After Outpacing the Others in Five Catalina Classic Races since 2014, Paddleboarder Max First Sets His Sights on a Sixth Victory

Out in First.

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  • Written & photographed by
    Kat Monk

Max First emerged from the ocean at Mother’s Beach in Marina Del Rey at the same time that Scott Rusher was just heading out. Both were training before work for the Catalina Classic, a 32-mile endurance paddleboard race that takes place in the waters between Catalina Island and Manhattan Beach.

As the sun was rising, Scott was motivated to catch an early-bird paddle. He was getting in the water when “all of a sudden I saw a guy coming in to the beach with a headlamp on,” says Scott. “Max had already been paddling for two hours in the dark. I train hard, but Max takes it to another level.”

Max has placed first five times—in 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2022. Winning the Catalina Classic once is an impressive feat, but to win it five times—with three additional podium finishes in 2015, 2018 and 2021—is truly remarkable. Through rigorous training, Max learned the challenges and nuances of the race. He possesses that rare combination of physical endurance and mental toughness.

“Paddling with Max will elevate you, challenge you, and it will always humble you.” 

Like many South Bay watermen, Max started off with the Los Angeles County Junior Lifeguard program, spending seven summers climbing the ranks and one year as a cadet. After graduating from Mira Costa High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California.

He and his wife, a fellow athlete, recently welcomed their first baby. In addition to his duties as a new dad, Max still finds time to train. “It is my morning start every morning,” he shares. “I’m in the pool swimming Masters in El Segundo at 5:30 a.m. every day.”

Inspired by a few older lifeguards to try prone paddling, he competed in his first Catalina Classic in 2010 with a time of 6 hours and 37 minutes. He hasn’t missed an event since. “It was always a dream of mine to compete in this event, let alone to win it,” explains Max. “It is the best feeling in the world when you round the R10 buoy and start to see the beach and know you are in the home stretch.”

To many paddlers, Max is a legend and has become both a respected figure in the paddling community and an inspiration to aspiring paddlers. “Max is a great example of what is special about the paddling community: welcoming, fun, inclusive yet competitive,” says fellow paddler Ron Roebuck. “It is a real brotherhood.”

Timing for the Catalina Classic changes from year to year, as Mother Nature plays a huge role in creating conditions that could work for paddlers or against them. One year the air can be still and the channel flat. The next, paddlers can be greeted with strong winds and choppy water. A strong southern current can also slow down a race.

Last year the conditions were terrible according to fellow competitor Jay Russell, but luckily they cleared up in the latter half of the race. The crossing is known for its unpredictable and challenging patterns, which can include strong winds and powerful currents. A paddler must be able to adapt to the changing circumstances on the fly.

The pandemic shut down the race in 2020, but Max still crossed the channel with a friend, first-timer Joel Bloom. The decision to proceed with the paddle was based on their sheer dedication and love of the sport.

“Max paced me from start to finish,” recalls Joel. “Knowing your buddy, who is arguably the strongest paddler in the sport, was with you in lockstep for 32 miles was a unique motivation. Paddling with Max will elevate you, challenge you, and it will always humble you.”

“Max is a beast,” says Jay. “I like to call him the ‘silent assassin’ because he just took it upon himself, quietly went about his business, and came out of nowhere to win the Classic for a fifth time.”

Jay thought Scott Claussen, the 2021 winner, and Alex Merrill were going to be the top two racers in 2022. But Max silently took the challenge and laid it all out there. “He was pretty worked after, and it took him a while to recover because he had to push himself where he had never had to go before.”

Alex, a former collegiate swimmer from the University of California San Diego, acknowledges the talent of his fellow competitor. “Max and I have had our fair share of battles, and he’s always up there no matter how little he says he’s trained. There’s no secret to his success; it’s just hard work,” he says. “He is also the first person to shake your hand or give you a big hug no matter the results.”

Each paddler receives an escort boat to travel across the channel. Max’s escort is his uncle Ross King, who has escorted Max on six of his eight crossings so far. “It is such a wonderful time for me to bond with Max and be a part of his racing experience,” explains Ross. “His inner strength is remarkable. To have that inner drive … [there are] guys who are bigger, stronger, train more, but for some reason Max has something inside that pushes him.”

The upcoming Catalina Classic will be hosted on August 27 just after the city of Manhattan Beach unveils the new statue commemorating the decades-old race. The statue will be located just south of the lower parking lot at Manhattan Beach Boulevard.

Summer is quickly approaching, and Max will be training—possibly in the dark—as he prepares for the next channel crossing, listening to Rüfüs Du Sol, M83, Kygo, Luke Combs or Florida Georgia Line. He may even admit to spicing it up with a sprinkle of Miley Cyrus or the Backstreet Boys. Whatever it takes to cross the finish line.

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