The role of Race Director is often thankless. There is very little if any, monetary benefit and with endless tasks to perform, something will often tend to go wrong. When it does, you can always count on a measure of complaining along the way.
R.D.’s generally do what they do altruistically; for love and promotion of the sport. As such, they try to provide an event that gives everyone something to enjoy--for this, they should be recognized and applauded.
One common way that this can be seen is the inclusion of multiple distance options. Many of the races offered across the United States have at least two and in some cases three or even four distance options ranging from short to quite long.
More options are better right? Some competitors like the long haul while others, especially those newer to the game, may want to dab their toe in the water first with a shorter option.
And then of course, with more options comes the increased chance of bringing home some hardware as well--EVERYONE’S A WINNER!
But wait a minute; are more choices really the better way to go?
The popularity of paddlesports are without a doubt on the rise, but even with the recent growth, numbers are still not anywhere near other top-tier events.
So if you take a medium-sized race with around sixty competitors, add in the standard system of boat classes:
Fast Sea kayak
Tandem Kayak and/or Surfski
Divide in half or a third by gender.
Divide in half or so again by age divisions.
It’s pretty easy to see how watered down the overall number of sixty becomes once factoring in all these divisions. At this point, with an even split, we are looking at 2-3 paddlers in each division. So you are virtually assured to place just by showing up and finishing.
Now, when you add another distance option, or maybe even a third or fourth, you cut that number down even more.
But I’ve come to believe that distance options do more than just reduce the overall competition, it can change the face of the event entirely, arguably, diminishing the “buzz” that can surround it. Imagine a Chattajack or Blackburn Challenge with 4 distance options? It loses its iconic appeal.
When you look at some of the more successful races, you’ll notice that most have only one distance option. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s long, short or somewhere in the middle. One distance identifies the overall “personality” of the race. If it is short, it is a mad-dash to the finish straight from the gun; while the long slogs become a war of attrition and mid-distance plays out somewhere in-between.
Here are a few examples:
3.1 Miles--Outdoors Inc-Memphis, TN---Very popular race with past notable attendees such as: Greg Barton, Mike Herbert, Oscar Chalupsky and a host of top regional paddlers. When taking into account the current of the Mississippi River, finishing times have been as short as 16 minutes. Despite the short distance, it does not stop this event from being one of the most relished races on the calendar for many.
8.0 Miles--Shark Bite Challenge--Florida--Two distances, but very top heavy with elite paddlers in the eight. When you can boast having had ICF World Champion Sean Rice, 12-Time Molokai Champ Oscar Chalupsky, Matthew Bouman, Jasper Mocke and world record holder Teneale Hatton tow the line, you know you have something special.
8.5 Miles--Battle on The Bayou, Mississippi--Always well attended with a wide variety of happy competitors, all the way from the top dogs down to those dressed up as crawdads.
13.5 Miles---Gorge Downwind Championship, Oregon-- Another two-distance event, and another which is extremely top heavy for the longer. Quick sellout with over 500 entrants.
20 Miles--Blackburn Challenge, Massachusetts-- Long standing open water death march that serves up serious bragging rights.
31 Miles--Chattajack, Tennessee-- Race sells out in hours with over 500 entrants. Action speaks the loudest.
The interesting feature of all these races is not only that they all have either one, or at the most, two distances, but also that it doesn’t matter what the distance actually is. An event generates its allure from a variety of features, and a closer look at the above list demonstrates a marked difference in “personality” between all of those included.
What seems to occur with one distance is it “informs” you before entering for what you will be experiencing. You will adjust to the given mileage regardless of skill level. This is why you see so many neophytes tackling difficult races such as the Chattajack. If they had a shorter option, they might take the easy way, not do the work required, and miss out on the special feeling of accomplishment from completing such a lofty endeavor. It literally brings out the best in you.
In fairness, having two distance options seem to be a reasonable middle ground without compromising the overall integrity of the event. In some cases, it may even be necessary due to conditions. Open water races especially benefit from a second, safer option for those inexperienced in bigger water. But, aside from this exception, most races with one distance, regardless of how long or short, tend to bring out all manner of participants from elite down to rank and file. The ultimate bonus here: we’re all out on the water together, new or seasoned, fast, slow and all points in-between, creating good times for everyone in attendance.