5 Tips For Conquering the Classic

Tips on upping your paddleboard game,
from last year’s Catalina Classic winner, Dr. Brad Thomas.

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  • Written by
    Stefan Slater

It’s that time of year. The Catalina Classic is in August—a brutal, 32-mile paddleboard race that starts at Catalina Island’s Isthmus and ends at the Manhattan Beach Pier. Manhattan Beach-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brad Thomas finished the competition in a blistering five hours, 22 minutes and 17 seconds last year, thanks to an intense workout regime, a dedicated training partner and “plenty of intense training time on the water.” The good doctor was kind enough to offer a few tips for those up-and-coming paddlers who are considering competing in this year’s event. 

Not his first time at the rodeo, Brad has competed in paddleboard races for the past seven years, and that’s helped him build his endurance and overall confidence on the water. “It’s hard to be a first-timer and win it,” he says. “The races definitely help, since that competitive speed is a little different from your training speed.”

1. Practice makes perfect

Training is key when preparing for the Catalina Classic, and Brad started training months ahead of time. He started gradually with light paddling at first, but he built up the intensity as the date for the race drew closer. “I started training in February, pretty light, maybe once a week. In March, twice a week. By April, I was training three days a week—just paddling. Basically, in my opinion, for paddleboard racing it’s really just about time on the water and really intense training time. In other words, we try not to lollygag too much.” 

2. Share the pain

Aside from spending as much time on the water as possible, the other key aspect of Brad’s success was training with a dedicated workout partner. “Probably most important is to find a very competitive training partner,” he says, “because if you have someone that will push you, then you’ll obviously end up going faster. For me, that was probably the most important thing. My (partner) is a gentleman named Sean Richardson … he’s a great training partner for me.”

3. It’s all about the mileage

Brad noted that when preparing for an endurance race, it’s important to begin with low-mileage training sessions. “Our base training run would be about eight miles at first. Then when we’re at two days a week, I’ll do eight, and then one day I’ll go longer. In February, it’s only eight, but in March, we’ll go to 12. In April, we’ll go to 14 and in May, up to 16.”

4. Mind over body

While the physical aspect of the race is daunting, the mental aspect of paddling across featureless, open ocean is also very trying. “Mental is more difficult,” says Brad. “I won the race when I was 43 years old, but I was a far better athlete when I was a 24-year-old (when I was competitive in college as a swimmer and water polo player). The mental fortitude is probably more important.”

5. Go the miles

“It all comes down to that water time. The key for me is: When I train, it should be pretty intense. Good, long-mileage runs are pretty important. I did a couple of 25- or 26-mile training sessions leading up to the race. I also did the Molokai last year, which is a 32-mile paddleboard race in Hawaii. And that’s a major confidence booster, because I finished that race, and I actually felt pretty fresh. So I knew I would be able to complete Catalina without totally crashing.”