The Congaree River meanders about 52 miles from the Gervais Street bridge in Columbia past Congaree National Park to the U.S. 601 bridge.
You could plop down in an inner tube, roll lazily along with the current and cover the distance in a few days.
Or, if you’re in great shape and just a little masochistic, you could paddle your shoulders to exhaustion and make the trip in eight to 10 hours like the participants in the first Romp to the Swamp race last weekend.
Five two-person teams competed in the endurance race, which was a trial run among friends for what could become a larger event in the future. The teams — two in tandem canoes, the others travelling as pairs in solo kayaks — took off from below the Gervais Street bridge at 6 a.m. Saturday, well before sunrise.
They left with drinking water, energy bars and strategies, but the more competitive teams quickly jettisoned plan for stops to stretch muscles, eat and rest.
“We all had different approaches, and those approaches went right out the window,” said Andy Grizzell, who helped organize the race and was on the winning team.
Grizzell and John Duhan paddled 161/2-foot sea kayaks nonstop and finished the trip in seven hours, 59 minutes. They rigged up a tow-rope system, where one teammate would paddle and pull the other during the few times they needed breaks.
The race was a stark contrast to the other two times Grizzell had paddled that stretch of river in canoes. One was a 17-hour trip over two days, and the other was a four-day excursion with a bunch of youngsters in a summer camp. In those cases, as usual for most people who make the trip, they camped overnight on sandbars in the river bends.
The racers who took off before down Saturday were back home in their own beds that night for a sorely needed rest. “Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t raise my arm over my head,” Grizzell said. “But Sunday I wasn’t really sore at all.”
Three of the other teams finished within an hour of Grizzell and Duhan. The fifth-place team took more breaks and made it in 101/2 hours, Grizzell said.
With plenty of sweeping curves and almost no buildings in sight for the last 50 miles, what is officially known as the Congaree River Blue Trail has plenty of beautiful scenery and seclusion. The paddlers ran across only two other craft — a couple of john boats. “It is pretty,” Grizzell said, “but I didn’t see a lot except the front of my boat.”
While it doesn’t create the pounding of a long-distance run, a full-bore, eight-hour paddle is a different type of ultra-marathon. Based on GPS tracking devices, the team of Bailey Slice and Clay Parker stopped for only few minutes during eight hours and 29 minutes, averaging 6.2 mph while paddling.
Slice and Parker had wanted to paddle that section of the river on their own, “but we were intimidated by the length,” Slice said. The security net of other racers and a motorized safety boat that checked on the racers allowed them to push beyond what they would have attempted on their own.
Slice and Parker borrowed a racing canoe from Canoeing For Kids, the non-profit that takes disadvantaged children on river trips. They won the Romp to the Swamp’s two-entry canoe category. Slice said she “was miserable the last 15 miles” but she would love to do it again.
The other teams that finished the race were John Derrick-Steve Crabb, Scott Broam-Timothy Ray and John Faust-Daniel St. John. After 52 miles, Broam and Ray finished one minute behind Slice and Parker in the incredibly tight canoe division.
The popularity of endurance sports has grown tremendously in recent years, and endurance paddling races have popped up on famous rivers such as the Mississippi, Missouri and Yukon. Grizzell isn’t sure if the Romp to the Swamp will put the Congaree River on the endurance racing map, but he said the trial run was successful enough that another one is likely next fall.