Stand-up paddleboard racer Ben Staley preps for the GoPro Mountain Games
Ben Staley is the kind of guy who floats upwards of 23 miles on the Blue River with nothing more than a stand-up paddleboard, his paddle and a PFD. It’s one hell of a stretch — the entire trip takes three to four hours from the put-in at Silverthorne to the end at Green Mountain Reservoir — but that’s what it takes when you’re training to compete in one of the hottest whitewater sports.
For the past four years, Staley has soaked up all he can about the wide and rapidly growing world of downriver SUP. The Kansas City native first stood on a board in 2009 — he started on the ocean, where modern SUP was born and bred more than six decades ago with Hawaiian surfers — and soon took it back to his adopted hometown in the Colorado mountains.
Unlike most die-hard SUP racers, the 32-year-old outdoor junkie wasn’t much of a kayaker or rafter. A river background helps: simply knowing how to read flows and eddies is a must before taking a board on the river, where mellow Class II rapids feel enormous and Class IV rapids are only for the certifiably insane — or the naturally talented.
“I’m one of the rare few who picked this up and went with it,” Staley said. “I had no experience before this in a kayak or anywhere on the river. I guess a little of it is I have friends who are in the paddling world, so you spend time with them and you get better every time you’re out.”
Last season, just before his first true race at the 2015 GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Staley drew the attention of Hala Gear, a SUP manufacturer based in Steamboat Springs. He joined the young team that summer as a combo team paddler and brand ambassador, and, after just one full season of racing across the state and region, he was invited back to again represent the burgeoning brand at races and other events across the state.
And the 2016 SUP season is already in motion. Staley raced at the CKS Paddle Fest in Buena Vista over Memorial Day Weekend and feels ready for the Vail: He’s been paddling four to five times weekly since early April, including several marathon legs on the Blue River, and hopes to get 75 to 100 days on the SUP board between training, racing and guiding through Stand-Up Paddle Colorado, a guide service with an office in Frisco.
About a week before the GoPro Mountain Games, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Staley between practice runs on the Blue to hear more about the growing SUP scene, the best local routes for paddling and the secret to surviving whitewater. (Hint: Anyone can learn, but not everyone is cut out for it.)
Summit Daily News: Your story is interesting because you spent hardly any time on the river before trying downriver SUP. Why choose the board instead of a kayak or raft?
Ben Staley: I thought it was really cool because you’re using your entire body. You’re standing up the whole time, and as an athletic person I like being able to use your legs. It made sense to me, instead of being trapped form the waist down in a piece of plastic. That really drew me to it in the beginning — you use every aspect of your body.
The first time I was on a board it was actually in the ocean, back in 2009. I felt like I picked it up pretty fast and really enjoyed it. I thought it was a cool experience — just something different. I went back on the ocean in 2010 and ended up buying my own board in 2012. That was my first year on the river.
SDN: You wasted no time going from the ocean to the rivers. Talk about the difference between the two: Is one harder than the other?
BS: Both are moving water, but on the ocean you paddle forward to reach a wave. From there, you use the paddle almost like a rudder — a way to help you change direction. That’s similar to the river, but, out there (on the river), you’re really using the paddle more for steering to avoid those obstacles — the rocks and everything else. You also use it to blast through waves. There are similar ideas there, but everything is slightly different: a different stance, a different atmosphere. You have these obstacles on a river that you’re constantly trying to avoid by using that paddle. On the water — on the ocean — you’re not really doing as much maneuvering. It’s a little more basic.
SDN: What made you want to take SUP from the ocean to the river? That’s a hell of a learning curve.
BS: Honestly, it’s because of where I live. I enjoy the sport enough to continue doing it and flat water just wasn’t enough for me. I like it, but it’s not as entertaining, and then I started seeing photos of guys taking these out on the river it just looked awesome. I’ve always been into the river culture but never had a chance to join up with it, so I figured what better way to get started than with a sport I really like? And, honestly, it was a tough learning curve to read the water, figure out those paddle strokes, and, obviously, learning to get around obstacles. It was pretty difficult at first, but, just like any sport in the mountains, they can all be difficult when you’re moving to the next level. They just take time and effort and if you put that effort into it you’ll see the progression. You just need those basics dialed first. Once you have that, it feels like second nature.
SDN: How did you go from paddling solo to entering races? The competitive downriver SUP movement is still pretty new — the first races at GoPro Mountain Games debuted in 2013.
BS: A lot of it came from trying to get involved with the stand-up paddle community. It’s such a small group of us out there. You see a lot of people on the lakes, but there aren’t a ton of people on the river and racing is a way to get in there, network, meet some people, see what the world is about. I’m not the greatest racer — there isn’t a ton of time for training with a 9-to-5 job — but you make time and get out to paddle when you can. Racing opened up that community for me. I also had obligations through Hala. Part of the ambassadorship was to put myself out there more, do races, do events, meet people, just get the brand in front of other people.
SDN: Your first official race was last year on Gore Creek at GoPro Mountain Games. Was it what you expected?
BS: I’d been free paddling up to that point, so once I got the, “Hey, come aboard,” from the Hala guys, I figured I’d check out the race (and) meet some other team paddlers. I honestly wasn’t expecting anything going into it. This is the typical mountain festival, with tons of big athletes who do nothing but paddle or ride their bike or anything else. I knew it would be stiff competition and I didn’t do well, but I was still stoked on it. I got to paddle with some of the big names in the sport and that was worth it.
SDN: How does training fit into the mix these days? Like you said, it’s hard to reach that upper level when you’re still working for a paycheck.
BS: I’ve started working out during the off-season, when there’s no moving water to be found. I get into the climbing gym, where I can get a low-impact workout that builds strength, including finger strength I need to hold the paddle. It also helps with flexibility. I also do on-and-off yoga in the winter months. I don’t stick with those things this time of year because I’m just trying to get on the water to actually paddle. Come fall, when the river season is finished, I like to go backpacking and hiking. I don’t consider that training — I just like to do the activities I enjoy to stay strong and healthy. It’s really about the low-impact sports that build strength, the sports I enjoy.
At the end of the day, I think I’m a pretty healthy person in terms of diet and lifestyle, and I think a lot of that goes a long way for staying fit. That’s the start: What you put in your body will make your body perform well on the outside.
SDN: What’s your advice for someone who is just getting into downriver SUP racing? That’s one of the great things about GoPro: It’s open to anyone and everyone.
BS: Just become proficient at stand-up paddling. I think anyone can do it, but it might not be for everyone. You need the balance, you need the paddle strokes, you need a little of endurance to last a long time on the river. Those basics are really the first thing you need before getting into racing. The best paddlers in the world still work on those basics: balance, core strength, paddling. Once you have those down — once you feel comfortable on the board and have an arsenal of paddle strokes — you can take it to the rapids and feel better because you’re dialed on the basics. From there, you just keep progressing. Those basics will get you on track to race.
SDN: What are your expectations for GoPro this year? You now have a full summer of racing under your belt.
BS: Just to do better. That’s the goal, right? If you’re entering a few years in a row you want to get better and I think I’ve been getting stronger by paddling a lot this spring. There is very, very stiff competition out there, and I know I’m as physically fit as a lot of these guys, but it’s still just very tough. These guys are pros — they get paid to go paddle. But, if I push myself while I’m out there, I know I can do better than before. I spend a lot of time paddling with some of these guys. You get great camaraderie out of this. At the end of the day, we’re doing this — we’re out there on the river — because we enjoy our sport.
SDN: So I’m guessing you’ve seen the start list. Who’s making you nervous?
BS: Some of those names that stick out, a guy named Mike Tavares, Spencer Lacy and even some of the ocean paddlers, guys like Chuck Patterson. They’ve been there before and done really well. They’re very cool people to race against — guys you admire and like watching because they’re so good.
SDN: What comes after GoPro? More racing?
BS: Yes, the rest of the paddle season is racing and paddling. Week after GoPro Games is the downriver race at Fibark (near Salida), then there’s another the week after that. As the water comes up and the races start to fizzle out it’s about finding the next section of water to charge. I love finding new water, but I also like getting out to charge big whitewater. We enjoy that kind of stuff — it’s a competition within itself. You can say, I paddled this section with this flow, and then you can compare it to the last time you ran that section. It’s how you keep pushing yourself.
SDN: Where do you recommend SUP newbies head if they’re just getting into whitewater?
BS: The Upper Colorado is a great place to start. It’s very easy to put in and take out, with mellow, calm water. There are also some fun rapids through there. Another great way to get better is to go with people who are better than you, and there are tons of options for that at Rancho Del Rio.
This article was originally published in June 2016.
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