The Donner Lake and Jam from the Dam competitions could be considered warm-ups for the final stand-up paddleboard race in the O'Neill Tahoe Cup Series, a 22-mile monster that will take paddlers from Camp Richardson Marina to Kings Beach on Sunday.
"It celebrates the end of the paddleboard season in Tahoe," President of the Lake Tahoe Paddleboard Association and event organizer Phil Segal said.
Compared to the previous two races in the Tahoe Cup, both of which were less than 10 miles long, the fifth annual Tahoe Fall Classic is a doozy that will require more than just physical fitness. Competitors will cross more than 20 miles of open water and 1,000-foot depths as they head due north across the lake.
"It's 95 percent mental. I would recommend it if you're ready, mentally and physically. You've got to be ready to paddle and you've got to be ready for the deeper water. You go through feeling great, feeling crappy, you're tripping out. It's an experience," Segal said.
The physical fitness component is not to be scoffed at though. Last year, professional stand-up paddleboarder Rob Rojas set a record time of three hours and 15 minutes from Camp Richardson to Kings Beach. Other participants were out on the water for almost eight hours.
In 2009, an 8-year-old Joshua Brackett decided he wanted to make the crossing. His father, Chris, had raced the Fall Classic the previous year and knew the challenges posed by the route.
"I said to him, 'If you can even do this, this is going to be the hardest thing you've ever done in your life.' If the wind comes up, it turns into the hardest thing. It would take every ounce of lifeblood to finish," Brackett said.
He packed liquid and food for the crossing, as well as a rope to pull Joshua's board if weakened out on the water. Nineteen miles into the race, Brackett thought he might have to use it when his son bonked.
"He was three miles out and he hits the wall hard. I was like, 'Bud, you've come this far, you've got to finish,'" Brackett said.
It took 7 hours and 54 seconds, but the pair reached the finish line. Joshua won the Most Inspirational Award as well as the honorary title of youngest participant to ever complete the Fall Classic.
This year, Segal expects about 150 participants of all ages to brave the waters on Sunday, although anyone 18 years old or younger needs to be accompanied by a support boat. In total, the three races in the series will have attracted more than 400 participants and about 4,000 spectators to the basin this summer starting with the first event around Donner Lake in May, according to the Tahoe Cup website.
Five years ago, the crossing from the South Shore to the North Shore started with 22 people. Now, the event has grown to attract people from Hawaii, Australia, the Virgin Islands and the U.S., some of whom are professional athletes who travel to Tahoe specifically to take part in the stand-up paddleboard race, Segal said.
"You'd think you were on Huntington Beach you see so many boards on cars now," Segal said.
It's not just Tahoe that has seen a growth in stand-up paddleboarding. The World Paddle Association crowned the first-ever SUP World Champions in 2011, with the next championship slated for this November in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. According to WPA President Byron Kurt, the association's membership has almost doubled in the past nine months.
"It's the fastest growing sport in the world. The learning curve isn't steep and there's no entry fee. Anyone can do it. All you need is a body of water," Kurt said.
Kurt knew of the Fall Classic and predicted that the Sunday race will draw some serious stand-up paddlers.
"That's definitely a very unique race. You're going to get people who are in very good shape and who want to win," he said.