The world’s longest annual paddle race is set to test the mettle—and blister threshold—of core-to-the-bone paddlers Oct. 1-11 in the Great Alabama 650, a test of strength, endurance, and mental fortitude in the toughest paddle race in the United States.
“It’s not about speed, it’s about endurance,” says organizer Greg Wingo of the 650-mile race across the state of Alabama.
Following the original 650-mile Alabama Scenic River Trail route, beginning in the northeast section of the state and finishing at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay, the race includes everything from whitewater to the ambling river delta, challenging even the most experienced paddler. Racers have up to 10 days to finish, with $6,000 in total prize money split evenly between three divisions: Male Solo, Female Solo, or Two-person Team. Teams can be male/male, female/female, or male/female. Racers who sign up for a Solo division must have at least one crewperson assist throughout the race.
In His Own Words: Meet Typical Racer Bobby Johnson
Bobby Johnson, 44, is a two-time male solo winner and one-time overall winner of Great Alabama 650. He’s arguably the best endurance surfski paddler in the world.
“I wouldn’t wish these pains on anyone. The biggest question ultra-distance athletes ask themselves is what they are thinking. It does take a special type of person to do what we do. I started paddling in March 2016 after moving to Dunedin, Florida. My first race after getting a surf ski was the 8-mile Shark Bite Challenge. I didn’t do well compared to the others, but I was hooked by the atmosphere of the paddlers. So I immediately signed up for a 300-mile event called the Everglades Challenge in 2017. I’ve always thought of having more endurance than other racers, which likely came from riding bikes. After the EC I wanted more adventure and a bigger test, so the Suwannee 230 in 2017 was next. I set the record of 56 hours and change; the previous record was 60 hours set by a tandem team. Now I felt like I was on to something and was building confidence.
“Not that I performed all that well in these races. It was knowing what was wrong and correct with the attempts. Knowing how much potential time could be shaved. Since then I have completed five Everglades Challenges. With three first-place finishes and one overall beating a very impressive tandem team by about two hours. I’ve repeated the Suwannee 230 two more times. Setting the record of 48 hours, 20 minutes on the second attempt in 2018 and coming back in 2020 to set a new one of 39 hours, 55 minutes. This year, I raced the Mississippi River 140, placing first and second overall to a tandem team by 30 minutes.
“During these years the Great Alabama 650 had been running. In the first year of 2019, I was the overall winner. In 2020 I placed first in class and second overall to a men’s tandem team. In 2021, Rod Price and I placed second running in the tandem boat class.
“During all of these double-blading adventures I also started to single-blade paddle. Rod Price and I were invited to run the 2019 Missouri River 340 in a Wenonah 4 canoe. We were invited as part of a team that was planning to set the record for the entire length of the Mississippi. We achieved a sub 50-hour finish. It puts us in good company, but much room for improvement. I was soon invited to join the new team composed of Casey Millhone, Kurt Millhone and Rod Price to try and break the Guinness Record for the entire length of the Mississippi River. A record which had stood for 18 years. We set the new Guinness World Record of 17 days 19 hours, 46 minutes in 2021—quite a satisfying achievement and one heck of an adventure.
“I love it all, from the people you meet to those you race with to the nature you experience in only the way these races provide—hunger, fatigue, muscle failure, cramps, heat exhaustion, and the battle in your head. It’s only worth the pain if you push through the problems and overcome your own thoughts of failure. Only then will you find the other side. This other side of your mind is the total opposite. The boat seems to come on plane and feel effortless. You look at your arms and watch as the paddle enters the water. It does not seem or feel real. So smooth and so fast. And just as fast and unexpectedly as it comes on it fades and you’re back to the reality that ultra-distance athletes deal with. Pain and misery. In this six-year period of my life I’ve learned a few things. In training we feel like no one will beat us. During the race we think of why we are putting ourselves through this. After you’re finished the dementia sets in and you think of all the fun you had and how you’re going to come back and do better the next time.
Inside the Alabama Scenic River Trail
The Alabama Scenic River Trail is the longest and most experience-rich river trail in America—from mountain streams to multi-class whitewater to river delta and the salty waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Paddling exploration abounds along over 5,300 miles of accessible waterways with over 50 adventure services to serve and assist you, as well as a network of volunteer Trail Angels who can help you plan and conduct your journey.A statewide resource for Alabama paddling, the ASRT is the realization of a dream by Anniston Jeweler and avid paddler Fred Couch. After only 18 months of meetings and planning, the ASRT’s inaugural event took place at Montgomery’s Riverwalk in 2008. At the time, its 650-mile length qualified it as the longest in a single state. A decade later, that figure is pushing toward 6,000 miles of some of the most environmentally important and diverse paddling in the nation. The group has also partnered with 4-H to create RiverKids, a program that gives every child in the state a chance to learn to paddle; developed Project Open Waters to clear stream-clogging debris via local fire and rescue resources; and created easy-to-follow destination signage featuring paddler-centric maps at waterside access locations. Info:
Race Info: Click Here
Want to see the area for yourself? Find a full list of outfitters on the alabamascenicrivertrail.com website.