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A Colorado transplant gets his feet wet and more in his first – if not the first – “SUPathlon”

By A.J. Johnson

Exiting the water after the paddle. Photo by Courtney Johnson

For the past 10 years I lived in the Denver area and during that time I did a lot of several types of athlons: triathlons, duathlons, aquathalons and even winter and summer biathlons. I recently relocated to Ventura and have enjoyed all that the California coast has to offer. While in Malibu taking a cruise from the guys at the Malibu Surf Shack, I saw a flyer that would introduce me to another athlon — SUPathlon.

Being completely new to the water and stand up paddling, this event seemed perfect for my novice experience. The SUPathlon was part of the Malibu Half and Full Marathon on Nov. 13. We would run the first six miles of the half marathon, along the Pacific Coast Highway to Leo Carillo Beach, where we would jump on our boards and paddle the final seven miles to the finish at Zuma Beach. According to the race organizer, this would be the first SUPathlon in the world.

I figured with the run we wouldn’t all be bunched together at the start, and being a first year event it should be pretty mellow. Really, the biggest draw was that there would be only a handful of racers and spectators to witness me struggle through the paddle. The only problem was that the race was the next weekend. And I had never paddled more than four miles.

After hemming and hawing all week and doing two short run/paddle workouts, I registered on Friday night after looking at every surf-forecasting website to ensure my safety. Picking up my packet on Saturday I was able to talk with the event coordinator Shane Springer. He told me there were only eight entrants and gave me insights on how to handle the conditions. This put me at ease and turned my nervous fears into nervous excitement.

A.J. in his comfort zone, the run. Photo by Courtney Johnson

Race morning started early at 5:30. I had to drop off my board at Leo Carillo before heading back to the start line. After years of setting up transitions for triathlons and feeling the nervous tension of the other athletes, setting my board in the sand next to two others was positively serene. I was already hooked.

At the start line another SUP’er, Peter, introduced himself. The board shorts and Rip Curl hat told me instantly he was a waterman. He also told me he was a trail runner and was hoping to run the seven miles near 45 minutes. I hoped that if I could run fast enough, hopefully in the 42 to 43 minute range, I could hold off the paddlers. In a few quick sentences that idea was gone; Peter was going to win. Peter and I ran the first miles together, then I took off, playing my only card. Running along the PCH on a beautiful Sunday morning the views were stunning.

Turning into Leo Carillo I saw my wife and got ready to brave the surf. I was now about to get way out of my element. As I pulled on my Camelbak I could hear Peter grabbing his race board right behind me. Heading into the minor surf I was nervous.

My experience level is low, especially in this realm. The jet ski in the water made me feel better. I powered through some whitewater but a small wave hit me, turned me sideways and dumped me off. I was really hoping to get out cleanly, but hitting the water really cooled me down. As I got back on my board, I saw Peter cruise out nice and easy.

Thankfully I got past the breakers, stood up and headed south to Zuma. The water was smooth and the downwind was pushing us nicely. I concentrated on good form, taking in some fluids and being strong. Watching Peter pull away in the distance, I concentrated on having fun and enjoying this new sport.

I looked out for seals or dolphins, took in the view of the water and the shore and simply thought of how lucky I was. Even as another athlete overtook me, I stayed positive. I wasn’t here to win, or even to push for a victory, I was here to have fun.

Seeing the tents that marked the finish, I angled toward shore. I was hoping to catch a wave in since I’ve never done any race where that was possible. Instead, I missed one, got knocked down in the whitewater from the wave behind it and rode the board in on my stomach — smiling the entire way. After undoing my leash, I was directed to the finish line, crossing with the runners while holding my paddle.

After two hours and 12 minutes, I had run and paddled 13 miles, was soaking wet and smiling with exhaustion. More than a race, it felt like a true adventure. Who knows if this new athlon will take off. All I know is that it was fun and I hope to do it again.

A.J. Johnson is an editor of tri magazine.