Great Alabama 650, toughest paddle race in the U.S., hits water Saturday

Great Alabama 650, toughest paddle race in the U.S., hits water Saturday
The Great Alabama 650 will take paddlers in a race down hundreds of miles of Alabama waterways. (contributed)

It’s a test of strength, endurance and mental fortitude.

The Great Alabama 650 takes paddlers on an epic adventure along the core section of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, the longest trail of its kind in a single state.

From rushing whitewater to the ambling river delta, the race will challenge even the most experienced paddler.

The world-class race starts Sept. 14 on Weiss Lake in northeast Alabama and end at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay. Racers have 10 days to complete the course, and a $22,500 prize will be split among three divisions.

Race director Greg Wingo owns a consulting firm specializing in outdoor recreation. He was approached by the Alabama Scenic River Trail based on his background of organizing events. He’s an ultra-runner and co-founded a trail running group in Birmingham.

He said organizing a race on the water is much different than one on the land and presents unique challenges for competitors and organizers alike.

“When it comes to a paddle race and, specifically with our race where we have several different bodies of water, the logistics behind that are quite a bit more complicated,” Wingo said. “On top of that, there is a level of navigating and orienteering that’s involved for the paddlers that’s not quite as common in most running races.”

The three race divisions are male solo, female solo and two-person teams. Racers who sign up for the solo division must have at least one “crewperson” to assist throughout the race.

Also providing help are “trail angels,” people who live along the water who will assist racers, offering snacks or a place for a hot shower.

“All along the trail, there are people that live close by and love this waterway and love to help out paddlers,” Wingo said. “We’ve created a network of these angels to help out paddlers with pretty much anything on their route – acts of kindness that have been in place for decades now and we’ll be utilizing them for this race.”

These angels and a host of other volunteers will be a major force in keeping the race running properly. Most will be stationed at eight portages along the race. At the portages, racers will be required to get out of their boat and take a mandatory break. Most of these stations are at sites of dams and other places that will need to be bypassed.

“Volunteers are absolutely critical for this race,” Wingo said. “The primary responsibility of the volunteers at the portages will be to make sure racers get their mandatory time out of the water and to check on them.”

Wingo said as the race proceeds and competitors spread out, more volunteers are needed to staff the stations, some hundreds of miles apart.

“At the beginning of the race this isn’t a huge deal because the racers are still close together, but as the days go by the racers spread out, based on their ability, pretty far, so we’ll need to man multiple portages over a couple of hundred miles, staffing them 24 hours a day,” Wingo said.

As a safety precaution, race coordinators and volunteers will be able to track racers.

“We’re going to have an entire mapping system using spot trackers so you can look at the map and see where racers are at all times,” Wingo said.

Roger Yeargan, Hydro manager for the Lower Coosa River system, said Alabama Power’s hydro plants will be partnering with Alabama Scenic River Trail in support of the Great Alabama 650.

“Safety is our first priority, and EMTs will be provided access at the downstream portage locations to evaluate the racers prior to reentry,” Yeargan said. “Alabama ranks in the top five in the United States for water resources, and this event should put a spotlight on one of our great natural resources.”

At each of the six Alabama Power dams along the Coosa River, employees will verify the canoe portage is clean and ready to use. Race participants will exit the river at a designated point above each dam and reenter the river at a designated point in the tailrace below each day.

For more information on registering as a volunteer or as a racer, visit alabamascenicrivertrail.com.

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