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Reflecting On The GlaGla Race In The French Alps | Natasha Sones

Posted by Lydia Burdett

Having solo paddleboarded around the Finnish islands of Helsinki last year, Natasha from Natasha Starseeker was inspired to upgrade her adventure with her next SUP escapade of the GlaGla Race; the craziest, coldest stand up paddle race!

Congratulations on completing the 10th anniversary of the GlaGla Race! Tell us about it.

Thank you! My sister Sarah and I (we made it a girls’ adventure weekend) arrived in Annecy on the Thursday night and the day before, we decided to cycle to Talloires to pick up my bib and check out the conditions. We hadn’t realised quite how big Lake Annecy actually is and ended up biking 9 miles to the race! Needless to say on the actual day we decided to get the bus instead of cycling there. 

Once I picked up my bib, I bought a GlaGla Race bobble hat and had a look at the lake. I was a little concerned as it was windy and freezing and the water looked very choppy. A few brave souls were practicing but I decided to wait until the race itself. We went back to our apartment and headed out for dinner (steak frites) to get my energy up!

The day of the race was cold (-8 in the morning) but the sun had come out and conditions were perfect. I was so relieved, the wind was about 1 knot and much less choppy. On the bus to the SUP race I met up with Kate, another UK participant that I had never met but knew was attending. Upon arrival in Talloires, I got changed into my dry trousers and cag, put my neoprene boots and socks on and then my buoyancy aid and bib. I was definitely warm in all those layers as I also had thermal base layers and a thin jumper on too. My sister was watching from the side in multiple layers including a heated gilet!

I picked up my hired board; the Red 13'2" Voyager which is the longer version than my 12'6" Voyager I took to Finland. I was really pleased to be paddling one of these boards as the Red Paddle Co Voyager boards cruise through long distances with ease. 

After the safety briefing and an energetic warm up with the yeti mascot, people started getting their boards onto the water. Kate and I nervously lined up at the start to glide across Lake Annecy’s blue waters, the horn sounded and then we were off. Although it wasn’t very windy it was slow going when we started paddling and everyone flowed forward rather than pelting off. There were around 700 people on Lake Annecy, including amateurs and competitors from 25 countries, and the sense of camaraderie was just amazing. All of these people coming together for the same reason: to have an adventure.

Throughout the race, the snow-capped mountains loomed around me and the water was still turquoise blue even in the winter. It was beautifully clear but I still didn’t fancy taking a dip in the water at six degrees so I also concentrated on keeping my balance as well as taking in the most beautiful location I’ve ever paddled in. Some people fell in quite near the start but the organisers had made it crystal clear that it was mandatory to help a fellow paddler and the boats were on hand to help anyone who needed it, which was hugely reassuring.

Soon I reached the first buoy and then I paddled around it to make my way to the finish, whilst the others continued to the other distances. When I finished there was cheering from all the spectators and my family at home saw me pulling up at the pontoon on the Facebook livestream of the event. I was elated to have completed it and not fallen in, which was my worry!

I gave back the Red paddleboard I had hired and had my photo taken as a finisher, then called my husband and children to tell them about the race. After changing into some more comfortable clothing I caught up with Kate when she had finished and we had a drink and some food from the food trucks. There were massages available before and after the race, as well as a sauna and Norwegian bath. I was a bit cold though and decided to get the bus back home. As it was my birthday, after a cup of tea at the apartment my sister and I wandered around Old Annecy for the afternoon. We enjoyed a crepe and cider next to the Palais de l'Ile - often described as a "house in the shape of a ship" which has been a prison and a courthouse. I finished the day with a wild swim in the lake I had paddled in that morning and takeaway pizza – I can’t think of a more amazing way to spend my birthday! 

How did the SUP race compare to how you thought it would go?

You can read more about my preparations for the race from my previous blog post for Red. As I mentioned in the blog I was very nervous to be taking part in a race that also happens to be in freezing conditions.

I thought the event was brilliantly organised, Benoit Mouren and his Alpine Lakes Tour team had evidently worked really hard on it. Despite the frosty temperatures, everyone enjoyed themselves and there was laughter everywhere.

My only slight disappointment was not standing in the race, however as it was my first race and there was a lot of waves on the lake from the other 700 paddleboarders and safety boats, I decided not to chance standing and paddled the race kneeling. My objective had just been to finish without falling so I was really pleased to have accomplished that.

It all went really well and the weather conditions were absolutely perfect, couldn't have asked for better. It had snowed for a couple of days before the race but the sun came out just in time for the GlaGla Race. Perfect!

What first sparked your enthusiasm for paddleboarding adventures?

In 2023 I was lucky enough to become the first paddlesports winner of an Adventure Queens Grant. At Adventure Queens, they firmly believe that adventures in the outdoors, where you are pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, can have an incredibly positive impact. 

The Adventure Queens Grant is their way of helping women take on their first human-powered, boundary-pushing, life-changing adventure through providing funding, kit and mentoring. A gem of an idea had been in my heart secretly of doing a multi-day SUP adventure. but it wasn't until the Adventure Queens Big 5th Birthday Campout that I spoke my idea out loud and was encouraged by other fellow adventurers. I applied for and successfully became one of the winners of the Grant. In July 2023 I completed a solo adventure paddle around the Finnish islands around the Helsinki archipelago of remote natural islands! 

I loved the idea of tying in my adventure with my love of nature and hygge. It was truly a privilege to experience Finland from the water, in a mindful way. It also fired my imagination of what can be accomplished on a paddleboard in terms of trips and adventures.

Why did you decide to upgrade your adventure?

After my Helsinki experience, I had a taste of how much fun it is to get outside and experience new places on a SUP so I wanted a new project. Before that adventure, I would never have dreamed about entering a SUP race (particularly as I am a slow paddler!), especially in another country in the middle of winter. But I had gained such confidence that I decided to take on the famous icy GlaGla Race stand-up paddleboarding race in the French Alps. When I was looking for my next idea I thought it was fate that it was taking place on my birthday. It was also the 10th anniversary of the race and I just thought it would be perfect.

I knew that there would also be stunning scenery to enjoy and it would be an opportunity to do some other activities whilst I was there. As it was I also went bike riding, hiking, wild swimming and snowshoeing whilst in the beautiful Haute Savoie region.

What makes adventuring by paddleboard so good?

I started paddleboarding as a way to find peace. Being on the water, in a blue space, is time for me to be present in the moment and not think about any other problems. But as well as feeling supported with mental and physical health and wellbeing, it is a great way to get exploring and see the world from a different perspective. SUP outings are perfect for getting out in nature and covering miles without conventional methods such as walking or cycling. 

When I did my solo paddling adventure in Helsinki in the summer of 2023 I bought a new paddleboard as the one I had was not big enough. Touring paddleboards are perfect for longer days out on the water as they are longer and have more deck space to carry equipment. Paddleboards best suited for SUP camping are 12.5 feet or longer and at least 30 inches wide. After a lot of testing I purchased the Red Paddle Co 12'6" Voyager MSL as it was the most stable board I had ever tried and just perfect. I named her Ruby and she was invaluable when I was paddling on the Baltic Sea. Stand-up paddle boarding is perfect for exploring and the Red Voyager boards are the ultimate expedition boards.

Future plans for you?

I am excited to be involved in a SUP mentoring circle for the Adventure Queens. They had a few stand-up paddleboarding entries for the 2023/24 Adventure Queens Grant in its 7th year and it will be great to support them. I am incredibly excited that, out of the three wonderful winners Sarah, Sahir and Kat, Sarah is another watersports winner. Sarah is planning a 2-week paddleboarding, swimming and wild camping adventure in the Western Isles of Scotland as her first big solo trip. She is also this year’s Jessi Tucker memorial grant winner and plans to use the trip to connect with the local wildlife, and explore how she can have a positive impact on the natural world. 

I am currently planning my next adventure. Follow @NATASHASTARSEEKER on Instagram to see what other adventures I get up to! #UpgradeYourAdventure

Image credits to Natasha Sones, John Marc Favre and Alexis Fernet and Sylvain Castaneira