Above: Ultra camaraderie – Yukon River Quest, 2019. Photo: Kelli Surritte (@perfectnegatives)
Q&As: by Sarah Thornely (Supjunkie)
Pics: Kelli Surritte, Trevor Tunnington, Christopher Parker, the Reichmann family and Wissanu Wisetputtasat
If you love SUP racing and have not heard of Chris Parker or SUP Racer, then where have you been for the last TEN years? Chris has been instrumental in bringing us all the race news and live coverage of some of the biggest and most exciting SUP races in the world almost since the birth of this great sport.
An avid numbers and stats geek, he also produced the infamous Paddle League, a series platform way ahead of its time for the sport. Chris was also one of the founders of The Euro Tour, quite possibly the most exciting set of races in beautiful iconic locations. Got the picture? What this man doesn’t know about SUP racing and the athletes taking part isn’t worth talking about.
He also greatly inspired us here at Supjunkie, and having followed him for many years, we were lucky to meet and interview him on the island of Jersey for the Round Jersey Challenge, a gnarly 33-mile endurance race. Having personally never been interested in endurance racing whilst seeing its appeal to many, the irony is this is what I would like to chat to him about. Chris is smitten by endurance brought about by the infamous Yukon River Quest, a 715 km race starting in the wilderness of Canada, in which he also took part. He recently mentioned that he believed the endurance races had interesting and incredible stories attached to them in a live Facebook show.
It was this that would capture the media’s attention to SUP and not necessarily the winners of the 10km flatwater races. It may be controversial, but Chris has always spoken his mind – he’s a bit ‘marmite’ because of this outspokenness that is not for everybody, but we love it and so do many others. So here we go, let’s chat with him about endurance racing!
Chris, when did you first start to notice endurance racing and was there one particular event that caught your eye?
I’m certainly not alone in saying my introduction to the ultras came via the SUP11 City Tour, a very special ‘race’ held in the quaint Dutch province of Friesland every September. When I started SUP Racer a decade ago, the 11 Cities ‘was’ endurance racing. It stood alone as ‘that crazy race in Holland’ that competitors either loved or hated, a week-long odyssey that pushed your mind and body to the limit. This event single-handedly made ultra-marathon paddling a legit discipline in the SUP world. It was ahead of its time (it’s now the longest-running race in our sport), but I’m happy to say it no longer stands alone on the international calendar.
Can you tell us about your first ever personal experience of endurance racing?
In terms of racing, the 2014 11 Cities was my first ultra. I’d made a deal with Mistral to promote their fancy new inflatable that was supposed to keep up with the hard boards, and we decided that if I cracked the top 10 on any stage, it would pass the test (the race wasn’t quite as competitive back then – I’d be struggling for top 40 these days). Alas, my best stage finish was 11th, and that board never made it to production.
However, my first experience of simply paddling way too far came in early 2013 when Jamie Mitchell and I found ourselves in Dubai, of all places.
Jamie is famous for surfing big waves and winning the traditional Molokai race ten years in a row, so when we travelled together, we were always looking for new ocean adventures. I’d long been fascinated by Dubai’s man-made islands known as ‘The World’ – an ostentatious project that ran out of money and left a literal desert sitting five kilometres off the coast. We thought it might be a laugh to ‘paddle around the world’ and thus began one of the most physically demanding days of my life.
Under the 40-degree midday sun of the UAE (why we didn’t start earlier in the day, I will never know), we naively set off from the beach beside the iconic Burj al Arab. We quickly reached the southern edge of the islands that looked more like a dystopian oasis than a high-end development project. We landed on ‘Eastern Australia’ island and symbolically planted our Quickblade paddles as if they were flags and we were claiming new territory. We had aimed to reach the North Pole, but Dubai had other ideas.
There was nobody else for miles, so we knew it wasn’t a good sign when a large boat emblazoned with ‘security’ sped our way. The water police informed us, rather sternly, that we were breaking several laws by accessing forbidden waters (understandably, Dubai doesn’t want anyone sharing their failed megaproject with the outside world). After taking Jamie’s lead of providing a false name and nationality, we were escorted out into the open ocean, beyond The World’s protective rockwall – a monolith so high it obscured our view of both the islands and the distant shore of the mainland. But we’d come this far, so we figured if we paddled around this outside barrier, it would still count as going ‘around the world.’
That wall seemed to never end. Jamie was swearing his head off each time we turned a corner, only to see the labyrinth continue. We finally reached the north-western corner late afternoon before paddling back to the mainland without speaking a word.
Dangerously sunburnt and deliriously dehydrated, we completed our mission just before sunset, finally cracked a smile and decided to never, ever paddle that far again. If only I knew.
Do you have any evidence to show how this side of SUP racing is growing?
The sheer number of events in the ‘ultra’ category is probably the best growth metric. When I started working on The Ultra Paddle League, I created a list of 53 potential events. Not all of those are SUP – we owe a lot of credit to the North American canoeing community, where ultra-marathon events have existed longer than our sport. However, even these canoe races are beginning to embrace SUP. For example, the Yukon River Quest expanded their team entries from 125 to 150 slots this year, and quite symbolically, we have 25 stand up paddlers signed on for the mission.
Have you found the paddlers who take on these longer challenges have a different mindset?
Absolutely. It takes a special kind of paddler to ‘want’ something like this. Paddlers looking for an adventure and not just a race are inherently attracted to the ultras. Those who wish to push their mental limits should also apply.
For me, the contrast between your average 10k race and an ultra is that the former is a competition against others while the latter is an internal battle – you’re primarily competing against your own body and mind when you paddle that far. Your ego grows more defensive as it becomes weaker, and as the miles drag on, your inner voice starts trying to justify why you should just quit and go home. I imagine army boot camp is similar: You’ll have been broken down and built back up in a stronger form if you reach the end. An ultra will probably change your life without getting too spiritual, especially one of the multi-day odysseys such as Yukon or the 11 Cities.
Most paddlers do these races just to finish, and it’s like a bucket list on steroids. I completed the Yukon River Quest dead last (and barely within the cut-off time), yet I felt like a hero. And that’s why I love the ultras: It doesn’t matter if there are 10 or 500 paddlers on the start line; it’s still an interesting race because every paddler brings their own story to the adventure.
But while the personal achievement is something epic, I feel the real bonus of doing an ultra is the camaraderie. If you paddle that far with a group of fellow fanatics, you’re bound to make some lifelong friends. The ultras do have a special atmosphere, especially in the 11 Cities!
Are there particular paddlers who deserve special mention as having ‘that story’ behind them?
You can’t write any story about the ultras without mentioning Bart de Zwart. He was the pioneer in so many ways. Not just racing –he’s won the 11 Cities four times along with the Yukon, Great Glen and several others – but also that whole other side of ultra-marathon paddling: solo adventures and crossings. Years ago, Bart paddled the length of the Hawaiian Islands (unsupported) without touching land. He carried a week’s worth of food and water and slept on his board at night. It was so intense that I believe nobody has attempted it since. He also paddled across the Tahitian islands, along the coast of Greenland and did a full ‘non-stop’ version of the 11 City Tour before that was an official race. Bart also showed that endurance racing is more about true mental stamina than peak physical fitness – he would paddle away from guys half his age without breaking a sweat.
Special mention goes to Anne-Marie Reichmann, who founded the 11 City Tour in 2009 after completing a solo test-run in late 2008. That was just a month after the first-ever Battle of the Paddle (‘year zero’ in terms of our sport) – to say she was ahead of her time would be a massive understatement. Women have been eternally under-represented in our sport (I’m as guilty as anyone), so I think it’s a great storyline that ultra-marathon SUP racing was essentially invented by ‘a girl’.
There are so many paddlers that deserve special mention, but I think it’s interesting the only time stand up paddling has been in every major media outlet was when Chris British completed his transatlantic SUP crossing. Similarly, Casper Steinfath’s adventures (such as paddling Denmark-Norway) have received far more recognition than his world titles. I believe the ultras transcend the boundaries of storytelling and can break through the ceiling that niche sports such as SUP often face in their quest for exposure.
What would be your go-to first endurance race for those new to this if travel and expense was no issue to them?
I’d start with a one- or two-day race and see if you catch the bug or not (I think you will!). The Great Glen Challenge up in Scotland is worthy of any bucket list for its location alone. However, any half-decent paddler could finish something like the 11 Cities as their first ultra–paddling 200km in five days is more about having a strong mind than superhuman fitness. The British ‘SUP Soldiers’ that I paddled the Yukon with had never done a race over 10k when they took on that 715km mind-bender (granted, those guys are next level).
I’d also highly recommend just doing your own solo or small-group adventure paddle on an interesting stretch of water wherever you live, whether that’s paddling around an island or conquering the length of your local river. Take a tent onboard and turn it into an overnight adventure. For me, some of the most interesting stories in the world of paddling happen outside of any official race.
We see you have upgraded The Paddle League to The Ultra Paddle League – what do you hope to achieve with this new platform?
The simple goal is to give the ultras a dedicated platform to promote the events and paddlers. ‘Showcasing the paddling world’s longest races, biggest adventures and grandest stories’ is our one-line summary. Hopefully, by sharing these stories, we can help grow this side of the sport.
The Ultra Paddle League will feature 14 events in 2022 and hopefully expand to double that in the next few years. I’m not promoting it as an ‘ultra-world tour’ or anything like that (good luck if you can do every ultra in one season, haha); it’s more about raising the profile of the events to get more paddlers on the start line, definitely give them more media attention and make them more sustainable. I believe the way to do that is by telling interesting stories.
I hope to see these adventures featured not just in the dedicated paddling media but in major outlets like the NY Times or Nat Geo. I don’t want to promise too much, but I believe we can elevate the paddling world to a new level. The motto of the Ultra Paddle League is ‘More than a race’, and that’s what I hope to get across.
It’s also about more than just SUP – the canoe world pioneered the ultra-format, and I want to highlight those disciplines as well. Most events will feature everything from paddleboards to traditional canoes and kayaks – solo, tandem and teams – and it’s this blend of various craft tied together by a “paddle in hand” that adds another special piece to the puzzle.
You and I (and others) are constantly striving to get SUP onto more mainstream media outlets – why do you believe the endurance SUP racing could help this perhaps better than the more regular racing? What does it have that is so appealing?
It’s that human-interest story that can connect with your average joe, who probably doesn’t know SUP racing is even a real sport. Significant elite race results are exciting to us but don’t get much attention from the outside world. We’re not Formula 1; we’re a niche sport. When you add that human element, when you add an almighty challenge and a ‘quest’ of proportions so epic that anyone can appreciate how difficult it must be, then suddenly paddling becomes something a wider audience could understand and engage with.
Suddenly, these stories aren’t even about paddling – that’s just the ‘vehicle’ that we use – they’re about the people, the adventures, the psychological challenges we face and the barriers we break while we’re out on those long, lonely rivers. If we look at surfing for comparison: it’s not the pro contests that make the news, it’s the big-wave moments, and in the world of paddling, I feel our ‘big waves’ are these ultra-marathon events. The average person can appreciate how difficult it must be to paddle 700km down a river even if they’ve never stepped on a paddleboard.
I guess you hope to bring endurance racing to many more paddlers – how are you hoping to achieve this, and do you have some helpful collaborations you can share with us?
That’s a major goal of the Ultra Paddle League and something that motivates me personally. Not just to tell stories that connect with a non-paddling audience but to motivate existing paddlers to go further (literally). I feel like many paddlers who’ve been around for a while and are perhaps a little tired of the same old 10k races are the ones who will embrace the ultras.
But I don’t want to become too obsessed with the crazy, week-long adventures that require massive logistical and financial undertakings. The Ultra Paddle League is going to focus just as much on the one-day events – the ‘baby ultras’ around 50km – that can either be a stepping-stone to a multi-day race or simply a final frontier on someone’s more modest bucket list. These baby ultras are far more accessible, logistically, but still present an epic challenge – they can actually be ‘more’ challenging on your body because you might paddle six or seven hours at 90% effort compared with a few days of 70 or 80%.
The League will also tell stories beyond the finish line: Solo crossings and adventures. I’d love to create my own events that can spread the word and get people out in the wild in the future. I want to inspire others to get on the water and experience and appreciate the natural world around us.
Can you let us know some of your favourite SUP endurance races and why? What should we particularly be looking out for in 2022 and beyond race wise?
Is there a word limit on this article? Haha . The 11 City Tour will always hold a special place in my heart – it’s not only a great challenge on the water, the 11 Cities is a fantastic week on land, too (school camp for adults). I’ve made lifelong friends at that race and not just among the paddlers – there are nearly 100 volunteers that bring their personalities to help make the 11 Cities such a festival atmosphere. The 2022 edition will be bigger than ever as it goes back-to-back with the ICF Worlds in Poland. We’ll have the most competitive field of all time for sure, which isn’t the most important thing but helps in creating the ‘Tour de France on water’ concept that I’ve been dreaming of.
As an extension of the 11 Cities, I encourage everyone to add one of the new SUP11x getaways to their bucket list. These are more exotic versions of the original, where you still paddle five days but in much warmer locations. The postcard-perfect ’11 Islands’ tour of Thailand returns this November, and we’re also working on an Aussie edition (’11 Dreams’). There are new events in Germany and Croatia, while Panama is another potential host. I can see SUP11x turning into an unofficial world tour of adventure paddling holidays, which is a thought that keeps me motivated to stick around. It’s hard to describe just how incredible these events are – 11 Islands was the funniest paddling experience of my life (and I think the other participants all agreed). These aren’t races – no times are recorded; you simply receive a medal if you finish the entire course – they’re adventures. SUP11x takes ‘school camp for adults’ to a whole new level.
The Yukon River Quest is a special one for me and many others. It’s been running for more than two decades and has a dedicated community of eccentric paddlers who may look normal on the outside but possess an exceptional level of internal strength. The northwest of Canada is a remote, raw and ridiculously beautiful part of the world. If you wish to disconnect from modern society, then here’s your chance: The Yukon River has almost zero internet access, and you’ll see very little civilisation. The finishing ‘city’ of Dawson – home of the infamous ‘Sourtoe Cocktail’ – has a population of just 1,300, and that’s the second-largest town in the entire province…
There are two ultras on the Yukon, the other being the ‘Yukon 1000’ that is precisely that: you paddle 1,000 miles down the river (as opposed to ‘only’ 440 miles for the quest). The cut-off time is ten days, and even the great Bart de Zwart said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done.
The Yukon 1000 is the craziest race in terms of length, but a close second would be the Alabama 650, which also features a 10-day cut-off and blurs the line between ‘race’ and ‘journey’ so that it becomes hard to classify. Is it a race or an adventure?
Competition or a quest? That’s what I love about the ultras – they’re something else entirely.
Closer to home, the Clarence 100 in Australia interests me because its location (Australia is home to so many good paddlers) and format make it a mini-Tour de France. Australia is famous for being an ocean paddling mecca, but we have so many crazy-long rivers that ultra-marathon paddling could become a big thing down here.
I’m also really excited about a new event called ‘Last Paddler Standing’ that will debut in Florida at the end of 2022. Paddlers have to complete a 6km loop within the hour every hour until they give up (I can see a few stubborn paddlers going 24 hours plus). This is a different format from anything I’ve ever seen in paddling, and for that reason alone, it’s worth paying attention to this event – we need more innovation in our sport. The Last Paddler was inspired by an ultra-marathon running race, highlighting that we have so much to learn from other sports if we simply open our minds to what a SUP race can be. Our sport is young, we’ve only just scratched the surface, and I think there’s a bright future if we keep going deeper!
WELL, if that doesn’t get your juices flowing for endurance racing, what will! BIG THANKS to Chris for his time, knowledge and enthusiasm, and we look forward to seeing and hearing his coverage for many years to come – thank you for all that you have done for SUP racing Chris over the years!