The Ultras. There’s something about these immense challenges that piques the interest of so many paddlers in equal parts excitement and nerves. A bootcamp for both the body and mind, an ultra-marathon paddle “race” (adventure would be a more fitting term) is an exercise in physical strength and mental stamina that will beat you down, build you back up and probably leave you changed as a person.
I love the ultras. I love ’em so much I’m focusing most of my paddling energy on building something called the “Ultra Paddle League,” a new global series that aims to highlight and promote this unique part of the paddling world (the 2022 Ultra Paddle League season will be revealed on 1 October).
But while the ultra season spans most of the calendar, for some reason September has traditionally been Ultra Month. And courtesy of changes wrought by the pandemic, Ultra Month is busier than ever this year: Over the next three weeks, we’ll be watching half a dozen events spanning a total of 917km across six countries. The middle weekend alone hosts three adventures and 495km of waterway (not to mention the highly-competitive ICF Worlds in Hungary just for good measure).
(EDIT: The original post forgot to include the longest annual ultra of them all… The Great Alabama 650 is a 650 miel – 1046 kilometre – odyssey of truly epic proportions through the Alabama wetlands. It’s happening September 18-28 just because Ultra Month wasn’t crazy enough already.)
It’s a minor miracle we can even coin a phrase like “Ultra Month” in the current travel-restricted, event-scarce climate. Countless paddle races have been cancelled this year and last including a few of the big ultras. The Clarence 100 in Australia, an event I’m particularly fond of and one that could become a Tour de France on water style spectacle, has been postponed til 2022 as Australia tackles Delta. Likewise the longest race in the world – Canada’s mind-boggling Yukon 1000 – has been postponed to the second half of 2022. The traditional Yukon ultra, the Yukon River Quest, was also put on ice for the second year in a row (the Quest was actually scheduled to go ahead, albeit with a Canadian-only field, until an actual flood forced organisers to abandon on race eve). And one of my personal favourites, the “funnest race in the world” aka the SUP11-Islands Tour of Thailand, has also been kept off the water for the second straight coconut season.
But despite the kafkaesque logistical challenges of hosting an ultra, tireless organisers in the Netherlands, France, Scotland, Canada and the United States will be hosting ultra-marathon paddle adventures in the next few weeks. My hat goes off to those who have made this list possible…
#1: SUP11-City Tour (Non-Stop)
As if paddling 220km in five days wasn’t difficult enough, the sadistic organisers of SUP11 decided to add a “Non-Stop” edition in 2014. This adventure does exactly what it says on the tin: Competitors will paddle the entire course of the famed SUP11-City Tour in one long, non-stop effort. Most paddlers begin the odyssey early Saturday morning, paddle all day, paddle all night, paddle all day again and finish early Sunday evening.
(I know because I actually did the non-stop in 2019 — I think I set a record as the first person to ever finish on a Monday after limping across the line in 36 hours and 10 minutes just after midnight Sunday night.)
Niek van der Linde is the king of this event having won three titles including in a course record time of 23 hours, 59 minutes. Apparently 2021 will be his last non-stop, though I think everyone says that about ultras before usually changing their minds.
GPS live tracking will be available on the official site. Follow the @sup11citytour for great social media stories as well.
#2: SUP11-City Tour (Five Day)
The Dutch province of Friesland (or “Fryslân” in the quaint local language) plays host to what is surely the most famous ultra of them all. The SUP11-City Tour aka the 11 Cities aka “Five days of Pain in the Fields of Friesland” is the very definition of bucket list event. It’s a pilgrimage that I believe every paddler needs to make at least once in their lifetime. It’s our Mecca, if you will.
The 11-City Tour is a five-day stage race where competitors race between five and eight hours each day through the rural farmland of the north-east Netherlands. But while the past few years have been dominated by the likes of the Hasulyo Brothers, we’ll see new challengers this year, at least on the men’s side, as Bruno, Daniel and the world’s best head to the woefully-timed ICF Worlds in Hungary. On the plus side, it’s actually shaping up to be the biggest 11 Cities ever in terms of total participation, and the fact the big names aren’t there is a blessing in disguise: it’ll allow us to mine a little deeper and find more of those interesting stories behind the scenes.
If you want to hear those stories, tune in daily for the 11 Cities Morning Show that I’ll be hosting (remotely from Australia just like last year). Speaking of stories: There are even a few paddlers who’ve signed up for the infamous “double” — paddling the non-stop on Saturday and Sunday before resting less than 72 hours and tackling the five-day tour. You’d definitely get to know the fields of Fryslân pretty well after that…
And in a random but quite fascinating piece of trivia: Not only is it one of the longest races in the world of stand up paddling, the 11 Cities has recently assumed the mantle of “longest-running race in the world” full stop. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe no race has been held every year for as long as the 11 Cities, which began in 2009 and has never missed a beat despite the immense hurdles of the past 18 months. The only current events that are older – the Molokai2Oahu SUP division (introduced in 2006) and the 2007-born Tahoe-Nalu race – were unfortunately cancelled last year.
#3: Dordogne Integrale
130km (81 miles)
One of the most-respected ultras in the SUP community, the Dordogne Integrale has managed to fly under the radar all these years despite presenting one of the most stunning challenges in the sport.
Highlighting the significance of this event, the 2021 Dordogne Integrale is an official part of the French Surfing Federation’s national series. Dordogne’s place in “Ultra Month” may be short lived though: Next year’s ultra will return to its traditional timeslot around April (which, fortunately, will allow paddlers to tackle both of Europe’s famous ultras, Dordogne and the 11 Cities).
But while the Dordogne has long been France’s longest SUP race it’ll soon be dethroned by its own organiser. Dordogne boss man Philippe Marchegay and a few friends tested a 725km route earlier this year that’s set to officially become the “Loire 725” race next summer. Philippe had the inspiration of creating a “Yukon in Europe” style multi-day paddle
race adventure, and at 725km it will actually surpass the famous Yukon River Quest by 10km.
And for the trivia fans: The reigning Dordogne champion Olivier Darrieumerlou is also a former winner of the 11 Cities non-stop. Respect.
#4: Adirondack Canoe Classic
Probably not too well-known in the SUP community given it’s a canoe-only event, the Adirondack Canoe Classic is definitely another one for the bucket list. Held in the postcard-perfect wilderness of upstate New York, this 90-mile voyage (145km) takes you through wetlands, lakes and rivers to the finishing point of Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Apparently the race has drawn as many as 250 canoes in the past (which would make for a beautifully-chaotic start) while the course features several portage runs that combine for brutal 8.5km of carrying your canoe over land.
I was told about this race by Jim Terrell from Quickblade Paddles who grew up in the world of traditional canoe racing and recently completed the 70-mile “General Clinton”. Jimmy suggested to me (or it might have been the other way round…) that we take the famous Quickblade woodstrip canoe down to New York a couple months after it has its maiden race voyage at the 2022 Yukon River Quest (fingers crossed).
#5: Great Glen Challenge
92km (57 miles)
The land of lochs, haggis and whisky, the Great Glen Challenge offers the unique experience of paddling across Scotland. Literally. Competitors begin on either the western or eastern coast of the country (depending on wind) and traverse a series of rivers and lochs (“lakes”) including the world-famous Loch Ness.
Paddlers can race either non-stop (crazy) or two-day (slightly less crazy). There’s plenty of Scotch whisky and even more Scotch wind, which creates a love-hate affair with this part of the world. Finishers also get fried Mars bars and endless Glenfiddich at the after-party. That alone probably makes the toil worth it.
Special mention goes to event organiser Joanne Hamilton-Vale – herself a veteran paddler of many of the world’s toughest ultras – who’s managed to pull this event together despite being stuck on the other side of the world in Australia. Jo has run 40 events in the UK Paddle Endurance Series over the past eight years but stated this will be her last. Hopefully someone else takes the reins at the Great Glen because it’s an incredible adventure in a simply spectacular setting.
#6: Muskoka River X “Huntsville 110”
A new format for the infamous “Muskoka River X” event in Canada, the Huntsville course is a 110km (68 miles) odyssey through a system of four interconnected lakes. Unlike the old Muskoka that leaned on several portage runs, there’s only one land crossing on the Huntsville, making this year’s race a pure punishment of paddling and pain.
Not content with a mere 110km hit out, Muskoka is also promoting the unique, 510km (317 miles) “David Thompson Virtual Paddle Challenge” to celebrate the extraordinary feat of the titular character. David Thompson paddled from the Ottawa River to Georgian Bay with the help of First Nations guides in 1837 searching for trading routes — the original expedition covered three months, and Muskoka have been encouraging paddlers to tackle the same distance in that same timeframe wherever they are in the world.
#7: The Great Alabama 650
Update: I thought this event was happening in October but it’s actually part of Ultra Month, which brings the grand total over the next four weeks to seven races and a whopping 1963km…
The longest annual paddle race in the world, the Great Alabama 650 is a mind-boggling odyssey of truly epic proportions. Paddlers will wind their way through the wetlands of Alabama over the course of 10 days.
As you can imagine, this event pretty much summarises the Ultra Paddle League mantra of “It’s more than a race.” Just finishing the AL650 is medal-worthy…
Want to follow Ultra Month? I’ll be covering the above races all through September, and we’ll be leading up to the official launch of the 2022 Ultra Paddle League season on 1 October — you’ll be able watch the season launch LIVE on Facebook and find out what the next 12 months of ultra bootcamp will look like.