The New River Gorge SUP Race has become the epicenter of whitewater paddleboard racing in the Eastern US, but not because of a cash purse (there isn’t one!) or fantastical prizes. Instead, this race has ingrained itself in the hearts of a community that it has helped to grow since its inception in 2011. The setting itself could be attributed to the race’s popularity. The New River Gorge and Fayetteville, the adjoining mountain town, is a quintessential hub for adventure and natural beauty. Still, the underlying values and genuine love that race founder, Melanie Hames, puts into this event is the defining ingredient. The West Virginia SUP scene is filled with passionate people like her, and this event has drawn competitors from around the world that all want a piece of it.
The New River Gorge SUP Race consists of two separate events, the attainment and the downriver. In the attainment, racers compete against each other as well as the current in a 2-mile upstream sprint. The crux of the attainment is a small but formidable rapid called “Thread the Needle.” At Thread the Needle, racers are faced with a series of converging currents and eddy lines where massive boulders separate the New River into channels. The fastest race line involves making two challenging ferries across the channel nearest the river-left shore. After attaining the rapid, racers sprint to a buoy on the opposite bank and turn downstream where they must once again Thread the Needle, this time in the opposite direction.
Once the attainment race is complete, racers have a short break before lining up for the downriver portion of the event. Most years, the downriver event begins above a class III-IV rapid called “Fayette Station.” While this rapid might be better enjoyed as a spectator, it does provide the highest-octane moments as dozens of competitors drop into the massive wave trains and board-eating holes that make up this 50-yard stretch of serious whitewater. This year’s drought, however, prevented the rapid from being part of the downriver race.
Instead, the downriver section began just below Fayette Station. To increase the technical challenge, race director Brian Good opted to incorporate two buoy turns at the start of the race. After these congested turns, competitors headed for a horizon line marking the beginning of the largest and most difficult rapid in the downriver portion known as “Flea Flicker.” Flea Flicker is a class II rapid that becomes increasingly difficult with a hoard of racers vying for the cleanest line – a ribbon of water moving from left to right between fin-grabbing rocks and a swirling eddy that will thwart a potential podium finish faster than Tonya Harding and a Louisville Slugger. Some competitors are forced to negotiate a shallow ledge drop that is less than optimal but can keep you in the flow if you stomp the landing. After Flea Flicker, it is a mad dash through moving class I riffles and a few more small rapids to the finish.
While finishing the race is rewarding in itself, the true highlight of the day is the bus shuttle back to the start. The driver’s skills at negotiating the serpentine gravel track rival any of the racer’s whitewater prowess. Turns that would be hard in a Prius are executed on a razor’s edge of disaster by the 45-foot long bus and 16-foot trailer in tow. As the racers and event volunteers take in the views, everyone is immersed in what can only be described as the West Virginia Vibe – the essence of what makes this race the best day of competitive standup paddleboarding in the Eastern United States.
ULI Boards team rider and 2014 NRG Champion, Ian Smith, was met with serious opposition from a professional field of paddlers including; Spencer Lacey, Luke Hopkins, Trey Knight, Rick Powell, Mark Linn, and Jason Kopp. In the end, Spencer Lacey took the top honors with Ian in second and Luke Hopkins taking third.
In the women’s division, Meghan Roberts of Mountain Surf Paddle Sports claimed her second championship in as many years making her the first back-to-back champion of the race. Stacey Lyon and Nadia Almuti filled in the remaining podium positions.
A special thanks to Deb Stipa of Deb.S Action Photos for capturing the moment in the photos seen here!
OFFICIAL TIMES and FINISHES
Spencer Lacey: 27.49
Ian Smith: 28.21
Luke Hopkins: 28.8
Meghan Roberts: 31.75
Stacey Lyon: 34.63
Nadia Almuti: 35.13
For past results and more information about the New River Whitewater SUP Race, visit: https://www.adventuresonthegorge.com/resort/new-river-gorge/nrg-sup-race .