By Pete Williams
ST. PETE BEACH – I heard footsteps. Make that splashes. For 77 minutes, I could not shake the paddler behind me at the second-annual Pacifico Paddle Challenge off St. Pete Beach on Saturday afternoon.
Were this a running event or triathlon, I probably would have let him pass. But there was money involved. Not much, just the $25 for third-place in the men’s stock board division of the 4-plus mile “elite” race, enough for me to understand how motivating a little cash can be in an athletic event.
And so I kept paddling. Hard. Stand-up paddling usually is a relaxing way to spend a leisurely afternoon. But when you’re hammering your core, pushing your lactate threshold, and trying to stay balanced on a 29.5-inch wide Yolo Ecotrainer, it’s a wonderful test of pain.
The four-lap technical course featured nine buoy terms per lap, each an opportunity to fall into an increasingly rough surf kicked up by afternoon winds. One fall is enough to lose 20 seconds.
I’ve often wondered why Shane “Waterboy” Webb and other organizers of SUP races feel the need to throw prize money into the mix. Does it attract more prominent athletes? Maybe. What I do know is it makes the race far more interesting for those of will never get any closer to being professionals – and those watching us.
Stand-up paddleboard racing might never be as big or as organized as road racing, triathlon, or obstacle mud racing. But as the second-annual Pacifico Paddle Challenge demonstrated here Saturday afternoon in front of the Postcard Inn, SUP racing is developing into a different race experience than other endurance sports.
Sure, there’s chip timing, T-shirts, various competitive divisions, race numbers, and post-race awards. But if you’re looking for an early-morning, to-the-minute itinerary that gets you home by 11 a.m. like running or triathlon, well, SUP racing might not always be for you.
The first of Pacifico’s four races was scheduled to start at 11 and got underway about 45 minutes later. The 2-plus mile open race was followed at 12:45 by a 4-plus mile elite race, a kids’ race and a relay event. Awards did not kick off until 5:30.
And yet the late-morning, island-time mentality – which we’ve seen at other SUP races, too – seems to work for a sport that grew out of the Hawaii and California surf culture and the 125 or so racers and their guests didn’t seem to mind spending a full day (or weekend) around the Postcard Inn, especially with weather right out of a chamber of commerce video.
Webb and co-race director Grace Marcel again created a big-time race atmosphere, with a tent city of sponsors, an announcer’s booth and sound system perched atop scaffolding, 20-foot Pacifico beer inflatables, and a race format inspired by the Battle of the Paddle in California, which is to SUP what Ironman Kona is to triathlon.
On a weekend where the well-heeled Competitor Group debuted its TriRock triathlon amid little fanfare in Clearwater Beach, the Pacifico had perhaps the most big-time feel of any Tampa Bay endurance event. There was $5,000 in cash and prizes, numerous high-ticket raffle items, and the return of the best post-race spread of any endurance event we’ve attended: a pig roast.
SUP also has the best people-watching element of any endurance sport. Some believe SUP is the best workout ever created with its full-body, rotational movements and the way it challenges your balance, core and proprioception in a tough cardio workout. Exhibit A: the chiseled, jacked people you see at a SUP race.
Our friend Karen Mirlenbrink, an accomplished paddler and race director for the annual Shark Bite Challenge at Honeymoon Island, bowed out of the elite race after falling and cracking her board by landing on one side of her rear end. Talk about buns of steel. How many women can crack a board with their glutes? (Pretty good testimony for Karen’s business, Dunedin Pilates.) Unfortunately for me, Karen’s equally accomplished paddling husband decided to jump in the race in my stock board division and collect the $150 first-prize purse, which presumably goes toward Karen’s new board. (Second place received $50.)
Webb, the race director, spent a lot of time pre-race making sure everyone was familiar with the course, a technical, multi-buoy layout that required nine turns per lap — two laps for the open race, four for the elite. Such instructions seemed unnecessary since he provided a terrific pre-race video of the course, something we’d like to see triathlon and obstacle racing emulate.
We love the Battle-of-the-Paddle format, which requires racers to come to the beach after each lap, run 50 yards or so through a chute and then transition quickly back onto the board, which board caddies turn around and place into position. This is SUP’s answer to triathlon’s transition and perhaps gives a bit of advantage to those of us accustomed to the quick turnarounds of triathlon or obstacle racing.
Last year I showed up for this event and won $75 by default as the only guy on a stock board — as opposed to a sleeker, faster race board — to complete the elite race. I wondered if prize money was necessary, especially since the $35,000 pot for the one-and-done U.S. Open of SUP in September of 2011 in Miami didn’t attract the crowds.
Last year, I only had to finish to collect cash. Lining up before the race, I could tell there were at least a half dozen guys on stock boards entered. When the horn sounded, two shot out well in front of me. I passed two others and settled into fourth. Early in the first lap, the guy in front of me fell on a buoy turn, giving me an opening to pass.
I spent the rest of the race holding him off. As we came to the beach for each transition, people cheered us on, producing a strange dynamic. As stock board racers, we were near the back of the pack. But as third-place contenders in our division, we still had a shot at money.
By the start of the fourth lap, my shoulders and back were barking. The surf was getting choppy and my opponent closer. On long straightaways, he took a lower path and soon I could see him out of the corner of my eye. If I fell, there was no way I’d regain my lead.
As we rounded the final buoy, he made one last push. All I had to do was get to shore first and run through the finish chute. I paddled as hard as I could to shore, leaped from the board, and chugged up the sand – winning by six seconds. Afterward, my new buddy — 38-year-old Bruce Jones – offered congratulations and mentioned that he quit smoking two years ago and only has been paddling since March. Clearly I have to step up my game.
Webb raised the entry fees of the race from a $45 pre-registration rate last year to $58 this year. That’s still an incredible value considering there were no online entry fees. Plus racers got to compete in a chip-timed event with tech T-shirts and a bonus four-person relay race. Then there was the pig roast and cash to the top three finishers in multiple divisions, including $700 apiece to the men’s and women’s elite winners.
We can’t imagine Webb is making much money on these events. But he seems to be putting a long-term model in place to benefit as the sport grows — as opposed to obstacle races, many of which seem to be pushing the limits on how much they can charge and how little they can provide.
Heck, with multiple SUP races, a pig roast, and cash money involved, who can complain about a schedule that falls behind an hour? We’re guessing we’ll continue to see smaller SUP races spring up, traditional no-frills endurance events that start and finish early. But it’s hard not be bullish on the grander SUP race experience
It’s definitely worth building a weekend around.