Sometime next month, Australian Jamie Mitchell, perhaps the greatest paddle-racer in the history of the sport, will begin training for the 13th annual QuiksilverEdition Molokai to Oahu race, a 32-mile battle of endurance across one of the most challenging pieces of open water in the world. His preparation will span five months of his life, and require the type of focus and commitment that only the most physically fit athletes can endure. Since most surfers see paddling as just a means to an end—a way to catch waves—we decided to ask the six-time Molokai champ why he's made a career out of the functional, rather than fun, side of surfing. Mitchell had the flu when we caught up with him in mid-January, but the tireless Aussie was happy to discuss the physical, mental, and emotional demands (and rewards) of systematically engaging in a practice akin to torture.
For a lot of surfers, me included, paddling is just a way to catch waves. But for you, it's sort of the focus of your professional world. How'd that happen?
Well, in Australia, we have a program that's a lot like Junior Lifeguards. When I was younger, my parents put me into that so I grew up on paddling and all the things that I learned there—swimming, reading the ocean, swim races, paddling races. It was all fun. I started when I was five, so I didn't know any better.
And it just progressed from there?
So how'd you get into the Molokai race?
My best mate went over to do the first Molokai in 1997 and he came back and told me all about it. Two years later, I went over and the rest is history. I've been back every year.
What's that been like?
It's hard work, but it's very rewarding. You have to put months of blood, sweat, and tears into it. And once you're actually there, in the race, it's not about winning—it's about getting from Point A to Point B. But when you cross that finish line, you can't explain the feeling.
It's probably like the sense of accomplishment mountain climbers experience at the summit.
Yeah. You can use all the clichs in the world—but exactly. It's like Everest—I mean, I'm not comparing it to Everest, but in the paddling world it's probably one of the most challenging things you can do. Three hours into it, you really question what you're doing out there. But then, two or three hours later, when you finally cross that line, you're like, "That was cool. Sure it was bad for a bit, but it was worth it!" It's like anything—if it was easy, everybody would do it.
Describe the training process.
I usually start around March, so it would be about four to five months of training. The last few years, I've probably trained harder than I did when I first started because the competition has gotten a lot harder. I'll do laps in the pool—three to four miles in the morning, three to four times a week. And then I'll paddle about three times a week. Twice I'll just paddle about an hour. Then, on the weekend, we'll get dropped off down the coast and we'll do race-specific training, where we'll have all our food and water. We build up to that—the first week we might just go an hour. But after two months, we'll be doing anywhere from three to four hours. Sometimes, we go five hours, but not very often. That distance session becomes the one important session of the week. We're trying to simulate what we're going to do in Molokai. And I've also incorporated strength training during the past few years—chin-ups and push-ups.
It's a huge commitment, preparation-wise.
Yeah. Three or four months out from the race I try to put everything I can into it just to make sure I'm ready. I want to know that there are no questions, that I've done everything I can do to be ready for that day.
So, obviously, you're physically fit going in. But where does your mind go to dull the pain during the race?
Your mind wanders big time. Especially the first few years when you haven't done it before and you're not sure what to expect. At the start of the race, you're usually pretty focused, and mid-channel you're usually still pretty good because that's where you get your best bumps and swells. But once you get to the three-quarters stage, that's when it starts to get bad. You start to hit the current and it gets really, really hard. You start to feel the residual effects from the island. We say Molokai doesn't really start until you're about four hours in. That's when it starts to feel like a grand piano just fell on your back. So your mind wanders. It plays tricks on you. You know the escort boat is right next to you and that it would be so easy to just go and jump on it. It's very physical, but when it comes down to it, a lot of it is mental as well. I think that's part of the beauty. When you come across the line, you've beat the demons that were trying to tell you to quit.
What's made you faster than almost everybody else in the past?
I've been training harder than ever, just because everyone is getting faster and training harder as well. It's evolving. Everyone is taking the sport more seriously now, so I think my training habits help. And during the last few months before the race, I'm really focused. I watch what I eat. I don't party. I don't drink alcohol. I try to do everything I can because I know how hard it is. I also think just surfing has helped—especially with Molokai. So much of paddling is just being able to read the ocean, having a natural feel for when to paddle hard and when not to, when to catch a bump. It's such a long race, it seems like the guy who paddles the least is going to win. It's really about learning how to utilize the ocean because every little piece of energy you waste will come back to haunt you. Now, when I see a bump—we call it a "run"—I know straight away whether or not it's worth putting my energy into getting it. Years ago, I probably would've tried to catch every single one. But not any more. So it's about experience, and I've surfed my whole life.
Check out Quiksilver.com/kuikaika.to track how Jamie Mitchell does in the upcoming Ku Ikaika Challenge, the world's only stand-up paddle big wave invitational.