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Last Paddler Standing event showcases endurance at Benderson Park

The Sarasota event, which had 30 participants, saw Paolo Marconi paddle approximately 48 hours straight to win the competition, with only short breaks in between laps of the park's lake.

Paolo Marconi comes ashore after the final lap of the Last Paddler Standing event at Nathan Benderson Park. Marconi said he learned a lot about what he is capable of while sleep deprived and that every participant in the race should be proud for attempting it at all.
Paolo Marconi comes ashore after the final lap of the Last Paddler Standing event at Nathan Benderson Park. Marconi said he learned a lot about what he is capable of while sleep deprived and that every participant in the race should be proud for attempting it at all.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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Even the participants were not sure when the race — and the pain — would end. 

It turned out to be the 48-hour mark.

That's how long it took for the Last Paddler Standing event, held Dec. 3-5 at Nathan Benderson Park, to find its winner. Paolo Marconi, 31, a professional stand-up paddler from Italy earned the victory.

Being a professional did not necessarily give Marconi a leg-up in this competition, though, because this event was unlike anything the paddling world had seen. 

The race, created by endurance athlete Greg Wingo, went like this. The 30 paddlers competing started at 9 a.m. Dec. 3, doing one 3.3-mile lap around the Benderson Park lake. All they had to do was finish the lap in under an hour. Most finished well before that time. Easy, right?

Not so fast. At the start of the next hour, they had to do another lap. Then another, and another, with no stoppages other than the time between finishing a lap and the top of the next hour, until there was only one paddler left. If that paddler completed one final lap alone, that paddler would be crowned the winner. 

Wingo said the idea was inspired by the Big's Backyard Ultra running marathon. No such race existed for stand-up paddling, and Wingo saw an opening. Being an endurance athlete himself, Wingo knew the competitors who took this challenge would be kindred souls. 

Greg Wingo hands the Last Paddler Standing trophy to Paolo Marconi of Italy. Marconi won the endurance race at Nathan Benderson Park after 48 hours.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

"The people here, they know how to fight through demons and move on," Wingo said. "They persevere. They dig deep, even when they don't want to sometimes. That's so impressive." 

The format meant two mostly sleepless nights for Marconi, who decided to take the experience in stride. That doesn't mean he didn't feel the pain of the blisters covering his hands or the exhaustion, physical and mental, of going so long without a stretch of sleep longer than five minutes, or eating anything other than the vegan snacks he brought. He certainly did. But instead of feeling miserable, he forced himself to think of it as a type of experiment. 

"There were a lot of low moments, mostly on the second night after a hot day," Marconi said. "But you think about your family and your good memories and what you can learn from pushing the limits. You go into that pain cave and you bring something out of it with you."

As proud as Marconi was of his own accomplishment, he emphasized that the race was not solely about winning. Doing it at all is an accomplishment, too. 

"These were shared emotions (among the competitors)," Marconi said. "It's cool. You get to a point of suffering and you ask yourself, 'Why?' I think everyone has a different 'why.' Some have multiple. I think this race is about the search of that 'why.'"

In his case, Marconi said, his why was learning. He went into his 'pain cave,' as he called it, and learned how well he can function while sleep deprived — and that he can push himself farther than he thought possible.

Marconi said he dreamed of winning the race ever since signing up. To be able to win the race, to go head-to-head with other great endurance athletes and outlast them, is a special feeling, one that is tough to express in words.

Marconi was pushed by second-place finsiher John Knippers, 50, who elected to stop after 47 laps. Knippers' decision to stop was a mental one. He simply did not want to another lap. He was dead tired, and he was proud of how far he got anyway. 

"I never thought I'd be the type of paddler to last this long," Knippers said. "I didn't always want to, but there were people cheering me to continue."

For Knippers, the lowest moment came around the 33-hour mark. The sky was dark and the water was cold. He had barely napped, and the only thing he had to eat was a homemade health bar made of sweet potatoes, spinach and other good-for-you but boring ingredients. The last thing he wanted was to return to the water. 

John Knippers paddles to shore on day one of the Last Paddler Standing event. Knippers would event finish second, deciding to end his race after 47 laps.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Then someone handed him a Mountain Dew and half a cheeseburger, wrapped in aluminum foil. 

If the race was Hell, the cheeseburger was heaven. 

"It lifted me," Knippers said. "It was enough calories to get me back out there." 

Knippers soldiered onto lap 34, then didn't look back until faced with lap 48, which would have been an extended lap of approximately five miles. The prospect of that was not worth it to Knippers, he said, when he had already proven himself to be capable of more than he thought. Instead, he let Marconi take the victory lap, while Knippers sipped coffee on the park's Finish Tower steps and dried his feet with a towel. 

There's not much I know about this life we all live, but I know that I am nowhere near strong enough to do what these competitors did. Against each other and themselves, they all came out winners, even if Marconi is the only one with a trophy. 

Wingo said there will be another Last Paddler Standing event in 2023, with sign-ups beginning early in the new year. While there is nothing official yet, Wingo said he hopes Benderson Park will again host. The inaugural event went better than he could have hoped, and a livestream hosted by commentators from SUP Racer brought in hundreds if not thousands of viewers over the 48 hours, which means interest should be higher for the next race. Wingo said he's going to cap the race, likely around 50 participants or so, to ensure that the quality of the event does not suffer. 

"We want this to feel like a family," Wingo said. "I like knowing every racer's first name so I can talk to them directly throughout the race, and they all can talk to each other." 

The family aspect showed. Multiple racers stuck around for hours after dropping out to see who won, then congratulated each successive dropout on a job well-done. I like a little trash talk in sports as much as anyone, but it's also nice to see athletes excel in a supportive atmosphere. 

Just don't ask me to compete in one of these myself. I'd shrivel like a raisin after one lap. That is my "why."



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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