What a difference a year makes. And also not. So much was different yet so much was the same at this year’s Chattajack 31 (er 32.5) race down the lovely Tennessee River Gorge.
Let’s start with the similarities
- Ohana. Seeing and being with so many wonderful friends and sharing the experience of the 32 miles with them was the same as last year, if not just a little more intense. What a reminder that we are all connected by water.
- Uncertainty. We had no idea what conditions on the river would really be like until we got out there. My fears of no flow materialized. But so did my wish for no wind.
- The Terrible Taper. Where the TaperWorm makes you doubt everything you have done for the last 16 weeks, makes you think you are getting sick and turns you into a paranoid stress ball.
- Hydration. Two 2.5 liter Osprey bladders in my Rev 18 pack was exactly right. Again.
- Taking too much crap on my board. Yep. Did that again this year, despite best intentions not to. I didn’t touch three-fourths of the stuff I put in my Sup Pocket deck bag. Next time, I’m leaving most of it at home. Really. I will.
- Beautiful venue/beautiful scenery. Chattanooga is amazing. The Gorge in the Fall is simply spectacular. Ben Frieberg and Kim Sutton keep topping each race, making it better and better every time. And the paddle world knows it. Why do you think this race filled up soon soon at registration time?
32.5 miles. Yes, it’s still a long way. And it’s still HARD.
- Chocolate milk at the finish. Need I say more?
- Great support from the best board Sherpa ever – Wendy. But the race bug has bitten her so we are interviewing for the position. Inquire within.
- Gunshots. Last year they came mid-race. This year they punctuated my finish. Yee haw!
And now the differences.
- A newbie no more. This year I had some idea of what to expect. The distances between Suck Creek and Raccoon, and Sullivan’s and that final big bend at Mullens Cove where the river becomes Nickajack Lake. The feel for the water and where to find the current, how the start goes, where the Whole Foods and Publix is to get last minute things for breakfast, what it’s like to pee on your board, where to stop for a picnic, where not to stop. All those little things add up to take the edge off. Wendy had no need to have a Come to Jesus Calm Down talk with me at 6:00 am. I was chill. Well, sort of.
- Weather and Current. This year there was very little current to speak of. But, there was virtually no wind either. The sky was overcast all day and the temperature remained in the high 60’s to low 70’s. I started the day barefooted in short sleeves and light tights, with neoprene shorts on underneath. I took the tights off when I stopped at mile 21.
- Dalek Tights. Yes. I wore my fangirl on my sleeve. Or leg, rather. I wore tights bearing the likeness of the most hated Doctor Who villain on the left leg, it’s battle cry of “EXTERMINATE” on the right. Other people I know had Chewbacca dolls in their pfd pockets. Don’t judge.
- No cigarette boats. No Don Johnson/Miami Vice wannabes tearing up the river and creating horrible boat wake and making the final sprint at Hales Bar even more tricky. But there were squadrons of jet skiers and a HUGE Victorian paddle steamboat. Not something you see on Falls Lake in Raleigh. It was epic. Unless you happened to run into it where it was crossing the channel in front of you.
- My board. This year I was on 14 feet of luxury. My newish Lahui Kai was the perfect sled for me to make the trip down the Gorge. I even got to draft a little. (See Lisa’s Review here)
- My paddle. My QuickBlade V-drive afforded me a measured 36 stroke per minute cadence, with a glide distance average of 13 feet per stroke. No doubt that helped me cut a significant amount of time off of last year’s race. Well, the paddle plus time earlier this year with The Master Dave Kalama and work with Jason and April and the good folks at Carolina Paddleboard Company. My stroke has greatly improved and I am on my way to becoming a much more efficient paddler. Time in the outrigger canoe is helping with that too. Not fast, mind you, but more efficient. I managed a 138 beat per minute heart rate for my 7:16 hour run, without feeling extremely fatigued. I’ll take it.
- Company. Last year I was mostly alone for the 32 miles down the Gorge. This year, I spent time with several members of the 100/100 Paddle Challenge Facebook group, but especially Laura Jane Brougher from Gig Harbor, WA. We drafted each other for much of the first 21 miles. We chatted about families, about Dolly the Dolphin and her amazing encounters with this loquacious cetacean, and we discovered that her husband and I went to the same university at the same time in sister degree programs. That lead to a walk down memory lane, reminiscing about favorite restaurants and hangouts around Cal State Northridge. That time with Laura was one of the biggest highlights of my 2015 Chattajack. Sharing the river with her was amazing. Mahalo Laura!
- Technical failures of epic proportions. At mile 28 my Speedcoach GPS unit, which I have come to rely on to help me keep pace, keep from blowing up with an out of control heart rate and to help me find the current, quit. It hiccuped at mile 27 then just stopped. Apparently it was confused by the change in time zone. (Yes, this race includes a time zone change!) But the biggest tech failure, unbeknownst to me was caused by Siri. On the iphone. Julia was posting updates on my race whereabout from the start to the entire 600 plus membership of the 100/100. At mile 11, my Road Id app feed just stopped. Well, Siri was trying to talk to me the entire 10 miles to Suck Creek, and I couldn’t stop to turn her off. “Ah’m soarry, Ah keent hearh yew.” she kept saying in this faux Australian accent that sounded like Nicole Kidman meets Jamie Mitchell meets the computer. The battery was drained and the phone was dead. Thanks Siri, thanks a lot. It ignited a firestorm of concern, as evidenced by this text exchange between Julia and the Mullet:
- Mom and dad. If you read the Inland Paddler you know I lost them within three months of each other this year. Right after Chattajack last year, my dad’s health issues came to a head, the result of taking relentless care of my Alzheimer’s stricken mom alone for seven years. She passed away in April, he moved to North Carolina in June and was with me for a month. He would have been at Hales Bar for my finish, but his body was just done. Instead, they were both with me on the river and we had a good chat between miles 21 and 30. At the start, while talking to Jason and Dylan Geiger, the most amazing morning double rainbow flashed across the river. Jason told me that was a sign that I was going to have a good day. I knew it was a sign from above. Double rainbows are a Hawaii thing…and my parents and I used to enjoy admiring them from our lanai in Haiku on Maui. It was my sign that they were there. I knew Jason was right. It was going to be a good day. As Hale Bar finally started getting closer and I was on the verge of totally breaking down, I heard dad say something like “You need your energy to sprint, so we’re going to go now. You finish this, and you go on with your life. That’s what we want you to do.” They gave me permission to keep going the direction I seem to be now.
- The finish. This time I had some energy to sprint (thanks dad!). I didn’t want to throw up. I remembered to tap the buoy. I cried. I cried in Wendy’s arms. I cried in Katie’s arms. I hurt more. Maybe because of the threat of the enforced 8 hour 30 minute cut off time, or the lack of current. I wasn’t as overwhelmed with the fact I did it, but I was amazed at how much faster I was.
It’s been three days or so and I am still really soaking in just exactly what happened this weekend. I still don’t have the complete answer to that. But what I do know is that I feel even closer to about 300 people, 50 in particular, than I did before. So many of these amazing paddlers reached out to me over the course of the weekend or cheered for me at the finish, or stopped me in the hotel elevator to make sure I didn’t get away without a hug, or offered me lattes on Sunday morning. Last year, I just wanted to get home, get hugs from co-workers and friends and bask in the glory, but this year, just like the 10th iteration of The Doctor before his regeneration, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in ‘Nooga with my paddle tribe, or follow them home to George, or Florida or Washington. I know I don’t want to wait another year to see these folks again. I want to plan new adventures with all of them. And I have no doubt that we will and that we will continue this Chattajack spirit for the next 12 months, even if much of it has to be done over Facebook.
Ben and Kim, if your goal was to inspire people, then I’d say you’ve accomplished it. A thousand times over. Just by organizing the Chattajack 31—this little 32 mile paddle race down your hometown river, and making it what it is today.
Next year can’t come soon enough!