A recent weekday morning in Georgetown seems like any other hot and hectic workday in the District — cars are stacked bumper to bumper along the Francis Scott Key Bridge as pedestrians strain alongside the noisy traffic in the glaring sun.
But less than 100 feet below the traffic, a very different scene is unfolding.
As cool water laps gently around her, Mercedes Baird stretches into a yoga pose in the middle of her paddle board. Nearby, husband Mark slips on his life vest, then paddles his own racing board quietly into the Potomac River.
"This is so different," said Mr. Baird, a Foxhall resident. "It feels like I'm getting away with something. The neatest thing is to go out somewhere in the middle of the river and sit down."
The Bairds learned the popular activity of stand-up paddle boarding from Southern California-transplant Kathy Summers, who is certified by the American Canoe Association and American Counsel on Exercise.
"It does feels like stolen time," Ms. Summers said. "It gives someone access to water they don't have. It gets you outside, using all your senses and moving your whole body."
Ms. Summers said she'd always been an active person growing up in Southern California. But a serious ankle sprain led her to the realization that stand-up paddle boarding was similar to her injury rehabilitation regimen and something that could be done easily in the District where she now lives.
"It's a whole body workout," she said. "It's the opposite of 'no pain no gain,' because you're using your whole body's symmetry."
Stand-up paddle boarding likely has its roots in Hawaiian culture. Watermen in the islands rode heavy wooden boards standing up, on their stomach or in combination. The activity has seen several revivals, including one in the 1950s and '60s when it was called "beach boy surfing" because of its popularity among the young men who rented umbrellas and cabanas to tourists along Hawaii's gentle Waikiki Beach.
The sport became popular again in recent years when Laird Hamilton and other famous, Hawaiian big-wave surfers made the activity part of their workout routine.
Surf shops and other outdoor stores capitalized on the recent popularity of stand-up paddle boarding — or SUP — by marketing it as a healthy-lifestyle activity and selling or renting the boards as relatively affordable and easy-to-use equipment.
Today's paddle boards are generally made of epoxy or fiberglass and are wider than a surfboard. The "rocker" or front of the board, curves up to allow the water to slide under and the board to glide across it. The paddle should be a foot or less longer than its user is tall.
Unlike kayaking, in which one's center of gravity is at water level, stand-up paddle boarding requires riders to maintain their balance, which helps with posture and muscle strength.
It's more than an upper-body workout, Ms. Summers explains.
"When the paddle hits the water, you're leading with the same-side hip; it's winding and unwinding your body," she said. "You create the power of the stroke from the torque of your body."
Though he's been paddling his way through white water for nearly 20 years, Cabin John resident Jeff McIntyre said he started paddle boarding about a year ago because he "was looking for something with a little bit of a more total body workout."
And where there's water there can be paddling.
Ms. Summer's Facebook page for her business Stand Up Paddle D.C. has a location of "anywhere there is water," which includes the Potomac River, Columbia Island Marina and any number of waterways and lakes.
The top reason she thinks District residents will want to give stand-up paddling a try is that "it's definitely not a gym" she said. "I think people are really burnt out running or going to the gym every day. This is a workout for your body and soul."
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