When you think of paddling in the United States, you probably see images of Hood River in Oregon, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina or the original home of the sport at Dana Point, California.
Alabama ain’t going to be on your list. But after you find out what’s happening there over the next 10 days, it probably will be. Because tomorrow begins the longest annual paddle race in the world: The Great Alabama 650.
The 650 is an event of proportions so epic they cannot be described by English alone. Throw in some Latin and we may have a chance, such is the boldness of this adventure (“fortis fortuna adiuvat” and all that).
For some quick context: Fifteen paddlers attempted the first race in 2019; four of them finished. The fastest time that year was more than a week; the winner slept about two hours per night.
And for some extreme context: The Great Alabama 650 is currently the longest and surely the toughest paddle race on the planet (until the mythical Yukon 1000 resumes next year). Completing this course would be like paddling the entire 11-City Tour five times in a row on just a few hours sleep a night. It’s the equivalent of FIFTY Carolina Cup “graveyard” races (I shudder at the thought). It’s f#@%ing long.
This isn’t just a race, it’s an odyssey. A voyage for the body and a journey for the mind, one where you have 10 days to complete a mission that’s equal parts crazy and beautiful: To paddle the entire length of the Alabama delta from the far north of the state to the literal edge of the ocean. In between are stretches of remote wilderness, white water and the occasional historical town.
If you can’t picture it, this slick teaser video will do the trick:
Even in the world of the ultras – where normal racing rules quickly go out the window – the Alabama 650 sits alone. For one, there are no divisions by craft. You can race whatever you like so long as you’re paddling it. You can even switch craft during the race if you really want to. The only three categories are for men, women and tandem. Everything else is simply first across the line.
The second rule (or lack thereof) that sticks out from other ultra-ultra-marathons is the sleep requirement. Most multi-day races will enforce mandatory sleeping hours to help preserve a paddler’s sanity. But in the Alabama 650, you decide how hard you can test yourself. You can literally paddle all day and all night if you’re up for it. The tagline of this event is “Push past possible” and I’m guessing that’s fairly accurate.
Given the extreme distance and suffering this race involves, it goes without saying that having a good support crew would be key. Every serious ultra requires a team on land to make sure their partner on the water is constantly fueled and motivated, but if you’re paddling all day every day for a week then good support is critical. Race director Greg Wingo (himself a transplant from the ultra-marathon running world and a support member from the infamous Barkley Marathons) told me that much of the story within this race takes place among the crew on land — they often have to navigate random, back-country roads at all hours of the night to access a remote riverbank and rendezvous with their paddler.
You’ll also want good navigation on water if you’re any hope of finishing this race. The delta becomes a literal maze in parts…
The Great Alabama 650, or just AL650, was created in 2019 to promote the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Because apparently the state better known for college football and being the original home of Mardi Gras actually has one of the largest and most beautiful river deltas in the United States. The race begins in the far north of the state, near the city of Birmingham, and winds its way south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The finish line is at the Civil War battle site of Fort Morgan on the very edge of the ocean.
Only 20 paddlers were granted entry this year. None of them will be standing up–only one SUP has ever attempted it, Scott Baste in 2019 (he made it about half way). The field will be canoe and kayak, the traditional craft of the ultra-marathon world.
The inaugural champion was Floridian kayaker Bobby Johnson who completed the course in 7 days, 8 hours and 1 minute.
An entire week of paddling almost non-stop…
I’ll be following it closely and sharing a few stories because I get excited just thinking about this wild event. And also because the Alabama 650 is joining the Ultra Paddle League as a founding member for the 2022 season, which I plan to be launching on 1 October if things go to plan — follow @ultrapaddleleague on Facebook and Insta for updates.