remoteness of the Yukon is the very definition of an “ultra” (photo: Trevor Tunnington)

It was around the 560-kilometre mark of the Yukon River Quest that it finally clicked. Tired, dazed, and with every part of my body screaming out to stop after more than 50 hours of paddling, it hit me like a parting of the seas: The reason why we love these ultra-marathon events (or “ultras”) is because they’re so much more than just a race.

This wasn’t entirely news to me — I’d already paddled the 220km 11-City Tour several times and submerged myself in the unique camaraderie of the ultra paddling community — but I hadn’t been able to put it into words before. Perhaps it was the morning mist, its ghostly silhouettes gently rising from the river as the midnight sun rose above the treetops and blessed the valley with its warmth, a moose and its calf roaming the distant shore in this wild, remote and incredibly beautiful corner of Canada.

Or maybe I was just hallucinating again.

Either way, that was the moment I realised my passion, my purpose, my “reason why” is to help promote these incredible paddling adventures known as the ultras and help grow this amazing community of crazy, ultra-endurance paddlers.

I started SUP Racer in 2011 to write about the sport I love, and over the past decade it’s become the pulse of stand up paddleboarding. But while following the hundreds of short, action-packed paddle races around the world is fun, nothing captures my attention — and, I believe, the imagination of both the paddling fanatic and the common person — quite like the genuine stories, authentic challenges and spirited suffering of an ultra-marathon.

That’s why I’m building the Ultra Paddle League – the first global series dedicated to promoting the longest paddle races in the world. After a trial run in 2019 (and some minor disruptions in 2020…), we’re launching the Ultra Paddle League in June and July 2021 to help promote, celebrate and grow what we consider the most incredible races in the world of paddling.

We’ll have 7 or 8 official ultras in 2021 (probably be finalised next week), and we have an invite list that by next season aims to connect almost two-dozen races across five continents combining to stretch more than 6,000 kilometres on rivers, lakes, canals and oceans. By sharing stories and building media, we aim to help promote these events, grow their exposure, get more paddlers on the water and just help build up this amazing community of ultra-marathon paddlers in general. The Ultra Paddle League is the line that connects the dots.

 

And not it’s not just about SUP: My big goal with the Ultra Paddle League is to have all of the ultra-marathon paddling tribes – canoe, kayak, stand up – on the same platform. The story of ultra-marathon canoe is arguably the richest of them all and provides some fascinating tales throughout history. There will be an “Ultra World Rankings” leaderboard but it’ll have a twist on the original SUP Racer World Rankings. Instead of only focusing on the podiums and points, the Ultra Paddle League will highlight every paddler that simply reaches the finish line plus the total distance they paddle across all the years of the League.

When it comes to the Ultra Paddle League, we’re not going to make a big flashy launch with a bunch of fireworks and hype. Just like the ultras themselves, this project will build up slowly over the long haul. I’d like to take you behind the scenes as we build this new project and create what I hope will be a major platform to showcase our sport and connect with a wider audience.

(Immediately, we do have a few advantages thanks to the old Paddle League itself–i.e. the original @paddleleague Instagram and Facebook will soon become the @ultrapaddleleague to help kickstart the new series.)

11-City Tour: sunrise over the fields of Friesland (photo: Jansen)

I believe the ultras are home to some of the most fascinating stories in the world of paddling. You don’t have to hype up an ultra–they’re full of genuine, human-interest stories filled with tales of adventure, strength, suffering and determination. Unlike the average SUP race, I feel like these ultras are the events you could easily read about on the BBC and NY Times or see on the front page of Reddit. The running world has seen a surge of interest in ultra-marathons over the past 5-10 years, and I believe the same thing is about to happen with paddling.

The Ultra Paddle League officially begins the 2021 season with the 715km Yukon River Quest in Canada next week, and we’ll be promoting several other beloved events including the SUP11-City Tour, Dordogne Intégrale and Great Glen Challenge along with many newer races (such as the Clarence 100 in Australia) and several established canoe ultras around the world that I’m excited to share with you.

I’d also love to hear from you. What other ultras are out there? It seems every other week there’s a new event popping up that pushes the limits of paddlers. The only criteria we have for the League is that a race must: be longer than 50km, have a spirit of adventure and treat all paddlers equally no matter if they’re a superstar or an unknown (though keep in mind some of the more extreme ultras require serious survival skills and have a stringent vetting process).

You’ll hear more about the Ultra Paddle League in the coming weeks–I just wanted to post a quick note today to let you know what we’re doing and invite you to follow the adventure.

Because it’s more than a race.

Canoe and SUP sharing the suffering on the Yukon (photo: Tunnington)