Standup paddling champion Karen Wrenn talks fear, paddling, and surreal moments

SUP champion Karen Wrenn boasts an impressive career; photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

SUP champion Karen Wrenn boasts an impressive career; photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

If Karen Wrenn isn't on the water, there's a good chance she's thinking about it—the open water was as much a part of her upbringing as Saturday morning cartoons are for the rest of us. Born in Portland, Oregon, and shuttled to her family's cabin in Washington lake country during the summer, Wrenn quickly grew serious about windsurfing, a sport that took her all the way to Maui. It was there that she tried standup paddleboarding and never looked back.

Now 41 years old, with roots growing deep into the Oregon soil once more, Wrenn commands an impressive career filled with wins and accomplishments: the SUP 11-City Tour in Holland, the two-day 100-mile adventure paddle down the Hudson River and around New York, the Naish Maliko Downwind Run championship 2014, and the Carolina Cup. She was also the first person to cross between all of California's Channel Islands, a 150-mile journey Wrenn completed in five days. We caught up with the athlete during her off-season as she mentally prepares to train for a grueling ultra-distance adventure paddle. We talked about the ups and downs of competition, the most surreal moment of her career, and how she deals with the fear associated with taking on the big and dangerous challenges, including wild oceans, wild animals, and monster waves.

What does winning feel like for you?

Winning is a total high! It is satisfying to know that all the time spent training paid off. It’s a huge confidence builder for upcoming races.

What are some things you do to get psyched up before a big competition?

I usually get really calm and quiet before a big competition. My husband has told people when traveling to a race with me not to take it personally if I don’t talk much. I internalize things and focus. Then, I talk your ear off after the race.

Karen Wrenn was originally a windsurfer but fell in love with standup paddling while living in Hawaii; photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

Karen Wrenn was originally a windsurfer but fell in love with standup paddling while living in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

How do you train differently as you near a competition?

About two weeks before a competition I am training all out and then I begin to taper and slow it way down. If you’ve put in the proper training, it is much more important to go in to the competition rested and recovered.

How do you overcome the fear aspect of your sport?

I have learned to turn the fear into focus. In my open ocean races the fear of sharks is always there, especially before and after. During the race, I become so focused that the fear disappears. It’s the same before a big surf race. The fear of getting wiped out in a big set with other boards and paddles everywhere is super scary to me. But, when the race starts, the adrenaline kicks in and the fear becomes my focus and my drive.

[Related: Winter paddling in the Pacific Northwest with Karen Wrenn]

Do you have any rituals you always do in the moments before you compete?

Filling up my CamelBak and mixing in my electrolytes calms me down. I put it on and take it off a couple of times before the race, getting it to feel just right. It calms my nerves, keeps me busy, and makes me feel prepared.

How do you deal with the prospect of failure in competition?

The idea of failure is always there, and that’s part of being really competitive. I know how I’ve trained going into a race, and if I’ve trained hard then I know I’m ready and I don’t think about failure. It’s when I haven’t trained properly that the idea of failure messes with me.

What's the scariest part of your sport?

Sharks!

Karen Wrenn now trains back in her home state of Oregon; photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

Karen Wrenn now trains back in her home state of Oregon. Photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

Does SUP still get your adrenaline going?

I have a lot of years of competing under my belt. The adrenaline has gotten a little less and that’s why I try to do new and different races to get that adrenaline back. There is nothing better than a full-on adrenaline rush!

When you realize you've won a contest, what goes through your head?

I immediately think about my kids and the big hug I’m going to get from them. They are always so proud, like, "Yep, that’s my mom.”

What's your favorite part about competing? Your least favorite part?

My favorite part of competing is the people and the places. I enjoy the training too. My least favorite part is when I have to leave my family behind or miss any of their events while I’m gone.

Which other athlete do you admire most?

I admire Kai Lenny. It’s amazing how focused, dedicated, and talented he is after starting at such a young age. He is the real deal, and it’s fun to know him, watch him, and see him succeed.

Karen Wrenn was the first person to standup paddle between all of the Channel Islands. Photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

Karen Wrenn was the first person to standup paddle between all of the Channel Islands. Photo courtesy of Karen Wrenn

What's your favorite way to celebrate a big win?

A big dinner, a glass of wine, and staying up late watching a movie.

What's the best way to get over a loss?

Hanging out with my kids. They tell me I’m awesome no matter the outcome. Getting back on the water in a really hard training session helps, too.

What's been the most surreal moment for you since you started competing?

During a 40-mile race, where I crossed from Catalina Island to Dana Point, California, I had a whale accompany me for two hours. It was unbelievable to have this huge creature next to me, under me, and leading me along. It felt like my guardian angel. I don’t know how anything could top that experience while paddling again.

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