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Marble Falls canoeists finish 260-mile race, rescue competitor

Marble Falls friends Ross Bingham (front), Rhett Butler, and Miguel Flores pilot their canoe along the 260-mile course of the Texas Water Safari. Photo courtesy of Ross Bingham

Three men from Marble Falls just completed the 260-mile Texas Water Safari, a rugged paddle from the Hill Country to the Gulf Coast branded the “world’s toughest canoe race.” Along the way, the trio rescued a fellow competitor in medical distress.

Ross Bingham, Miguel Flores, and Rhett Butler began their journey at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 8, in San Marcos. They paddled for 65 hours and 26 minutes straight down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to cross the finish line at 2:26 a.m. Tuesday in the town of Seadrift on San Antonio Bay. 

The men had no prior experience before signing up for the challenge but trained for months leading up to it. They finished 36th out of 172 teams, but only 59 teams actually completed the race in time.

Competitors have 100 hours to wrap up the grueling paddle, which has been taking place since 1963. There’s no prize, just bragging rights.

“I think one of the hardest challenges was just the lack of sleep,” Bingham told “We probably slept a total of 45 minutes.”

They paddled through rapids, carried their canoe around dams and over land, navigated alligator-infested waters, and closed out the last 6 miles battling waves in the dark on the open water of San Antonio Bay. 

“None of us had any experience paddling outside of recreational fishing or 10- to 20-mile trips on the Llano or San Saba rivers,” Bingham said. “I’d known about the race for quite awhile. At one point, I brought it up to Miguel, and Rhett already knew about it.”

The three teamed up in September 2023 and began training whenever they could. They are all fathers of young children and had to squeeze in sessions, often waking at 4 a.m. to paddle up and down Lake Marble Falls. Their families supported them throughout, which was essential for their success, Bingham said.

“My wife spent a lot of time with the kids while I worked on this, and the other guy’s wives were team captains,” he said. “They were super helpful, and we couldn’t have done the race without them.”

Deep into the Texas Water Safari, the Marble Falls men came across a fellow competitor who seemed to be struggling. The member of a two-person canoe team was unable to continue, exhibiting worrying signs of exhaustion about 3 miles from a checkpoint on a particularly stagnant stretch of the Guadalupe River. 

“We came across him during a very long, difficult session during the heat of the day,” Bingham said. “Just a couple of seconds later, he was falling over and couldn’t paddle. It was pretty clear that they were not going to make it to the next 3 miles easily.”

Bingham switched places with the suffering competitor and helped paddle their canoe to the next checkpoint while his teammates continued in their own vessel. Race support staff were able to get the paddler medical attention. It was later determined they were suffering from rhabdomyolysis, a dangerous condition caused by overexertion that can lead to death or permanent injury if left untreated. According to Bingham, the person made a full recovery.

The three men received the Brad Ellis Spirit Award for their actions. It’s named after a man who died during a previous competition. 

Bingham said the Texas Water Safari was challenging, and if you’re interested in doing it, the race community is very supportive.

“When we first started looking into it, it was a big task, and we did a lot of research,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there who have done it and are willing to help. There is a big community, and they’re cool people.”

Competitors typically must register by May to enter the June race, so start training now to be ready for 2025.