Bobby Johnson is no stranger to difficult paddle races.
“I’ve competed in the Everglades Challenge from Tampa Bay to Key Largo where it’s hot and saltwater is pouring down your back every time you paddle. It’s so hard because of what it does to your skin.”
So when Johnson heard about the Great Alabama 650, a new 650-mile race more than double the length of his previous competitions, he signed up — for several reasons.
“It’s a new race in a new place,” Johnson said. “I want to set the time to beat on the course and see how beautiful this state is.”
Johnson is one of 12 racers who started the race Saturday morning at Weiss Lake in Centre. They have 10 days to travel 650 miles down Alabama’s Scenic River Trail, ending at Fort Morgan.
“We created the race because we really want to highlight the natural beauty of our state,” said Laura Gaddy, media manager for the Alabama Scenic River Trail. “From the foothills of the Appalachians to our coastal scenes, we knew we had a lot to offer.”
Gaddy said a number of businesses in and around the state have pitched in to help launch the race, including Cahaba Brewing Co., Nova Craft Canoe, Aqua Fusion Kayak, Mammoth, Alabama Power, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alabama 200 Bicentennial and Paddling Magazine.
“We value our waterways so much,” Gaddy said. “We want more people to be aware of it, including paddlers out of state and around the world.”
Racers have 10 days to complete the course, and a $22,500 prize will be split among winners in three divisions: 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. Johnson said she hopes the racers will tell their friends two things:
“We hope they will tell their friends this is the hardest race they’ve ever done and the most beautiful setting they’ve been in,” Gaddy said.