Why a Year of No SUP Races is Transforming the Sport

There’s something special happening in the midst of this period of COVID-19 induced lack of racing.

Sports that are older and more established, many of which are included in the Olympic program, have clear standards of performance represented by either world records (where conditions are controlled) or “world best times”. SUP, being relatively new, is done in such a dynamic environment, and because there hasn’t been a history of racing over set distances has been lacking such standards…until now. Only recently have we begun to see them come into view courtesy of virtual racing.

How Fast is Fast?

Virtual racing is something that has taken off this year, for no other reason than to keep people engaged and training in a year where all the real racing has been postponed or canceled. Clearly, it doesn’t replace actual races nor does it pretend to try. But it does do a few things which I think over time are going to drive SUP forward.

More than anything else it is providing us with insight into how fast it is possible to go over set distances in flat water and basically neutral conditions. Why is that important in a sport in which the most iconic events are held in the ocean? Well, to this point all we can say is that the very best in our sport – people like Connor and Boothy, Casper and Bruno, Seychelle, Annabel, and Sonny – are fast.

It’s hard to get a handle on how fast they are unless you actually line up beside them in a race and even then, it’s hard to know exactly how fast they are as they paddle away from you. You really don’t know how fast they’re covering a mile or a kilometer and how much of that is due to their incredible ability to make the most of what the conditions are offering and how much is simply because they have such great motors.

With SUP having no standardized race distances and with races rarely being run in neutral conditions we really have no way to quantify exactly how fast is fast.

SUP World Best Times

Now imagine our sport with published and readily recognizable “world best times” and “world rankings” over various distances like 200m, 1 km, 2 km. 5 km and 10 km. Paddlers everywhere could easily determine approximately where they stand relative to the very best in the world or others their own age, even if they never got a chance to line up beside them in a real race. Imagine how motivating and inspiring this would be and how it would get more people involved in training, testing themselves in time trials, and ultimately racing. It would be good for the entire industry.

We’ve seen some pretty incredible performances so far in the Virtual Paddle League and new results are coming in every day. Someone who sits at the top of the leaderboard today gets knocked off their perch tomorrow, only to reassert themselves at the top a week later. Competition and the constant raising of the bar through ever stronger performances are pushing the standard in each distance higher and higher. Here are a few highlights:

  • Donato Freens from the Netherlands currently sits atop the men’s 5 km leaderboard with a time of 28:23. He just turned 15-years-old. In 4th place, there is 13-year-old Bodie von Allmen from Hood River with a time of 29:01. These kids are fast. Nobody is suggesting they’re ready to compete with the big boys in a real race yet, where lack of experience and adult strength is likely going to be a handicap. But their times are evidence of how strong their motors are already. If they stay with it, continue to improve, and hone their racing skills they can have a huge part to play in moving this sport forward over the next decade and beyond. Wouldn’t it be great if Bruno or Boothy posted a time so these guys could see exactly where they stand against the current best? How might that accelerate their development?
  • Andrey Kraytor, 27, is a former Russian canoe paddler who raced 200m C1 at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He is a former world champion in 200m C1 and everyone got to know him at the ICF SUP World Championships in China last year where he finished 4th in the men’s 200m final. He currently sits atop the 1000m leaderboard with a stunning time of 5:01 in flat water. Sadly, we have no idea yet how that kind of time would stack up against Connor or Boothy or Casper. Could any of them actually break 5:00 in neutral conditions? Imagine the four of these guys, and others, locked in a battle to go faster and faster. How low could the world’s best time actually get? How might that impact their performances and the results at real races in the future?
  • Paddlers aged 40 to 70 are competing and doing fast times, showing that it’s possible to perform at a high level in SUP at advanced ages. For these athletes, seeing how close they are to the highest level is inspiring and their performances are in turn inspiring others.

See the leaderboards here

Sports move forward and advance when athletes know where the bar is set. World records and world best times are shattered precisely because they exist, driving athletes to ever-higher levels of performance. If we had world best times in SUP, and buy-in from the top pros to help establish them, imagine how it might drive the standard of performance in our sport higher. True, virtual races or time trails will never replace real racing, but they will encourage athletes of all levels to train harder, become better motors, go faster in the flats, and, if they do all their homework, eventually go faster in the ocean as well.

2020’s Silver Lining

While some may question the validity of an event format that does not involve head-to-head competition on the same course in the same conditions, I prefer to look at things differently. Someone performing and posting a world best time that can be verified by GPS data does the entire sport a service. Their performance is a gift to all of us. While we know it was not done in a real race, it was still done by a human being, on a board, with a paddle, over a set distance, in neutral conditions. We can all relate to it. It redefines what is possible and moves the sport forward for all of us, inspiring each of us to do a little more to go a little faster. We all end up winning because of it.

Let’s use this season, where we have few to zero racing opportunities, to push the sport forward by establishing true world standards over a variety of distances. Get involved in virtual racing. There are lots of different virtual races to choose from and it doesn’t really matter which one. We’ll all be doing our part to raise the level of SUP racing, at all age levels, well beyond where it already is.

Lastly, if you liked this article, please share this article with your social channels so that others in your paddling community can enjoy it as well.

Happy paddling.


Read more about the Virtual Paddle League here