‘Last Paddler Standing’ is probably the best new race format our sport has seen in years

 

It’s been 14 years since the Battle of the Paddle kickstarted the sport of stand up paddle racing, and that fateful day on the shores of Southern California in 2008 would set the tone for more than a decade to come. For years, SUP events around the world simply copied the BOP format of “course race + distance race” because it was the race. Innovation be damned, it was a competition to see who could best emulate the Battle.

For a while, this imitation helped grow the sport by providing structure and familiarity. But eventually flattery turned to lethargy. Too many races looked the same, which led to burnout as competitors ached for something different. The promotion of 200 metre sprints to world championships and the rise of the ultras have at least offered alternatives, but apart from Jamie Mitchell’s Survivor Race and Paul Jackson’s Super Lap there hasn’t been much innovation in the actual race formats — especially not in the past half a decade.

That’s why I’m so excited about a new event happening in Florida in December: Last Paddler Standing is an ultra-marathon mind game of (potentially) epic proportions. I say potentially because nobody knows just how long the race will be — and that’s the beauty of it.

The Last Paddler format is pretty straightforward: Complete a 3.33 mile (5.34km) loop every hour starting on the hour. You stay in the race until you fail to complete a lap within the 60 minutes or, more likely, simply give up due to physical/mental exhaustion. The faster you paddle, the more rest you get: If you complete a lap before the hour is up (which really isn’t hard) you can take a nice break before the next loop begins. Each lap is a mass start so I presume drafting will be a key strategy.

The host for the inaugural Last Paddler is Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida — an Olympic-style rowing course that looks like a giant swimming pool. This ultra adventure is happening on the weekend of 3 & 4 December.

Nathan Benderson Park – how many laps could you do?

It sounds pretty easy on the surface. Almost any paddler could do 3.33 miles in an hour. But try doing it again, and again, and again… it’ll start messing with your head as fatigue sets in and you realise your fellow competitors aren’t giving up any time soon. And the clock never stops — you’ll probably have to paddle all day and all night if you want to triumph.

That’s what I love about these ultras: It’s not the “fastest” paddler that wins, it’s the toughest.

I can definitely see a few crazy paddlers going 24 hours plus in Last Paddler. But if there’s no end in sight, the lap distance will begin increasing after 48 hours to force a result by Monday afternoon (the race starts Saturday morning). For context, 48 hours of Last Paddler would be 160 miles or 257 kilometres — it’s kind of like breaking the 11 City Tour down into hour-long blocks.

However, the finishing time won’t actually be decided by the winner but rather the runner-up: When the second-last paddler finally calls it quits, the “last paddler standing” will complete just one more lap before being declared champion. You can’t keep paddling if there’s nobody to race against. For this reason, we may see the emergence of informal teams where one paddler pushes another like a pace-setter in the Olympic 10,000 metre race. Presuming drafting is allowed, there could even be designated “train drivers” who help their teammates conserve energy on the first day.

I’d be excited to watch as paddlers drop off one by one. We may start with 100 on the line for the first few laps, but by sunset on Saturday I’d expect well over half the field will have already either quit or failed to make the cut.

But the real fun will begin when there’s just two paddlers remaining, because the last paddler who taps out will essentially be handing over victory. How long can they hold on and stay standing? This could descend into a crazy game of chess-on-water where mind games determine the outcome. One paddler might pretend they’re in great shape even when they’re suffering to convince the other paddler to give in.

I’m also fascinated to see how the rest stops are utilised. How fast can you recover? Depending on your pace, those 3.33 miles will take anywhere from 30-60 minutes giving you a break of up to half an hour. But do you really want to push yourself to gain a longer rest? That would cancel itself out at some point. Going slow and getting “just enough” rest would seem to make more sense (unless you were playing mind games). Though at the other extreme, once it gets into the graveyard hours paddlers may try to “sprint” every few laps so they can have a power nap on the shore before the next loop begins.

The strategies are endless and that’s what makes Last Paddler so intriguing, interesting and potentially exciting.

Break the 11 City Tour down into hour-long blocks and you’ve got Last Paddler

Last Paddler Standing evokes something primitive. To be the last person left in a game is something we can all understand. It’s like playing musical chairs as a child. TV shows like “Survivor” and “Alone” have exploited this format to great effect. Or for the YouTube generation, it’s kinda like one of those crazy MrBeast stunts (“Last Person To Leave The Island WINS The Island!”).

But Last Paddler is no stunt — to win this race you’ll need an incredible amount of physical endurance and an even bigger dose of mental stamina. Just the right mix of courage and craziness.

The format is a breath of fresh air for SUP racing, and for that reason alone I’m already a big fan.

Interestingly, organisers found their inspiration for Last Paddler in the parallel world of ultra-marathon running — in particular a race called Big’s Backyard Ultra that was created by the godfather of ultra running, Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell of Barkley Marathons fame (I highly recommend watching that documentary). Last year’s edition of the Backyard Ultra, which involves running a four-mile loop every hour, lasted three and a half days…

If all of this mental suffering, mind games and physical exhaustion sounds appealing then go sign up for Last Paddler Standing on the official site.

Welcome to the age of ultras.