Marathon paddling includes everything from traditional racing through remote rivers and portaging through the wilderness to the modern format of competing in the centre of a city with the flags of forty countries being waved in the grandstand. Whether you’re re-enacting the courier de bois fur trading days or are a spandex clad fitness phenom chasing international success, marathon racing is a pure challenge of endurance and strategy on the water.

Endurance, efficiency and heart

Marathon races vary in distances from ten kilometres to over 1000 kilometres for multi-day stage races. The longest marathon race in Canada takes place on the Yukon River, following along the same course as the Klondike Gold Rush miners. Competitors need to consume food and drink during throughout the race maintain their energy levels. Many competitors will drink through a hose and attach energy gels or bars to their equipment so they can be consumed on the fly.

Races are held throughout the year on rivers, lakes, canals, estuaries and even on the open sea. Paddlers portage around dams, locks, shallow water and whitewater. In ICF-sanctioned international competition the portage is usually a man-made area where competitors get out on a dock or sloped ramp and run several hundred metres across a marked course before returning to the water.

Elite paddlers develop impressive techniques for transitioning to the portages; essentially jumping out of the boat before it comes to a stop. Within seconds they have the boat in carry and move at a brisk run. Some carry the boat on their shoulders, in their hand or even drag them along if the ground is smooth enough. The return to the water looks just as smooth as paddlers launch their boats and jump into them without slowing down.

The portage is a prime spot for competitors to drop one another and break away from a pack. Paddling in groups is most efficient as competitors can “wash ride” one another, saving energy by taking advantage of the wave behind or beside another boat. Paddlers usually work together and share the lead. Strategy can come into play when competitors decide to make a move, form alliances, or work with their teammates.

The final stretch usually comes down to a full-out sprint where it becomes a matter of who’s trained the hardest, conserved the most energy and has the heart to prevail at the end of an exhausting feat.



The traditional Canadian style is an open canoe paddled by one or two people. In both the C1 and C2 canoes, paddlers switch sides to ensure a smooth, efficient ride in the proper direction.

Marathon canoes are made of carbon, Kevlar or other light-weight composites. Their shape and weight is different from a traditional touring canoe although a few of those make an appearance in the more recreational races. Often referred to as Pro boats, these racing craft are usually fully or partially decked with fabric covers and outfitted with stern bailers to keep water out. Their sleek constructions puts speed ahead of stability and when paddled by a skilled navigator the boat seems to dance effortlessly across the water.

“Sitdown” marathon canoe paddlers typically use smaller bent shaft carbon fibre paddles and generate a relatively high stroke rate for maximum speed and efficiency.

In ICF competitions, the equipment is similar to that of sprint paddling except the minimum weight is significantly lighter at eight kilograms for single canoes and kayaks.


Marathon races typically begin with a mass start with boats lined up in close proximity one beside the other. Many races require the stern’s paddler to hold onto a rope, which is anchored on either side of the starting line.  Paddlers are typically penalized or disqualified for “jumping” a start. Sometimes there are “Le Mans” style shore starts where paddlers run into the water carrying their boats. Traditional races are most often done as a point A to point B pursuit or a single up-and-back line and are sometimes done in stages over several days. If a boat tips over, the paddler may get back in with the help of a safety boat or other teams and continue.

The international race course usually consists of loops with a portage for each lap. While no upper limit is specified, World Championship races typically range from 15 to 30 kilometres in length depending on age and class.


Marathon Lingo

Bailer –Marathon boats are equipped with a bailer which can be opened by the stern paddler’s foot, allowing water to drain from a moving boat. Kayaks may be equipped with foot pumps for the same purpose. 

Bent shaft paddle –American racerGene Jensen developed the bent shaft paddle around 1971 in his quest for more speed in a canoe and it has become the standard for marathon racers from elite to recreational classes. 

Bottles and hoses –as many marathon races are long and hydration is important, paddlers typically carry water which is accessed hands-free through a hose. Paddlers wear “necklaces” or attach a hose to their shirt or PFD with Velcro so that it is easily accessible while racing. 

Bow –the front of the canoe. 

Buoy turns –Buoy turns occur where race organizers require paddlers to make a sharp turn, often to keep the boats in front of spectators, like a finish loop, or to change the direction of travel in an upstream-downstream race. 

Cavitation –the sound that is made when the paddle slips through the water because of a poor catch (with a poor catch, air bubbles form behind the paddle). 

Centre cover –a cover over the center of the canoes which keeps small waves and paddle splash out and reduces wind interference.

Crossbow rudder –the most extreme steering stroke to turn the boat sharply. 

Draw – used as a steering stroke to help manoeuver the boat in the water, performed by “drawing” water into the boat. 

Foot brace –the goal of a footrest is to improve paddler comfort and creates a stable platform with which to generate leg power. 

Foot pump – a device some boats are equipped with to allow the paddler to pump extra water out of the boat while underway. 

Hut! –the verbal signal most commonly used to change sides in a team event where single blade paddles are used. 

La Classique International du Canots – One of the more competitive international races held over the September long weekend from La Tuque to Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.

Paddle Blade – two blade styles dominate in racing: the standard tear drop and the streamlined teardrop or “Corbin” blade (Smaller surface area). 

Portaging – A portage refers to the practice of carrying a boat over land to avoid an obstacle on the water route. This may include rapids or a waterfall or a road. Portaging in races may be off a gradual sand beach or a sheer drop off or a dock or bank. 

Post – used as a steering stroke to pull the boat towards the paddle. 

Push/pry/sweep – strokes used to help turn the front of the boat

Racing Canoe – a standard racing canoe is a maximum of 18.5’ in length and 27” wide at a 3” water line.

Spray skirt –boats are set up with the ability to be fully decked in with spray skirts which cover both the bow and stern paddlers. Skirts are also often used in kayaks where there may be waves or paddle splash.

Sliding seats – in order to trim a boat, the seats in a marathon canoe slide forwards and backwards.

Stern – the back of the canoe or kayak.

Wash riding – a technique for conserving energy by riding the waves created by other craft. Wash riding may or may not be allowed on craft with a different start time.