At dawn, they rose to tackle the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race. Eighty-two strong gathered at the Isthmus of Catalina Island, bonded by the daunting task of crossing 32 miles of open ocean on a piece of fiberglass using nothing more than their own power to make the trek.
In the end there could be only one winner, and as Redondo Beach orthopedist Brad Thomas crossed the finish line on the south side of the Manhattan Beach Pier on Sunday, he etched his place in the race’s history books.
Thomas' time of 5:22:17 bested second-place winner Brian Rocheleau of Hawaii by a full four minutes, while also shaving close to 12 minutes off of 2010 winner Adam Buckley’s finishing time.
After not competing in last year's race due to a broken foot, Thomas entered this year's race as one of the favorites after strong showings in other paddle contests, most notably Hawaii's famed Molokai-to-Oahu Paddleboard Race and the recent in Redondo Beach. On Sunday, Thomas withstood challenges from some of the world's best, including paddlers from France, Australia, the East Coast and Pacific Northwest.
Australian paddleboard legend Mick Porra, competing in his first Catalina Classic, took third, despite beating Thomas by 14 minutes in the Molokai race. On his home turf, Thomas was not to be denied.
"This is my area," said Thomas of the South Bay waters he frequents in training. "I hit the R10 [which marks 10 miles from the finish] and I paddle that all the time and I was in the lead, so I just hammered it the best I could."
Thomas paddled the rest of the way in the prone—or flat—position after suffering severe leg cramps and being unable to return to paddling from his knees.
Thomas, 43, led from the outset of the race and attributed his tunnel vision of thinking about the finish line and little else as a key asset in his victory.
"I just went out in front, and my tactic was simply not to look back to see who was behind me," he said. "And I was lucky enough to make it.”
As for adding his name to a list of distinguished paddlers that extends all the way back to the race’s inception in 1955, Thomas had no trouble describing his joy in true waterman style.
"I'm stoked," said Thomas with a grin. "This was a big goal of mine and I kind of kept it quiet, but this was something I really wanted."