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The Alabama 650 and How Endurance Racing in the US shaped Epic Innovation

For surfski paddlers, a "big day out" is normally anything over 2 hours of paddling. However, for a growing group of racers in the United States, at two hours they are barely getting started. Meet the racers of the Great Alabama 650: which takes you from 650 miles down the Alabama Scenic River trail to the finish line near Fort Morgan in the Gulf of Mexico. The race draws all types of folks, in all types of crafts, with all types of goals. However, they have one thing in common as they wait on the starting line in September. They are going to paddle 650 miles in 10 days.


The Great Alabama 650 is now heading into its sixth year, and already has over twenty teams registered to take on the challenge in September 2024. Unlike Chattajack 31 or the Gorge Downwind Championships,Great Alabama 650 Race Director Greg Wingo keeps the number of racers limited. All racers who want to paddle the 650 mile course from North Alabama to Fort Morgan must also complete a qualifying event in order to be officially registered. And it is not just kayak and canoe racers that aim to complete the behemoth of a course. In 2023, the race had its first two SUP finishers. 



“The race route itself follows the Alabama Scenic River Trail that comprises sections of several lakes and rivers with a series of dams scattered throughout. Each dam must be portaged, which adds another element to this unique race, but it gives paddlers the opportunity to meet up with their support crews to rest and refuel… As you make your way further south, the race takes you through more remote, less populated, and isolated areas. This can present challenges in terms of access to resources, so racers need to be self-sufficient and prepared for limited support along the way. You will also start to notice the effects of the tide as you make your way through the Delta and closer to Mobile Bay.On top of all the water conditions, you also need to be prepared for a range of weather conditions, including hot and humid days, cool nights, and the potential for rain or storms, especially once you've made your way out onto Mobile Bay. Each year is different and will bring its own unique challenges. My best advice is to be prepared for anything and everything. The race will be over sooner than you think, so make sure you stop and look around every once in a while to truly soak in the experience,” said Brad Friesen, one of last year's SUP finishers. 


Perhaps no one knows the conditions that racers will face better than Salli O’Donnell or Bobby Johnson, who both took on the course in a variety of Epic Kayaks and Surfskis. Both Salli O’Donnell and Bobby Johnson have finished 3,250 miles on the course - five completed races. 



“This race truly provides elements of danger.  It's easy to find [danger] - wildlife, heat, and the bay. Unless you're on land, you're never truly comfortable. Add that to the almost no sleep, 650 miles of essentially paddling alone, and life becomes more interesting.” – Bobby Johnson


Bobby has claimed the overall win twice, and Salli has taken the women’s win all five years and holds the overall solo record. Salli’s advice? “With a race this long, be prepared to experience a myriad of different weather and water conditions during the 5 to 10 days you may be on the course.  Also, do not come into this race with visions of currents that will carry you down the rivers.  The two questions I constantly get are: 1) Why do I keep doing this race? and 2) Don’t I get bored?  Oddly the more I do it, the more nuances I experience that make this event a totally different and alluring challenge each time.  Year after year there never seems to be an end to the things that I wish I could have done better and that is what drives me to return and attempt to do just that.”


This year, Bobby intends to return for his sixth trip down the trail. Salli, on the other hand, is resisting the drive to return and looks forward to a new set of goals for 2024.


What is in store for the 2024 race? Greg Wingo has this to say, "This year is shaping up to be our largest class of racers to date. Twenty-one boats have registered for the challenge and I fully expect they will have the most exhausting and thrilling race of their lives."


Follow the Great Alabama 650 on social media:

INSTAGRAM: @greatalabama650


ENDURANCE PADDLING CULTURE IN THE UNITED STATES


Endurance paddling racing has seen a huge explosion of growth in the last 5 years. With historical races like the Yukon 1000, the Texas Water Safari, the MR340, the California River Quest and the Everglades Challenge piquing folks’ interest in pushing the outer limit of their tenacity, more recent races including the AL650, theSeventy48, and the Suwannee 230 are being added to the calendar every year. The MR340 sees almost 800 registered participants, for a total of 500 teams. Trey Reaves, winner of the 2023 Alabama 650, comments on the jam-packed race calendar; “The ultra paddle races are all so unique.  Each race is so different, yet so beautiful and challenging in their own way.  Also, with the changes in water conditions every year, you never get the same race twice. I wish I could paddle every race every year, but with the season basically running from May-October, and the recovery time each race takes, it just isn’t possible.  I basically choose a spring race, summer race, and fall race for my schedule every year. I rotate the spring and summer races, and the AL650 will be the Fall race until I feel like I’ve seen everything on the course and accomplished everything I could possibly accomplish out there.”



With this burst of interest in the pursuit of grit, the paddlesports market has also seen a burst of demand for products that can hold up to the trials of true adventure, handle shallow rivers, and carry enough supplies to explore the beaten path.Through conversations and collaborations with Cindy and Dave Amodio (past Epic dealers and avid Texas Safari racers), current Epic employee Bruce Poacher helped create the Epic River lay-up; “Dave from Texas Surfski and Kayak reached out to me with a request to make a handful of boats that would survive the rigors of the Texas Water Safari. After discussion regarding issues that racers had, we came up with what we believed would meet the needs of participants in this grueling race. We added a full layer of Kevlar to the already robust performance hull, with a few extra pieces in strategic high wear or high impact areas to make sure the boat could take some hits. We mated that with a lightweight deck to keep the overall weight of the boat down for the portages. After the success of that initial batch, the River Lay-up became a semi-official part of the Epic offering.” With this special order boat rapidly claiming endurance podiums across the country, Epic went to the drawing board once again to let design follow consumer desire. In March 2024, the V5 tourer and the V8 tourer hit the market.


THE V5 TOURER

The V5 Tourer is the perfect ski for someone who is just getting into the sport looking to enjoy their local river or lake, with the comfort of extra stability. It has all the stability and surf-ability that folks love in the V5, with the added convenience of a back hatch and over-stern rudder. All the safety of a surfski (remounts!) with the convenience of sea kayak storage.



THE V8 TOURER

The V8 Tourer takes the tried-and-true Epic V8 and changes the design just enough to do well under load because this boat brags a front hatch and a stern hatch, as well as an over-stern rudder. All the safety of a surfski (remounts!) with the convenience of sea kayak storage. Talk about the perfect craft for your next self-supported race (or weekend adventure!). 


What designs will we see next? Olympic gold medalist and Epic Kayaks boat designer Greg Barton has this to say: “At Epic, we eat, sleep and breathe high performance paddling. We're always striving to make our products more efficient and user friendly. Stay tuned for more trendsetting kayaks and paddles over the coming year.” With products driven by the paddling community's most innovative ideas, we'll just have to wait and see what challenges you get up to. 


Follow us on social media:

INSTAGRAM: @epickayaks


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