What Happens at a Kayak Race?

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In another one of our FAQ posts, we’ve detailed some of the top kayak races in Pennsylvania. Still, you’re forgiven if you’ve thought, “What happens at a kayak race?” So let’s answer that question.

For the purposes of this conversation, we’re going to assume you’re familiar with local running races, such as turkey trots or other 5k races to benefit a local charity.

Here are the similarities to running races:

  1. The events are welcoming to all. Yes, you’ll definitely see some very fast athletes on some very long, narrow, expensive kayaks and surfskis. But, you’re just as likely to find someone with a ten foot plastic kayak! There will be just as many people simply there to enjoy a good time on the water as there are competitors hoping for a podium finish.
  2. Aside from the race itself, expect a festival-like atmosphere. Obviously, not all events are the same, but where there’s a kayak race, expect a food truck or two and some local vendors selling their wares, because…
  3. It’s just as much about the audience as it is about the athletes. Bring your kids. Bring your spouse. Check the local laws, but generally speaking, bring your dog. One of the best aspects of kayak races is that they happen on the water, which makes it a wonderful place to visit, even if you’re not competing.
  4. And finally, not unlike most running races, kayak races try to have nice give-aways, too, with prizes for the winners, t-shirts and more.

But while running and kayak races share some commonalities, there are a few key differences:

  1. More than one distance at an event is fairly common. Depending on your fitness, you might wish to race shorter or longer. Unlike running events that tend to have a single distance, many kayak races offer more than one. In fact, the Dam Bridge Challenge along the Susquehanna offers three races to accommodate paddlers, regardless of their appetite for mileage.
  2. A second difference between running races and kayak races is that while the conditions of the day tend to have a small impact on running times, river currents are a major factor in the speed of a kayak race. As such, competitive runners tend to be very dialed into their “personal best” times at given distances, whereas serious kayakers focus more on where they finish in the results, relative to their competitors.
  3. But the biggest difference between a running race and a kayak race is how results are tallied. For running races, competitors are typically segmented into sex and age-group. Larger races might have categories as small as five-year age increments, while ten-year increments tend to be the norm for smaller events.

As we’ve written about previously, the largest determinant of a kayak’s speed is the length and width of the kayak, itself. (The same paddler will go faster in a longer, slimmer craft than they would in a kayak or surfski that’s shorter.)

For this reason, virtually every kayak race first segments competitors based on the type of craft they’re racing, as well as dividing competitors by sex.

And as you know, there are many different types of kayaks, canoes, surskis and SUPs. In fact, our popular Youghness Monster race has more than twenty different categories of boats and gives awards to three competitors in each class!

And finally – though it goes without saying – what happens at a kayak race more than anything? Fun!