Kayaker Joe Zellner

Joe Zellner, 63, of Grand Marais, Minn., was one of 12 racers who started the 650-mile race Saturday morning on Weiss Lake. 

COOSA RIVER — Some Logan Martin Lake residents got a glimpse Sunday of elite kayak racers paddling down the river on their 650-mile journey that will end at Fort Morgan in the Gulf of Mexico. 

“It is an extremely tough race,” said Fred Couch of Anniston, who is the founder of the Alabama Scenic River Trail organization, which organized the Great Alabama 650.

The ultra-distance race, one of the longest in the lower 49, is a 650-mile race that starts in north Alabama and finishes near Gulf Shores. 

Couch said the race tests paddlers’ fitness, strength, endurance, as well as their mental toughness to finish the distance within the 10-day challenge. 

Logan Martin Lake appeared to be a turning point in the adventure race, with half of the field of competitors dropping out of the journey under blistering hot conditions. 

Greg Wingo of Birmingham is the race director and Laurie Sanders of South Carolina is the volunteer coordinator. 

“They are doing a great job,” Couch said, adding that organizers had hoped there would be no more than 18 entries for the first Great Alabama 650 race. 

“Personally, I thought there would be more racers, 30 or so,” he said. 

Couch said he thinks other competitors are looking at how this first race goes.

“I think many of them want to see how well we carry this off, and want to see what racers who enter it have to say about it,” he said. 

The Great Alabama 650 offers one of the highest purses for a distance paddling race. The winning solo-woman, solo-man and tandem team will each receive $7,500. 

Couch said many of the paddlers came to the race with high expectations, but half of the field left the race while paddling Logan Martin Lake for various reasons. 

The weather has been exceptionally hot in recent days, and the blistering temperatures are expected to continue through the week. 

“The heat just zaps the hell out of you,” said racer Joe Zellner, 63, of Grand Marais, Minn., who ended up dropping out of the contest because of shoulder problems. 

Zellner’s girlfriend, Peggy Gabriel, 55, of Wisconsin, was going to paddle tandem with her boyfriend, but the two could not find a support person. She was acting as the support for Zellner. 

“I’m getting too old for this,” said Zellner, who is not new to distance paddling races. 

Zellner said he was a carpenter by trade, so he is used to working in a hot environment, probably moreso than other racers. 

He said the Logan Martin Lake section was tough to paddle. 

“We really slowed down on this section,” he said. “There was absolutely no current.”

Zellner had followed race leader, ultra-distance paddler Salli O’Donnell, closely until he pulled out of the competition at Logan Martin Lake Dam.

O’Donnell, who is from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., continues to hold the lead, with Bobby Johnson of Dunedin, Fla., about 15 miles behind her. The two paddlers made their way to Wetumpka, below a whitewater section of the river, on Monday, after paddling across Weiss, Neely Henry, Logan Martin, Lay, Mitchell and Jordan Lakes to the Alabama River.  

Racers have been paddling day and night, with little or no sleep since the race started Saturday morning. 

Couch said racers were fortunate there was a full moon this week, making paddling at night much easier and a lot cooler. 

Susan Jordan, of Mississippi, and Ryan Gillikin, of Bay Minette, Alabama, are leading the way in the tandem category. They are followed by tandem teammates, brothers Drake White of Rochester Minn., and Mark White of Macomb, Ill.

There is one paddleboard entry, Scott Baste of Florida, who is still in the race, but who is in last place among the six remaining paddlers. 

Couch said he estimates that the first racer could cross the finish line by Friday, if there are no mishaps or storms to slow travel.