At the World’s Toughest Race Does It Pay To Be Young or Experienced?
Surf icon Dave Kalama is still winning a year shy of his 50th birthday. But he has new competition: Kai Lenny, the 21-year-old rising star. What happens when the prodigy faces the man who taught him almost everything he knows about paddleboarding?
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
The story at this year’s 32-mile Molokai2Oahu Paddleboard World Championships won't be the sharks, massive ocean swells, or roaring winds. It’s all about two of the race favorites, Dave Kalama and Kai Lenny.
Ironically, Kalama, who has crossed the Kaiwi Channel more than 30 times and is 28-years older than Lenny, has taught his younger competitor almost everything he knows about the sport.
Will it take 49-year-old Kalama’s strength, wisdom, and mental toughness or 21-year-old Lenny’s youth, agility, and endurance? Or will two-time champ Connor Baxter or Aussie Travis Grant blow them both out of the water? Stephanie Pearson checks in with the legendary waterman and the rising star before they take the battle to the waves on July 27.
OUTSIDE: What makes this race so much more difficult than every other standup paddling race?
KALAMA: It’s a 32-mile race, but because of the current it paddles at more like a 45-mile race. The closer to Oahu you get the stronger the current gets and the last mile and half is directly into the wind, which averages 15 to 25 knots. As for the sharks, well, yeah they are out there and I have seen one or two, but you’re so tired and fatigued and trying to focus on what you’re doing that you don’t have time to think about them. The mental battle is what matters. It is a constant battle to not give up.
LENNY: Yeah, I mean it’s absolutely insane. The race is more than just paddling a normal course. It’s so mentally challenging you tend to have to lay down the line and push yourself. By being the best you can be is how you win. It’s not so much that you beat the other guy. I always joke that it’s the first 30 miles that are easy and the last two that will kill you. At 30 miles I feel fine, but the last two I really have to put everything into it because my mind is telling me to stop and when it turns straight upwind I have to dig into my soul.
Standup paddling is unique in that a 49-year-old and a 21-year-old can have an equal chance of winning the World Championship. Why is that?
KALAMA: In almost every other sport you would be laughed at if you thought you could be competitive at 49. But standup paddling is not just purely about physical fitness and is a relatively low impact sport where agility isn’t as critical. It’s more about endurance and emotion—the psychological side of it. There’s so much to it, being able to read the ocean, maximize every glide, make educated guesses on what’s going to happen. If you took marathon running and chess and threw it together, that’s a little bit what it’s like. You have to have the endurance to even get in the game, then it’s a giant chess match the whole way across, based on moves you think your competitor is going to do, and you have to outguess and outwork your competitor.
LENNY: Dave has all this ocean knowledge that allows him to work less, but paddle smarter, and that’s what makes him really fast. He’s been reading the water close to 50 years and I haven’t been around that long. I have the endurance and the speed, but I lack a lot more in ocean knowledge. I also have long arms and can keep a little bigger stroke, which can add up to a mile.
So how do you train for this keeping in mind your respective ages, strengths, and weaknesses?
KALAMA: I really like to do long paddles in my training because, for me, so much of it is the mental aspect. It’s a constant mental battle with yourself to just keep going. Then it’s pushing and maximizing every glide and paying attention to what your competitors are doing without getting too focused on them because you gotta stay focused on yourself. A lot of times I can catch those really big bumps that if those guys did catch it may overtax them. I’m trying to catch bumps anywhere from six inches to eight feet. I have a saying: “The little ones pay the bills, the big for the thrills.” The little ones keep you moving and the big ones are a lot of fun, but they take a lot of energy and are hard to catch, so you can’t count on them. A lot of people think “Ah, Dave you can do it man, you’re so solid you can put so many miles in.” The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t get easier, I’m just used to not quitting.
LENNY: I’ve been traveling so much and doing so many other races that I haven’t been able to train quite as much specifically for this one. At a minimum you want to do two months of training. There’s no other race like it. It’s the hardest race I do all year. It may not be the longest, but it’s definitely the gnarliest. It’s all included: the channels, chop , churn, swells constantly changing, going upwind at times, not only that, but you’re racing, going against guys that want to win as badly as you so that pushes you to go 100 percent for 4.5 hours.
How will you stay mentally focused at mile 27?
KALAMA: I have to listen to music. The theme to Rocky always gets me pumped up.
LENNY: All I can think about is focusing on each stroke, each swell, and focusing on not letting my mind wander. I don’t listen to music, but I have a song playing in my head. There’s this song called “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Lorde. That song is cool, it gets you pumped. I love rap but over 4.5 hours it gets too much.
What’s your secret to beating each other?
KALAMA: There’s no real secret to beating Kai or Connor Baxter. You just have to be fast. You have to manage your fluids, your calories, your energy output, and you gotta glide fast. If you do all those things really well you give you yourself a chance. I hope Kai and Connor race each other and I can do my own thing and see if that plays out because I’m not sure if I can go head to head with them.
LENNY: I would rather put all my energy on myself to do well. Kelly Slater can look at someone and they break. It’s super gnarly. That works for other people, but I would rather do my own thing, and put all my energy into what I need to do. On the beach we’re really good friends, but once we get on the water, it’s not vicious, but it’s intense. Everyone’s going to do everything in his power to beat the other guy. Then when we get back on the beach we’re all friends again. If you get smoked, you laugh it off. That’s why standup is the best sport—there aren’t as many egos in it yet. I hope it doesn’t ever get to the point where people become more selfish.
What have you taught each other about stand up paddling?
KALAMA: When Kai started to get really good at wave riding it definitely inspired and motivated me to push myself to get better at wave riding, for sure.
LENNY: I remember Dave always told me, ‘Kai, you want to work as little as possible and paddle as smart as you can.’ That’s something I’m going to take to heart. When the going gets tough you tend to want to do 100 percent. Also huge is taking the right line and having patience. If I end up being able to beat Dave, he’s going to know it was all him giving me the tips to do it. I’m surprised he ever wanted to be my mentor or train me, because he basically has been helping me get better and pushed myself to be able to beat him. But he tells me that he hasn’t given me all his secrets and I believe him.