Run-up to the James River Rundown

As I give my body time to recover from my recent months of training in the gym and on the water, my mind is busy thinking about the James River Rundown coming up in less than two weeks.

Race organizers have not been very active in communicating details about the event or responding to questions on the race website.   Several people have reached out to me directly for advice.  In fact, one person called me because he called the JRA race organizers to ask some questions and they gave him my name and phone number.  Imagine that!

So I thought I’d summarize my thoughts and advice on this event in what have been the top questions asked of me.

You might think this is a kind act on my part, but honestly, if the race organizers are going to direct folks to me, I don’t want to answer the same questions over and over again on their behalf so I prefer people read this first.

Think of this as the James River Rundown FAQ’s.

If you still have questions please reach out because I am truly happy to help any fellow paddler, but just know I am not associated with the James River Association or the James River Rundown in any formal way.

I’m just a paddling enthusiast trying to support a local race and always happy to promote paddling as part of a healthy lifetstyle.

Q: Do you think [insert any boat make and model here] would be a good boat for the race?
A: The best boat for the race is the longest, skinniest, lightest boat you can comfortably keep upright for the number of miles you intend to paddle.

Q: Will I be OK paddling a composite kayak or surfski?
A: Very difficult to answer as this depends on the skill level of the paddler (including the ability to read a river,) the water level on race day, and your tolerance to damaging your boat.

The composite boats that ran the 100- and 140-mile race in 2016 held up well and most looked like they only incurred a few scratches.  That said, the water was up and the people paddling those crafts are elite paddlers.

As for me?  I don’t want to run the risk of putting my Kevlar boat on the water and possibly bashing it  into or over the top of rocks, even though I know I would probably be alright if the water levels are the same as or higher than last year.

So yes it is doable but you’ll need to decide what level of damage to your boat you are willing to tolerate.  Maybe a few scratches, maybe worse.

Water level on race day is such a huge factor and that simply cannot be predicted more than a day or two ahead of race time.  Heck, the river levels even change on race day (see the charts at the bottom of this post.)

I personally think potentially the most challenging section is just above Hatton Ferry, downstream of Howardsville.  If there is low water you will bump and scrape rocks.  This Google image was taken at very low water levels.

hattonThe section just above Hatton Ferry is rocky, but very short.  Stay river left where you see the “flame” in the water.


The above photo makes this section look bony and scary, right?

Now here is my actual video from running that section last year during the race.  The first rapid in the video was shot just a little further upstream.

Running Hatton Ferry during the James River Rundown 2016

Easy, peasy, right?  At higher water levels there was nothing to it.

My point is that I could tell you it might be fine to paddle your very expensive composite boat, but if the water is low and you smash it against rocks, break it, punch a hole in it, or otherwise scrape the hell out of it, I don’t want you to blame me.

Low water will expose rocks all up and down the river.  High water with a skilled paddler should make it fine for composite boats.

Just don’t ask me where the line is between low water and high water because that is subjective.

Yes, the long, skinny, composite boats have a large advantage over anything plastic, even the newer plastic surf skis, when it comes to efficiency and speed.  Yes, the paddlers in those longer and skinnier crafts will be required to spend more energy merely balancing those crafts and may take a few swims and have to remount them.  Yes, the plastic boats will not be as susceptible to rock damage and will generally be easier to balance.

These are all variables, folks, and all factors you need to decide for yourself.  That’s part of racing.

Q: [After a brief description of your boat, the amount of paddling you do, your age and a short laundry list of your physical ailments] “…Do you think I can do this race?”
A:  I have no idea.  I’m not a telephone or email physician, personal trainer or paddling coach.   I don’t really know you, your physical condition or your skill level as a paddler.  What I do know is there isn’t anything on this section of the river that is greater than Class II+ and maybe one or two very short Class III’s and is mostly flat, flowing water.  The only way to know is give it a shot.  There is no shame in dropping out if you must, but it would be a shame to not try.

Q: What about shuttling?
A: I have no idea and it appears as though paddlers are on their own to figure it out.  Hopefully organizers will announce something.  I’m hoping to find a way back to Lynchburg after the race to retrieve my vehicle.  If by some chance I can find somebody to drive my car to the finish line for me, then I’ll be able to haul a few paddlers back to Scottsville after the race, but as of right now, I don’t know how I’m going to work out my own shuttle.

Q: How will the water level compare to previous years?
A: I have no idea.  It will all depend upon how much rain we get the few days leading up to race day as the river level can change rapidly.

What I can do is share some data I’ve compiled from previous years measured at 4pm the day before the start of the 100-mile+ race, 4pm Day #1 of the race and 7am Day #2 of the race.

Combine this data with results post at the James River Rundown website and you can start drawing your own conclusions.

After a brief phone call with Joel Guyer at the USGS after I asked him whether we should be looking at discharge data or gauge height readings, he explained, “In most cases, gauge height data are considered to be operational data as they are only used to calculate discharge, which is the primary product at a streamflow station. Due to ongoing changes in river channel dynamics, adjustments are continuously applied to the gauge height data in order to compute discharges that reflect current conditions. While there is continuity in discharge data from year to year, corresponding gauge heights may vary significantly over time. For this reason, only the previous 120 days of gauge height data are served to the web.”

In general, the water levels have been higher each year of this race.

In 2015 it rained and the water levels were rising and in 2016 they were dropping. In my humble opinion, it probably is a bigger advantage to have higher water on the lower parts of the river which are wider and slower. I ran the 40-miler in 2015 and the 100-miler in 2016 and that last 40 miles was much faster and easier in 2015, but the 40-mile race in 2015 was actually run on Day #2 of the 100-mile race, the morning after the big rain. 2016 had an advantage in the earlier parts of the race because the water was higher at the start that year.

So how much of an advantage was it in 2015 to have such a high volume of water later in the race?  How much of an advantage was it in 2016 to have higher levels to start with?

Impossible to know, especially if it rains during the race and there is a significant jump in water levels.

Bottom line: It is simply impossible to compare race results from year to year. But more water is obviously better.

Cartersville is the most downstream gauge and Bent Creek is the most upstream gauge on the charts below. The lower section(s) are wider and slower than the upper sections, given the same water level.

I hope this helps.



Top-left 2014, top-right 2015, bottom 2016

Current readings:
James River at Bent Creek
James River at Scottsville
James River at Cartersville

Weather information and forecast for Scottsville, VA:,-78.4914/us12/en

Lastly, be sure to scout the river using the Terrain 360 interactive map.

terrain360-aTerrain 360 image

See you on the water!

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