The Inland Paddler: Double Trouble at Chattajack 2016

Lisa Schell Columns, Events, Results & Recaps, The Inland Paddler Leave a Comment

Exactly one month before Chattajack, I get this message from my friend Dana in Atlanta.

“Want to paddle an OC2??? I’d race with you!! We just need to borrow one.”

Um….I have an OC2. Bought a Tempest last year from Jason the Pied Piper of Paddlecraft at Carolina Paddleboards. It was lightly used. It was just like the one I did my first Maliko Run on.  How could I resist?

“I have an OC2. What race?”

I knew what race. But I had to ask anyway.

“Chattajack. Purty Pleazzzze.”

Hmm.

Now, I had been training really hard.  Trying to master the OC1. After two good races at New Bern and Charleston, I felt like I had finally turned a corner and was getting competent. I even had my ama flying down good enough to try it at Hales Bar. In fact, one of my training visualizations included that very thing – imagining coming down the sprint line next to the dock and popping it up right at the end and NOT huli’ing.

And now, someone is asking me to change gears- four weeks out from the race.

But not just anyone. Dana!

Dana, in case you don’t know, is on the US Dragonboat team and went to Worlds in Moscow this year.  She’s was an alternate on the US Olympic cycling team back in the day. She’s done Molokai to Oahu.

And she wants to paddle Chattajack with me.

I queried my brain trust. They all affirmed the idea.

Then Dana pitched it this way and sealed the deal.

“Think of the story we’ll have.”

What, am I crazy??? OF COURSE THE ANSWER IS YES!!!

And for the record, that might have been the absolutely best decision I have ever made. Ever.

Because this year’s Chattajack was a monster. Just ask anyone who paddled it on a SUP. Or surf ski or prone or…

You never know what you are going to get on race day.

It is just one of those things we accept as participants when we sign up. No one controls Mother Nature. When she throws it at us, we deal with it. Whatever that looks like. And within the parameters that we set personally to ensure our own health and well-being and within those that others set to keep the field safe and accounted for. It’s just a part of racing.

Chattajack can hammer you with it all – hot, cold, hot AND cold, fog, wet, dry and, mostly, windy. If you were lucky enough to paddle it in 2015 -especially if that was your first CJ – you were spoiled. There was no wind. At all. And no current either.  This year, the wind returned and with a vengeance, whipping through the Tennessee River Gorge at more than 25 mph at times. Those who paddle this body of water frequently knew what we were likely in for.

I was fortunate enough to have that kind of local knowledge wealth sitting in the seat in front of me.  Atlanta is not that far away from ‘Nooga and the course is part of Dana’s regular training plan. While the two Chattajacks under my belt helped me to know basics, like where the weeds would be, Dana’s intel was seriously dialed in.

“Stay away from that spot – it gets shallow over there.”

“The river runs fastest here in the center in this section.”

The SUPs start first so when we began to catch up with them, right around mile six or seven, many paddlers had already dropped to their knees because the wind was hammering them. Yet, there were still smiles and happy greetings from these water warriors.

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Never have I been so happy to be sitting down in a race.

Experience equals efficiency.

Dana set the tempo, and her experience in the Ka’iwi Channel and in the dragonboat guided us as to when to go long, low and deep or quick and powerful at precisely the right times.

While she worked the count, I steered, focusing on making sure we stayed on the current and used whatever we could from the water to help us along. I watched the Speedcoach, I watched the ripples, wakes, and microbumps and the paddlers around us and tried to adjust accordingly. Just before the worst part of the day started, on the other side of Raccoon Mountain, we had a few moments of sublime downwinding. For a split second, I was back on Maliko with Jeremy Riggs, only this time, I wasn’t afraid to brace. In another instant, I’m staring down Masonboro Inlet with John Beausang. Only this time, he doesn’t have to tell me where to go.

Graveyard. Olukai. Paddle Imua. Columbia River Gorge. Virginia Beach. New Bern. Charleston. Every single experience paddling this year – from the worst to the best – bubbled up with each paddle stroke over the course of those 32 Chattajack miles. And with them came confidence.

But being in a two-man outrigger, with a paddling partner with whom you have fantastic synchronicity, was the biggest confidence booster.  I knew, when we took the Tempest out for the first time together for our practice run Friday that this was going to be amazing.

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We blended well, as they say. So much so I wore a ***t-eating grin for the rest of the day. I noticed as we sat at the start line on that cool race day morning that my heart rate was calm. The nerves weren’t off the charts. Knowing that there was another person to help in the event of a huli or capsize allowed me to sit up straight and centered and to paddle with good technique. Paddling on either side was equally easy and comfortable.

Not only did I have someone with whom to share the work, but to keep me motivated and to give me encouragement when I would need to dig deep.

And that time would come right after Raccoon Mountain.

We took a “rolling break” at Mile 19.  While my GU Roctane Summit Tea was doing a great job fueling me, I knew I needed a protein boost.  I needed to switch hydration bladders too. And that wasn’t the only bladder that needed attention. In the seated position, it’s not as easy to just let things flow when necessary.  I needed to stretch out a bit. And besides, it was at about that point the numbness in my legs was starting.  So, while I took care of myself, Dana continued to paddle.

We’d been closing in on another OC2 paddled by a great team of ladies from Florida.  We decided if they stopped completely at Raccoon we would too. They did not. So, after I ate two Justin’s Almond Butter packets and switched out my hydration, I started paddling and let Dana do her thing.

Refueled and rehydrated, we headed into the wind.

Then the 13-mile HellWinder began.

It was in this section of the river that the wind was at its fiercest. Whitecaps, converging boat wakes, some shoaling. And weeds.

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The pain on the faces of the SUP paddlers was almost too much to look at. Yet, even as they struggled, you could see the determination, the fight, the strength.  I can’t recall all the friends I saw in that section of the river, but two stick out. Dylan Geiger and his dad Jason. Dylan was pulling, Jason tight on his tail. Working together, like they have for so many seasons. Dylan is only 13 and this is his third Chattajack. He was strong, he was fierce. Together, they were an inspiration.

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It was easy to feel guilty.

If there is one thing an OC loves more than a downwinder, it’s a headwind. We were definitely having an easier time than our SUP brothers and sisters.  But that’s not to say it was a leisurely paddle, either.

Fatigue was setting in. And with it, came the irrational fear of huli’ing out of sloppiness.

And it was here that we made our biggest tactical error.

The line of paddlers, including the green and white OC2 we were still chasing, had slid over to river right to get some shelter from the wind.  We knew from local experience and Speedcoach feedback that the current was still flowing fastest in the center of the river.  We chose to stay there.  It was harder fighting the wind, but for a little while, the extra boost from the current made it worthwhile.  My eyes were glued to the screen just above my feet – looking for every little increase in speed I could find, trying to stay on the current. We gained on the OC2 ahead of us.

But soon, the gains from the current were lost because of the strength of the wind. We cut over some. The other OC2 started to pull farther away.

“You can catch them! You can catch them!” yelled our Team Leeghiit teammate Hannah McEwan, who was on her way to capturing the Women’s 14′ title.

I didn’t think we could.

They managed to widen the gap between us. My heart sunk a little. But I was tired. At that point, just wanting it to be over was pretty much all I could think about.

We began to cross back over to the other side, using the bumps from what had now become a bit of a right sided cross wind. This was the set up to making the final big turn into Mullens Cove – the final five miles of Chattajack.

Into the ChattaVortex

As I started calculating our line into Mullen’s, I could see the weed field already. It looked bigger and wider than it has been in previous years.  The weeds cluster on the inside of the bend and fan out across the water, effectively creating a net of deception that can bring a board or boat to a grinding halt. It is so tempting to cut that corner tight and short, because you are so, so tired at this point and the thought of adding anymore distance by going wide, and around the weeds, seems unbearable.

But if you give into that fatigue-produced fallacy, you will surely pay.

I looked at the line ahead of us.  Every single one of the paddlers seemed to be about to make that mistake.

Including the white and green OC2.

“Stay wide! Stay Wide!!” Dana yelled over the wind.

“They’re going in!!! They’re going  in!!!!” I replied. “I am going WIDE!!!”

Later, Dana would confess she didn’t think the green OC2 was going to paddle into the weeds. But that is exactly what they did.  They came to a grinding halt.

And then they went sideways, perpendicular to the flow of the river.

Somewhere, a little fire erupted inside me.

Or it might have been a little happy dance. Or maybe the almond butter on the rebound.

We stayed wide and in the center of the river.  We passed them.

But as we did, a quick sideways glance revealed that their bow was swinging our way.  They were coming for us, to get on our stern and draft.

Scenes from any number of Tour De France epic battles flashed into my head, where stage finishes are won and lost because of drafting maneuvers.

I channeled my Inner Jens Voigt.

“SHUT UP ARMS!”

We pulled for a while, with Dana calling for long and deep, solid strokes.

Okay, it was for an eternity.

Pain.

They started to overtake us.  Then, they asked if we wanted a rest – they offered to pull.

Now, I can draft anything in an OC1. But in the OC2, with my field of vision blocked by the person in front of me, and with an additional two feet, and in that wind, and being so tired, it was tough. Soon, our rhythm was off.  I was afraid of hitting them.

Dana motioned me to steer left. We pulled away from their stern and got back into our rhythm.

About this time, Hales Bar Dam loomed into view.   I tucked my head down.  Just look at the Speedcoach, focus on the Speedcoach. Do. Not. Look. At. The. Dam.

Another great thing about paddling OC2 in Chattajack and sitting in the back? Your view of the damn dam, the one that NEVER comes closer, is obscured. Thank God!

I was also grateful for the foresight to set the Speedcoach to only display speed, heart rate, time and strokes per minute- NOT distance.

Right on cue, time stood still. Again.

“Dana, I don’t think I can do it. I’m too tired.” I was okay with whatever place we would get.

“Yes, you can! You are STRONG. You got this. Now, relax your neck. It’s time to do power sets, ready, go!”

Power sets – hammering hard and quick after your switch sides.

Dana’s calls to switch side were consistent- her voice never varied from its calm melodic rhythm, even though we were battling to put enough distance between us and the other OC2.

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I heard the calls of the girls behind us growing faint. Were we getting that distance, or were they just being quiet so as not tip us off?

I fought against sloppy technique. Be careful. Be conservative. Not is NOT the time to mess up!!!!

We came around the end of Hales Bar, and I caught a glance behind.  The other boat seemed quite a bit away.  The wind shifted to behind us and we actually caught some bumps coming into the set up for the sprint down the dock.

As we turned – I let out a deep yell and dug in.  Apparently the look on my face was …well…something. Even Larry Cain remarked on it later.

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The sprint lasted longer than the Chattavortex. But when it was over, Dana and I burst into tears.

Come to find out, the green OC2 was only a minute behind us.

But the paddle battle was over and it was good enough for second place.

Those girls paddled long and hard and they gave us one heckuva fight.  And it was an honor to share the podium with them.

Neither one of us could really walk after that.   I spent about 15 minutes sort of wandering around the parking lot looking like a zombie carrying a chicken breast and a big bottle of Skratch Labs recovery drink. And chocolate milk.

We watched great finishes from all the SUP warriors coming in.

Slowly, the gravity of what we had accomplished began to sink in.

I still don’t think it completely has for me, four days out.

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Looking back on last Saturday, I am so, so grateful that my entire paddling season this year went EXACTLY the way it did.  Had it not, I would NOT have been as physically OR mentally prepared for Chattajack. No matter how embarrassing, humbling or frustrating they might have been at the time.

And had it not been for Dana, I might have totally given up, especially during that paddle battle.

My takeways from Chattajack:

  • Two heads are definitely better than one. And definitely more fun.
  • Training works, but so does experience.
  • Attitude is everything.
  • Never, ever, ever forget the Body Glide.
  • Paddling with an amazing partner is worth its weight in gold.

And boy, we sure did get a good story!

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