Molokai 2 Oahu, the Super Bowl of Ocean Paddling, Embraces Digital Format

Kai Lenny M2O molokai to Oahu standup paddleboard race
Matt Poole and Kai Lenny are seen after finishing the Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships in Hawaii, on July 31, 2016Brian Bielmann/Red Bull Content Pool

Hundreds of elite paddlers from around the world will not be flying into Honolulu the last week of July. They won’t be cruising in flip-flops over to Molokai, and won’t be embarking on the most grueling mental and physical challenge of their lives. They won’t be emotionally gliding into Maunalua Bay Beach Park and celebrating at the Outrigger Canoe Club with a community of endurance brothers and sisters.

It would be easy to just write this year’s Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championship off as another coronavirus-related bummer, along with the scratched NBA season and Pearl Jam tour. However, the M2O race is still happening, albeit virtually, from around the world.

Anyone can do it on any craft. Anything goes.

This year, instead of making the trek to Hawaii, paddlers will set up their own routes and paddle their local waters anytime between July 24-26 on whatever craft they so choose to paddle, half the distance of the storied 32-mile, island-to-island course. This means you. To bring the whole thing together, registered paddlers can upload race files, including locations and conditions, or simply share their paddle on social media.

Kai Lenny finish M2O Molokai to Oahu SUP
Lenny after finishing first at Hawaii’s Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships in 2016. Brian Bielmann/Red Bull Content

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“I’m most excited to see where people might be paddling,” says Kai Lenny, the figurative and literal poster boy for the event. “They’ll be on rivers, lakes, harbors. There’s going to be someone paddling a pond by their house, going around it 400 times. There will be some unbelievable feats to come out of this.”

Lenny, the Maui native surf-kite-sail-big-wave-paddle-foil wonder, can do pretty much anything on any combination of board and water. Lenny set a new record tie for the 2018 event, racing on a foil-SUP. Before that, he was champ of both the Stand Up Paddle Unlimited and Stock divisions.

The Molokai 2 Oahu race, considered the most elite paddle race in the world, is 32 miles across the Molokai Channel, also known as the Ka’iwi Channel. Racers have to qualify, then put up their own money for flights, accommodations and a chartered support boat.

What Lenny says he will miss the most is the spirit of inclusiveness among paddlers.

“There are no ‘outsiders’ at this event,” Lenny says. “If you’re new to the event, everyone who has already done it celebrates your first time. At the opening ceremony, they announce the newest paddlers and everyone claps and cheers. Everyone specifically wishes you good luck. You’ve earned the right to be there and you’re about to embark on one of the greatest challenges you’ll ever have.”

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It’s also not the paddling world’s only legendary challenge to go virtual. The Yukon River Quest, the world’s longest running paddle race that takes paddlers 444 miles on the Yukon River, will also be virtual and also half the distance.

Half the distance for this year’s M2O racers means 16 miles on any body of water chosen. Though competitors will be decentralized physically, Lenny mentioned being pleased with event directors putting in the effort to keep the community connected digitally. And he sees new opportunities. For one, any racer can compete next to Lenny or the lead paddlers. And athletes from around the world will be checking out each other’s local backwaters and personal best times.

“Maybe there are people who have never been able to travel to do this race,” Lenny adds. “They have jobs, families and other priorities at home. How cool that they now have an opportunity? Anyone who wants to put in the time and energy can be part of it. Maybe this is a stepping stone for them to get to Hawaii and do it next year. Maybe they’re going to push themselves that much harder. It helps you feel the camaraderie with this community.”

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He also understands his role in that community, and the pressure to perform. Though he may be uploading his paddle like everyone else, he won’t be “phoning it in.” Lenny’s coming out of quarantine in fighting shape, looking for the best day of wind and weather that weekend to actually race the channel.

If you’re interested in signing up, register at ($80 gets you an event hat, T-shirt, M2O camp mug, custom neck gaiter, and sarong). Then all you have to do is paddle 16 miles and you’ve competed in the famed rite of passage, sort of.

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