At about Mile 18 the gunshots started. The first one was, well, attention getting. Then the second one rang out.
“That’s a bit….disconcerting,” I said to the young woman in the recreational kayak I’d been trading places with on the river for the last three hours or so.
“At least it’s not banjo music,” she replied with a nervous laugh.
We were about halfway into the Chattajack 31 – what Supracer.com describes as the Inland Molokai to Oahu race. It starts at Coolidge Park in Chattanooga and ends at Hales Bar Marina, 31+ miles down the spectacular Tennessee River, through two states and two time zones.
The kayaker was from Alabama…I live in North Carolina. We’re not strangers to random gunshots. But when you are paddling that far, for that long, it’s really not what you want to hear. The reverb through the Tennessee River Gorge yanked me out of my revelry, though, and despite the similarity to the movie “Deliverance,” I probably should be thankful for them. See, at about that time, the diamond light dancing atop the water had hypnotized me…and I am pretty sure those sirens that got George Clooney and company in trouble in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” were about to claim me. The gunshots most likely scared them away, and brought me quickly back into reality, keeping me from keeling over head first into the emerald green water.
That said, I am actually kind of surprised that a) I even heard the gunshots and b) I was mesmerized at all, given the amount of adrenaline that had coursed through my system for the first 10 miles or so of the race. Or really just the amount that burst through me the moment the alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. that morning. I was so amped up that Wendy had to have a “Come to Jesus Meeting” with me to get me to calm down and not spontaneously combust before the race even started. That helped, the way a 2×4 to the head can help, but it was also reassuring to get the the race start and to see stronger, more accomplished and more fit paddlers also just as nervous.
Case in point: I gave Debbie from Wisconsin, who has paddled across freakin’ Lake Superior, for gosh sakes, a hello hug and all she could say was “I’m gonna throw up.”
We all had the Chattajitters.
The race meeting over, we all made last minute preparations, and started the Bataan Death March down the walkway to the launch ramp, accompanied by a local high school drum line. Awesome. Inspiring. Ominous. I meet Sharna, Lexy, Julia and a handful of other folks waiting their turn to get into the water. Joe Bark comes by, takes pictures of us, Julia introduces me, and I try not to stumble over my words. At least I didn’t say something stupid like, “Gee, I really like your boards.” When he leaves, wishing us all good luck, I vow never to wash my hand again.
The queue moves, and I can hardly lift my board because of all the crap attached to it: deck bag with food, my GoPro cameras and my suction cup music speaker. The pitch of the launch ramp walkway steepened and I had this horrible image in my head of all that mess disengaging from my board and spilling out all over the ramp. Not the way I wanted my first Chattajack to start, and NOT in front of Joe Bark!!!
Getting in the water without incident was a true relief. The sun was coming up over the Market Street Bridge (which is officially known as the Chief John Ross Bridge, and is a historic double-leaf bascule span built in 1917 – sorry, but I am employed by my state’s Department of Transportation) and glinting off the Tennessee State Aquarium’s glass atriums. A small amount of steam gently rose above the water, creating just enough atmosphere for effect, but not the Death Fog of last year’s race. I managed to snap one picture with my phone, turn on one of my GoPros and stand up on my board without falling in. Victory!!! Okay, a small one, but nonetheless.
I found Julia quickly and we mumbled something about the conditions being perfect. We are waiting for the race start next to the Delta Queen, a historic sternwheel steamboat which used to cruise the major tributaries of the Mississippi and is now a floating hotel. Staring at its big red paddlewheel and trying my best not to slam into it, I remember the Delta Queen sweatshirt my grammy gave me after she took a cruise on that boat back in the 1970’s before it was decommissioned. Funny the things that pop into your head to distract you at times like this.
Instead of a starting gun, the local fire boat’s water cannon signaled our start. And bagpipes started playing. I hear my name shouted out across the water from Wendy and Carol, maybe Lexy. Best race start ever. Never mind that bagpipes, at least in this country, are often played at funerals.
The water started churning as 200 of us – SUP’s, surfskis, outrigger canoes, canoes, kayaks and even a rowboat – put blades to water, and tried to find our rhythm. “Slow down…breathe….relax….remember what Ben Friberg said…”DON’T FLY AND DIE.” We have two and a half hours to make the 10 mile cutoff, so my first “mini-challenge” of the day is not to blow up in that first 10 miles. I just need to channel my inner Dave Kalama and slow down to go fast. I glance at my Garmin, which was the last piece of electronics I managed to turn on as the race started. Heart rate is about 128. Okay. That’s good.
Then Leah paddles up beside me. She has a NK Speed Coach thingy on her deck.
“How fast are we going, Leah?”
“About six miles per hour — whoo hoo!!!”
“Wow! We’re flying!!!” Thank you Tennessee Valley Authority, you came through. You are once again my second favorite governmental agency. After releasing LOTS of water from the dam all week, and getting all of us excited, TVA turned off the waterworks the night before our race, prompting lots of worry and most of the angst that caused Wendy to get out that 2×4 and use it on me. That morning, though, TVA started releasing again, and we were really feeling the push.
“Hey Leah, if I ask you that question again, just knock me off into the water, okay?” I don’t need to be obsessing about speed.
Julia and Brooke are with me as we round Moccasin Bend. Just like Ben warned in his pre-race interview on Stoke Radio (which I made the mistake of listening to as we drove through Knoxville, prompting a huge anxiety attack in the car) we lose the current. It’s not quite like paddling into cotton, but almost. But the water is pretty smooth, and we get our first look at the gorge, which is amazing. I look over and see Julia and others going river left, closer to the bank, and they look like they are flying again. So I move over. Soon, I feel the current lift me up. It’s back!!
“Two more miles!!” Leah yells as she passes me.
I glance down at my Garmin. An hour and a half or so has passed. I am going to make the cutoff!!! OMIGOD! And in great time, too. WOW. I can do this!!!
We were about to come to the downriver end of Williams Island. And that’s when the bottom fell out. All of the sudden, the wind kicked up, the water turned choppy and all hell broke loose. I watched Kim Sutton on her prone board zip by me, her low to the water profile a distinct advantage in the carnage of the wind. A draft train of kayaks zoomed by me next…and for the first time in months, I longed for the comfort of the cockpit of my P&H Scorpio 17 foot sea kayak that has been gathering dust and cobwebs in my garage all year. And my DOUBLE-BLADED Greenland kayak paddle.
If it’s gonna be like this for the rest of the race, I am going to be hurting. Note that I didn’t consider the possibility of quitting. Just resignation that lots pain is imminent. That is a good thing. The attitude,not the pain part. Just breathe. Just breathe. Concentrate on your strokes. You are only a couple of miles from the cutoff. You are going to make it. Really, you are.
The water was insanely choppy. At least it felt that way to me. A later review of my GPS data shows that I dropped from about 5.3 miles per hour down to nearly 3.3 because of the wind and the chop. That would be the first time during the day time would seem to stand still.
I could see channel markers ahead, so I figured the Suck Creek boat ramp must be nearby, but I was looking for a structure similar to what I am accustomed to at Barton’s Creek on Falls Lake, near Raleigh. I don’t see it. I don’t see a creek even. Garmin says 10 miles. Nothing.
Suck Creek. Aptly named.
Then, I hear cheering. I see people. On the right side of the river. I hear cowbells. Apparently other people heard my name, but I did not. Surely that’s the ramp. But I am not sure. Another eternity passes and I come upon one of the race boats. Garmin says about 11 miles.
“So, I guess we’ve made the cutoff?”
“Yes, you’ve made the cutoff!” the woman at the bow of the boat confirms.
OMIGOD, OMIGOD, OMIGOD!!!
And in two hours, to boot. Tears nearly well up. That monkey is off my back, lost somewhere in the chop. I can relax.
We can do this.
We are doing this.
And I’m a third of the way.
And you’d damn well better eat something, dumbass! In my concern about getting to that cutoff in time, without falling in, I had been afraid to try to grab something to eat. I really needed to get something in the tank. I get a chocolate-peanut butter GU gel down. And some Pocket Fuel Hazelnut Butter.
The wind lays down and the next seven miles are perhaps the most idyllic of the entire day. The river flow is good, the scenery amazing, the weather is perfect, and I’m stoked on making that derned cutoff — really, that ten mile point had been the object of my whole Chattajack obsession for the last five months. I can afford to dip into the deck bag for more GU and Chomps and even a Luna Bar. I can relax a little.
I can even think about doing something that many of us on the Back of The Pack Facebook page have been discussing for weeks- taking a “bio break.” I had to work up to this, really. I did not want to lose time stopping. My signature Esther Williams-esque move over the side of my board also did not seem prudent. So, you know. I did what I had to do. The first time, admittedly, it was weird. The second time, not so much. And after that, well, how convenient!!! What I still don’t understand is how I could be so okay with peeing in my pants all day, but then think it absolutely gross and untenable to use a port-a-potty later that night while waiting for my food truck order. Oh, the mysteries of Chattajack!
A huge heron flies by.
It wasn’t long before the sirens start singing.
Then the gunshots.
And then the Big Dead Fish floating in the water. Which I am sure has nothing to do with the gunshots.
And then the voices from the side of the riverbank.
What the??? Where are they? Are they the ones with the guns? Should I be creeped out?
No, it’s Wendy and Carol!! My sherpas and cheering squad following me as best they can along the river. I am passing Pot Point. I can hear them, and we can even have a bit of a conversation (I think I might have asked for a pony.) But I never see them. And it’s a good thing too, because apparently, they stumbled upon a still burning campfire and were toasting PopTarts. I might have killed for one at that point.
Mile 19 comes pretty quickly, and I think I see Julia, stopped. I’d been planning to stop right about here too, so I join her for a quick “picnic”. I sit down for the first time all day. Then another friend floats up to us. Now it really is a picnic. Can’t we all just stay here? Maybe lay down and take a nap? String up some hammocks? I know I ate, but I can’t remember exactly what, because Julia is waving this turkey sausage wrap thing in my face and talking about how it’s just the best thing she could have packed. Suddenly, the goodies in my bag taste like processed, plastic dirt.
Then, before I know it, she’s standing up and is heading downriver. Picnic time is over, sadly. But, I know from many 100-mile bike rides that lingering at a rest stop too long is never a good idea. Your muscles seize up and it’s like starting from Mile 1 all over again. I start to stand up, but remember I need to switch over to my second hydration bladder. When I try to stand up, my knee buckles a little bit and it’s hard to move my feet into the right position on the board. By the time I am paddling again, Julia is long gone.
Within about five minutes of picking up the pace again, four large, loud and fast cigarette boats take over the gorge. We’d been warned about them but I had no idea of noise they could make. The river had widened, so I decide to get over to the right as soon as possible.
And that’s about when time stood still for the second time during the day.
Wind. Not as intense as at Suck Creek, but head on and hellbent on slowing us down. Paddling became arduous. The shoulders started to ache. And my left knee locked up. Again, I expected that the remainder of the race was going to be a battle royal against the wind. I needed more fuel. I grabbed a pack of GU Chomps out of my deck bag, ripped it open with my teeth and quickly crammed its entire contents into my mouth, holding the little flavored carbohydrate orbs in my cheeks like a chipmunk. A technique I’d use several times again.
Time for a mantra.
“Dave Kalama…breathe….Dave Kalama….breathe….” Just focus on clean paddle strokes. And stay away from those big patches of weeds, for God sakes because there are fin eating, board swallowing monsters under those.
The Mile 22 aid station was on a dock. The folks manning it looked like they were having a party. They offered me water, but I had plenty of Skratch Labs drink mix in my hydration pack. I guess all the fried chicken was long gone at this point.
The windy slog continued. The miles ticked off oh so slowly. I knew from pouring over the map that after Mile 22, there were just two more big bends in the river and we’d be done. I was about to round the first one. I prayed the wind would stop.
It did. But instead of it getting easier, something weird happened. The water got “heavy” – almost sludgy. Very glassy. It should have been easy paddling. But this is where any effect of the current flat out stopped. So while I wasn’t battling against a force trying to push me back upstream, I wasn’t getting any help going downstream anymore.
To make matters worse, every boat that came by generated a wake that just seemed huge and bouncy. My legs were wobbly and I feared that I might get knocked off my board. I was hugging the riverbank, and bulkheads protecting the riverside cottages caused the wakes to rebound back at me.
And to make matter even worse…. the final bend in the river before the home stretch, that marks the entrance to Mullens Cove was nowhere in sight.
Time stood still yet again.
I looked up at the fall colors gently fading from the Tennessee River Gorge. It really was a spectacular day, all things considered.
“It’s a good thing it’s pretty here,” I said out loud to no one in particular. “Otherwise this would really suck.”
The weeds along the riverbank thickened and widened, promising even bigger and badder board-eating monsters. But lo and behold, I FINALLY see that last big bend. I start praying that as soon as I round the turn, the wind won’t slap me in the face again.
It wasn’t really a slap, more like a caress. Only mildly irritating.
The weeds that we’ve been warned about force me to go wide to the right. I see one poor soul actually trying to go through them. Soon, the paddler is on knees. That can’t be good. God, I hope the monsters don’t appear!
I am caught in the doldrums again. Garmin says five miles to go, but of course, the last five miles of any race are always the longest, and that’s especially true with Chattajack.
Five miles. Just five stupid miles and I can be done with this.
I cram more Chomps into my chipmunk cheeks. My strokes get smoother and faster. I pass the guy that’s been ahead of me for some time. He gives me sort of a blank stare as I glide by.
“ I am SO READY to be off this board!!”
“Uh…yeah…um…I’m just kind of zoning out.”
I can see a few specks of paddlers off in the distance.
Garmin says it’s Mile 28.
I start to sob. Not full out bawling, mind you. Just little choked out sobs. I am not sure if they were sobs of fatigue or sobs of joy. Or sobs of regret that I forgot my Hydroflask thermos of Coke, which I could really use right about now.
Mile 30. Where the hell is it??? There is a slight bend in the river and it is like that room in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland that seems to stretch and get longer and longer and longer.
Why won’t this end?????
From deep in the gorge behind me comes this rumble. It gets louder. I feel it vibrating through the carbon fiber of my board and even my paddle. It’s deafening. I thoroughly expect to see a contingent of C-130s or maybe even a legion of Blackhawk helicopters come careening overhead, dropping a payload of Big Dead Fish or something.
Nope. The cigarette boats are back.
I slosh around in their wake for a while and then I see it. The big concrete edifice rising out of the water.
Hales Bar Dam. In all it’s glory.
And its about two miles away. Two measly little miles and this is over! And there will be chocolate milk.
I keep paddling.
It still seems like it’s two miles away.
I keep paddling.
The Dam is not getting any bigger.
Time isn’t just standing still now, it seems to be going backward!!!!
I keep paddling. And paddling. And paddling.
WHY ISN’T IT GETTING ANY CLOSER??!!!!
Dave Kalama….breathe…Dave Kalama …Breathe…
This is our equivalent of the China Wall on the Molokai to Oahu race, but without the waves.
At least waves would make this interesting. Oh wait, we have waves. From the cigarette boats. Right.
I see a line of paddlers turning in toward the marina.
After an eternity, I round the marker buoy and get my instructions from a race marshall casually sitting on a board to turn at the yellow buoy, stay inside, and sprint down the length of the marina dock, where the cigarette boats are nicely lined up, to the other yellow buoy marking the finish line.
MAKE A BUOY TURN AND THEN SPRINT???
Who do they think I am, Jenny Kalmbach or something?
But there are all these people on the dock…cheering…telling me to leave it on the water. Volunteers who have made the day so perfect. Kim and Ben, who not only organized an awesome, bar-setting event but have provided inspiration for so many of us. Wendy and Carol, who have supported me through all of this.
I can’t wuss out.
“Watch me do a Kai Lenny buoy turn, y’all!” Okay, not even close, but I round the buoy and dig, dig, dig.
And it hurt, hurt, hurts.
Video will later confirm that I scream. Twice.
Do not fall, do not fall, do not fall.
This MUST be what the Lantern Rouge (last) rider in the Tour de France feels like atop Alp D’Huez, with people cheering, so close to him, running beside him, yelling. Allez, Allez, Allez.
I’m going to barf.
Wait, I CAN’T BARF IN FRONT LARRY CAIN!!!
And then, in a split second – okay 1:40 to be exact – it is over.
Just like that.
My Chattajack, my Inland Molokai to Oahu, that I have trained months for. Agonized over. Fretted about. Is done. Time, which stood still at least three if not four times over the course of the day, now accelerates as if I am in Doctor Who’s T.A.R.D.I.S. blue police box time machine. One of the Widmer girls is handing me a medal. It’s the best thing I think I have ever seen. I hug Wendy. I paddle across the marina and Lexy hands me two bottles of the best chocolate milk I have ever had. I sit there, with my head in my blistered hands, staring at the deck of my board, and my parboiled feet. Several people come by, offer hugs, ask me if I am okay. And physically I was.
But inside, I am having a moment. A big one.
A few more tears. I really did it. With the help of so many amazing people – from Wendy who put up with me being Chattajacked-up for months, to Carol’s consistent encouragement, to Julia and Dottie and and Katie, and everyone on the 100/100 and Back of the Pack Facebook groups who are now ohana, to my training buddy, who came in about ten minutes later, to all the volunteers, to Ben and Kim for their organization of the race and their inspiration, to Melia and her bullhorn, to my REI family who posted inspirational picts on Facebook before the race, to my NCDOT team that also put up with my obsession, and to Falls Lake, my home training water.
All of the 200 or so paddlers who did this year’s Chattajack had an amazing, personal, killer race. Larry Cain crushed it with a five hour, five minute time. Kim Hillhouse took fourth after breaking her freakin’ paddle! But there are 198 other stories too. That day changed everyone of us in some way, I am sure. We all left Chattanooga with a stoke that will last a long, long time. It was a special day with very, very special people. People who don’t care where you placed, or what your time was, but who are proud of you for just for finishing, and for being out there. That’s what really makes this race, and this sport so dang amazing.
So…when can I sign up for next year?