Is it Possible to Enjoy a 32 Mile Paddle Race? A Look Back at ChattaJack 2015
I’ve resisted racing ChattaJack, the 31.5 mile paddle race, for a few years now despite the attempts at persuasion by my crazy paddle racing friends. I’ve never been an endurance athlete or enjoyed racing or training for long distances. I was content with the idea that paddling over a marathon distance just wasn’t my cup of tea. This year, however, quite a few in my community registered to race, talking excitedly of their plans and I started to have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Eventually they wore me down and I made up my mind to participate. I was waitlisted for registration because it sold out in 12 days and I was quite content with the possibility I had escaped the paddling marathon for another year, this time with a legitimate excuse. Then 6 weeks before the race a spot opened and I got in… Oh shit. I was in the middle of facilitating my own race amongst other projects and felt short on training time and ill prepared to say the least. I didn’t put attention toward conditioning until a month out with a few 7-8 mile paddles over two weeks, mixed with paddle surf sessions. The next two weeks before Dooms Day I squeezed in a few 10-11 mile paddles. My goal was to paddle at least 16 miles (half the distance of the race) before the race to boost my confidence of survival – a goal I failed to reach by the time I was driving up to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I knew I was going in with insufficient training - paddling just 11 miles was already a challenge for me mentally and physically - but I was also confident through sheer will and determination I would at least complete the course, even if I received a DNF for going over the time limit of 8 1/2 hours. I’d heard all the stories about past years’ gnarly conditions with freezing temps at the start, little to no current flow by mid race, and strong headwind raising 2 foot chop at the end. I was mentally prepared for the worst and accepted my miserable fate: paddling for hours on end, my whole body in pain, cold, lonely and defeated when telling the sag boat that I’d “still finish although I had already DNF’d and thank you very much for the concern.“ I decided to imagine I was on a solo expedition – giving myself permission to truck along at a moderate rate, take in the beautiful scenery, and let the goal be to reach the final destination – letting go of any concern about time or placement. This helped ease my nerves and bring me to a happier place on race day.
On October 24th, 2015 the race started out great. I made it a point to look at my surroundings and enjoy the beautiful mountains with fall leaves full of color and rock outcroppings. Although the current was low I felt its assist and the boost of speed gave me hope. After a couple miles chatting intermittently with competitors near me, we began to spread out and I found myself at the beginning of my long, solo journey.
Then came the unexpected. At mile 4 two woman approached my draft and asked if they could hop aboard. I was stoked to oblige and work with them to alleviate some workload and have company for a bit. These ladies were spicy and began picking out women ahead of us to catch and add to our draft line. Our train of 3 quickly turned into 4, 5, and eventually 6. A couple of the women had never drafted before and most of us had never been in a long train. We became an unspoken team - motivating and pushing each other – laughing, singing, and yes, sometimes paddle-dancing. But it wasn’t all fun and games - it was challenging to learn to work together, to adapt to the rotating leaders’ cadence and line and move as one to find the strongest current flow. It gave me a focus and the groups’ antics kept the vibe light, and dare I say, fun. Before we knew it we were at mile 10, took a quick break to refuel and continued on as a team. I was paddling much faster and taking fewer breaks than I had planned and started to get nervous my body would shut down as the miles piled up. But I didn’t dare fall off this train, committed to riding it out as it would take me further faster and help keep sanity along the way. It was really random and rad that we came together. I only knew one woman in the group but we all had an automatic bond to conquer this distance. Fortunately, instead of just using each other to complete the course, we gave each other wings and lifted our very vibration.
At mile 22 we split up naturally as paces and desired break times began to vary. I found myself alone and anticipated combatting the impending head wind, worrying about my tiring shoulders. It was mentally challenging to go from the energy of the group paddle to a solo one at this late point in the race and I found it tough to self-motivate. I was longing for the companionship of the woman in front of me, but to my avail she stayed just out of reach. I relied on my Speed Coach to keep me going at a decent, although ever-decreasing, pace. I recall checking my mileage and thinking “ok, just 10 miles to go” and started laughing out loud that my mid-ChattaJack perception of distance had so drastically changed from my pre-ChattaJack “holy shit I just paddled 10 miles.” I certainly wasn’t paddle-dancing anymore, but on the bright side the conditions were beautiful, with no hint of headwind.
At mile 27 I slowed to eat a gel and turned around with hopes of glimpsing a familiar face. It was as if the heavens opened and brightly shone down, casting a glow on Shawna, one of my tribe from the draft train. I was elated she was just a short distance behind me and we linked up. Simply her presence brought me back into rhythm and we started pushing for the finish, conversing for inspiration and distraction through these last exhausting miles. Finally the finish line came in to view – it was surreal with the sounds of cowbells and spectators cheering, and feelings of relief washing over us. We had made it – accomplishing 32 miles of stand up paddling in 6 hours and 44 minutes…and wouldn’t you know, we were grinning from ear to ear.
I was in disbelief when I saw my time – I had anticipated at least taking up to the cut off time of 8 ½ hours. I was also surprised by how good I felt. I was happy, smiling, and still physically able to move to put my gear away and hug my friends. Yes, I was sore, my muscles were fatigued and crying uncle – but I was in good spirits and not keeling over as I’d envisioned. I attribute my success and enjoyment (did I really just use the word “enjoyment” to describe a 32 mile paddle race?!) to the support and camaraderie of my SUPer awesome, girl powered draft team: Shawna, Heather, Allison, Dottie, and Tracy - connecting and bonding with them through this arduous experience was the most rewarding unforseen surprise.