Standup Paddle Races: Standardized Distances?

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From section 6A and 6B of the WPA Rule Book

6. Race/Courses Defined
a) Short Course – it is recommended that short course races should be conducted on a safe and manageable course free from going in and out of the surf. The course should be set at 2-4 miles in distance and no more than 4 miles.
b) Long Course: it is recommended that long course races should be no less than 4 miles. The exceptions for less than 4 miles would be for conditions that would be considered unsafe, time deadline or multiple heats or races.
d) Course name- it is required that the length (listed in miles or meters) of each race shall be communicated for each course in your race information like : “Shelter Bay 6 mile Challenge”.
7. Race Distance/Board size Guidelines for Long Course– it is recommended that if a race is conducted on one board size in a division on a long course that the following guidelines should be used. The exceptions would be for races conducted downwind, down current or in adverse conditions that would need to shorten the length of the course for safety and the best experience for all competitors:
a) SUP 12’6”: 4-6 miles.
b) SUP 14’: 6-9 miles.
c) SUP Unlimited- 6-9 + miles.


I actually prefer the Stand Up Paddle Athletes Association (SUPAA) distances from their rule book:

  • Sprint course between 100 m thousand meters
  • 5K short course
  • 10 K mid-distance course
  • 16 K pro distance course
  • 50 2K ultra distance course
  • Unlimited anything that doesn’t fall into the categories!

It makes sense to standardize race distances to be able to plan. Running has it. 5K, 10K, Marathon, etc. People can train for a distance and adjust for conditions. Professionals can specialize in a specific area, sprint or distance. Again, it makes sense. And I like what the SUPAA has done to at least define them. They aren’t restricting them, just creating buckets. Publicizing the course, the conditions, and the distance in advance will go a long way toward alleviating confusion and helping people plan to go to your race.

I’ve dealt with the WPA for years and they aren’t strict, set in stone rules. They are perfectly willing to work with you and are far more flexible than you might expect. They are the ones who helped us get the Carolina Cup off the ground. We’ll be forever grateful to Byron and his team for their help. They aren’t looking to control the process as much as give you the best opportunity to be successful. Like most situations, a phone call can help a lot and their regional directors are wonderful. (Congrats Casey SUP GLADIATOR Gotcher, for your new WPA position, BTW).

While this is a good place to start, they are just guidelines based on providing a course that’s beginner friendly, and a long course that’s predictable as far as what traveling paddlers should expect.

Let’s look at some great races:

Race the Lake of the Sky

Look at the South Lake Tahoe Race: Race the Lake of the Sky. I’ve heard amazing things about this race and it’s not about prize money. Pros and Joes alike love it. It’s incredibly well run. It’s a true destination. And people know what to expect.  The main event is the El Dorado, a 5 miler.

The distance race is 14.4. miles.

The Carolina Cup has the Graveyard Elite Race. It circumnavigates Wrightsville Beach, NC and is 13.2 miles. 

Molokai 2 Oahu (M2O) is 32 miles. 

Has anyone ever heard of people talking about the prize money? They obviously aren’t concerned with altering their course to fit into a category.

No one would change these races to fit the new standardization.

And no one is asking them to. It’s just a guideline. So where are we?

Let’s start over. The first priority is make a great event.

At this point in the sport’s evolution, it’s no longer an option to bring in a pro to build the foundation of a new or existing race. You need to build your house up from the foundation. To me, all the talk about distances and standardization comes second behind planning and running a good event. If your event is awesome and people love it, they will come back and bring more people. As it gets more popular, the pros will show up and they’ll tell friends about it. They have discretionary races. They can often pick 1, 2, or more races they just want to go to.

To run a successful race, you need to:

  • Build a strong local paddle community
  • Connect with regional paddlers and go to each other’s races
  • Find a course that’s unique to your environment and setting. If you have a reason to do a specific distance, such as around an island or to a battleship and back, or from town to town, then do it. The more unique and more logical your course is, the more attractive it will be to paddlers.
  • Pick a theme that makes it fun and unique
  • Make a great T-shirt
  • Take photos
  • Celebrate all the paddlers.
  • Hire a timing company
  • Post the results promptly
  • Be nice
  • Let people know by posting the event to every possible SUP race calendar that exists

These are the pillars of a good race. Also, non-destination races will remain small. People won’t want to travel miles and miles for a 5K. And they won’t want to tack on a week vacation if they don’t have other things to do, places to visit, restaurants and hotels. Make it a place people would want to visit. Bring out what makes your location awesome and share it.

Where does that leave us?

Pretty mush where we were. If you are starting a new race or altering an existing race, make it awesome first. Consider the guidelines. It can help know what to expect. Someone who’s on the fence about racing only needs one small confusing detail to push them away from your race.

What do you think? What’s your favorite distance?

A few things to consider