What is Canoe Marathon?

Competition in distance canoeing has a long history, with famous national races including the Sella Descent in Spain which was first held in 1929 and the Devizes to Westminster race in England that began in 1948. It was not until the 1960s that international competitions began to develop, and in 1975 the first steps were taken to have canoe marathon recognized by the International Canoe Federation (ICF). It would be a further nine years until the ICF congress in Sofia, Bulgaria, approved a separate committee for canoe marathon including the introduction of a world championships.

Canoe marathon would traditionally have seen competitors race from one point to another across possible combinations of river, lake, estuary and sea while having to navigate around any obstacles, having to carry the boat at times if necessary. This format has developed to encourage a more spectator-friendly approach to the discipline with courses created to be covered in laps with a number of portages (artificial or real). The 2015 World Championships in Györ, Hungary, consisted of six to eight laps with up to seven portages (22.2km to 30km) depending on the class of event.

Those world championships were contested by two types of boat, canoe (C) and kayak (K). Men and women have singles events in C1 and K1, and doubles events in K2, while there is also a men’s C2 category. The world championships has been held every year since 1999, having initially been a biannual event since the inaugural edition in Nottingham, England, in 1988. Canoe marathon can feature different ways of starting the race, but at the world championships a held start is used, where the back of the boat is held by a boat holder on the pontoon until the starter lets them go.

As the starter shouts “Ready, Go!” the view is instantly filled with kayaks or canoes and cascades of water are thrown into the sky by countless paddles. Shortly after the fireworks of the start, all the paddlers make it back to the start area, jump out of their boats and speed down the designated portage line with coaches, team supporters and spectators enthusiast shouting and screaming trying to encourage their paddlers to go faster, to catch up, to get on the wash … You almost lose your breath of all the excitement, and so it goes on for several short rounds with a portage on every lap. Such is the breathtaking sport of Canoe Marathon of today!

This version of Canoe Marathon is very different to the so-called Classic Canoe Marathon competition where athletes started in one place and finished in another. A radical change; finding the right balance was crucial. A close dialogue with the national teams has secured the road with the main purpose of creating a spectacular competition with as much action within the view of spectators who do not have to move and are now able to watch most of the race where the start, portage and finish take place.

This course concept opens the opportunity for many potential hosts of an ICF Canoe Marathon World Cup or World Championship, which was not the case previously. It also allows for regatta courses to be used with all the advantage of existing infrastructure.

But Canoe Marathon is much more. The traditional or Classic Canoe Marathon races most often starts in one place and finish in another and involves all kinds of water; river, lakes, estuary and sea or combinations of these challenging paddlers on calm or flowing water with the main objective. The paddler has to take the water as it is found and be prepared if it is necessary to carry the boat around an impassable obstacle.

Many popular Canoe Marathon competitions are raced down sections of river, where the paddler must negotiate the currents, rapids or weirs, or else portage around these obstacles. Some of these events attract over 2000 athletes each year and are often run in several stages over several days.

USA Canoe/Kayak Marathon Committee

  • Brad Pennington – Chairman (brad@usack.org)
  • Joseph Shaw – Vice-Chairman / Region 5 Rep
  • Don Maistros – Treasurer
  • OPEN POSITION – Secretary
  • Sonja Gilman – Region 3 Rep
  • Joost Zeegers – Region 2 Rep
  • Kaitlyn McElroy – USCA Marathon Coordinator
  • David Van Dorpe – Masters Chair (Co-Opted, non-voting)
  • Kevin Seitz – Team Support Chair & Region 6 Rep